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Rethinking Nuclear Safeguards

By Mohamed ElBaradei
Wednesday, June 14, 2006

In regard to nuclear proliferation and arms control, the fundamental problem is clear: Either we begin finding creative, outside-the-box solutions or the international nuclear safeguards regime will become obsolete.

For this reason, I have been calling for new approaches in a number of areas. First, a recommitment to disarmament -- a move away from national security strategies that rely on nuclear weapons, which serve as a constant stimulus for other nations to acquire them. Second, tightened controls on the proliferation-sensitive parts of the nuclear fuel cycle. By bringing multinational control to any operation that enriches uranium or separates plutonium, we can lower the risk of these materials being diverted to weapons. A parallel step would be to create a mechanism to ensure a reliable supply of reactor fuel to bona fide users, including a fuel bank under control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The third area has been more problematic: how to deal creatively with the three countries that remain outside the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): Pakistan and India, both holders of nuclear arsenals, and Israel, which maintains an official policy of ambiguity but is believed to be nuclear-weapons-capable. However fervently we might wish it, none of these three is likely to give up its nuclear weapons or the nuclear weapons option outside of a global or regional arms control framework. Our traditional strategy -- of treating such states as outsiders -- is no longer a realistic method of bringing these last few countries into the fold.

Which brings us to a current controversy -- the recent agreement between President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh regarding the exchange of nuclear technology between the United States and India.

Some insist that the deal will primarily enable India to divert more uranium to produce more weapons -- that it rewards India for having developed nuclear weapons and legitimizes its status as a nuclear weapons state. By contrast, some in India argue that it will bring the downfall of India's nuclear weapons program, because of new restrictions on moving equipment and expertise between civilian and military facilities.

Clearly, this is a complex issue on which intelligent people can disagree. Ultimately, perhaps, it comes down to a balance of judgment. But to this array of opinions, I would offer the following:

First, under the NPT, there is no such thing as a "legitimate" or "illegitimate" nuclear weapons state. The fact that five states are recognized in the treaty as holders of nuclear weapons was regarded as a matter of transition; the treaty does not in any sense confer permanent status on those states as weapons holders. Moreover, the U.S.-India deal is neutral on this point -- it does not add to or detract from India's nuclear weapons program, nor does it confer any "status," legal or otherwise, on India as a possessor of nuclear weapons. India has never joined the NPT; it has therefore not violated any legal commitment, and it has never encouraged nuclear weapons proliferation.

Also, it is important to consider the implications of denying this exchange of peaceful nuclear technology. As a country with one-sixth of the world's population, India has an enormous appetite for energy -- and the fastest-growing civilian nuclear energy program in the world. With this anticipated growth, it is important that India have access to the safest and most advanced technology.

India clearly enjoys close cooperation with the United States and many other countries in a number of areas of technology and security. It is treated as a valued partner, a trusted contributor to international peace and security. It is difficult to understand the logic that would continue to carve out civil nuclear energy as the single area for noncooperation.

Under the agreement, India commits to following the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group, an organization of states that regulates access to nuclear material and technology. India would bring its civilian nuclear facilities under international safeguards. India has voiced its support for the conclusion of a Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty. The strong support of both India and the United States -- as well as all other nuclear weapons states -- is sorely needed to make this treaty a reality.

The U.S.-India agreement is a creative break with the past that, handled properly, will be a first step forward for both India and the international community. India will get safe and modern technology to help lift more than 500 million people from poverty, and it will be part of the international effort to combat nuclear terrorism and rid our world of nuclear weapons.

As we face the future, other strategies must be found to enlist Pakistan and Israel as partners in nuclear arms control and nonproliferation. Whatever form those solutions take, they will need to address not only nuclear weapons but also the much broader range of security concerns facing each country. No one ever said controlling nuclear weapons was going to be easy. It will take courage and tenacity in large doses, a great deal more outside-of-the-box thinking, and a sense of realism. And it will be worth the effort.

The writer is director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He and the agency won the 2005 Nobel Peace Prize.

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