Under a brilliant sky and the shadow of superpower deadlock, most of the 130 signers of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968 opened their third review conference on the treaty here Tuesday. The bright side, as with the first and second reviews in 1975 and 1980, is that the number of nations that have gone nuclear remains low and has stabilized.
Only six states have definitely conducted nuclear test explosions -- not the 15 to 25 that President Kennedy expected, two decades ago, would soon acquire the bomb. In the past 20 years only India, in 1974, joined the original five nuclear powers of the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and China. And India has not gone on to build a nuclear stockpile.
The other ``near nuclear'' powers of Israel, South Africa, Pakistan, Argentina, and Brazil haven't quite gone over the threshold yet. And 16 new nations have acceded to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) since the last NPT review conference five years ago.
There are various reasons for this. The prestige factor of nuclear weapons has lost some of its glitter over time.
Israel, without actually testing a nuclear device, gets equivalent benefit by letting its neighbors know it has two dozen bombs ready to assemble.
South Africa finds conventional weapons more than adequate against its neighbors -- and hardly wants to upset its Western allies by gratuitously exploding nuclear devices.
Argentina and Brazil have mutually suspended their competitive bomb building for the time being.
India and Pakistan are tacitly neutralizing each other short of constructing bombs. Iran and Iraq, much as they would like to become nuclear powers, don't have the industrial infrastructure to support this development, according to a Journal de Gen`eve interview with Jozef Goldblat, a specialist in nonproliferation at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
The dark side of NPT -- as UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar specified in the opening statement read on his behalf by Jan Martenson, the UN under-secretary-general for disarmament affairs -- is that the nuclear powers have not lived up to their obligation to disarm under Article VI of the NPT treaty.
In the area of peaceful nuclear uses, the US, Britain, France, and most recently the Soviet Union have begun to accept a certain equality with nonnuclear powers in allowing some international inspections of their own nuclear plants. But France and China have never acceded to the NPT treaty at all.
Overall stocks of nuclear warheads have swelled to more than 70,000 today, in unofficial estimates. The world's total arsenal now equals 1 million bombs of the Hiroshima size, according to chairman of the NPT conference preparatory committee Jayantha Chanapala. And few NPT delegates think the superpower arms control talks that resume here next month are likely to produce reductions.
Against this backdrop the third world is again using the forum of the NPT review conference to chide the nuclear powers. They note pointedly that their nuclear restraint was initially predicated on superpower restraint -- and they argue further that the money the nuclear powers currently put into policing nonnuclear compliance should go instead to fulfilling NPT commitments to share peaceful nuclear technology with nonnuclear states.
For its part, Moscow is contending that it is more virtuous than Washington in living up to Article VI -- in pledging not to be the first to use nuclear weapons and in instituting its current five-month moratorium on all nuclear tests.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stressed these points in a statement read to the NPT conference Tuesday -- and went on to call for ``preventing the militarization of outer space.''
``Militarization of space'' is the standard Soviet description of the US Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly known as ``star wars'').
The major US position will be presented at the conference today. But US briefings leading up to the conference make it clear that Washington feels itself at something of a propaganda disadvantage on these issues.
It is generally assumed that the various confrontations will prevent this review conference, like its predecessor five years ago, from coming up with a common resolution when it closes a month from now.