After a year of talks, the Carter administration's best efforts to persuade delegates from 40 countries that they do not need "sensitive" nuclear technologies appear to be headed for at least partial failure.
It is already clear that when the International Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation -- focal point of the Carter administration's nonproliferation campaign -- issues its final report, it will not endorse U.S. attempts to delay the spread of plutonium reprocessing plants and fast-breeder nuclear reactors.
The Carter administration has strongly urged countries to postpone any decision to introduce these facilities, arguing that they would enormously increase the worldwide availability of plutonium -- which can be fabricated into atomic weapons.
"We know plutonium is dangerous, and we're not happy about it," a top French official said. "But we feel we need breeder reactors and reprocessing to meet our energy needs, and we think other countries do as well."
Delegates from the 40 countries taking part in the INFCE talks agreed last week to issue a final report when the two-year study concludes next year.
"The final report will probably point out what the proliferation vulnerabilities are, but it won't say anything is good or bad -- and certainly won't say anything is unacceptable," an INFCE source said.
"The real question," the source added, "is whether the United States is going to be flexible enough to accept this kind of report that doesn't have much in it in the way of no-nos."
Ironically, the Carter administration's inability to persuade other countries to follow its lead in delaying introduction of reprocessing and breeder technology obscures the fact that its campaign has greatly increased world concern over nuclear proliferation.
Top officials in France and West Germany -- including some who spoke contemptuously a year ago of the Carter administration's "Boy Scout" approach -- today give the United States credit for having heightened world awareness of the dangers inherent in the spread os sensitive nuclear technology.
"Thanks to the United States, it's likely there will be some delay in proliferation," a senior French Foreign Ministry official said."As a result of the U.S. policy, it's much more difficult now than when the Indian device exploded to make an explosion, or to try to get nuclear arms."
But many of these same officials feel the Carter administration's efforts to discourage nations from building their own plutonium reprocessing or uranium enrichment plants -- facilities that can produce material suitable for atomic bombs -- have been undercut by acts that have cast doubt on the United States as a reliable supplier of fuel for atomic power stations.
The new U.S. Nuclear Nonproliferation Act, which requires the cutoff of American fuel supplies to countries that do not place all their atomic facilities under international safeguards by March 1980, is regarded by many foreign officials as a major blunder.
India, which has a contract with the United States to provide fuel for its Tarapur atomic power stations well into the 1990s, is particularly pained by the Carter administration's efforts to attach new conditions.
"What the United States seems to be saying is that a contract with the U.S. is valid until a new administration decides it wants to change it," a top Indian official remarked bitterly.
Many Western officials feel this act has made it far more difficult to persuade countries like South Korea that they do not need "sensitive" nuclear technology to guarantee their own fuel supply.
"The U.S. policy has certainly led to the feeling, 'Look, we cannot depend on outside suppliers,'" an International Atomic Energy Agency official said. A top adviser to the Carter administration on nuclear policy privately agrees: "The export bill -- in its failure to honor existing commitments -- was a mistake."
Deputy Under Secretary of State Joseph S. Nye argues, however, that on the whole the nonproliferation act is a net gain.
By requiring termination of U.S. nuclear cooperation with any country that detonates an atomic device, abrogates safeguards agreements or takes any steps toward acquiring nuclear explosives, Nye contends that a nation can no longer view proliferation as a "cheap option."
The major nations that supply nuclear power plants and fuel to developing countries have also agreed, moreover, not to undercut any effort by another supplier to impose "sanctions."
Nye also noted that the INFCE study has begun to produce a dramatic scaling down of the projections made in the early 1970s of the world-wide need -- particularly among the developing countries -- for nuclear power.
"The IAEA was talking about eight reactors in Bangladesh in the 1980s," Nye said. "I think what we've tried to do is introduce more realism, which may lay a basis for a more careful evolutionary approach to nuclear energy."
Many nuclear experts feel the Carter administration also deserves a considerable measure of credit for the international outcry that arose a year ago when South Africa appeared to be preparing to stage an underground atomic test.
While South African leaders insist that they have not developed an atomis device and have no intention of staging a nuclear explosion, they cast doubts on their assurances by refusing to discuss the structures that they have erected in the remote Kalahari desert.
U.S. intelligence analysts who have seen photos of the desert site said the buildings resembled "the aboveground structures one would build for an underground nuclear test." They also note that since the uproar, South Africa has substantially dismantled the structures "to the extent that we are no longer concerned."
Nye, who is leaving his job as the administration's top nonproliferation expert later this month to return to the Harvard faculty, voices relief that the number of nuclear states did not expand during his tenure.
He also expresses hope that as a result of the Carter administration's efforts, "the rate of proliferation which may occur in the future will be lower than it otherwise would have been."
But with some 20 countries already capable of producing nuclear bombs if they desired, Nye concedes it probably is unrealistic to think that it will be possible to prevent any additional nations from joining the nuclear club.
"I don't think that one should set an aspiration of absolutely none," he said. "In the long run, while one would not desire it, it would not be surprising to see another explosion by the end of the century."
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