Failure of the superpowers to make further progress on arms control could contribute to an unraveling of the system that has been designed to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations.
This is the conclusion of a number of experts both inside and outside the United States government as more than 100 nations prepare for a conference this summer to review the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed in 1968.
In a statement issued this week, New Directions, a citizens' lobby on international issues, declared that the greatest danger nuclear weapons pose for the world in the 1980s is not a direct nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. According to New Directions, the greatest danger is the possibility that nuclear weapons will spread to more nations, to political factions within nations, and perhaps even to terrorist groups.
Nations without nuclear weapons have to major grievances against the superpowers which are likely to surface at the NPT review conference to be held in Geneva in August: first, most of them see no major steps being taken by the superpowers to end the arms race as the latter pledged to do under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Second, some of the parties to the treaty thought it would ease their access to nuclear fuel and technology for energy purposes but have concluded that this is not the case.
New Directions, which is headed by John Gilligan, former administrator of the Agency for International Development, says that continued superpower refusal to deal with the grievances of the nonnuclear-weapons nations could lead several of them to withdraw from the treaty. This, in turn, could become the beginning of the end of the non-proliferation system.
US government experts agree that the grievances of the nonnuclear-weapons countries are serious and that the danger of a spread of nuclear weapons may be greater than any risk of a nuclear confrontation between the superpowers. But they argue that nonnuclear-weapons countries have had enough access to nuclear fuel and technology to make it worth their while to stick with the non-preliferation treaty.
These government specialtists do not think that any of the leading adherents to the treaty will withdraw from it. But they do not rule out the possibility that a few developing nations with no nuclear-weapons potential and little to lose might withdraw for political effect.
The nuclear, Non-Proliferation Treaty involves 113 nations. (It will be 114 by the end of this week when Turkey joins the group.) Every NATO country except France has signed the treaty, and France acts as if it belongs. All the major manufacturers of nuclear materials are parties to the treaty.
The treaty is designed in part to provide assurance, through international safeguards, that the peaceful nuclear activities of states which have not already developed nuclear weapons will not be diverted to making such weapons.
What can be done to prevent this treaty and the system it created from coming apart?
Charles Van Doren, assistant director of the US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, suggests there are two things that the Senate foreign relations Committee could do which would help when it comes to the review conference set for August. The committee, he says, could:
* Report favorably on a treaty that would permit the International Energy Agency to inspect facilities for peaceful nuclear development in the United States. This would ensure that there is no discriminations against nonnuclear-weapons nations.
* Recommend that the US ratify a photocol to the Treaty of Tlatelolco which is designed to make Latin America a nuclear-free zone.
New Directions, in its statement, agrees that the photocol should be ratified. And it urges the US to take five other steps that it contends would help prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The US, it says, should:
1. Complete ratification of the SALT II treaty.
2. Complete the negotiation of a comprehensive ban on nuclear-weapons testing.
3. Initiate action on a treaty to halt the production of fissionable materials for weapons.
4. Promote a truly effective international system of plutonium and U-235 management which ensures nuclear fuel supplies but controls the availability of fissionable materials for weapons.
5. Insist on Pakistan's compliance with safeguards on its nuclear programs even in light of the afghanistan situation.
The United States appeared to deemphasize its concern over Pakistan's nuclear development program following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Pakistan's neighbor to the west.In 1978, the US had learned that Pakistan was secretly acquiring the technology needed to produce enriched uranium. US experts say they believe that Pakistan is capable of producing enough such uranium to build an atomic bomb within 1 1/2 to 2 years.
Administration officials are also concerned than within the next decade Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan, and perhaps others could join the six now- known members of the so-called nuclear- weapons club.