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KERRY O'BRIEN: The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was drawn up in an effort to lessen the threat of nuclear annihilation. Twenty-five years later, it's up for renewal, and Australia is leading the push to extend it indefinitely; but others are fiercely critical.

GARETH EVANS: The idea that this treaty, with these obligations, could ever come to an end with nothing as strong or stronger to replace it is simply not an idea that we could ever comfortably embrace.

BEN PEARSON: The NPT has failed in its central aim of eliminating nuclear weapons.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Has it made the world a safer place, or is it as developing countries claim: little more than a club to protect the existing nuclear order. That's our story tonight.

If you think with the Cold War over, the world is a much safer place, there are many who would say 'Think again'. A recent report to the United Nations warned it's never been easier for terrorist groups, organised crime and rogue states to get their hands on material and technology to make a nuclear bomb. And the reason, according to the report, was simple: controls set up in the Cold War to stop nuclear proliferation have become more pathetically derisory each day.

It was a timely warning, given the terrorist explosion that rocked Oklahoma City today. The warning, too, has rocked and divided the nations meeting in New York this week to renegotiate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The world's five major nuclear powers, including the United States, Russia, and Britain, dispute the report's findings and claim the treaty, or NPT as it's called, has been an outstanding success.

On the other side, many developing nations disagree, believing that while they've fulfilled their end of the bargain by staying out of the nuclear race, the superpowers have failed to pursue genuine disarmament, or stop illicit nuclear dealing.

In just a moment, we'll cross to the UN to assess the conference; but first, Margot O'Neil assesses the current nuclear order.

MARGOT O'NEIL: For 50 years the world has been haunted by an apocalyptic vision that it could annihilate itself. Scores of films like the 'Terminator' tried to depict the nuclear nightmare that has hung over three generations. Sometimes the fantasy didn't seem so far removed from the mad reality.

At the height of the Cold War there were 55,000 nuclear warheads - enough to destroy the world several times over. And one out of every four scientists in the US and the then Soviet Union was involved in the arms race.

When the Cold War ended, there also seemed a chance to end this nuclear lunacy. The first real test of that is now under way in New York where the international community is considering the future of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

GARETH EVANS: The idea that this treaty with these obligations could ever come to an end with nothing as strong or stronger to replace it is simply not an idea that we could ever comfortably embrace.

MARGOT O'NEIL: Australia is supporting the US push to permanently extend the treaty, but there are serious questions about whether the treaty has really worked.

In the 1960s it was feared that up to 30 countries would get the bomb. So the US, the USSR, and Britain joined forces to push for the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty which came into force in 1970, with just 43 signatories.

It sought to enshrine five military nuclear powers: the United States; the former Soviet Union, now Russia; and Britain; as well as France and China which only signed on a few years ago.

There are now 178 signatories but there are notable exceptions like Israel, India and Pakistan, which have thumbed their noses at the treaty by developing nuclear capability. Other states like Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Algeria, Libya and Syria - some of which are signatories to the treaty - are thought to be secretly trying to get the bomb. And countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, and Brazil are believed to be able to quickly develop a nuclear capability if they wanted to.

Many states believe the nonproliferation regime is not only discriminatory, but hypocritical. For instance, the US suspended aid to Pakistan, but not Israel, for having a nuclear capability. And in what would be a body blow to the treaty, Egypt is now threatening to withdraw from the NPT, unless Israel joins. But the US is refusing to pressure Tel Aviv. It is pressuring Russia and China not to sell peaceful technology to Iran.

WARREN CHRISTOPHER: Iran is too dangerous a country at the present time, and its ambitions are too hostile to the world as a whole to permit nuclear co-operation with Iran.

MARGOT O'NEIL: Meanwhile, the US seem to reward North Korea when it threatened to pull out of the NPT last year, by offering to supply it with two peaceful reactors.

And while most non-nuclear states have lived up to the terms of the treaty, they say the nuclear powers have not. The treaty was supposed to provide a trade-off: the nuclear powers were to help with the transfer of peaceful nuclear technology, provide security guarantees, and disarm their nuclear arsenals.

The scorecard is mixed, but the biggest criticism is of the lack of genuine disarmament. Even though Russia and the United States have agreed to slash the number of strategic warheads from 17,000 to 7,000 by the year 2003, that's still many more than they had in 1970. And Britain, France and China are yet to talk about cutting their arsenals. China even still tests new bombs.

BEN PEARSON: The NPT has failed in its central aim of eliminating nuclear weapons. If we were to extend it indefinitely, then we would just be setting in stone a failed treaty. That's why we don't believe it should be extended indefinitely. What we're arguing for is that the treaty should be extended for fixed periods and that those periods should have a timetable for disarmament linked to it.

MARGOT O'NEIL: Greenpeace is supporting the position of non-aligned and developing countries which want to force the nuclear powers to accelerate disarmament. They also want stronger action against cheats. Inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure nuclear programs remain peaceful have had some spectacular failures.

RAMESH THAKUR: We know after the Gulf War that there was major flaws in that, because we know while being party to the NPT and while subject to IEAE safeguards that Iraq had achieved a degree of progress in this clandestine effort to create nuclear weapons, which caught us all by surprise. As a result of that, however, the safeguard system has been made far more intrusive in terms of ignoring sovereignty questions, and far more rigorous.

MARGOT O'NEIL: A recent report to the UN warned that with the break-up of the Soviet Union, the illegal trade in nuclear weapons and material was increasing. It said that about 1,000 people in the former Soviet Union were now working to help rogue states acquire nuclear technology, and that about 30 kilograms of fissile material had already been stolen; that's enough for two or three crude bombs.

Despite the criticisms, most analysts expect the nuclear powers to find the 90 votes they need for a simple majority to force an indefinite extension of the treaty. But without an overwhelming vote of support, experts worry the treaty will lose its central role of providing the moral basis for a truly non-nuclear future.

KERRY O'BRIEN: That report from Margot O'Neil, and now to our studio guests. Paul Leventhal is President of the Nuclear Control Institute, which he founded in 1981, after holding senior staff positions in the United States Senate on nuclear power and proliferation issues. He was responsible for the investigations and legislation that resulted in enactment of two landmark nuclear laws: the Energy Re-organisation Act of 1974, and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of '78. And Paul Leventhal joins us from New York.

Deepa Ollapally is a Associate Professor of Political Science at Swathmore College in Philadelphia, specialising in US foreign policy in the Third World, and regional security. She's the author and co-author of a number of papers and books, including Bridging the non-proliferation divide, due to be released this month.

Kenneth Adelman is a management consultant and was director of the US Government Arms Control and Disarmament Agency from 1983 to '88. And prior to that he was Deputy to the US Ambassador to the United Nations, and from '76 to '77, Assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and tonight he joins us from Washington.

Deepa Ollapally, the pro-treaty argument, I suppose essentially, is simple enough. Nuclear weapons are an unfortunate reality. After 25 years, the NPT can claim some success in containing the numbers in the nuclear club to a relative few. Without it there would have been many more countries with nuclear weapons capacity. Isn't that at least a small blessing that makes continuation worthwhile?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Yes, the problem is that if the objective is for total elimination of weapons, then the question is how effective has this treaty been? As we can see in the last three, four years, it's fairly clear that it has not stopped the couple of countries, such as Iraq and North Korea and others that you've mentioned on the program, from in fact signing on and then, if they're determined, to go ahead and cheat. So that in that sense it's not real clear to me how effective it's been. And in the post-Cold War period when we no longer have the same security guarantees as before, it seems to me that many Third World countries might feel even more pressed towards self-help. And so I'm not real sure that this is a step toward disarmament in the overall sense, because you're leaving out those countries that are going to be most dissatisfied.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Of course, we know that in geopolitics there is nothing perfect, nor will it ever be. Another way to look at the question, I suppose, is would the situation have been worse over the last .. or would the situation be worse today if over the last 25 years we hadn't had at least had the imperfect treaty?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Yes. Right. Well, let me just say this that this is a question we can turn around and ask about the United Nations. How would the world be without the United Nations? And I think we might get sort of mixed results on that. But the question is it seems to me that there are only a handful of countries that have the capability potentially to develop nuclear weapons, and the vast majority would not have gone nuclear because it simply doesn't make any sense for countries like Benin or Bangladesh to even think about it. Now then we're left with about 15, 20, 25 countries, and so these countries .. we still don't have several of them signed onto this. And therefore, I think clearly there has been a norm that has been set against nuclear weapons, but on the overall scheme of whether or not we would have had more rather than less, it's not really clear. I think the verdict is still out.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Paul Leventhal, in terms of the last 25 years was the treaty worth having? But now looking to the future, is it worth simply signing up again with minimal change, or are there serious changes that need to be made for it to be worthwhile?

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Well, there are really two issues before the conference at the UN that's going on right now. One is should the treaty be extended indefinitely, or just for a series of fixed terms? And that issue has focused primarily on the disarmament commitments by the five declared nuclear weapons states, and one can argue back and forth on that, frankly -whether the glass is half empty or half full. I think clearly there's been progress on the nuclear disarmament front.

Getting down to zero is very difficult to do and, as I'm sure Kenneth Adelman will elaborate, you run into problems as you get closer to zero. But surely it's an objective, particularly in the post-Cold War world that should be maintained.

But what I'm shocked at and thoroughly dismayed is that the conference is paying hardly any attention at all to what has to be regarded as the bottom line threat, which is that the civilian nuclear power programs and research programs that the treaty fosters will soon produce more atom bomb material and have more atom bomb material in circulation and world commerce than now exists in all of the world's nuclear weapons, and that because nuclear power plants run on uranium, which is not a weapons fuel, but those plants produce plutonium in the spent fuel. And if that fuel upon removal from the plant is processed to remove the plutonium, there will be far more direct use atom bomb material in civilian programs than exists in the world's nuclear weapons.

And the only real protector there is the safeguards, the inspections and audits that are conducted by the international atomic energy agency. And if you press the agency, they will acknowledge that while they can account for bundles of fuel that go in and out of a plant, once that fuel is processed and plutonium is taken out of it in bulk, it cannot account for that material down to what they call the 'significant quantities', which is a polite way of saying bomb quantities of material, which if they were diverted or stolen could be used to blow up cities. And that is the biggest danger facing the world today, and ironically it's the issue that is attracting the least attention at the conference, primarily because of a handful of industrial states that are in the business of making a business out of plutonium that want no messing around in this area. They see it as a lucrative field.

Electrical power utility companies, which are the end users of the fuel, don't want the plutonium any more. They now realise that it's uneconomical, exceedingly dangerous, and totally unnecessary. But you have major companies that are pushing an industrial process that will soon flood the world with plutonium unless something is done. And what we advocate is that the treaty is perfectly fine. All you have to do is interpret it in conformity with the realities of the world today and the language of the treaty itself, which says that there should be no peaceful nuclear assistance going on that can directly contribute to the production of nuclear weapons. Plutonium is a nuclear weapons material. It is not needed for generating electricity and, therefore, the treaty should be interpreted to ban it. That is not happening.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Now, if one is to assume that you're not being alarmist about this, and I'm sure you'd say you're not, then one can only draw the conclusion that you would have to say that this conference is a farce, that it is not an honest .. that is not facing up honestly to an issue that you have declared as very important and very dangerous, potentially.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: We're still hopeful that a number of nations will raise this issue and that there could yet be language in a final declaration of the conference that draws attention to this problem and to the desirability that both the nuclear weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states agreed not to produce any more atom bomb material either for weapons or for fuel in civilian reactors. We're still hopeful, so I'm not going to declare the conference a farce at this point. We are lobbying a number of the delegations very hard and we think there is a response, and we're hoping that we'll get support on this point from eventually the vast majority of delegations who don't have plutonium programs and who have no interest in this fuel, and frankly being pressured by the few very powerful industrial states that do have a vested political and industrial interest in this process.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Including your own.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: When you look at Oklahoma City, when you look at what recently happened in Tokyo, you realise that terrorism, high-tech terrorism is no longer the subject of comic books and sci-fi movies. It is something that could be upon us. And if plutonium becomes the fuel that becomes available either through peaceful programs or because of leakage from the former Soviet Union, you could have cities being blown up today, and the very least we should do is interpret the Nonproliferation Treaty to deal with this problem directly, and not put it off as something that we'll deal with later on, once we finish extending the treaty, which is precisely what's happening right now at this conference.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Kenneth Adelman, I'll bring you back to the point we started at with Deepa Ollapally, in a moment, but first I'd like to hear what your observations are on what Paul Leventhal has just been saying.

KENNETH ADELMAN: I guess I'm the cheery-eyed optimist in all this, as it goes against my past performance. And I think that the UN conference is doing a good job, and I think that this is the jewel in the crown of arms control. And I think it's a relatively simple issue. The issue is that to measure things by Parkinson's most acute and astute law, which is the success of any policy is best measured by the catastrophes that do not ensue. And as Professor Ollapally said at the outset, when you measure the Nonproliferation Treaty against that, it's a roaring, raging success.

President John F Kennedy in 1963 foreshadowed a world that by 1975 would have 15 to 20 nuclear weapons states in it. When he spoke there were four nuclear weapons states; the next year, '64, there were five nuclear weapons states; and '75 came and went, and there were two or three more; '95 is here and probably there's one or two more. Now that's a very big difference between the 15 to 20 nuclear weapons states, or 20-25 that he and Professor Ollapally said 'Well, the only countries that would be interested in having that. I think it's been a very, very good thing.

Now, does it solve all the problems? - no. Paul Leventhal is right to say that the materials are out there. I mean, cancer research doesn't solve heart attacks. It doesn't solve, you know, strokes; but it helps on cancer. And what we're saying is the Nonproliferation Treaty helps enormously on stopping the spread of the bomb.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. But is Paul Leventhal being somewhat alarmist in the kind of scenario he's sketching, or should this conference be dealing seriously with that?

KENNETH ADELMAN: I think he is being alarmist.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: You may regard it as alarmism, but if 18 pounds of plutonium came up missing and then suddenly showed up in the hands of a terrorist group, or a state that might be determined to use it for blackmail purposes or for destructive purposes, we'd no longer be dealing with alarmism; we'd be dealing with the 'new reality', i.e., agree with what Mr Adelman says concerning the past performance of the treaty and keeping the number of declared nuclear weapons states down, but we must not ignore the fact that Japan will soon have a non-nuclear weapon state, will soon have a plutonium stockpile that will be bigger than that of the United States and Russia combined, because they're going to remove plutonium from the spent fuel of their nuclear power plants - by the way, most of that fuel was originally exported and is still presumably controlled by the United States, but the point is that Japan will soon have a peaceful plutonium stockpile exceeding perhaps many times over within the next few decades, what the weapon states now have in their arsenals for weapons purposes. And the question is: is the treaty providing effective verification that that material will always be used for peaceful purposes? The problem is that the peaceful use of atom bomb material is not verifiable, and the point that I'm making is if you can avoid the use of that material in civilian nuclear programs, you should, because otherwise you're putting a burden on the world that the world probably will not be able to sustain over the long term, maybe not even over the near term.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Now Kenneth Adelman, briefly again because I want to come back to Deepa Ollapally's point, what about that report to Boutros-Ghali from Jacques Atali(?) which says 'controls set up in the Cold War years to prevent nuclear proliferation have become more pathetically derisory each day, making expertise technology and nuclear material available on both legal and illegal markets, and leading to unexpected proliferation', and that's now?

KEN ADELMAN: Well, the record does not substantiate that. I think there is .. you know, you can be afraid in the future and there's a lot of fear mongering going around, and I'm not saying that Paul has no point to what he says on the plutonium, I'm saying do I worry about Japan having a lot of plutonium in terms of spreading the bomb? I do not. I do not.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay.

KEN ADELMAN: The Nonproliferation Treaty was it designed to help a situation like Japan and plutonium? No, it was not. So you can't expect a treaty to do what it wasn't even assigned to do. It's done a very good job on what it was designed to do, and what it was designed to do is very important.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. But when developing countries - to take another position on it -when developing countries say that the big powers who already have their nuclear arsenals that the big powers have failed to deliver on their end of the bargain thus far in reducing their arsenals to the extent that they should have.

KEN ADELMAN: Yes, but Kerry, that's a kind of ridiculous position as well. I mean, the fact is that I remember when I was in the Reagan Administration with President Reagan at Reichevich(?) and other places, and people were saying 'My God, we haven't done enough for disarmament', well, since that time it has been an enormous amount, and yes there will a lot of nuclear weapons still left in the world, but the limiting factor is not political will on our side or Russia's side or anybody's side, but the technology of just .. and the engineering of destroying nuclear weapons. I never thought in my wildest dreams that we would....

KERRY O'BRIEN: It is not just that though, surely, is it? I mean, it's still politics in there.

KEN ADELMAN: Oh sure. Sure. No, we are destroying as many nuclear weapons as physically we can right now. I never thought in my wildest dreams, Kerry, that when I was negotiating with the Russians for President Reagan that we would get to a situation where we could go as low as the technology would take us. I think it's fantastic. Yes, we're doing everything possible on disarmament now.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Deepa Ollapally, are you....

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: Let me just .. yes, I have to jump in here about the commitment of the United States. I mean, if we just look at Bill Clinton's position at the moment, he has not come out strongly for total elimination. There is still going to be at least the level of 1972 weapons, which is going to be far ahead of the next nuclear power, France, and therefore it seems to me it's somewhat disingenuous and, indeed, this is characteristic of what I might call a problem with the nuclear discourse which suggests that if you raise issues of discrimination, inherent unfairness of the treaty, somehow it's seen as being suspicious. So that it seems to me that what the NPT does and continues to do in the future if it's passed as it is, that it will legitimate the possession of nuclear weapons in the hands of a few countries with some vague promise not toward total elimination, but disarmament broadly understood.

I mean, I think it seems to me the other point about Paul Leventhal's - who I think is somewhat alarmist and I think part of the problem is that he's placing an enormous amount of confidence and hope in the NPT - on the plutonium issue and fissile material production problem there are in fact negotiations and talks going on outside the NPT venue, and that I think is the way to go. The point is by placing all your eggs in the basket of the NPT, I think we're in for a rude shock, because there's only so much of that that can be accomplished. But if fissile material is a problem and, in fact, if you approach it in a universal, non-discriminatory way, where all countries agree to cut production, I think that's a real step in the future, and that's the way to go; i.e. do things in the spirit of NPT and not get totally bogged down with the letter of the NPT.

KERRY O'BRIEN: By the same token, Deepa Ollapally, when you argue that if Russia and America could have an arms race as they did in the past, therefore, India and Pakistan should be able to do so as well, surely two wrongs don't make a right?

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: No, I'm not at all arguing that. What I'm suggesting though is that if you're going to place all your hopes on the NPT, I'd be rather worried because one of the things that we know is that unless countries buy into the NPT, unless they feel it as legitimate, there's nothing that's going to stop these countries because we don't have an international police, we don't have international sanctions that work, as we saw in the case of North Korea and Iraq; therefore, I think we're focusing on the wrong issue by focusing solely on the NPT. The issues have changed and so on, and we have to move beyond that.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. In terms of this police agency, in terms of the IAEA, to what extent must the controls and the powers of the IAEA be increased before the credibility of the treaty can also be enhanced? Paul Leventhal.

PAUL LEVENTHAL: Very tough road. A very tough road to hoe, and there are some jobs it can do well and others that it cannot do well. Its powers can be enhanced to increase its authority, to try to detect undeclared facilities, and I think the efforts being made in that direction are all to the good. What the agency cannot do well is basic accounting and measuring of weapons useable and nuclear materials in bulk, and it cannot guarantee that a stockpile of peaceful plutonium that has accumulated over the years and the decades will never be used for military purposes. It can speak up and indicate what it can do and what it cannot do and, thereby, discourage to the fullest very dangerous trends in nuclear industry, and that's what I was trying to get across.

