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Nuclear watchdog hits grim note


VIENNA - The head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog says the world could be headed for destruction if it does not stop the spread of atomic weapons technology, which has become widely accessible.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Mohamed ElBaradei wrote yesterday that nuclear technology, once virtually unobtainable, is now available through "a sophisticated worldwide network able to deliver systems for producing material useable in weapons".

Above all, ElBaradei echoed US President George W. Bush's call in a speech this week for states to tighten the control of their companies' nuclear exports to proliferators.

ElBaradei, director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the world must act quickly because inaction would create a proliferation disaster.

"The supply network will grow, making it easier to acquire nuclear weapon expertise and materials.

"Eventually, inevitably, terrorists will gain access to such materials and technology, if not actual weapons," he wrote. "If the world does not change course, we risk self-destruction."

The father of Pakistan's atom bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, admitted last week that he and scientists from his Khan Research Laboratory in Pakistan leaked nuclear secrets.

They are believed to have been part of a global nuclear black market organised to help countries under embargo such as Iran, North Korea and Libya skirt international sanctions and obtain nuclear technology that could be used to make weapons.

The giant illicit network has touched on at least 15 countries.

ElBaradei said the 1968 nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the global pact aimed at stopping the spread of atomic weapons, needed to be toughened to bring it in line with the demands of the 21st century.

It should not be possible to withdraw from the NPT, as North Korea did last year, and the tougher inspections in its Additional Protocol should be mandatory in all countries. Fewer than 40 of the more than 180 NPT signatories have approved the protocol.

ElBaradei said the Nuclear Suppliers Group, a 40-nation group of countries working together to prevent the export of peaceful nuclear technology to countries that might want weapons, needed to be transformed into a binding treaty.

"The current system relies on a gentlemen's agreement that is not only non-binding, but also limited in its membership: it does not include many countries with growing industrial capacity," he wrote.

ElBaradei said people who assist proliferators should be treated as criminals and states should eradicate loopholes that enable sensitive exports to slip past regulators.

He also called on the atomic weapons states who signed the NPT - the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France - to move towards disarmament as called for in the pact.

In a clear jab at the US, which plans to forge ahead with research into the so-called mini nukes, ElBaradei said the world must drop the idea that nuclear weapons are fine in the hands of some countries and bad in the hands of others.

"We must abandon the unworkable notion that it is morally reprehensible for some countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction yet morally acceptable for others to rely on them for security - and indeed to continue to refine their capacities and postulate plans for their use."



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