IT SEEMS a simple enough proposition: if the world is going to live with nuclear energy facilities and nuclear-trained scientists in a growing number of countries, often those with unstable governments or heated regional rivalries, then it is in the obvious self-interest of the suppliers of nuclear technology to do everything possible to prevent or at least discourage its misuse. That is what non- proliferation policies are all about. The administration appears to have lost sight of this central point.
Internal executive branch documents, laying out a proposed new non-proliferation policy, reveal that the administration is considering changes in law and policy that would wipe out the steps that have been taken by this country to control the spread of weapons-related technologies. These steps have been supported by both parties since the 1974 bomb test by India jolted the supplier nations into recognizing that their sloppy nuclear export policies could be helping to spread the development of nuclear explosives.
Chances are that congressional opposition will force changes in these proposals before they are presented to the president. If not, it is a good bet that Congress will disapprove many, if not most, of them. The proposals are worth a look, however, if only to demonstrate that some of the president's advisers are advocating the total abandonment of efforts to slow the spread of nuclear weapons technology.
The proposals include the elimination of the requirement that U.S. nuclear customers accept international inspections of all the nuclear facilities in their country (so-called full-scope safeguards). They also include elimination of the mandatory sanctions that halt all U.S. nuclear cooperation as well as some forms of military and economic aid to countries found to be engaged in nuclear weapons development.
The first of these is a protection for a supplier. It means that a recipient nation would not be able to accept safeguards on an imported reactor, for example, while building an unsafeguarded reprocessing plant to handle the fuel that reactor produces. The automatic sanctions are what give U.S. policies force and credibility. They raise the costs in a country's consideration of whether to pursue a nuclear weapons option, and also raise the costs to other suppliers tempted by the nuclear export dollar.
But, says the draft document, these requirements have been an "irritant" to other nations, and have damaged "the U.S. image as a reliable nuclear supplier." Not the reality, mind you, but the image. As former senator Jacob Javits once reminded a State Department witness, the issue is not whether the United States is a reliable supplier, but whether certain countries are reliable customers.
Ironically, the administration's discussion document makes a far stronger case against its proposed changes than for them. "Foreign countries of proliferation concern," it notes, may take the changes "to be a signal that the U.S. no longer will be concerned about nuclear weapons development." And the changes "will be seen by many in the Congress and elsewhere as a major weakening of U.S. non-proliferation policy and resolve." All true, unfortunately.