Geneva — Failure by the major powers to honor their part of the bargain is undermining the world’s single most crucial and far-reaching arms control agreement.
The agreement is the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT, and has now been in force for 15 years.
It comes up for the third of its five-year reviews at a month-long Geneva conference opening Tuesday. And it is the nuclear powers that are squarely in the dock, especially the United States and Soviet Union.
Nonnuclear nations have continued as promised acquisition of their own nuclear weapons, but they are increasingly bitter over the unabated arms race on the part of the nuclear powers, with an average of 50 tests explosions annually since the NPT took effect in 1970.
The NPT is the only international document legally committing the major nuclear powers to negotiate “in good faith” to halt and reverse the arms race “at an early date.”
This was the pledge given by Washington and Moscow especially in return for the renunciation of nuclear arms by the Instead, the United States broke off nuclear test ban talks in 1980 and the Soviet Union walked out of superpower negotiations on reducing strategic and medium range weapons in 1983.
At the review conference, the two superpowers will argue they are doing their best, as shown by new negotiations on space and nuclear weapons that began this year. But they will also blame each other for blocking progress when replying to demands by the nonnuclear states for concrete results.
There may well be a repetition of the second review meeting in 1980 when it proved impossible to reach a consensus on a closing statement because successful despite East West tensions, regional suspicions and conflicts like the Iran Iraq war, terrorism and above all the spread of nuclear technology.
There are still only five nuclear weapons powers the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, France and China. There are 130 nations adhering to the treaty a record for an arms control agreement.
But it remains a “fragile document,” said Jozef Gold blatt, of the authoritative Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. He said “quite a number” of nonnuclear countries have more of an industrial base to build such arms than the United States. “And at least half of a dozen countries with significant nuclear activities remain outside the treaty,” he says, citing India, Pakistan, Argentina, Brazil, Spain, South Africa and Israel.
The Israelis and South Africans are widely believed capable of assembling a nuclear device at short notice.
Elliot L. Richardson, a former U. S. cabinet member and ambassador and now chairman of the American U.N. Association, says more than 30 nations will be able to build nuclear weapons by the end of the century.
Like Gold blat, Richardson warns that the superpowers may have only until 1995 when its signatories must decide whether to renew it,” he said.
Further, China and France have never signed the NPT although they abide by its provisions on not passing on weapons knowhow to others. The Chinese refuse to sign on grounds the NPT is discriminatory, while the French refuse because Washington and Moscow keep increasing instead of reducing their weapons stockpiles.
U.S Soviet failure to end nuclear testing is a primary target for criticism. A ban would at least prevent. The development of more sophisticated weapons.
Washington rejects Moscow’s argument that existing means of verification, such satellites and seismic instruments, can detect and distinguish between underground tests and natural earth tremors.
The United States is all but isolated, however, in insisting on the spot inspections to prevent cheating and in saying time tests are needed to ensure that older weapons still work.