Time to fix leaky nuclear treaty


The recent proposal by Australia to sell uranium to India raises the question of how international law regulates traffic in nuclear weapons, and the materials and technology to make them.

In theory, the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons of 1968, usually known as the Non Proliferation Treaty or NPT. Many people are uneasy about Australia's proposed change of heart, because the NPT bans signatory countries from assisting non-signatory countries with their nuclear weapons programs. Australia is a party to the NPT; India is not.

So what is the NPT about? It was signed at the height of the Cold War and contains a simple, if not necessarily fair, formula. The five countries which then had declared nuclear weapons — USA, UK, China, France and USSR (now limited to Russia) — would be allowed to keep them but would assist other signatories to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). These non-nuclear signatories include Australia — commonly thought to have the world's largest uranium reserves.

By collateral agreements, the nuclear-armed countries would guarantee the security of any other signatory to the NPT from any nuclear strike.

Needless to say, the reality has not been that simple. The nuclear powers have not abolished their nuclear arsenals and have, indeed, occasionally threatened non-nuclear parties to the NPT with nuclear attack.

In 2002 and 2003, for instance, Geoff Hoon (then Britain's defence minister) threatened to use them against 'rogue states' using battlefield 'weapons of mass destruction'. (The latter is a political, rather than a legal, term but is generally thought to include at least nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.) In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac threatened nuclear attack against states supporting terrorism or developing WMDs.

There are also a growing number of non-parties to the NPT with nuclear weapons. Israel, India and Pakistan never signed the treaty, while North Korea (which has now successfully tested at least two nuclear weapons) withdrew in 2009.

Most of these non-parties see few benefits to joining. It is one thing to threaten a country which may be developing 'weapons of mass destruction' (remember the oft-repeated justification for invading Iraq in 2003). Attacking a country that actually has them is quite another proposition.

The only nuclear weapons that have ever been used in battle (in World War II) were smaller than most of the smallest warheads in today's arsenals. Even those wiped out whole cities. Countries can see these most horrifying of weapons as providing security against larger countries' ambitions against them (whether of land grabs or simple 'regime change').

Additionally, there are now enough countries which can develop or buy some sort of technical expertise without having to rely on the 'big five' for nuclear knowledge. The technology to make nuclear bombs is, after all, now nearly 70  years old.

Also, the boundaries between civil and military nuclear applications are fuzzy. The NPT prohibits assisting the development of nuclear weapons but, on the other hand, proclaims an 'inalienable' right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

While these things are necessarily murky, it would appear that most of the nuclear powers (whether NPT parties or not) have shared nuclear information with non-parties at some stage — with varying levels of justifiability under the NPT. For example, while South Africa had a nuclear program outside the NPT during the apartheid years, it received reactors from France and possibly technical military help from Israel. Most surprisingly, it even exported uranium oxide to the USSR.

In the same vein, Russia's assistance with Iran's nuclear reactors, Pakistan's alleged nuclear collaboration with China and North Korea and the US agreement for nuclear cooperation with India in 2008, have all exposed the fundamental weakness of the NPT protections against proliferation.

Given the leakiness of the NPT regime, it is scarcely surprising that the Australian Government is not terribly concerned about the possibility of breaching it in selling uranium to India. After all, there will always be ways around the treaty.

Nevertheless, assisting a nuclear-armed state to get more access to uranium seems unlikely to help the cause of non-proliferation or nuclear disarmament. It also sets a poor precedent. A party to the NPT with the ability to develop nuclear weapons could well ask whether membership of the NPT is more trouble than it is worth. (Iran, for instance, is a signatory.)

The current debate serves as a clear illustration that if the world is serious about developing real safeguards against nuclear proliferation, a new answer is needed: one which is both just and enforceable. 


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is a first year Jesuit scholastic studying theology and philosophy in Melbourne. He previously practised law in South Africa and New Zealand. He completed a PhD in international and administrative law in 2008.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, Iran, India, uranium



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Existing comments

I note the gracious tone of critique directed towards Julia Gillard on this issue. Imagine if it were John Howard who suggested selling uranium to India. The streets would be filled with burning effigies of Howard and hate fill chants.

Skye | 23 November 2011  

Nuclear weapons are just so wrong. One day the whole world will suffer because of them. How could anyone want to work and manufacture these weapons which can kill and contaminate so many people?

Trent | 23 November 2011  

Thanks to Justin for a well reasoned discussion of the issues. As I see it, the NPT was an early attempt by the then nuclear powers to retain their monopoly on those weapons. As to the guarantees of security to the rest of the world, does anyone really believe that France or Britain, for example, would have gone to war with, for example, the USSR just because the latter had made a nuclear strike on some small African nation with no minerals or oil? Or the other way around? And it's worth remembering, as Justin has noted, that only one country has ever used nuclear weapons against another. Isn't it reasonable to presume that every other nuclear state has acquired these weapons for deterrent purposes for the very practical reason that they cannot trust the major powers to fulfil their end of the treaty - after all, they committed themselves to progressively disarm and have still not done so. And for all the US's banging on the tubs about being determined to deny Iran and South Korea the right to nuclear arms, it (the US) says precious little about Israel's nuclear weapons and it makes no attempt to disarm that country. As for Trent's comment that nuclear weapons are 'just so wrong', I shouldn't need to remind her/him that many more people have been killed by conventional weapons than nuclear weapons since 1945. S/he fails to convince me that nuclear weapons are any more 'wrong' than conventional weapons. They all kill and maim and they are all made and used and sold to others by people like Trent and me. Nuclear weapons are not the issue, rather they are a red herring that diverts us from the real issues.

Ginger Meggs | 23 November 2011  

Thank you for an informative & insightful article Justin.

M. CONFOY | 23 November 2011  

Thanks for reminding us of the statements of Geoff Hoon in the lead-up to Halliburton's taxpayer-funded Annexation of Certain Mesopotamian Petroleum Assets. As we now know, Hoon was not being serious. We now know what Hoon and the rest of the Blair-Bush-Cheney-Howard cabal knew all along; namely, that Iraq had no nuclear and biological weapons, and were in the process of destroying the last of their Reagan-supplied chemical weapons at the time Hoon spoke. How do you avoid being attacked? You don't avoid being attacked by pretending to have Weapons of Mass Destruction, as Saddam Hussein tried. The lesson of Iraq 2003 is: to avoid being attacked, get nuclear weapons, and let people know you've got them. India, Pakistan and North Korea have done this, and Iran may or may not have taken the lesson to heart.

David Arthur | 23 November 2011  

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