April 27, 2008 / 9:56 AM / 9 years ago

Divided nations to meet on ailing atom control pact

GENEVA (Reuters) - More than 180 nations gather on Monday to seek elusive common ground on how to save the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Disarmament groups cite some positive news -- treaty renegade North Korea’s nuclear arms freeze and gestures by nuclear weapons states to draw down arsenals they are accused of clinging to as symbols of strength.

But the picture is scrambled by Iran’s secretive expansion of uranium enrichment, a possible route to atomic bombs, in defiance of U.N. sanctions, and by burgeoning demand for sensitive nuclear power in conflict-ridden regions -- especially in the rest of the Middle East and in Asia.

Last week, Washington released intelligence alleging Syria built a nuclear reactor with North Korean help before an Israeli air strike destroyed it last September 6. Syria denied the charges.

“The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material has brought us to a nuclear tipping point,” two U.S. ex-secretaries of state, an ex-defence secretary and a senator said in a commentary earlier this year.

“A new definition of state sovereignty as ‘nuclear sovereignty’” imperils peace, German ex-foreign minister Joschka Fischer said. He cited Iran’s enrichment drive and a spillover risk of a race for nuclear capability across the Middle East.

Haunted by stalemate at the last NPT Review Conference in 2005, 189 members will hold a Preparatory Committee (“Prepcom”) session in Geneva until May 9 to debate priorities before the next full, decision-making review conference in 2010.

It will be the second of three annual Prepcoms. Much of the 2007 session, in Vienna, was stalled by Iranian objections to the agenda spurred by Western attacks on Iran’s NPT record.

Charges of Iranian “non-compliance” are likely to flare anew in Geneva and political point-scoring afflicting NPT debates could resume as Iran tries to rally fellow developing states to defend its NPT “right” to nuclear technology for electricity.

Tehran denies seeking warheads from the enrichment process.

RICH-POOR SCHISM

The 38-year-old NPT binds members without nuclear arms not to acquire them via diversion of enrichment technology.

It also commits the original five nuclear weapon powers from the pre-treaty era -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- to dismantle arsenals in stages. And it guarantees the right of all members to nuclear power for peaceful ends.

But the NPT’s original bargain has frayed. Nuclear “have-nots” complain of having no assured access to atomic energy for legitimate economic ends while the “haves” seek to preserve control over the “dual use” production technology.

They also say big powers have not met disarmament promises.

This rich-poor row has crippled treaty reviews for years.

To save the NPT, ex-U.S. secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, defence secretary William Perry and senator Sam Nunn call for broader disarmament steps and a multilateral system of nuclear fuel supply to discourage non-nuclear states from pursuing proliferation-prone enrichment ability themselves.

Their appeal will be touched on at the Geneva Prepcom, joining other proposals to redeem the NPT.

France plans to cut its airborne nuclear task force and has proposed closing nuclear test sites worldwide. Britain has suggested devising clearer ways to prove nuclear powers are scrapping warheads, not quietly hanging on to them.

The U.S. government was expected to tout progress towards cutting its Cold War-era atomic stockpile by 75 percent by 2012.

Critics say nuclear powers will keep thousands more weapons than justified for security and that upgraded versions are being introduced under cover of much-heralded cuts.

Other proposals include automatic penalties to deter states from leaving the NPT, as North Korea did, and a permanent treaty agency to promptly tackle crises over compliance.

“But where will the practical suggestions go ... when many are dismissed as politically motivated?” asked Rebecca Johnson, head of the Acronym Institute which tracks the NPT’s performance.

“The NPT review process comes across more as theatre than real security-building now. There is anxiety whether the NPT regime will survive another failure like the 2005 conference.”

Editing by Janet Lawrence

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