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A safer world: Nuclear proliferation
The spread and threat of nuclear weapons continue to be major concerns facing the global community. There are two ways in which this problem has been addressed: non-proliferation and disarmament.
Nuclear non-proliferation is the area of security and international relations that tries to ensure that no additional states or non-state bodies (such as terrorists) can access or manufacture nuclear weapons or material that could be used to create such weapons. Disarmament is the work that is done to dismantle, destroy and dispose of those weapons that are already in existence.
These efforts to control the quantity and ownership of nuclear weapons have met with some success. A large number of weapons have been disarmed since the end of the Cold War.
In the 1960s, it was predicted that at least two dozen states would shortly have nuclear weapons, although today there are only seven confirmed nuclear weapons states (Israel is strongly suspected of having a nuclear capability and North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear device in October 2006). However, this success is now under greater threat than ever before.
The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The central international mechanism for non-proliferation and disarmament is the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). It also regulates access to technology associated with the development of nuclear weapons and promotes cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy.
The treaty is the only legally-binding international commitment by nuclear-weapon states to the goal of nuclear disarmament. The NPT is therefore both the foundation of the nuclear non-proliferation regime and of the global campaign for nuclear disarmament.
The treaty was approved in 1968 and entered into force on 5 March 1970. It limits the possession of nuclear weapons to the five states (China, France, Russia, the UK and the US) which had, prior to 1967, manufactured and exploded a nuclear device.
In early 2007, 190 states had ratified the NPT. The only non-members are India, Pakistan and Israel; North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003, but may rejoin at some point in the future.
At the core of the NPT is a bargain comprised of three elements:
- non-nuclear-weapon states undertake to forego nuclear weapons;
- nuclear-weapon states undertake to disarm their nuclear arsenals; and
- non-nuclear weapon states receive assistance in the development and use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes, while submitting their nuclear facilities and materials to verification and inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
The end of the Cold War brought with it new concerns about the clandestine transfer of nuclear materials from one state to another, or into the hands of terrorists. With the break-up of the USSR, Soviet nuclear weapons and materials that could be used to make weapons were suddenly spread across the territory of 11 states outside the control of the Russian government.
This made it much more difficult to control access and to ensure the security of those weapons and materials. In addition, the Russian and other post-Soviet governments have lacked the capacity and resources to ensure that the sites are sufficiently maintained and protected.
The transfer of weapons and nuclear material presents a serious security threat. Manufacturing an Improvised Nuclear Device (IND) would not be difficult for a properly trained individual, provided that they also had access to the right materials. Such a device could easily be used by a terrorist.
A state wishing to build a nuclear weapon would also have to find a way to make these materials. Nuclear trafficking can help states bypass the lengthy process of developing and building a home-grown nuclear weapon.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is the UN body tasked with coordinating international efforts to prevent nuclear trafficking by running its own programmes devoted to preventing, detecting and responding to nuclear trafficking. It coordinates missions that evaluate the protection of nuclear materials and runs workshops to help governments improve security, monitor borders for trafficked materials and prepare for emergencies.
Individual states and groups of states run similar programmes, such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office’s Counter-Proliferation Department, the US government’s Cooperative Threat Reduction Program (for the former Soviet Union) and the G8’s Global Threat Reduction Programme.
Threats to peace and security
Only five states are allowed to have nuclear weapons under the NPT. However, India and Pakistan have joined the nuclear ‘club’ since the NPT came into force, Israel is strongly suspected of possessing a nuclear capability and North Korea claimed to have tested a nuclear device in October 2006.
In 2006, then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave a speech about how these developments threatened both the future of the NPT and ‘raise[d] questions about the legitimacy, and credibility, of the case-by-case approach to non-proliferation that the existing nuclear powers have adopted’. He called upon the international community to find new ways to work towards both disarmament and non-proliferation and to break the stalemate on the issue that has existed for several years.
India and Pakistan present serious concerns because the safeguards that prevent the launch of nuclear weapons are under-developed, their region is unstable and they have been embroiled in a long-standing dispute (with each other) in which the use of nuclear weapons has not seemed inconceivable.
The potential development of nuclear weapons by Iran and North Korea is of particular concern because of the perceived animosity that each state holds, for historic and cultural reasons, towards other states (both in their region and in the rest of the world).
Another concern is the worry that weaponry or nuclear materials will fall into the hands of terrorist organisations. It is known, for example, that al Qaeda has sought nuclear materials with which to create weapons. Even without detailed knowledge of physics and engineering, a determined individual or group could use conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) explosives to spread radioactive and highly dangerous material throughout an area, via a so-called ‘dirty bomb’.
Preventing the circumstances that would make this possible has been a concern of the international community for some time, but has been intensified in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
Issues to Consider
- Does your country possess nuclear weapons? What safeguards are in place to ensure the security of those weapons? If your state does not have nuclear weapons, is your government seeking them?
- If your state does not have nuclear weapons, what is its relationship with the nuclear states?
- If your state does have nuclear weapons, what purposes do they serve? Have they ever been used or has your state ever threatened to use them? Has your state been engaged in disarmament?
- Is your country a member of the NPT?
- If your state is not a member of the NPT, why did it decide that it needed to develop nuclear weapons? What historical, cultural and contemporary concerns fuelled this decision? What are the implications for your region, should these weapons be developed or used?
- Does your country use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes (e.g. nuclear power)? Has the IAEA been able to monitor this use?