Thirty-five years ago this week the awesome nuclear age was launched with the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Next week 114 nations will meet in Geneva to review the 1968 nonproliferation treaty and the progress made toward halting the spread of nuclear weapons. Will there be much progress to report? Some, to be sure. But it would be a blinkered observer who failed to see the slow pace of arms control and the potential dangers as more and more nations seem bent on joining the "nuclear club."
One legitimate grievance the "nonnuclear" states will doubtless air in Geneva is the fact that the superpowers themselves have not yet brought the arms competition under control. And on this score the United States finds itself in the weak position of still not having ratified the SALT II treaty. Third-world countries can justifiably ask why they should be pressd to forgo the development of nuclear weapons when the superpowers are unable to restrain their own race. Hence the great need to move forward on a Senate debate of SALT II as soon as politically possible.
Beyond the superpower arena, however, is the mounting concern that more and more nations are producing "peaceful" nuclear materials which could be diverted to making weapons. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that some 100,000 kilograms of unprocessed plutonium -- a by-product of power generation and a raw material for weapons -- has accumulated from civilian nuclear reactors. By the year 2000, it says, reactors in operation will be producing some 250,000 kilograms of plutonium a year, which is enough to build about 50,000 bombs of the type dropped on Nagasaki.
This is not to spring to the conclusion that they will be built. Indeed nearly all the nuclear facilities in the world are under the safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since the last review conference, in fact, 24 countries have joined the NPT, including such key states as Japan, Turkey, and Venezuela. This means that the goal of non-proliferation is taken seriously. But there are a number of countries outside the NPT which have significant nuclear facilities capable of producing bomb materials and which are not subject to IAEA safeguards:
* India detonated an atomic device in 1974 but insists this was an explosion for peaceful development. Experts believe it has not gone further toward actually making a nuclear bomb, but Congress is resisting the President's decision to sell more nuclear fuel for India's nuclear power plant at Tarapur -- a decision dictated by the diplomatic motive of improving ties with India following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
* Pakistan is approaching the threshold of becoming a nuclear-weapons power. The US successfully persuaded France not to supply Pakistan reprocessing plants but the Pakistanis reprocessing plants but the Pakistanis are putting together their own technology and this will not be subject to international safeguards. A test explosion could be only months away.
* Israel has the capability of building atomic weapons. Some Western intelligence sources say it already has put together at least five bombs equal in explosive power to those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
* South Africa does not seem to have a nuclear bomb yet, despite lingering suspicions about a possible nuclear test last fall, but it has been acquiring nuclear equipment from abroad and is also thought to be near the threshold of weapons development.
* Brazil and Argentina are both building up a diversified nuclear industry that could give them a weapons capability.
It is not only the non-NPT nations that are a cause of concern, however. Libya and Iraq, for instance, are treaty signatories yet both seem to be involved in a nuclear arms push. Iraq denies it intends to produce nuclear weapons but, with French help, it is gradually acquiring the components of a nuclear weapons program and could have one by the mid 1980s. Libya, for its part, is reportedly developing a capability of its own along with helping Pakistan produce an "Islamic bomb." Would adherence to the NPT restrain these countries if the Middle East dispute reached a point of showdown?
In fairness, the US has achieved some success in getting the principal nuclear exporters to tighten the terms for supplying sensitive nuclear power components to less-developed nations. France and West Germany, for instance, have agreed to ban further exports of nuclear reprocessing plants. But the expanding commercial interests of exporters and the growing reliance of developing countries on nuclear power to meet energy needs make it difficult to slow the process of transferring nuclear technology.
Given this fact -- yet given the heightened dangers of nuclear blackmail or conflict if more and more nations join the nuclear club -- efforts should be made to tighten safeguards. Indeed the US in Geneva would like to see the nuclear exporting countries join in a new commitment requiring that any receiving country, including non-NPT member, put its entire nuclear program -- not just the imported equipment or fuel material -- under full-scope IAEA safeguards. That would be an enourmous step forward. Regional reprocessing centers and international storage of weapons-grade plutonium are also proposals deserving more attention.
Not least of all there must be a fresh commitment to the goal of nuclear disarmament. Completing negotiations for a comprehensive test-ban treaty and putting in place a new agreement restraining the US-Soviet arms competition would be attacking the problem in a fundamental way. It is sobering to be reminded that 35 years after World War II the United States and the Soviet Union have between them some 15,000 strategic nuclear warheads, the smallest of which is three times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. This is not even to mention all the tactical weapons at their disposal, or the nuclear arsenals of China, France, and Britain.
The import of such an awful accumulation of means of destruction can scarcely be grasped. But surely the effort must be made. If nonproliferation -- and eventual disarmament -- are to become more than a goal, the setbacks of the past must not discourage a resolute striving for continued progress.