I would like to stake out a middle position between the other two guests. I think the weapon states should be held to the disarmament commitments of the treaty, and I think the most effective way of doing that might be to simply renew the original charter of the treaty, which is a 25 year treaty, which is then revisited at the end of that quarter century. And it's quite amazing what the system did this time around because it did bring the weapon states to make major concessions on issues relating to comprehensive test ban, deed(?) cuts, security assurances to non-weapon states which probably would not have occurred over the past several weeks had the treaty not had a deadline attached to it.

So, I think the deadline is good. I think the nuclear weapon states should be held accountable for their arsenals, and they should be required to bring them down to the fullest extent possible, with real disarmament as the final objective, but most important you cannot have a treaty that allows commerce and atom bomb material on the assumption that that material can be guaranteed peaceful simply because the intention of the user is peaceful at the moment; that's crazy. And I may be regarded as an alarmist now, but imagine the World Trade Centre bombing if a little bit of plutonium was mixed in with the conventional explosive. It doesn't even have to go off as a nuclear explosion; it's a highly toxic material. Most of Manhattan would still not be occupiable today. That's what would happen. And before I'm written off as an alarmist, I would simply ask countries like Australia, which export uranium, to start considering applying conditions to those exports so that plutonium is not the end product. That's perfectly possible and that's what ought to be done in the interest of global security.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Kenneth Adelman, very quickly because we're close to time, in terms of the outcome of this conference, of course it might be endorsed or it might continue on the basis of a simple majority, but is a simple majority going to be enough, or does it in fact have to be a substantial....

KEN ADELMAN: No, I think you deal with it the best you can in this, and a simple majority would be very effective in this score. What I think is the main lesson here is two-fold. Number one is the argument made that it's unfair treaty because the big boys have nuclear weapons and the little guys don't, I think has been discredited over the last 30 years by the fact that 178 countries around the world decided that this was a better way to do.

KERRY O'BRIEN: But many of those same countries now are arguing about the failures of this treaty, even though they've been signatories.

KEN ADELMAN: Kerry, that's just not true. Many of those countries, most of those countries, 170 of those countries are quite pleased with the way that the treaty has gone. I think that India, of course, has been a big objector all these years, but India has been the biggest violator in the whole non-proliferation norm. It exploded a bomb, as I mentioned before....

KERRY O'BRIEN: You're not mentioning Israel, of course.

KEN ADELMAN: No, no, India has been worse than Israel because they exploded a bomb in '74, and I think it's far worse to have a bomb clearly out in the world for everybody to see than to have a bomb in the basement. Second point, let me say, and this gets back....

KERRY O'BRIEN: Very, very quickly because we're losing....

KEN ADELMAN: Very quickly to Professor Ollapally's notion that somehow there's an obligation for total disarmament. I think the worst thing in the world to happen in terms of proliferation would be for the United States to totally give up all nuclear weapons. Why is that? - because then you Gadaffi, Libya becoming a major, major force in the world if it gets a hold of one nuclear weapon. I think proliferation would accelerate if the United States gave up nuclear weapons entirely.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. Deepa Ollapally, I'm in deep trouble myself here on time. You've got a very, very brief opportunity for a last word - 20 seconds.

DEEPA OLLAPALLY: I just wanted to say that a simple majority would be not the best outcome; in fact, it would be rather shocking in terms of the legitimacy of a 'global treaty'. If it's a global treaty it has to have a much greater, wide margin of vote in order to have some legitimacy. Also, one other thing I'd like to say is about .. it has to do with interpretation regarding India's nuclear capability. I think one could look at it to say that indeed it has shown a remarkable restraint in not going any further in the last 25 years. So, it's a matter of interpretation, obviously.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Okay. We'll have to leave it there, I'm afraid. But thanks very much to the three of you for joining us tonight.