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Iran And The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

By John Scales Avery

18 November, 2012

In the 1960's, negotiations were started between countries that possessed nuclear weapons, and others that did not possess them, to establish a treaty that would prevent the spread of these highly dangerous weapons, but which would at the same time encourage cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The resulting treaty has the formal title Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (abreviated as the NPT). The treaty also aimed at achieving general and complete disarmament. It was opened for signature in 1968, and it entered into force on the 11th of May, 1970.

190 parties have joined the NPT, and more countries have ratified it than any other arms limitation agreement, an indication of the Treaty's great importance. Four countries outside the NPT have nuclear weapons: India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel. North Korea had originally joined the NPT, but it withdrew in 2003.

The NPT has three main parts or “pillars”, 1) non-roliferation, 2) disarmament, and 3) the right to peaceful use of nuclear technology. The central bargan of the Treaty is that “the NPT non-nuclear weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear weapon states agree to share the benefits of peaceful use of nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals”.

Articles I and II of the NPT forbid states that have nuclear weapons to help other nations to acquire them. These Articles were violated, for example, by France, which helped Israel to acquire nuclear weapons, and by China, which helped Pakistan to do the same. They are also violated by the “nuclear sharing” agreements, through which US tactical nuclear weapons will be transferred to several countries in Europe in a crisis situation. It is sometimes argued that in the event of a crisis, the NPT would no longer be valid, but there is nothing in the NPT itself that indicates that it would not hold in all situations.

The most blatantly violated provision of the NPT is Article VI. It requires the member states to pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”, and negotiations towards a “Treaty on general and complete disarmament”. In other words, the states that possess nuclear weapons agreed to get rid of them. However, during the 42 years that have passed since the NPT went into force, the nuclear weapon states have shown absolutely no sign of complying with Article VI. There is a danger that the NPT will break down entirely because of the majority of countries in the world are so dissatisfied with this long-continued non-compliance.

Looking at the NPT with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the third “pillar”, the “right to peaceful use of nuclear technology” as a fatal flaw of the treaty. In practice, it has meant encouragement of nuclear power generation, with all the many dangers that go with it.
The dangers of nuclear power generation are exemplified by the Chernobyl disaster: On the 26th of April, 1986, during the small hours of the morning, the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in Ukraine turned off several safety systems in order to perform a test. The result was a core meltdown in Reactor 4, causing a chemical explosion that blew off the reactor’s 1,000-ton steel and concrete lid. 190 tons of highly radioactive uranium and graphite were hurled into the atmosphere. The resulting radioactive fallout was 200 times greater than that caused by the nuclear bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The radioactive cloud spread over Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Eastern Europe, exposing the populations of these regions to levels of radiation 100 times the normal background. Ultimately, the radioactive cloud reached as far as Greenland and parts of Asia.

The exact number of casualties resulting from the Chernobyl meltdown is a matter of controversy, but according to a United Nations report, as many as 9 million people have been adversely affected by the disaster. Since 1986, the rate of thyroid cancer in affected areas has increased ten-fold. An area of 155,000 square kilometers (almost half the size of Italy) in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia is still severely contaminated. Even as far away as Wales, hundreds of farms are still under restrictions because of sheep eating radioactive grass.

Public opinion turned against nuclear power generation as a result of the Chernobyl disaster. Had the disaster taken place in Western Europe or North America, its effect on public opinion would have been still greater. Nevertheless, because of the current energy crisis, and because of the widespread (but false) belief that nuclear power generation is an answer to global warming, a number of people are arguing that nuclear energy should be given a second chance. The counter-argument is that a large increase in the share of nuclear power in the total spectrum of energy production would have little effect on climate change but it would involve unacceptable dangers, not only dangers of accidents and dangers associated with radioactive waste disposal, but above all, dangers of proliferation of nuclear weapons.

If many nations throughout the world decide to build power-generating reactors, the number of countries possessing nuclear weapons will increase dramatically because it is almost impossible to distinguish between civilian and military nuclear programs. By reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods, using ordinary chemical means, a nation with a power reactor can obtain a weapons-usable isotope of plutonium. Even when such reprocessing is performed under international control, the uncertainty as to the amount of plutonium obtained is large enough so that the operation might superficially seem to conform to regulations while still supplying enough plutonium to make many bombs.

The enrichment of uranium is also linked to reactor use. Many reactors of modern design make use of low enriched uranium as a fuel. Nations operating such a reactor may claim that they need a program for uranium enrichment in order to produce fuel rods. However, by operating their ultracentrifuge a little longer, they can easily produce highly enriched (weapons-usable) uranium.

The difficulty of distinguishing between a civilian nuclear power generation program and a military nuclear program is illustrated by the case of Iran. In discussing Iran, it should be mentioned that Iran is fully in compliance with the NPT. It is very strange to see states that are long-time blatant violators of the NPT threaten Iran because of a nuclear program that fully complies with the Treaty.

I believe that civilian nuclear power generation is always a mistake because of the many dangers that it entails, and because of the problem of disposing of nuclear waste. However, a military attack on Iran would be both criminal and insane. Why criminal? Because such an attack would also violate the UN Charter and the Nuremberg Principles. Why insane? Because it would initiate a conflict that might escalate uncontrollably into World War III.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm




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