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NPT 101: How relevant is cold war treaty in age of terrorism?

The NPT was created to reduce the risk of nuclear war. But today many see nuclear terrorism as the greater threat. The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) can help by safeguarding nuclear material, say arms control analysts.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon addresses the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, at United Nations Headquarters, in New York, Monday.

Chip East/Reuters

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The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is a 40-year-old relic of the cold war.

As diplomats and arms control wonks review the treaty during a May 3-28 conference in New York, they are looking at how it can be applied to an age where nuclear terrorism is often deemed a bigger danger than the number of weapons held by the US and Russia.

President Obama said last month the “single biggest threat to US security” comes from a nuclear device in the hands of groups like Al Qaeda, which “are in the process of trying to secure a nuclear weapon ... that they have no compunction at using.”

How can the NPT minimize the chance of an atomic terrorist attack in the modern era?

Experts say the answer lies in better safeguarding nuclear material – and the knowledge necessary to create it. The greater danger, they maintain, is not direct cooperation between states and terrorist groups, but states leaving themselves vulnerable to exploitation by militants.

“I would worry more about a nuclear terrorist attack that comes about because of negligence by a state, than as a result of the deliberate transfer of material,” says Mike Levi, a nuclear specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Near the top of that short list is a country such as Pakistan. Though not a member of the NPT, it has acquired as many as 90 nuclear warheads. Some worry that those could fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-linked militants, who have been waging brutal attacks in Pakistan. The country’s leadership routinely says its nuclear facilities are safe.

The Obama administration argues that conditions conducive to attacks are perhaps more important than state sponsorship.

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