The former United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, noted in 2005 that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) "faces a crisis of confidence and compliance born of a growing strain on verification and enforcement." While consciousness of the risks of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, militant fanatics, and other non-state groups has grown enormously, the collective memories of the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have begun to fade in the world beyond Japan (where the memory remains intensely painful and powerful), lowering the normative barriers to the acquisition and use of nuclear weapons. In January this year, the doomsday clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists was set at 11.55 - the closest to doomsday since the end of the Cold War.

The rising anxieties about nuclear weapons are rooted in two major and parallel developments: a renaissance of nuclear power and a resurgence of old-fashioned national security threats that supposedly had ebbed with the end of the Cold War. Between them, the developments highlight how all three legs of the triangular linkage of the NPT - among nuclear power for civilian use, nuclear non-proliferation, and nuclear disarmament - are straining the regime. When we also factor in the regime's many weaknesses and anomalies, we begin to understand why it seems so close to going the way of Humpty Dumpty. It might be better to abandon the NPT and look to a new nuclear weapons convention as the chief cure for the world's nuclear ailment.

After the well publicised accidents at Three Mile Island (USA, 1979) and Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986), opposition to nuclear power was so strong that many existing reactor plants were shut down, plans for new ones were cancelled, and virtually no new reactor was built over the last decade. With the spiralling price of oil caused by a spike in demand and disruptions to supply, the economics of nuclear power has changed. With the accelerating threat of global warming caused by greenhouse gas emissions, the balance of environmental risk has shifted. Adding technological developments, the politics of constructing and operating nuclear power reactors has also altered.

The net result is plans for building several new reactors to add to the 435 reactors in 30 countries that provide 15 per cent of the world's total electricity today. Asia will account for 18 of the 31 planned new reactors. The spurt in Chinese and Indian demand is a function of booming economic growth and population. In Japan and South Korea, interest in nuclear power arises from the lack of indigenous oil and gas resources and the desire for energy security and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Setting aside the environmental risks for present purposes, this throws up three clusters of concerns:

  • How do we ensure that the plants are operated with complete safety?
  • How do we secure the plants against theft and leakage of weapons-sensitive material, skills and knowledge?
  • How do we build firewalls between civilian and weapons-related use of nuclear power?

These concerns extend also to the international trade in nuclear material, skills, and equipment. International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei observed in 2004 that "Nuclear components designed in one country could be manufactured in another, shipped through a third, and assembled in a fourth for use in a fifth."

Four-fold challenge

The challenge on the national security front is four-fold. First, the five NPT-licit nuclear powers (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States: the N5) have ignored their NPT obligation to disarm. Instead, they are busy enlarging, modernising, and upgrading their nuclear arsenals and refining nuclear doctrines to indicate retention and expanded use of these weapons for several decades yet. The lesson to others? Nuclear weapons are indispensable in today's world and are becoming more useful for dealing with tomorrow's threats.

Secondly, three states outside the NPT - India, Israel, and Pakistan - have been accepted, more or less, as de facto nuclear weapons powers.

Thirdly, as an intergovernmental agreement, the NPT does not cover non-state groups, including terrorists, who might be pursuing nuclear weapons. The turmoil in Pakistan, with President Pervez Musharraf playing the "loose nukes" card to retain U.S. backing, highlights the related danger of links between rogue elements of security forces and extremists.

Fourthly, some countries may be cheating on their NPT obligations and seeking nuclear weapons by stealth. But what can be done in response remains deeply problematical. For four decades, the world has lived with five, followed by eight and then nine (North Korea), nuclear powers. Can we live with Iran as the tenth? The consequences of using military force to try to stop its drive may be worse than learning to live with the new reality. The drumbeats of war being sounded in Washington - President George W. Bush has even spoken of World War III! - bring back memories of 2002-03. This is a story we have heard before. We did not like the ending the first time and are unlikely to like it any better the next time round.

Disquieting trend

The disquieting trend of a widening circle of NPT-illicit and extra-NPT nuclear weapons powers in turn has a self-generating effect in drawing other countries into the game of nuclear brinksmanship. The renaissance of nuclear power cannot be explained solely by the interest in nuclear energy for civilian uses.

The contradictions and tensions inherent in the NPT have thus ripened and the regime's weaknesses have become increasingly apparent.

What might be the solution? Of the 27,000 nuclear weapons in existence today, 12,000 are deployed and ready for use, with 3,500 on hair-trigger alert. To begin with, some practical and concrete measures are long overdue: bringing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty into force, negotiating a verifiable fissile materials treaty, retrenching from launch-on-warning postures, standing down nuclear forces, etc. That is, reviving, implementing and building on existing agreements for reducing the role, readiness and numbers of nuclear weapons in defence doctrines and preparations.

But these amount to tinkering, not a bold and comprehensive vision of the final destination. What we need are rules-based regimes constructed on the principles of reciprocity of obligations, participatory decision-making, and independent verification procedures and compliance mechanisms.

Senator Barack Obama, U.S. Democratic presidential hopeful, has declared that "America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons." Fellow candidate and former Senator John Edwards too supports the vision. In January, three former U.S. Secretaries of Defence and State - George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger - and Senator Sam Nunn, former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, writing in the Wall Street Journal, called on Washington to take the lead in the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The symbiotic link between non-proliferation and disarmament is integral to the NPT, the most brilliant half-successful arms control agreement in history. With 188 parties, it embraces almost the entire family of nations. But the nuclear arsenals of the N5 expanded enormously after the treaty entered into force in 1970, their Article 6 obligation to disarm notwithstanding.

Yet a surprising number of arms control experts focus solely on the non-proliferation side to demand denial of technology and materiel to all who refuse to sign and abide by the NPT, and punishment of any who cross the threshold. The term "non-proliferation ayatollahs" is applied pejoratively to them. The latest episode in this long-running and tired serial is the U.S., Britain, and France threatening Iran with war to stop it from acquiring - not using, merely acquiring - nuclear weapons. From where do the leaders of nuclear-armed Britain and France derive the moral authority to declare that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable?

I have argued before that nuclear weapons could not proliferate if they did not exist. Because they do, they will. The policy implication of this analytical logic is that the best guarantee of nuclear non-proliferation is nuclear disarmament through a nuclear weapons convention that bans the possession, acquisition, testing and use of nuclear weapons, by everyone. This would solve the problem of non-proliferation as well as disarmament. The focus on non-proliferation to the neglect of disarmament ensures that we get neither. If we want non-proliferation, therefore, we must prepare for disarmament.

Too many have paid lip service to this slogan but have not pursued a serious programme of action to make it a reality. The elegant theorems, cogent logic, and fluent reasoning of many authoritative international commissions have made no discernible dent in the old, new, and aspiring nuclear powers. A coalition between nuclear-armed and non-nuclear countries, led perhaps by India - which has crossed the threshold from a disarmament leader to a hypocritical nuclear power - and Japan, the only country to have suffered an atomic attack, might break the stalemate and dispel the looming nuclear clouds.

Time is running out for the contradictions, hypocrisy, and accumulated anomalies of global nuclear apartheid. Either we will achieve nuclear abolition or we will have to live with nuclear proliferation followed by nuclear war. If the non-proliferation end of the NPT bargain collapses, the regime will become obsolete. If the disarmament goal of the NPT is realised, the regime becomes redundant. Either way, the NPT regime may have passed its use-by date.

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