Opportunity to Help Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Weapons Proliferation

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2004 edition of The Irish Times and is reproduced here with their kind permission.

Ireland’s EU presidency gives Brian Cowen an opportunity to broker real progress on reducing the international nuclear threat, writes Richard Whelan.

Ireland has an honourable and long-standing role in campaigning to curtail the proliferation of nuclear weapons. With this background, Ireland has a unique opportunity to “save” the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), weaknesses in which have been exposed by recent disclosures, not least in Pakistan where the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Cowen, yesterday met President Musharaf as head of the EU diplomatic troika.

Recent reports of the “freelance” activities of the country’s chief nuclear scientist, Dr Abdul Khan, will certainly have been on the agenda.

The NPT agreement has been eroding due to technological developments in the 33 years since it was signed, the failure of most countries to finalise an additional protocol for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and suspected cheating.

The disclosures by Libya of its nuclear and chemical weapons developments, and its agreement to sign the additional protocol to the NPT, shows both the threat and possible solutions. This is timely.

Mohammed El Baradei, director general of the IAEA, said last October: “The present nuclear-arms control regime is looking battered. On the non-proliferation front, many countries that have signed the NPT have never brought into force the required safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

“Fewer than 20 per cent have finalised an additional protocol – endorsed after the discovery of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear programme – which gives the IAEA the authority to inspect countries more broadly, particularly for undeclared nuclear material and activities.”

And worst of all, he said, “should a state with a fully developed fuel cycle capability decide, for whatever reason, to break away from its non-proliferation commitments, most experts believe it could produce a nuclear weapon within a matter of months”.

Iran is close to crossing the nuclear threshold. It is just a few years away from completing a facility that could be structured to produce enough highly-enriched uranium for several nuclear weapons a year. Even if Iran complies fully with the NPT it can withdraw from same without penalty and produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon within a matter of months.

The North Korean crisis reached a dangerous point in October 2002, when Pyongyang acknowledged that it was pursuing a clandestine uranium enrichment programme. In January 2003 it withdrew from the NPT and expelled IAEA inspectors. Pyongyang then threatened in August to test a nuclear weapon.

Nuclear proliferation in Asia would be a major threat. Japan had this to say about the North Korean threat to test a nuclear weapon: “Japan cannot accept, by any means, any development, acquisition or possession, test, and transfer of nuclear weapons by North Korea.” South Korea would feel even more threatened.
The following actions are needed during our EU presidency to deal with these issues.

Firstly, Mr El Baradei has made three recommendations to “save” the NPT. These are (1) limiting the processing of weapons-usable plutonium and uranium and the production of new material by agreeing to restrict such operations to facilities under multinational control; (2) deploying nuclear energy systems that, by design, avoid the use of materials that could be applied to making nuclear weapons, and (3) considering multinational approaches to the management and disposal of spent fuel and radioactive waste.

In the short term the NPT itself can be significantly strengthened by pushing/cajoling “errant” countries to bring into force the required safeguards agreement and to finalise the additional protocol.

These IAEA recommendations deserve the full support of the EU and through it the UN.

Secondly we need discussion and agreement on the issue of non-compliance with international agreements in the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) areas.

The international community has not penalised North Korea in any significant fashion for its continuing breaches of the NPT. No EU capital made the point in January 2003 that North Korea could not legally withdraw after having violated the NPT. This is a core issue for us. To act as Europe has on North Korea in recent years unfortunately sends the wrong signals to countries considering WMD acquisition.

Sanctions in this area have not been successful, frequently hurt the wrong people, and need more time to “bite” than is usually available. During our presidency we should therefore push for discussions and agreement in the EU and at the UN on what should be done when non-compliance with agreements on non-proliferation is detected.

Thirdly we should support the French, German and UK foreign ministers in their continuing negotiations with Iran which will focus on moving Iran to full compliance with the NPT and then moving beyond such to obtaining extended agreement from Iran to move back from fuel cycle (weapons) capabilities, even if such are “legal” under the NPT, in return for enhanced economic and diplomatic benefits and the provision of “low risk” uranium.

The North Korean nuclear proliferation threat will have to be dealt with by multilateral negotiations. There is no alternative currently. Pre-emption was never an option. Sanctions are not possible because the key neighbours of North Korea will not support same unless a huge effort is made to negotiate an agreement with North Korea.

Six-party talks are now agreed as the framework for these discussions, with the US and North Korea holding bilateral discussions on the margin of same.

Ireland should lead the EU in supporting these multilateral talks and in condemning North Korea for its illegal actions and requiring it to commit itself fully to the NPT.

A world where nuclear proliferation is unconstrained is against our core interests. The dangers and the threat, in highly unstable regions, cannot be overstated. The four practical steps set out above would be a major contribution by Ireland to peace and stability in the world. We are well placed to effect such now.

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