Updated: Dec 30, 2019
The spread of nuclear weapons has been considered a grave threat to the security of the world at large. The debate is not so much about the use of nuclear technology, for the uses of nuclear technology in the development process of any nation has been well accepted. The debate is on the peaceful vs. the military uses of this technology.
This debate has complicated over the years as this technology has been acknowledged as being ‘dual use’ technology and as such it would be difficult to differentiate from the end use for which the technology is pursued. Yet, the debate on the proliferation of nuclear weapons has dominated the writings on international security.
The central concerns have been the horizontal and not vertical proliferation of these weapons. Policies of nuclear proliferation present interplay of two sets of issues:
1. Technical and political set of issues . the technical element in non-proliferation seeks to either deny the critical technical assets to a country that seeks to embark on a nuclear programme or to make these assets available under a safeguard system. This places restraint on the possible use of nuclear technology for weapons production and ensures that the technology that is transferred or acquired remains for civilian (or confines to) use only.
2. Capability and intent of the countries concerned : The political component of the system operates at two levels: one that seeks to create an international pressure on the countries to desist from going nuclear and two, provide various incentives and disincentives to countries in the form of economic and other ways to dissuade them from going nuclear.
The political component adds on to the technical component in providing a ‘political’ rationale for not going nuclear.
The capability of a state to go nuclear is dependent on the technical component. The development of nuclear technology and infrastructure that is capable of producing a nuclear weapon is a technical dimension of the problem of proliferation. A nuclear capable state may be technically ripe for nuclear proliferation, but it would be the political intention of exercising the choice to go in for a nuclear weapon that would determine nuclear proliferation. In fact, with the spread of nuclear technology and availability of nuclear material, the decision on whether or not to acquire nuclear weapons would be a political one.
Nuclear weapons programmes usually require a long lead time for countries that have no nuclear infrastructure. Any nation seeking to manufacture nuclear weapons must develop an appropriate source of fissile material. This is a major technical barrier. The core of a nuclear bomb is made up of highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Fifteen to twenty-five kilograms of highly enriched uranium or five to eight kilograms of plutonium are generally considered the necessary minimum for the core of a multi-kiloton atomic bomb
A nation seeking to manufacture nuclear weapons must have a source of this fissile material. There are three main approaches that nations take to overcome this barrier:
1. One is by developing nuclear facilities dedicated for the purpose of weapons development.
2. The second is the development of a civilian nuclear programme that is free of safeguards and the subsequent acquisition of sensitive technologies for the development of a nuclear bomb. In case of safeguarded facilities the option may be of diversion of material from civilian facilities.
3. The third option is theft of the raw material or the weapon itself.
Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty
The acute concern for control over proliferation and possible safeguards finally led to the creation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. The chief motivation of its sponsors, the USA, Great Britain and USSR, was to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons.
The treaty divides the signatories into two categories: those who possess the nuclear bomb (those who possessed it prior to 1 January 1967) and those who did not. It commits the non weapon states to inspection of their holdings of nuclear materials. The NPT commits them to negotiate safeguard agreements with the IAEA.
These safeguards, however, are not binding on the weapon states. In exchange of the commitment by the non-weapon states to refrain from producing or acquiring nuclear weapons the weapon states agreed to the following:
1. not to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear weapon devices and not to assist non-weapon states to acquire such weapons or devices.
2. to seek discontinuance of all (underground) nuclear tests as a corollary to the 1953 Partial Test Ban Treaty.
3. to refrain from the threat or the use of force in compliance of the UN Charter.
4. to develop research production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and help the developing countries in this regard.
5. to make available to all states the potential benefits from and peaceful uses of nuclear explosions.
6. pursue negotiations to end the nuclear arms race and move towards nuclear disarmament.
The NPT became the first step to the construction of an effective international regime designed to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons. There had been a consensus on the part of the Americans and the Soviets that unfettered proliferation of nuclear weapons would destabilise the international order.
This view had not been shared by France and China, who were suspicious of the US-Soviet control over the nuclear weapons. Both the countries did not sign the NPT at the time of its creation.
The non-nuclear weapon states were also critical of the treaty. They perceived this to be a discriminatory treaty. Their main points of criticism were:
(i) The asymmetric nature of the treaty provisions that imposed safeguards only on the non-weapons states;
(ii) the preservation of commercial interests of the weapon states by providing them the right to explore peaceful uses programme;
(iii) he vagueness of the commitments on part of the weapon states;
(iv) the failure to address legitimate security concerns of the non-weapon states.
Until the signing of the NPT the debate about safeguards had been structured within technological parameters and frameworks. The unbalanced nature of the Treaty obligations under the NPT and the universality of its approach resulted in the shift of the debate from the technical to the political arena. Unlike the earlier era, the NPT system of safeguards came to be perceived as an infringement on the political sovereignty of the State.
Eventually it was the Indian test of 1974 that refocused international attention to the linkage between peaceful uses and weapons production.
The NPT had provided for periodic review conferences. In 1995 the conference decided to extend the Treaty indefinitely.