GENEVA – The 65-nation Conference on Disarmament broke a dozen years of deadlock Friday and opened the way to negotiate a new nuclear arms control treaty.
Diplomats welcomed the adoption of a "program of work" as a breakthrough for the conference, which has been stalemated since it wrote the nuclear test ban treaty in 1996.
The program refers to nuclear disarmament in general, but it indicates a top candidate for a new treaty is one to ban production of so-called "fissile materials" — highly enriched uranium and plutonium — needed to create atomic weapons.
Ambassador Idriss Jazairy of Algeria, who as chairman of the conference pushed for adoption of the program, said the breakthrough came in part because of support by the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China.
"Terrific result," British Ambassador John Duncan wrote in a tweet on the Twitter micro-blogging site. He credited Jazairy with "getting international work on nuclear disarmament restarted in Geneva."
Even North Korea, which only this week tested its second nuclear bomb, endorsed the program of work.
An Myong Hun, a diplomat with the North Korean delegation, told the conference, "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea has decided to support the draft decision in order for the conference to be able to start its substantive work."
This decision was taken even though the U.N. Security Council continues to criticize North Korea, An said, adding that moves to acquire a nuclear arsenal were solely for self-defense.
He said it remains the country's policy to achieve total nuclear disarmament, but nuclear weapons states have to lead the way.
Iran, which has been accused of trying to develop nuclear weapons, said it had sent the accord to Tehran, but had yet to receive instructions.
Garold Larson, the head of the U.S. delegation, joined in the praise for Jazairy and other mediators and said delegates were looking forward to the work, "which will surely be challenging."
The United States has long backed proposals for a fissile materials treaty, but was credited with helping break the logjam by shifting its position to support a verifiable accord.
President Barack Obama said in Prague, Czech Republic, last month, "The United States will seek a new treaty that verifiably ends the production of fissile materials intended for use in state nuclear weapons."
Previously the Bush administration had rejected verification, arguing that inspections and monitoring were insufficient.
Russia and China also joined in the endorsement of the program and expressed hope for substantive work to get under way.
The program also takes into account a concern of many non-nuclear nations that the negotiations should consider existing stockpiles of fissile materials.
The accord balances different interests of countries that have been deeply divided over the future path of arms negotiations since the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was approved nearly 13 years ago. The conference in earlier years negotiated a treaty on chemical weapons.
Many non-nuclear countries have long wanted the conference to negotiate nuclear disarmament, but the United States led objections by arguing that it was unsuitable for a negotiations among many countries. It noted it already has been negotiating effectively with the Russians to reduce their stockpiles and that such talks between two powers was the best way to go.
By coincidence, the U.S. and Russia are scheduled to continue talks in Geneva next week on extending the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires at the end of the year.
The Conference on Disarmament also set up a working group on the "prevention of an arms race in outer space," a favorite proposal of Russia and China, which have cited fears that the United States was trying to "weaponize" space.