When North Korea announced its nuclear test last week, it was just the latest sign that the effort to contain the spread of atomic weapons was breaking down: Several countries are on the verge of beginning uranium enrichment programs, and others have already started such efforts, policymakers and experts say.
Brazil recently inaugurated an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant, and Argentina and South Africa are interested in similar projects. Australia, which has large supplies of natural uranium, is also considering an enrichment program. Iran has defied requests by the international community to suspend its program to enrich uranium, the first step toward making the fissile material suitable for a bomb.
North Korea’s announcement of a test follows ones by India and Pakistan in 1998. The rise of a new generation of nuclear states has led to increasing concerns that others could follow, and fueled fears that the more countries with nuclear capability, the greater the risk that fissile material will fall into terrorist hands.
“We are, at present, at the unraveling of the nonproliferation regime and the global nuclear order that we’ve taken for granted,” said Graham Allison, a former assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton, who directs the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “This is a huge event whose importance may only become evident in five years....
“In terms of global order, global nuclear order, this is a nuclear blast,” he said.
On Saturday, the United Nations Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution imposing sanctions on North Korea for its declared nuclear test Monday.
But China’s reluctance to take part in inspections of North Korean cargo to help stop the flow of weapons materials throws into doubt how effective the sanctions can be.
Policymakers point to three levels of problems with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which has been in force for 36 years: weaknesses in the treaty itself, at the political level in the Security Council, and at the technical level in the ability of nuclear inspectors to detect undisclosed nuclear programs.
Countries that had nuclear weapons when the treaty went into effect -- the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China -- were allowed to keep them, whereas others were asked to forswear them.
The “haves” made the commitment to reduce and eventually eliminate their arsenals, and the “have-nots” agreed not to seek atomic weapons as long as they could have the advantages of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, was put in charge of making sure countries refrained from taking steps toward making fissile material suitable for bombs. But the treaty, in effect, permitted any country that wanted nuclear weapons capability to go down that road.
Nuclear technology is such that once a country masters uranium enrichment, it is relatively easy to go from low-level enrichment, which produces fuel for nuclear power plants, to high-level enrichment, which produces material used for a bomb.
Although 187 countries have signed the treaty, some developing nations are skeptical of the intentions of the five original nuclear states and are reluctant to give up the option of enriching uranium, leaving the door cracked to nuclear weapons capability.
Immediately after the Cold War, the United States and Russia reduced their nuclear arsenals by thousands of weapons. Since then there has been a standstill.
There are now about 27,000 nuclear warheads worldwide -- the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia. And most of the five original nuclear states have moved to modernize or, in China’s case, expand their arsenals.
Countries that have pursued nuclear capability outside the treaty or by hiding their programs have, after an initial distancing by the international community, gone unpunished over the long term.
Three countries -- India, Pakistan and Israel -- refused to sign the treaty. Pakistan and India have developed nuclear weapons, and Israel is thought to have them.
All three enjoy the favor and respect of world leaders, setting an example of what countries can get when they acquire nuclear weapons.
India and Pakistan, initially sanctioned over their nuclear tests, have seen the bans diminish, and India has been offered a multibillion-dollar deal with the United States that includes nuclear technology. The agreement has not been approved by the U.S. Senate.
Two other countries have refused to abide by the treaty, although they signed it: Iran and North Korea. The latter withdrew from the treaty three years ago. Neither nation has suffered significant consequences for refusing to comply.
That is because until Saturday, the five veto-wielding members of the Security Council could not agree on a punishment. At least one of the five has had national interests that superseded its intention to bring the countries to heel.
The only early-warning system to detect countries that are going down the nuclear weapons road appears unable to do its job. The International Atomic Energy Agency has failed to detect cheating by countries at an early stage in part because it lacks the authority to do necessary investigations.
It also has no enforcement power to stop what it discovers and can only report to the Security Council, which has had trouble agreeing on appropriate punishments.
“This has been an accident waiting to happen for a long time. The stresses and strains in the nonproliferation architecture have been apparent for many years,” said a senior Western official from a nonnuclear weapons nation who is involved in his country’s nuclear policy. “You can point the finger pretty much at anybody and they have a part in the blame.”
Western countries with nuclear arsenals want to work within the system, which allows them to keep their weapons. Their policymakers insist that, overall, the system is working pretty well. They note that, under the treaty, several countries have given up nuclear weapons, including Libya, South Africa and the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan.
“I don’t agree that the problem is that there hasn’t been disarmament by the nuclear weapons countries. The [treaty] is about security, and countries signed up for it because they thought their security was served by giving up nuclear weapons as long as their neighbors gave them up too,” said a senior diplomat from a country with nuclear weapons.
A senior U.S. official involved in nuclear policy noted that “there are about three dozen countries that have the intellectual, technological capabilities to have and develop a nuclear weapons capability but have chosen not to. For those, such as Japan and Germany, it wouldn’t take them long to make that transition, but they haven’t, and the [treaty] is part of the reason.”
Developing nations say they don’t want to give up their rights to uranium enrichment and don’t trust the United States or other nuclear countries to be consistent suppliers of the nuclear material they would need to run their power plants. Moreover, they say there is no guarantee that one of the nuclear counties won’t attack them.
“There’s a big credibility gap because of the double standard. You can’t say, ‘It’s OK for you to have the weapon, but for everybody else it’s wrong,’ ” said an ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency from one of the most influential of developing countries.
In the negotiations between the European Union and Iran over the Islamic Republic’s uranium enrichment program, some people close to the negotiators say that unless the United States forswears efforts to change Iran’s leadership, there will never be a deal.
Daniel Pinkston, a nuclear security expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, said the countries that had pursued nuclear weapons secretly or by refusing to sign the treaty were in tense neighborhoods -- the Middle East or Asia -- where they thought they could easily be attacked.
“Nuclear weapons can be attractive for the security benefits, and those might outweigh the benefits from participating in the nonproliferation regime,” Pinkston said. “So unless you can resolve the security dilemma, you aren’t going to resolve the problem.”
The United States has helped to discourage some of its nonnuclear allies from going the weapons route by guaranteeing their security.
In Japan, where there is a political faction that would like the nation to develop atomic weapons, the majority of policymakers are willing to rely on the United States for protection. Taiwan and South Korea also fall into that category.
The problem is that once a country in a troubled area obtains nuclear weapons capability, others may get nervous, and the situation becomes hard to control.
Most worrisome to some nuclear countries and their allies is that the International Atomic Energy Agency has proved incapable of detecting transgressions by member states at an early stage.
Although Libya and South Africa gave up their nuclear weapons programs, the agency was not aware of the Libyan program until the day Moammar Kadafi announced the country was giving it up.
The Iranians had a program for 18 years that went undetected until it was disclosed by an anti-government group.
“Countries are big -- they can hide some things; they learn how to hide from other countries,” said the senior U.S. official involved in nuclear policy. “And there’s one thing you can’t easily erase, and that’s knowledge.”
Times staff writers Douglas Frantz in Los Angeles and Bruce Wallace in Tokyo contributed to this report.