One of President Carter's early and most cherished goals was to try to stem the spread of nuclear weapons. Indeed he was given high credit when, in 1978, the world's nuclear exporters agreed to tighten the terms for supplying nuclear equipment to other countries -- equipment which could provide capabilities for building bombs. Yet it is clear that a mightier effort is needed.
Some limited success can be recorded. The United States has persuaded France not to export reprocessing plants to Pakistan and South Korea. It seems to have induced a number of developing countries to think search for energy sources. Brazil, for instance, has slowed down its ambitious nuclear program, beset as it is with technical and financial problems, and is looking into alternative energy paths.
But on the whole recent developments seem to point in the opposite direction. Last month Italy agreed to sell some nuclear research equipment to iraq; included in the deal are hot cells, which can be used to extract plutonium from other nuclear substances (plutonium being the raw material of which bombs are made). Then it was announced that Argentina was buying a heavy-water plant from a Swiss firm and nearing a deal with West Germany for a heavy-water nuclear power reactor. These deals are especially worrisome because, together with a reprocessing plant which the Argentinians are planning to build, they mean Argentina will have a full range of facilities to produce bomb-grade plutonium, while refusing to accept full international safeguards.
Pakistan, meanwhile, refuses to accept any restraints on its nuclear program as the price for American aid. Here is a case, some experts believe, where US pressures may have actually accelerated a third-world country's nuclear ambitions. Once the French deal for a reprocessing plant was scuttled, the Pakistanis, feeling insecure perhaps, began putting together their own technology. If France had been involved, it may have been possible to persuade Pakistan to accept international safeguards; now there are no controls.
Moreover, pressing for such controls, perhaps in conjunction with an Indian ban on testing, has run smack into what seems a conflicting diplomatic goal. The more immediate problem for the US is to thwart Soviet encroachments in Southwest Asia and to try to build up a defensive system against the Rusians. So there is less talk about nonproliferation these days. The administration is in fact willing to suspend the so-called Symington amendment to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Act (banning aid to any country making plutonium and military aid for Pakistan.
Other goals have also taken their toll on the nonproliferation crusade. Thus , Western Europe and Japan look at nuclear power development in terms of their economic security -- to assure their own supply of energy and to help their balance of trade through nuclear technology exports. Developing countries, too, want to be energy self-sufficient, and nuclear power often seems to be the most feasible way. They see the Western countries simply trying to hold on to a profitable monopoly on nuclear technology.
The trend of the times was evident at the recent conference in Vienna which brought together experts from some 40 countries to talk about the future of nuclear energy after a two-year study. Their conclusion? There are really no alternatives to advanced fuel-cycle technology which could reduce the dangers of weapons production. So the participants in effect reaffirmed support for the development of fast breeder reactors, enrichment plants, and reprocessing plants , while calling for new safeguards on plutonium storage.
All of which is to say that nuclear nonproliferation faces a difficult uphill struggle because of economic pressures, commercial interests, and political considerations. This is no reason for abandoning the worhtwhile goal, however. The search for ways to minimize the dangers from a growing accumulation of weapons-grade plutonium in the world must go on. Such proposed schemes as regional reprocessing centers and international plutonium storage may have to be taken up in earnest if developing countries cannot be persuaded to forgo potentially dangerous technologies. Also, such countries as West Germany and France have not closed the door entirely to the idea of requiring full-scope safeguards in any country getting nuclear technology -- i.e., controls not only on imported equipment but on all internal facilities.
One hesitates to imagine a world in which more and more countries acquire nuclear weapons. Israel, for instance, is thought to have nuclear bombs now; if Iraq eventually develops them, the Middle East could become an arena of nuclear confrontation. Yet it goes without saying that it is not sufficient for the nuclear powers merely to press this obvious point. They must set an example of restraint themselves, and here lies the rub. Thus, failure of the United States to approve the SALT treaty gives third-world countries an excuse for moving toward a nuclear arms capacity themselves. It is ironic, in fact, that at the conference next August which will review the nuclear nonproliferation treaty the Soviet Union will be in the better moral position if the SALT pact has not been ratified.
That should give the US Senate food for thought.