Four months from now, in New York, the world will have a rare opportunity to make significant improvements in international security. The question is whether we will be smart enough to use it.

In recent years, three phenomena have radically altered the security landscape. They are the emergence of a nuclear black market, the determined efforts by more countries to acquire technology to produce the fissile material useable in nuclear weapons and the clear desire of terrorists to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

We have been trying to solve these new problems with existing tools. But for every step forward, we have exposed vulnerabilities in the system. The system itself – the regime that implements the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT) – needs reinforcement. Some of the necessary remedies can be taken in May, but only if governments are ready to act.

The opportunity in New York will come in the form of a conference. If that sounds like yet more bureaucracy – addressing nightmarish nuclear security scenarios with more meetings – I sympathise. But this is no ordinary conference. Every five years, the NPT Review Conference brings world leaders together to focus on combating the threat of nuclear weapons. All but four countries will participate as treaty members. Given the global nature of the threats, these four – India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – should also be encouraged to contribute their insights and concerns.

With seven straightforward steps, and without amending the treaty, this conference could reach a milestone in strengthening world security. The first step: put a five-year hold on additional facilities for uranium enrichment and plutonium separation. There is no compelling reason to build more of these facilities; the nuclear industry has more than enough capacity to fuel its power plants and research centres. To make this holding period acceptable for everyone, commit the countries that already have the facilities to guarantee an economic supply of nuclear fuel for bona fide uses. Then use the hiatus to develop better long-term options for managing the technologies (for example, in regional centres under multinational control). To advance these ideas, I have engaged a group of international nuclear experts, and their proposals will be put forward at the conference.

Second, speed up existing efforts, led by the US global threat reduction initiative and others, to modify the research reactors worldwide operating with highly enriched uranium – particularly those with metal fuel that could be readily employed as bomb material. Convert these reactors to use low-enriched uranium, and accelerate research on how to make highly enriched uranium unnecessary for all peaceful nuclear applications.

Third, raise the bar for inspection standards by establishing the “additional protocol” as the norm for verifying compliance with the NPT. Without the expanded authority of this protocol, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s rights of inspection are limited. It has proven its value recently in Iran and Libya and should be brought into force for all countries.

Fourth, call on the United Nations Security Council to act swiftly and decisively in the case of any country that withdraws from the NPT, in terms of the threat the withdrawal poses to international peace and security.

Fifth, urge states to act on the Security Council’s recent resolution 1540, to pursue and prosecute any illicit trading in nuclear material and technology.

Sixth, call on the five nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accelerate implementation of their “unequivocal commitment” to nuclear disarmament, building on efforts such as the 2002 Moscow treaty between Russia and the US. Negotiating a treaty to ban irreversibly the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons programmes would be a welcome start.

Last, acknowledge the volatility of longstanding tensions that give rise to proliferation, in regions such as the Middle East and the Korean peninsula, and take action to resolve existing security problems and, where needed, provide security assurances. In the Middle East, urge all parties to pursue a dialogue on regional security as part of the peace process. One goal of this dialogue would be to make the Middle East a nuclear-weapons-free zone.

None of these steps will work in isolation. Each requires a concession from someone. But with leadership from all sides, this package of proposals will create gains for everyone. This opportunity will come again – in 2010. But given current trends, we cannot afford to wait another five years. As a UN panel put it recently: “We are approaching a point at which the erosion of the non-proliferation regime could become irreversible and result in a cascade of proliferation.” The stakes are too high to risk inaction.

The writer is the director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Originally published by the Financial Times.