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Is there hope for nuclear disarmament?

CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo at the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony, 6 August 2015. Photo: Flickr/CTBTO and City of Hiroshima
CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo at the Hiroshima Peace Ceremony, 6 August 2015. Photo: Flickr/CTBTO and City of Hiroshima

Today is the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. Declared by the UN General Assembly in 2013, it is an opportunity 'for the world community to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a high priority'.

Former US President Ronald Reagan said repeatedly that 'nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought'. To ensure that it never happens, the world needs to 'put a nuclear genie back into the bottle' and achieve nuclear disarmamenta term that means both the state of the world where nuclear weapons do not exist anywhere and the process of reducing in number or completely eliminating nuclear weapons.

Is nuclear disarmament happening?

Whether nuclear disarmament is happening is a matter of opinion. On one hand, four states that have had nuclear weapons in the past have since got rid of them. South Africa produced six gun-type nuclear weapons, but then reversed its policies, destroyed the weapons and joined the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear-weapon state by July 1991. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, three states—Belarus, Kazakhstan and Ukraine—inherited about 2,500 strategic and about 3,000 tactical nuclear warheads. Each state, however, made a decision to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a non-nuclear weapon state and to transfer their nuclear weapons to Russia. The last nuclear weapon was returned to Russia in November 1996.

Furthermore, studies by SIPRI and the Federation of Atomic Scientists show that the total number of nuclear weapons in the world has indeed been declining. The maximum global inventory of nuclear weapons of various kinds was approaching 70,000 at the height of the Cold War in 1986. Thirty years later this has declined to about 15,400.

However, this process is not uniform, and certainly not irreversible. Even though the total number of nuclear weapons in the world has been declining due to the USA and Russia continuing the implementation of the New START treaty, SIPRI estimates that India, Pakistan and North Korea have been working hard to increase the size of their nuclear arsenals. Second, most of the states that have nuclear weapons, including the USA and Russia, continue to modernize their nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery (missiles and nuclear-capable bomber planes). In a sense, nuclear arsenals have become 'leaner but meaner'. So while the number of nuclear weapons is decreasing, we are not necessarily closer to a nuclear weapon-free world.

How does a state achieve nuclear disarmament?

First, the state has to decide that it either does not need nuclear weapons anymore, or that the costs of having an arsenal outweigh the benefits. There are many theories to explain why states pursue the development of nuclear weapons. The best known and most established theory was offered by Scott Sagan in 1996, who proposed three reasons:

  • Securitystates only build nuclear weapons to increase national security against foreign threats, especially nuclear threats;
  • Domestic politicsnuclear weapons can play a role of political tools used to advance parochial domestic and bureaucratic interests;
  • Nuclear symbols and state identitynuclear weapons (or a conscious decision not to have them) are part of what modern states believe they have to do or possess to be legitimate, modern, respected states.

In the cases of South Africa, Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine, states experienced very rare and profound changes in their domestic political and international security environments. These changes were extreme enough to make such a policy decision possible.

Second, there is a complex technical process of weapons elimination, disposition of nuclear and other radioactive materials associated with them, as well as dismantlement of all the infrastructure that was built to produce nuclear devices, materials for them, and their means of delivery. This process also includes finding new employment for a sizeable personnel that used to work with the weapons and maintain the infrastructure. A lot of experience has been gained in this area after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and during the dismantlement of Iraqi nuclear infrastructure in the 1990s. (Iraq did not succeed in producing a nuclear weapon but had a significant military nuclear program.)

Third, there is an issue of verification. Once a state has decided to disarm and then successfully dismantled its nuclear infrastructure, how would it be able to provide assurances to other states that the process was complete? It would need to convince them that there was no plutonium, highly enriched uranium or nuclear explosive devices hidden away somewhere. This is probably the most difficult question from a technical standpoint. It is still not resolved, but there are approaches that may help to address it.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been working for decades applying its safeguards (i.e. specific technical and organizational measures) on nuclear materials and nuclear activities, verifying that they are not used for anything other than peaceful purposes. As of today, the IAEA safeguards about 1,300 nuclear facilities in 179 countries. Safeguards were developed as a non-proliferation measure, but some of their approaches and methods can be used for verification of disarmament in some form.

There has also been a lot of research conducted in anticipation of the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT)a treaty that does not exist but may in the future prohibit the production of fissile materials (a kind of nuclear materials directly useful for weapons). Broader studies mapping a technical path to nuclear disarmament also exist.

Where are the world’s nuclear weapons today?

SIPRI estimates that, as of January 2016, there were 15,395 nuclear weapons in the world, split between the USA, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), any state signatory that managed to test a nuclear weapon before 1 January 1967 is considered an 'official' nuclear-weapon state, and the rest of the signatories are 'non-nuclear-weapon states'. Thus the USA, Russia, UK, France and China are recognized as nuclear-weapon states under the NPT.

India and Pakistan also tested nuclear weapons (in 1974 and 1998 respectively), and Israel is suspected to have done the same at least once in 1979. None of these states ever signed the NPT. North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT and conducted five nuclear tests between 2006 and 2016.

Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan and South Africa had nuclear weapons, but gave them up. If the world is to achieve nuclear disarmament, more states will have to follow their lead.


Vitaly Fedchenko is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.