The superpowers stand to be indicted for failing to bring the nuclear-arms race under control. As the third review conference of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) opens in Geneva today, the United States and the Soviet Union are expected to face strong criticism from third-world nations for not meeting their treaty obligations.
Under the pact the superpowers are pledged to work toward nuclear disarmament and the nonweapon states agree not to acquire the atomic bomb.
Administration officials say the US is likely to bear the brunt of the criticism because of President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or ``star wars'' program. Moreover, the Soviets may have helped insulate themselves from criticism at the conference by recently declaring a temporary moratorium on nuclear testing.
``We will get pilloried on Article VI,'' says an American official, referring to the treaty provision dealing with the nuclear arms race. ``We will have a hard time defending the indefensible.''
As some 80 nations gather to take stock of the 1970 Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, as the NPT is formally known, the general mood in Wasington is one of guarded satisfaction mixed with frustration and concern.
Nonproliferation experts stress the value of the 15-year-old treaty. Embracing 128 member nations, it has provided the impetus for the progress made to date and the norm by which behavior is measured. Even the emerging nuclear-weapon states that have not signed the treaty are affected by the moral and political pressures the pact invites.
``It's the most widely adhered to arms control treaty in the world,'' says a State Department official. ``It's not perfect, but it is the very foundation of the nonproliferation regime.''
At the same time the pace of proliferation by non-NPT nations appears to be growing, leading government officials and independent experts to voice hope that the gathering in Geneva will at the least reaffirm the importance of the NPT. They cite these broad areas of concern:
India and Pakistan are engaged in what one expert calls a ``quasi-nuclear arms race.'' By smuggling in parts for nuclear weapons, Pakistan is now believed to have the nuclear material for several atomic bombs. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India is under increased pressure to restart India's nuclear explosives program. The country already has enough plutonium for about 20 weapons.
Israel may have more than the 25 unassembled nuclear bombs generally attributed to it. According to reports in Aerospace Daily, Israel has an unspecified number of nuclear-armed Jericho II ballistic missiles, as well as nuclear artillery shells.
North Korea appears to be building a large indigenous reactor at Yong Byon. Too small for an electric-power facility and too large for a research reactor, specialists speculate that the reactor is being built to produce plutonium as the first step toward an A-bomb program.
South Africa, Brazil, and Argentina are among the potential proliferators causing uncertainty and concern. Libya, Iran, and Iraq, though members of the NPT, also are thought to want to acquire the bomb.
``It will take extraordinary efforts by the international community to restrain the further spread of nuclear arms in the years ahead,'' says Leonard S. Spector, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a leading authority on nonproliferation.
Under the treaty, the nonweapon members have pledged not to build nuclear weapons and to accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of all their nuclear activities. In turn they are guaranteed access to peaceful nuclear technology.
Because nuclear suppliers require IAEA safeguards -- and a number of non-NPT states like France also have adopted such guidelines -- nations seeking to develop nuclear arms have had to resort to the nuclear black market to build facilities.
This, say experts, has helped slow the overall pace of proliferation.
But the US is now pushing for what are called ``full-scope safeguards'' under which a customer for nuclear sales must place not only the exported item but all its nuclear facilities under IAEA inspection. This is now required of American exports under the US Nuclear Nonproliferation Act of 1978. Canada, Australia, and Sweden have similar requirements. But most other suppliers, notably in Western Europe, continue to require safeguards only for the item exported.
At Geneva the US will urge adoption of a statement that suppliers, including non-NPT parties, should require full-scope safeguards as a condition of their exports. But the issue is a difficult one. At a meeting in Luxemburg last year the US tried to persuade a dozen or so industrialized countries to adopt such a requirement, but met with only limited success.
``The French have been sticky and the most difficult,'' says a US official.
Some nonproliferation advocates would also like to see the conference call on NPT parties to stop production and use of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. These materials, intended for commercial use in conventional and breeder reactors, are also used to make atomic bombs.
Paul L. Leventhal, president of the Nuclear Control Institute, contends that the basic dilemma today is the trend toward the accumulation of weapons-useable materials through peaceful power and research programs made possible by acceptance of the NPT or of IAEA safeguards. Experts estimate that within the next decade more plutonimum will have been separated from the spent fuel of commercial nuclear power plants than now exists in US and Soviet weapons stocks.
Most observers doubt that the conference can come to grips with these issues, however. The conference, scheduled to last until Sept. 24, is expected to be dominated by heated third-world debate over the US-Soviet arms race.
The nonnuclear states are also expected to press the superpowers for a comprehensive test-ban treaty, putting the US on the defensive. The Reagan administration strongly opposes such a ban until it achieves deep reductions in strategic arsenals.
Administration officials say they are concerned that if there is no progress on arms control by the 1990s nonnuclear countries will walk out of the treaty. In 1995 participants must vote on whether the NPT is to be renewed.
The administration hopes the US can survive any criticism and achieve a conference consensus endorsing the importance of the treaty and backing full-scope safeguards as well as nonproliferation of peaceful nuclear explosives. The American delegation will also seek a statement supporting the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material against theft by terrorists. Only a dozen or so countries have ratified the 1980 pact; 21 must do so for the convention to enter into force.
The first NPT review conference in 1975 concluded with a compromise document.
Five years later, at the second review conference, there was resentment over the supplier states tightening up their controls on exports and over the unwillingness of the nuclear powers to budge on the issue of a nuclear test ban. As a result, there was no final declaration.
This time around experts do not know whether to expect walkouts or some modest communique supportive of the NPT. ``We're in a mode of damage limitation,''says Mr. Spector.
The map on Page 3 of Tuesday's edition should have included Colombia and North Yemen among the countries that have signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970.