A joint, slow search for ways to curb the spread of nuclear weapons is winding up in Geneva. Despite its sluggish pace, the Aug. 11-to- Sept. 5 Nonproliferation Treaty review conference is at least a step forward.
The US (and other nuclear "haves") still want to ensure that the nuclear "have-nots" do not divert their growing nuclear fuel and know-how into weapons production and expand the number of bomb holders in the world. And the have-nots still want to guarantee their access to peaceful nuclear technology promised in the 1968 111-nation nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). But both sides realize that they are more likely to achieve their aims through persuasion than through acrimony.
This is the evaluation of Western European diplomats in Geneva contacted by telephone.
Reasons for the relative calm include new American movement toward the Western European and Japanese concept of political, rather than technological, safeguards -- and more sophisticated realization by potential A- bomb makers of the political advantages of a near-bomb over the actual explosion.
These shifts have been both muffled and reinforced by the forthcoming presidential election in the US. The beleaguered administration of a Jimmy Carter who staked considerable presidential prestige on damming nuclear nonproliferation is not going to admit before an election that it might have been misguided in its chosen means of technological strictness. This makes for some ambiguity in the US position, despite signs of some reevaluation of the issues by Carter himself.
At the same time, however, the impending American election has some moderating effect on third-world demands at the second NPT conference now going on in Geneva.Since the Carter administration cannot make concessions before the election, any vociferous demands that it do so would only antagonize Washington and perhaps make post-election changes more difficult.
The most public American -European strife over nonproliferation pitted West Germany against the US three years ago. At that time the US wanted technological guarantees that peaceful nuclear materials exported by West Germany and other US allies would not be converted to weapons production by any recipient nation. The US backed this up with a 1978 law (that went even beyond what Carter had in mind) blocking delivery of US-enriched uranium to any country that didn't ac" cept a US veto over any re-export.
The whole issue was put on ice in 1978, while technicians from 50 nuclear and developing countries made recommendations on the "Internatinal Nuclear Fuel Cycle Evaluation" (INFCE). The technicians' final report in early 1980 failed to endorse the stricter technological controls advocated by the US and Canada (and, with reservations, the Soviet Union). The US subsequently softened its tough line on reprocessing controls.
By now the more relaxed American approach suggests that the US is moving more toward the European and Japanese views on braking nuclear nonproliferation. Europeans have been arguing that -- with one developing country already having exploded a bomb (India, in 1974) two more countries able to produce A-bombs within the next five years (Pakistan and Taiwan), five more ready to produce bombs in the next decade (Argentina, Iraq, Israel, Libya, and South Africa), and some 10 to 20 more able to produce bombs by the year 2000 -- it is already too late for technological fixes. The restraints, the Europeans say, must therefore be political, aimed at slowing down the spread of nuclear bombs to give the world system more time to adapt, without panic or cataclysm.
In this view more restraint might be expexted, say, from an Argentina that is sure of getting contract help from the West German and Swiss nuclear industries than from na Argentina that is denied outside help and builds its nuclear-energy plants alone. Thus, the West European nuclear assurances to Argentina have strengthened the Argentine political leadership against the bomb-minded Argentine bureaucracy and enabled it to promise West Germany recently that it would sign the NPT treaty.