NPT 2.0?

Friend of ACL Dr. Yousaf Butt, who is now Director of the Emerging Technologies program at the Cultural Intelligence Institute in DC, wrote an interesting and provocative article about what an “NPT 2.0” could look like. It came out around Christmas time last year and seems to have slipped under the radar so I just wanted to highlight it on the blog and get some reactions from the community. I think it’s an important piece, and that it really should start a debate. See the piece here:

I think this kind of normative, forward looking thinking is very important, to lift our heads above the trenches of our, as Yousaf puts it, “endless eye-watering legal debates” about the meaning of the NPT, and remember that the NPT was never meant to be the last word on international legal regulation of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons.  As I argued in my 2009 book, the NPT was seen at the time of its establishment as something of a halfway house – an interim measure to at least stop horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation from getting worse. But as Article VI of the NPT makes clear, the haves-and-haves-not legal framework that the NPT recognizes was never meant to be permanent. Article VI explicitly looks toward future disarmament by the NWS, and further treatymaking that would facilitate this. At some point we are definitely going to need to take a bold next step and redesign the foundational nuclear energy/proliferation international legal framework.  I think that this should happen sooner rather than later, as the NPT has at this point been so thoroughly undermined, and its credibility battered to such an extent, that it seems now to limp along with little but inertia keeping it alive.   

The crux of Yousaf’s article is that the bargain at the heart of the NPT

has become increasingly skewed. Aside from the non-weaponization obligations — which apply only to states without nukes and which are ever more aggressively interpreted — the United States, and most other nuclear-weapon states, no longer appear enthusiastic about the other tenets of the NPT. To the extent that the nuclear haves are interested in disarmament, this is completely divorced from any pressure they perceive from the NPT. Such nuclear arms reductions are typically negotiated bilaterally between the United States and Russia and proceed at their own sweet pace…..Advanced states are also no longer particularly eager to help develop nuclear energy in developing nations — and this is actually a good thing. It is a dangerous and inherently dual-use technology and there ought to be no imperative to disseminate it world-wide, as there is in the NPT. It may have been seen as a panacea technology back when color television was still a novelty, but its dangerous underbelly — in terms of safety, security, and waste — has since been amply exposed.

Yousaf proposes a bold new “more-for-more” deal. The nuclear-weapon states — or at least Russia and the United States, with a hefty 95 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons between them – would offer swift and drastic reductions in their weapons stockpiles in exchange for the outright elimination of nuclear fuel processing activities (such as dual-use uranium enrichment and plutonium processing) in non-nuclear weapon states. 

Also, he states that a

notable difference between the NPT and NPT 2.0 would have to be that the updated version would not encourage the propagation of nuclear power. Aside from a few spectacular disasters, nuclear power has been reasonably successful in most advanced nations — but only because of overt and covert government subsidies. However, these subsidies and the attendant political favoritism have in fact harmed the nuclear industry by perpetuating subpar and, in some cases, outright dangerous reactor designs…..One thing that certainly does not make sense is to have a treaty to force-feed a flawed and dangerous Beatles-era technology to developing nations, as the NPT now does. Just as there is no treaty to send landline rotary phone technology to developing nations in the era of cell phones, there’s also no pressing reason to pass on outdated nuclear technology to non-nuclear-weapon states.

I think this piece is excellently written, and that on most points it’s a persuasive read with which I find myself in agreement.

I’ll just get the ball rolling on the debate, though, by saying that I’m not sure I agree with some of Yousaf’s specific prescriptions for a NPT 2.0.  I like the disarmament stuff, certainly. But I’m not sure I agree about the general policy turn away from nuclear energy that Yousaf has in mind codifying in a replacement NPT. It’s not an issue that I have a strong opinion about, and honestly it gets into some very complex energy policy, economic and environmental considerations that are really not my areas of expertise. But just as one layman on this topic, I suppose I’m someone who continues to think that nuclear energy could have an important role to play in the portfolio of energy capacity, at least in some regions of the world, going forward.  France, China and India certainly seem to think so. So I don’t think I would agree with any actual disincentives to having indigenous nuclear energy programs built into the replacement legal regime. If a country decides, on the basis of its own analysis of the relevant economic and other questions, that it wants to have an indigenous nuclear energy program and nuclear fuel cycle, it seems to me that the legal regime ought to recognize that as a legitimate choice and contain no barriers to it.

