By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — The Tenth Review Conference of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which runs from August 1-26, takes place amidst a raging battle: a nuclear Russia vs a non-nuclear Ukraine and potential military conflicts on the horizon, including a nuclear China vs a non-nuclear Taiwan, a nuclear North Korea vs a non-nuclear South Korea and a nuclear Israel vs a non-nuclear Iran. [2022-08-01]
And in equally serious development, US non-proliferation experts have written to US President Joe Biden, echoing concerns expressed by both China and Indonesia, about a proposed plan by US and UK, two major nuclear powers, to sell Australia atomic submarines under the 2021 AUKUS partnership.
Tariq Rauf, former Alternate Head of NPT Delegation, and Head of Verification and Security Policy at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN the Tenth NPT Review Conference is “taking place in the worst international situation in the 54-year history of the NPT”, as he recounted the following:
** A proxy war in full form over Ukraine
** A complete cut-off of nuclear arms control negotiations between Washington and Moscow,
** Nuclear-weapon use doctrines of Russia and the US increasing the dangers of nuclear war,
** A continuing stalemate on setting up a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the region of the Middle East
** The after-effects of Trump’s rejection in Hanoi of North Korea’s offer to dismantle its Nyŏngbyŏn nuclear facility, rising tensions between Washington and Beijing
** The CTBT (nuclear-test-ban treaty) has been languishing since September 1996, NATO extending its defence perimeter to the Asia-Pacific, and
** The only nuclear arms control treaty—New START—hanging by a thread between Russia and the US with an expiry date of February 2026.
“All these and other deleterious developments are casting a heavy shadow over the NPT review conference,” he cautioned.
“Having attended all NPT meetings as an official delegate since 1987, I am sympathetic to the NPT President Gustavo Zlauvinen’s plight in trying to herd the delegates to rise above their petty discourses, and unrealistic world views to find the “better angels of their nature” to hammer out an action plan for the implementation of NPT obligations and agreed commitments by August 26—the last day of the review conference,” he said.
In a statement ahead of the conference, US President Joe Biden said: “As the world gathers for the Tenth Review Conference for the NPT Treaty, the United States renews its commitment to the world to be a responsible steward of its nuclear arsenal and to continue working toward the ultimate goal of a world without nuclear weapons”.
“That commitment is why the United States joined together with the other Nuclear Weapons States in January to affirmatively state our shared belief that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought, and it is why my administration has prioritised reducing the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” he noted.
In this moment of uncertainty and upheaval on the global stage, Biden said, “reaffirming our shared commitment to the grounding principles of the global nonproliferation regime has never been more crucial”.
“The world can be confident that my Administration will continue to support the NPT and seek to strengthen the nonproliferation architecture that protects people everywhere,” he declared.
Ned Price, the US State Department Spokesperson, told reporters on July 25 that the United States stands by the NPT. “We think it is extraordinarily important to underline the obligations that the NPT puts forward for nuclear weapon states and for non-nuclear weapon states alike.”
“In the face of challenges to the global nonproliferation regime, we think it’s important that the United States stands with the signatories of the NPT to make clear that even though it has been in effect for some time now, its relevance, its importance, has not diminished a single iota over the years and the decades,” he added.
In a statement released July 27, a spokesman for the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (NPPP) said U.S. experts urged President Biden not to proceed with the planned sale of eight submarines fueled by tons of nuclear weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium (HEU), arguing it would “undermine the nuclear nonproliferation regime”.
The experts said any such submarines should instead be fueled with low-enriched uranium (LEU), which is unsuitable for nuclear weapons.
Indonesia similarly submitted to the UN conference a working paper that “notes with concern the potential consequences of nuclear-powered submarine capability sharing to the global non-proliferation regime,” highlighting that it, “increases the associated risks … posed by potential proliferation and conversion of nuclear material to nuclear weapons, particularly HEU in the operational status of nuclear naval propulsion”.
In China last week, a government-affiliated report likewise warned that “The AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines collaboration is a serious violation of the object and purpose of the NPT, sets a dangerous precedent for the illegal transfer of weapons-grade nuclear materials from nuclear-weapon states to a non-nuclear-weapon state, and thus constitutes a blatant act of nuclear proliferation”.
The confluence of criticism is unusual and reflects the radical nature of the AUKUS plan, according to Alan J. Kuperman, professor at the University of Texas at Austin and coordinator of the Nuclear Proliferation Prevention Project (www.NPPP.org).
“For half a century, the world has phased out bomb-grade uranium fuel to reduce proliferation risks,” he said, “but now the United States would export massive quantities of it as submarine fuel, creating a precedent for other countries to demand the same right to import or produce their own HEU—which would be game-over for nonproliferation.”
Rauf said the 15 September 2021 “AUKUS” agreement’s provision that the US would provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines is one of the more irresponsible decisions of the hapless Biden administration.
Despite the AUKUS partners—Australia, UK and US—stated commitment to set a “gold standard” as regards IAEA safeguards (verification), in reality, the only “gold standard” that can be set is that of blowing a gaping hole through the IAEA’s NPT verification system by exempting up to 2000 kilogrammes of weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium from IAEA safeguards.
The first and still most authoritative study, “Opening Pandora’s Box: Nuclear-Powered Submarines and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons”, I wrote in 1988, clearly shows the inability of the IAEA to monitor and verify the nuclear fuel and nuclear reactor of nuclear-powered submarines.
“I have called for the Tenth NPT Review Conference to reject any possibility of non-nuclear-weapon States, such as Australia, to operate nuclear submarines outside IAEA safeguards.”
Speaking at the opening of the Conference on August 1, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “We are all here today because we believe in the Treaty’s purpose and function. But carrying it into the future requires going beyond the status quo. It requires renewed commitment and real, good faith negotiations. And it requires all Parties to listen, compromise and keep the lessons of the past—and the fragility of the future—in view at all times.”
Guterres also said that humanity is in danger of forgetting the lessons forged in the terrifying fires of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Geopolitical tensions are reaching new highs. Competition is trumping co-operation and collaboration.
Distrust has replaced dialogue. Disunity has replaced disarmament, he noted.
Rauf said, in his view, the Secretary-General’s NPT statement is “disappointing and weak on several accounts and misses the opportunity to show leadership at this important juncture in international relations”.
It is shocking that the SG fails even to mention the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), of which he is the Depositary.
The TPNW entered into force in January 2021 and held the First Meeting of States Parties in Vienna in June 2022, where an important Declaration and Action Plan on “Our Commitment to a World Free of Nuclear Weapons” was adopted, he declared. [IDN-InDepthNews — 01 August 2022]
Photo: UN General Assembly Hall. Credit: UN