Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon (NPT) at its 50th year juncture: thoughts on the postponement of the NPT Review Conference
April 3, 2020
It has been decided that the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapon (NPT) Review Conference, which was scheduled to be held from April 27 to May 22, 2020, will be postponed to a later date, no later than April 2021 due to the spread of COVID-19. In response to this postponement, RECNA has compiled, in an easily understood way, the current issues and prospects regarding the NPT regime in this milestone year that marks the 50th anniversary of its entering into force and the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings on Japan.
1. 50 years of the NPT and the coronavirus crisis
By Fumihiko Yoshida
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, has become a special treaty combining “unfair measures” and “fair measures” towards the ultimate goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. Fifty years on, there is increasing frustration with the “unfair measures,” while even the “fair measures” have backfired.
The most conspicuously “unfair measure” is that only the already nuclear-armed nations of the US, USSR (present-day Russia), the UK, France and China were “officially recognized,” albeit temporarily, as “nuclear weapon states (NWS)” under the NPT. In the meanwhile, it is also an unfair treaty that demands all other nations to participate in it as “non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS).” Even so, what has led most nations to join the NPT and remain as States Parties is a shared understanding of the significance of preventing nuclear proliferation and a hope that the “recognized” nuclear states might pursue nuclear disarmament of their own accord and move closer to the ultimate goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. However, the current leaning towards nuclear arms competitiveness between the US, China and Russia, especially that of so-called “usable nuclear weapons,” is an evil endeavor that multiplies unfairness and dramatically betrays any sense of hope about the NPT.
What was the measure taken to provide a sense of fairness to this unfair treaty? It was to grant to all States Parties the “inalienable right” to the peaceful use of nuclear power in return for selecting the non-nuclear weapons option. However, using this right in an underhand move, Iran is expressing reluctance to close down its uranium enrichment facilities. The fact that Japan has uranium enrichment facilities and insists on maintaining spent nuclear fuel reprocessing facilities, and that South Korea is also seeking reprocessing facilities are all based on this right.1 However, the way that this “fairness” is linked to further proliferation risks is the actual state of affairs we find ourselves in fifty years after the NPT entered into force. As long as a risk of nuclear proliferation exists, the “recognized” NWS are highly unlikely to abandon their own nuclear weapons. The promise that was made for the sake of fairness is now creating a completely reverse situation in which the bar placed before nuclear abolition has conversely been raised.
Another serious problem is the nations of India, Pakistan and Israel, who continue even after 50 years to turn their backs on the treaty. India and Pakistan who have both conducted nuclear tests are in name and reality nuclear-armed states, Israel is to all intents and purposes a nuclear-armed state, and these three nations have become nuclear-armed states outside of the NPT framework. North Korea, which has withdrawn from the NPT, continues to repeatedly test nuclear weapons. In response to this state of nuclear proliferation that the NPT has been unable to prevent, it is quite natural that there is a section of the NNWS who feel an ever-stronger sense of unfairness, a sense that after all it’s the nuclear armed states that are the winners.
It is hard to imagine that this unfair treaty can be sustained over the long term. Since the measures taken to redress unfairness have backfired, it is surely time to ask ourselves whether or not this in itself is a form of pernicious equality. What should we think about the nations that have armed themselves with nuclear weapons outside of the NPT and ended up creating regions that face the gravest risk of nuclear war on the globe, and how should we deal with these nations?
The borderless coronavirus pandemic has taught us a lesson about what happens if we retreat into a state of blithe optimism regarding global risks and the terror unleashed when those risks suddenly turn into actual crises that we are unable to combat. The quinquennial NPT Review Conference has been postponed, but we should use this time effectively before it next convenes, conduct a sober review of the significance and limitations of the Treaty, and while greatly reducing the risks of the use of nuclear weapons seriously search for measures to obtain progress in the abolition of these weapons. Because the NPT really is that crucial a treaty.
2. Issues and prospects surrounding nuclear disarmament
By Keiko Nakamura
It is claimed in some quarters that “nuclear disarmament,” one of the three pillars of the NPT, is deepening the trough between nations and accelerating the polarization of the world. In particular, the five NWS are increasingly critical about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) that was adopted at the United Nations in 2017, citing it as the cause for this state of affairs.
Certainly, the trough between the NWS and those reliant upon them under their “nuclear umbrella,” and the states that do not rely on nuclear weapons is deepening. However, this trough has existed since before the advent of the TPNW. And what caused this trough to become deeper and wider were the NWS themselves who have pursued the modernization of nuclear weapons, brought nuclear disarmament and arms controls treaties to the brink of collapse, and turned their backs on their nuclear disarmament obligations under Article 6 of the NPT and the other NPT agreements. We should first of all realize that the existence of the TPNW is no more than a sort of litmus paper that has as a result clarified the global state in which polarization is continuing.
The Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament agreed at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, the 13 Practical Steps including the “unequivocal undertaking” toward Nuclear Disarmament at the 2000 Review Conference, the 64-Point Action Plan on nuclear non-proliferation agreed upon at the 2010 Review Conference. Through these consensus documents efforts were made to search for a path along which all the NPT States Parties would reduce the latent unfairness in the Treaty, and strengthen the stability and creditability of the Treaty by promoting non-proliferation and nuclear disarmament. These commitments are still valid, and every States Party to the Treaty is obliged to advance its cause.
However, the possibility has arisen that the Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament (CEND) initiative proposed in 2018 by the US goes back on these agreements and commitments. The CEND initiative adopts a stance in which the progress of nuclear disarmament itself under the current international environment is impossible, and the creation of an environment for achieving nuclear disarmament is needed. However, in response to this move, described by the former Head of Verification and Security Policy Coordination at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Tariq Rauf as ‘chasing rainbows, butterflies, and unicorns toward an illusory environment that will never exist,’2 many experts and NNWS have savagely criticized CEND as being nothing more than an excuse to avoid nuclear disarmament. If the commitments of the past continue to be broken in this manner, trust in the NPT regime will become further eroded. The possibility cannot be discounted that other countries will, like Iran, see a rise in public opinion pushing for their nation’s withdrawal from the NPT.
On the other hand, the TPNW, of which much is hoped, has as of March 2020 been signed by 81 nations, ratified by 36 nations and requires the ratification of a further 14 nations in order for it to meet the number of 50 ratifying nations that is the prerequisite for its entering into force. It is possible that the coronavirus will lead to a slowdown in the signatory and ratification process, but the entering into force of the treaty is thought to be just a question of time. With the prospect coming into view of a meeting of the Conference of States Parties within one year of the TPNW entering into force, the time is surely approaching for us to look at a future world in which the NPT and TPNW processes run in parallel and for each country and its citizens to think seriously about new strategies.
Furthermore, over the past five years there has been a move towards espousing the “bridge-building” approach regarding the ever-deepening trough between the nuclear and non-nuclear states. For example, the government of Sweden has, in cooperation with a private sector thinktank, put forward the “Stepping Stones approach” aimed at breaking the deadlock over nuclear disarmament. In addition, the Japanese government has established the Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament, and the Group Chair’s Report was submitted to the government in October 2019 as a summary of the debates held over the course of the Group’s five meetings.3 However, it is not clear how these moves will be linked in with a concrete breakthrough in the current state of affairs. Indeed, it is quite possible that once the TPNW has entered into force the nations that do not support it could find themselves placed in an even more difficult and vexed position amid international public opinion. The stance of Japan, especially, as a nation reliant on nuclear deterrence while being “the only nation to have suffered atomic bombing,” is likely to find itself further and further adrift from international opinion asserting the unjustifiability of nuclear weapons, and thrown into deeper confusion.
3. Nuclear non-proliferation and regional problems: the current state and future prospects
By Satoshi Hirose
The greatest target of the NPT is the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, but there has been a major change in the international situation surrounding non-proliferation and the time has come when we need to take another look at the meaning and the position of “the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.”
From the perspective of non-proliferation, 50 years on from its entering into force the NPT can be said to have more or less achieved its objectives. This is because there have been no cases of the non-nuclear states that are States Parties to the NPT coming into possession of nuclear weapons in violation of the treaty. However, there have been cases of nations going as far as developing and obtaining nuclear weapons outside of the framework of the NPT. Israel, India and Pakistan have developed nuclear weapons without participating in the NPT, and North Korea has announced its withdrawal and continues to conduct nuclear tests. It therefore cannot be said that the NPT regime has adequately dealt with these non-participant or withdrawing nations. A certain section of nations has, taking as an example US support for Israel or the conclusion of the US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, expressed dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs as the non-States Parties nuclear armed states appear to be enjoying greater international benefits. Unless this dissatisfaction is properly redressed the emergence of other nations that follow North Korea in withdrawing from the NPT and start to develop their own nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. From this perspective too, it is vital that the NPT supports the negotiations towards the denuclearization of North Korea and the Korean peninsula as a whole.
Moving on, over the past few years differences of opinion have surfaced among the NWS regarding the specific content of the “non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.” In concrete terms this is the problem of “nuclear sharing” in which the US stations nuclear weapons in certain NATO member states and manages them on a shared basis with these nations. The US and then USSR reportedly had reached an agreement that this problem did not infringe on the provisions of the NPT during the original NPT negotiations. This was the result of a compromise arising from the common interest that the US and USSR had in requiring the early prevention of nuclear proliferation against the backdrop of the Cold War days. However, the non-allied member states have continuously voiced their concern that the stationing of nuclear weapons on the soil of non-nuclear NATO member states and the involvement of NATO members states in their use is in violation of the NPT. China and Russia have also started to make similar criticisms. It is probably safe to say the background to this is that firstly, unlike the Cold War era, it is now virtually impossible that Russia would be able to station nuclear weapons beyond its own borders, and secondly, that China wishes to contain US strategy because it has no ally nations in which it could station nuclear weapons. As a result, it is feasible that these conflicts may make debate about non-proliferation more difficult. There is without doubt a need to ensure that these conflicts are not allowed to cause the NPT review process its very self to fall into a state of paralysis.
Another serious problem is the Middle East issue that was the direct cause of fissures during the 2015 Review Conference. In November 2019, in line with a UN general assembly resolution, the Conference on the Establishment of a Middle East Zone Free of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction was held, obviously without the participation of the US and Israel who were opposed to the conference being convened in the first place. The fact that the conference was even held represents a first footstep, but it is probably unrealistic to expect any results for the time being. What is crucial is to think about what can be done to ensure that the NPT does not become manacled by this issue. It can be said that from the very outset the notion of seeking to resolve Middle East security issues within the framework of the NPT is less than realistic. It would be no exaggeration to claim that the concept of a Middle East Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone is something that was tied in to a compromise aimed at securing support for indefinite extension of the NPT during the 1995 Review Conference. One proposal that could be considered would be to shelve any substantive debate on the Middle East issue at NPT conferences, channel negotiations to the UN and the relevant nations, and go no further than expressing at the NPT Review Conference a supportive stance towards the negotiations. The prospect of the NPT Review Conference process stagnating due to the Middle East problem is highly undesirable. The significance and the importance of the Iran nuclear deal should be properly understood from this perspective, and every effort to maintain it should be made under the NPT.
While it was unforeseen that the NPT Review Conference would be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, the possibility has emerged that with regard to the Middle East issues in particular a second round of talks may be held prior to the Review Conference. It is to be hoped that all nations will effectively use the time provided by the conference postponement in the light of concern about insufficient preparations due to the last-minute change to the president of the conference.
4. 50 years of the NPT: issues and prospects for the peaceful use of nuclear power and the nuclear proliferation problem
By Tatsujiro Suzuki
I have attempted here to draw together the main points regarding what are the issues and what sort of perspective we should adopt regarding the nuclear proliferation and peaceful use of nuclear power problems, upon the milestone 50th year of the NPT.
Firstly, compared to the times when the NPT was launched, the fact is that the attractiveness of nuclear power has greatly diminished. One major point is that since the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan the competitiveness of nuclear power has waned, while anxiety has increased regarding safety and the disposal of nuclear waste. Subsequently, the allure of nuclear power as a “confection-like” motivation is gradually evaporating.
Secondly, the North Korea and Iran problem have illustrated the fact that even without a large-scale nuclear power plan it is possible to obtain the adequate technologies for acquiring nuclear weapons. To put it another way, the technologies capable of manufacturing nuclear materials such as uranium enrichment and reprocessing are an intersecting meeting point between the peaceful use of nuclear power and nuclear proliferation, and preventing that proliferation is the single most crucial issue. How can the proliferation of uranium enrichment and reprocessing be prevented while permitting the right to the peaceful use of nuclear power? This has emerged as a major issue.
Thirdly, and connected with the above, is the increasing amount of nuclear material obtained from the peaceful use of nuclear power, particularly plutonium. As of the end of 2017 the worldwide stock of separated plutonium was 523 tons, an amount equivalent to more than 87,000 of the atomic bombs dropped on Nagasaki. Around 70% of this (370 tons) is non-military use, plutonium recovered from spent nuclear fuel for peaceful use through the reprocessing process. How to safely manage these stocks and reduce them even if only slightly is the most important issue.
Fourthly and finally is the fact that it has become even more difficult to assure protection measures (nuclear security) for nuclear facilities with the advent of new technologies such as cyber terrorism and drones. This needs to be addressed with similar measures not only for nuclear power plants but also for nuclear fuel facilities and research facilities.
In the light of the four points above, it is clear that the relationship between the NPT and the peaceful use of nuclear power has changed greatly over the past 50 years. The peaceful use of nuclear power is assured in Article 4 of the NPT as an “inalienable right,” and cannot be denied. In order to resolve new issues, it will be necessary for the whole international community to cooperate in the spirit of the NPT. And in order to do so, we must not remain satisfied with the NPT regime as it stands, but need to consider the ideal way for an international framework that adapts itself to new threats. These countermeasures include aspects that cannot be debated within the framework of the NPT, but I believe that it will be effective to resolutely raise thee issues at the NPT Review Conference, and raise common awareness towards international cooperation.
1 Uranium enrichment facilities are capable of producing the enriched uranium used as a material in nuclear weapons. Reprocessing facilities are capable of separating plutonium, another nuclear weapons material.
2 Tariq Rauf, “The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?”, Arms Control Today, March 2020
3 The Chair’s Report of the Group of Eminent Persons for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament was submitted on October 21, 2019. https://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/press/release/press4_007939.html (in Japanese)