The views expressed in this report are those of the authors. Their statements are not necessarily endorsed by the affiliated organisations or the Global Challenges Foundation.

States currently manage the risks associated with nuclear weapons through a range of measures that, together, have prevented world-wide spread, but not significantly reduced the risk.  

The pillar of nuclear military strategy is deterrence, whereby nuclear-armed states threaten to retaliate against other states that could use nuclear weapons against them. This doctrine is considered to be an effective way of discouraging the use of nuclear weapons. The fact that no nuclear weapons have been used in any conflict since 1945 also suggests that an emerging moral norm may play a role in preventing their use.  

Beginning with the US-Soviet treaty in 1963 to ban atmospheric testing, US-Soviet/Russian bilateral treaties and agreements have stabilized and reduced arsenals from a high of 68,000 in the late 1980s to some 14,000 today. As important, the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) has prevented the development of nuclear weapons in all countries beyond the original five (United States, Soviet Union/Russia, United Kingdom, France and China) with the exception of India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel. In fact, 25 to 40 governments have willingly given up their nuclear weapons programs, including South Africa, Libya, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine. Others, such as Canada, Brazil, and Argentina, have contemplated programs but not embarked on them, in keeping with their responsibilities under the NPT.

25 to 40 governments have willingly given up their nuclear weapons programs.

The UN Security Council, whose permanent members include the five recognized nuclear weapons states, enforces the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in partnership with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Although the IAEA was established primarily to promote and oversee the development of civilian nuclear power, under Article III of the NPT, the IAEA is entrusted with verifying adherence to the Treaty by all the parties. Parties to the NPT regularly report to the IAEA about the means used to safeguard and secure enriched uranium used in civilian power plants, as well as steps to prevent the use of nuclear materials for nuclear bombs. 

Several states have not complied with their NPT obligations and faced penalties from the international community. Iraq embarked on a nuclear weapons program, but after nuclear bomb technology was discovered in 1991, the program was destroyed by a special UN Security Council-mandated force. International economic sanctions were applied to Iran when suspicions arose about its possible pursuit of nuclear weapons. After intense negotiations, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed in 2015, provides for continuous monitoring by the IAEA of Iran’s civilian nuclear program so that no nuclear weapons are developed. 

The difficulties of enforcing the NPT when countries do not wish to cooperate are illustrated by the case of North Korea. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003, as was its right under international law – the Treaty being voluntary – and has since conducted five or six nuclear weapons tests.  Despite international pressure, including economic sanctions, North Korea continues its program. 

Nuclear weapons programs are conducted with utmost secrecy, and do not permit democratic participation in policymaking. Yet, public protests in the United States and Europe from the 1950s through the 1980s have raised awareness about risks and pressured governments to curtail nuclear weapons programs. Recently, an international humanitarian movement spurred by major nongovernmental organizations encouraged non-nuclear weapons states to introduce a UN treaty banning all nuclear weapons. Not since the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1970 have states taken such dramatic and collective action to prohibit possession of nuclear weapons. 

121 of the 193 member countries participated at the UN’s second conference on the treaty in July 2017. 122 countries voted in favour of the final treaty document, one against it, and one country abstained (some non-members were also part of the negotiations). As of this writing (end of September 2017), 54 countries have signed the treaty and three have ratified it, i.e. adapted their national legislation to comply with it. The treaty is open for signing indefinitely.

Meanwhile, in states that boycotted the negotiations, legislators and citizens are pressuring foreign ministers to explain why they are not participating.  When 50 nations have ratified the treaty, it will take effect, establishing that nuclear deterrence is no longer acceptable in international relations, further stigmatizing their use and, it is to be hoped, reducing the risks of catastrophe.

Kennette Benedict

Senior Advisor, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists