Nuclear powers agree to total elimination of nuclear weapons

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Britain and the four other major nuclear powers have agreed to "an unequivocal undertaking" to totally eliminate their nuclear arsenals, a decision hailed by several countries without nuclear weapons as an important step toward nuclear disarmament.

Britain and the four other major nuclear powers have agreed to "an unequivocal undertaking" to totally eliminate their nuclear arsenals, a decision hailed by several countries without nuclear weapons as an important step toward nuclear disarmament.

The agreement Thursday specified no timetable and delegates said it would take many years to achieve a nuclear-free world.

It will hopefully become part of a final document approved by the 187 nations attending a conference to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty that ends Friday.

But negotiations on other issues were continuing Thursday night, and as U.N. Undersecretary-General for Disarmament Affairs Jayantha Dhanapala said, "I don't count my chickens until they're hatched."

A U.S. official had no comment on the agreement, explaining that the conference documents aren't final yet.

Nonetheless, the agreement on key disarmament issues, which Dhanapala called "an important development," lifted the gloomy atmosphere at the four-week conference and sparked hope among delegates that a final document could be adopted by consensus.

For two years, a group of seven moderate countries without nuclear weapons known as the New Agenda Coalition has been campaigning to get the nuclear powers to make an unequivocal commitment to total nuclear disarmament - as called for in the treaty.

When the conference started, the five original nuclear powers - the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China - reiterated their "unequivocal commitment to the ultimate goals of a complete elimination of nuclear weapons and a treaty on general and complete disarmament."

But the seven coalition members - Mexico, Ireland, South Africa, Egypt, Sweden, New Zealand and Brazil - rejected their statement saying "the total elimination of nuclear weapons is an obligation and a priority and not an ultimate goal."

After lengthy negotiations, the nuclear powers and coalition members reached agreement Thursday on "an unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all states parties are committed under Article VI" of the NPT.

Darach Mac Fhionnbhairr, the top disarmament expert in Ireland's Foreign Ministry, said the agreement culminates "a long, hard struggle" with the nuclear weapon states.

The undertaking "creates a new accountability because there is a political commitment which is new," he said, and "the implementation of that commitment will require a more accelerated process of negotiations" on early elimination of the nuclear arsenals of the nuclear powers.

But any prospect of total elimination is tempered by concerns about India and Pakistan, which exploded nuclear devices in 1998, and Israel, which is believed to have nuclear capabilities. The three countries, along with Cuba, are the only nations that have not signed the treaty.

The agreement is included in a document outlining "practical steps" to implement Article VI which is expected to be considered by all 187 signatories to the NPT on Friday. Other steps which the coalition and the nuclear powers agreed to include:

-The early entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

-A moratorium on nuclear weapon test explosions pending the entry into force of the treaty.

-Concluding a treaty within five years banning the production of fissile material used in nuclear weapons.

-The early entry into force and full implementation of START II and the conclusion of START III, which would cut U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals.

-Further reductions of tactical nuclear weapons.

-Reducing "the operational status" of nuclear weapons and diminishing their role in security policies "to minimize the risk that these weapons (would) ever be used."

The only proposed step still in dispute is a call for increased transparency by the nuclear weapon states regarding their nuclear weapons capabilities and implementing agreements related to Article VI, which China objects to.

Ireland's Mac Fhionnbhairr predicted that if China can accept the document, it will be adopted by the plenary on Friday.

"I believe that we are on the verge of the most important moment in the field of nuclear disarmament since the NPT came into existence 30 years ago," said Douglas Roche, a Canadian senator and former disarmament ambassador. "It is too early to celebrate ... but I think a breakthrough was made."

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