How the World Stopped Worrying about Nuclear Disarmament and Forgot about the Bomb

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes only five “nuclear states” – the U.S., UK, France, Russia and China. Since 1967, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel have also developed nuclear weapons, almost doubling the size of the group. South Africa stands alone as the only country to have developed atomic weapons and then give them up. While the number of nuclear states has increased, there has been a slow, steady reduction of the number of nuclear warheads in the world to between 10,000 and 25,000, with, according to some, 90% of nuclear warheads produced since 1945 now out of service. Nonetheless, there are still more than enough serviceable warheads to destroy human civilization as we know it. We live in a world with an increasing number of nuclear states, but the picture is not as bleak as it may seem. President John F. Kennedy predicted that by 1964 the world would see as many as 10 to 20 nuclear powers. There is not that many today over 50 years later. World leaders have shown renewed interest in nuclear disarmament since 2007. With a practical view of nuclear disarmament, proper control, verification and enforcement mechanisms, and the necessary political will, it may be possible to achieve a nuclear weapons-free world. However, would such a world actually be any more secure?

Abolition v. Disarmament

Michael O’Hanlon points out an important difference in vocabulary in what one means by “a world without nuclear weapons.” “Abolishing” nuclear weapons means not only dismantling all existing weapons, but outlawing their testing, use, reconstruction, development, proliferation and make them wholly illegal in all circumstances. This differs from “disarmament”; dismantling or demilitarizing all currently existing nuclear arsenals in the world and agreeing an international framework to monitor progress and fissile materials, verify disarmament and mediate disputes, but not totally outlawing them forever in all circumstances. Both would constitute a “nuclear weapons-free world”, but disarmament is more realistic and achievable.

The NPT attempts to prevent nuclear proliferation and elicits an agreement in Article VI  from nuclear states to cease the nuclear arms race, dismantle their nuclear weapons and agree a treaty leading to “general and complete disarmament” under international control – something they have yet to do. Article I stops nuclear states from transferring nuclear weapons technology to non-nuclear states while Article II prevents signatories which did not already possess nuclear weapons from obtaining them. States which have developed atomic weapons after the NPT have done so as non-members of the treaty. The NPT does not seek to abolish nuclear technology in the world. It recognises at Article I the right of nuclear states – America, Britain, France, China and Russia – to possess them. NPT Article IV in fact recognizes and encourages the development and sharing of the “inalienable right” to peaceful nuclear technology among nuclear and non-nuclear states – something often forgotten in debates about the nuclear ambitions of states such as Iran.

Individuals and groups who call for the abolition of nuclear weapons stand on firm moral ground. However, groups such as Greenpeace and iCan focus on campaigning to motivate individuals at grassroots level to apply pressure on officials to abolish atomic weapons, which, while also an important part of the effort, does not address the perennial underlying political and security issues which cause states to cling to or seek to acquire nuclear weapons. These groups have been critical of the 1970 NPT as legitimizing a system of nuclear “haves and have-nots” by giving special recognition to the five original nuclear states charge it has been ineffective in applying pressure to disarm and point to a complete ban on nuclear weapons along the same path as treaties for landmines and biological weapons as a better goal. Nonetheless, even some critical of the NPT and piece-meal bilateral agreements acknowledge that forever “dis-inventing” nuclear weapons is not possible and that if one state reconstitutes a nuclear program, there may be no alternative but for others to do so to confront that threat.

Control, Verification and “Virtual Deterrence”

In considering whether a nuclear weapons-free world is possible it must also be considered how any nuclear disarmament agreement, once reached, would be verified, how fissile materials would be controlled and how noncompliance would be confronted. An agreement without such teeth would be doomed from the start. Tracking and controlling nuclear material is the only way to ensure new atomic weapons cannot be developed. However, environmental, market and economic pressures have brought about the need for energy from a clean, reliable source such as nuclear power. The IAEA itself has called for 1,400 new nuclear reactors to be built worldwide by 2050 to meet world energy demand.

Counterintuitively, none of the nine states known to possess nuclear weapons is currently subject to IAEA inspections. The five NPT nuclear states are exempt and four non-NPT states – India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea – are not subject to them. This means the overwhelming bulk of nuclear weapons and material in the world is only tracked by these governments. We all have to take their word for it. Any comprehensive treaty would have to include control, verification and inspection measures by an organization, such as the IAEA, which apply to all countries equally. The IAEA, “should be given the authority to inspect any facility, at any time, and anywhere on the territory of every signature state.”

Nuclear weapons technology cannot be dis-invented and the threat will always exist. Nuclear disarmament is possible; abolition of nuclear weapons forever is not

Even if all nuclear weapons are demilitarized, fissile material closely controlled and an inspection regime instituted, there will always be the chance that one or more states will reconstitute nuclear weapons at some point in the future. The first steps could be similar to those taken today against states such as North Korea and Iran – sanctions, negotiations and the thinly veiled threat of military action. However, such a process may take too long to stop or do nothing to prevent the reconstitution of nuclear weapons. Allowing it to be subject to a UN Security Council veto could further complicate matters. The fear a foe would secretly maintain nuclear weapons or rebuild them is an obstacle to convincing current nuclear-armed states to agree to give them up.

The concept of “