In emailing with Yousaf about this further, he has described his vision for an NPT 2.0 as being essentially “agnostic” about peaceful nuclear energy programs – i.e. that it would recognize the right of any nation to have whatever peaceful programs they want, but not advocate for nuclear energy, as the current NPT does, at least as written. I think that with that clarification, I can get on board with this new vision. I agree with Yousaf that our understanding of nuclear technology has changed since 1968, and it is a more complex question now as to whether having a nuclear energy program is right for any given country. So while I don’t think there should be barriers to states choosing to have a peaceful nuclear power program, I can also see how a multilateral program advancing nuclear power around the world is a bit anachronistic now.

With regard to fuel banks, which Yousaf mentions as part of his vision, I have to say I think there is more than one country in the world that would never be able to place their trust in a multilateral fuel bank, no matter where it’s located, and no matter what assurances of supply are given. Some states will simply be unwilling to have their fuel supply dependent upon these promises, and will want to have their own indigenous fuel cycle capacity. And I think it would be difficult and unnecessary to build into the legal regime a mechanism that would deny them that option.

Again, I’m just getting the ball rolling here on the debate. I encourage wide participation, and I’m sure Yousaf will be happy to engage with those who comment.


8 Comments on “NPT 2.0?”

  1. Nuclear Risk says:

    Thanks for reminding me of Yousaf’s article. As usual, his writing stimulated my thinking with an iconoclastic, out-of-the-box approach. My one addition would be that it will take a fundamental shift in thinking for most nations to adopt his proposals or anything like them. Such a shift is a prerequisite to solving the nuclear dilemma and was foreshadowed by Einstein’s famous quote: “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our mode of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”

    If we will recognize the new equations which govern national security in the nuclear age, we could not only reverse that drift, but also usher in an age where conflicts and war would be greatly reduced. That’s a huge added incentive to make the shift.

    The problem with using outdated national security strategies in the nuclear age can be seen with North Korea and Iran. Nuclear weapons are the great equalizer, so American threats (aka deterrence) to those nations increase their motivation to possess nuclear weapons.

    If we keep relying on our status as the world’s sole remaining conventional superpower to impose our will, more and more states will become nuclear powers in defense – and become an effective superpower.

    In the nuclear age, national security is becoming somewhat of an oxymoron. Only if we start to recognize that, in the long run, national security is inseparable from global security, will we make the kinds of changes Yousaf proposes. If we do not Einstein’s “unparalleled catastrophe” awaits us.

    Martin Hellman
    Stanford University

  2. Russ Wellen says:

    I read Yousaf’s article when it came out and it made a great impact on me. (As did, a few years ago, Dombey’s New Left Review article that he cites.) Would just like to add re nuclear energy: between the ongoing crisis that is Fukushima and news of the arch being built over Chernobyl — “One of the biggest engineering projects in history” reports BBC — how can the world afford — financially or environmentally — another accident, even if it doesn’t occur for another 20 years? The devastation they leave in their wake is so great and enduring that it only further blurs the boundaries between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.

  3. yousaf says:

    thanks for your kind words — and, yes, Dombey’s article is a must-read for anyone interested in the NPT.

    I think the socialized cost of potential accidents you mention (as well as security and waste costs) should be borne by the providers of any given power. Thus, when priced correctly, one would see that the current incarnation of nuclear power is not cost-effective. One of the only reasons that nuclear power still survives in the US is because of the Price-Anderson Act of 1957. If that artificial intervention/subsidy — introduced to boost nuclear power in the 1950s — were not there nuclear power would be shut down in the US because the cost for nuclear power suppliers to buy insurance would be too high.

    The Price Anderson Act should be repealed now. It is outdated.

  4. yousaf says:

    e.g. a sensible column on nuclear power in developing countries and why the NPT prescriptions (though not typical practice) make little sense:

    “………..Reports suggest the two reactors may cost $9-10 billion. They will be paid for by taking loans from China. There is little information on the details of the financing of the reactors, including the final cost of decommissioning and waste disposal.

    There is not even a publicly available government study showing that these reactors are the least-cost option for producing the expected amount of electricity.

    The issue of cost also must include the consequences of accidents. If there is an accident at the new Karachi reactors due to a problem with the reactor design or the construction, who will pay the vast sums needed to cover the damage and clean-up — Pakistan or China?

    The people of Karachi have a right to know the answers to these questions. It is time they started asking.”

  5. Russ Wellen says:

    Yousaf, Price-Anderson Act was featured prominently in that 2012 article of yours, too. Learning about it was, well, priceless.

  6. Russ Wellen says:

    Oh and thanks for alerting us to the Nayyar-Hoodbhoy-Mian article that only just appeared today.

  7. […] his blog Arms Control Law, Dan Joyner revisited a Foreign Policy article that, he writes, “came out around Christmas time last year and […]

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