Nuclear Proliferation Essay

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Given the immediate explosive and incendiary force of the atom and the long-term human and environmental consequences from release of radiation, curbing nuclear weapons use has been of special concern since Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Atomic energy can serve military purposes (weapons of mass destruction [WMDs] and powering submarines) or peaceful purposes (nuclear power to light the land).

Major multilateral treaties seek to discourage proliferation of the former while facilitating the latter: the 1956 Statute of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA); the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT); the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT); the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1996 (CTBT), not yet in force. Other efforts against proliferation include the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the related initiative of the UN Security Council to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and other WMDs to non-state actors. Particular countries are also subject to current council attention, namely the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Iran, seen as backsliding from the basic nonproliferation instruments. Iraq was subject after 1991 to (apparently successful) efforts to strip it of nuclear weapons (and other WMDs).

The IAEA is part of the United Nations family of organizations and has 143 nation members. Its purpose is to promote the peaceful use of atomic energy to improve health and prosperity throughout the world and to ensure, so far as it is able, that its assistance does not serve to further any military purposes. It can apply safeguards, at the request of the parties, to any bilateral or multilateral arrangement or—at the request of a state—to activities in the field of atomic energy.

One strategy to inhibit proliferation, both by aspiring nuclear states (horizontalproliferation) and by old ones seeking new weaponry (vertical proliferation), is to limit testing. Thus, the 1963 Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Tests in the Atmosphere, in Outer Space and Under Water (“Partial Test Ban Treaty”) obligated parties to prohibit, to prevent, and not to carry out any nuclear weapon test explosion, or any other nuclear explosion, at any place under their control in the environments listed in the title of the treaty. It also prohibited explosions elsewhere if they cause radioactive debris to be present outside the territorial limits of the state under whose jurisdiction or control the explosions are conducted. China and France were the main holdouts to this treaty. After Australia and New Zealand brought actions against it in the International Court of Justice for testing in the Pacific, France moved its tests underground in the early 1970s, as did most other testing states. The PTBT stipulated that the parties seek to achieve, in the long term, a treaty resulting in the banning of all nuclear test explosions. That proved daunting.

Meanwhile, the NPT sought to confront proliferation frontally. The NPT lists several premises in its preamble: the potential devastation of nuclear war, the dangers from proliferation of nuclear weapons, the value of peaceful nuclear technology and of IAEA safeguards, and the desirability of nuclear and other disarmament. Substantively, the NPT draws a distinction between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states. The former—the United States, the USSR (now Russia), the United Kingdom, France, and China—were those openly possessing nuclear weapons technology at the time (not altogether coincidentally, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council); the latter was everybody else. These five countries agreed that they would not distribute nuclear weapons or explosive devices or give the control over such weapons or explosive devices to any other nation. Non-nuclear-weapon states agreed not to seek possession of nuclear weapons and to accept safeguards against diversion of peaceful nuclear energy in agreements to be negotiated with the IAEA. Stopping proliferation is not enough, however. It is necessary to rid humanity of existing stockpiles capable of destroying Earth many times over.

Although 188 states are parties to the NPT, three states known to have nuclear weapons never joined: Israel, India, and Pakistan; the DPRK purported to withdraw in 2003. In 2006, Congress approved an agreement between India and the United States under which the United States would supply material to India for its civilian nuclear facilities and India would open those facilities to IAEA inspection. Proponents regarded the deal as the recognition of reality; it subjected India to essentially the same regime as the nuclear-weapons states under the NPT. Opponents saw it as a breach of U.S. obligations under the NPT and a “reward” to India for proliferating. Meanwhile, Pakistan supplied this technology to others. South Africa, Libya, and Brazil—which probably had nuclear weapons capacity at one point—have all foresworn it and are parties to the NPT, although some doubt Brazil’s compliance with IAEA safeguards.

A Review Conference of NPT Parties meets every 5 years and examines the treaty’s operation to ensure realization of its purposes. The NPT had an initial life span of 25 years from 1970 to 1995; the 1995 review extended it indefinitely, but not without controversy, given what many saw as the intransigence of the nuclear states in negotiating nuclear disarmament. To secure this extension, four nuclear powers—France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States— gave “negative security guarantees,” promising not to use nuclear weapons on a non-nuclear state unless that state carried out an attack in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapons state. China made a similar promise, without the exception. The conference in 2000 resulted in an “unequivocal” undertaking by the nuclear powers to pursue disarmament. This brought no concrete results. Indeed, at the 2005 meeting, where participants failed to agree on a final document, some slippage in this commitment was clear. Hopes for a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, expressed in 2000, also proved illusory. Some progress did occur, however, in declaring nuclear free zones, such as in the Pacific and Latin America.

Adopted in 1996, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CNTBT) had 138 ratifications in mid-2007, but it is not yet in force. That requires ratification of the treaty by all 44 states listed in Annex 2 as having nuclear power or research reactors. Thirty-four of them have ratified, but the People’s Republic of China, Colombia, Egypt, Indonesia, India, Iran, Israel, Democratic Republic of Korea, Pakistan, and the United States are holdouts. The U.S. Senate’s rejection of the treaty in 1999, which some viewed as a death knell, came over arguments that breaches could not be properly verified and that the United States could not continue stewardship over its existing stockpile without some testing. Proponents vigorously denied these arguments. Undaunted by the absence of some Annex 2 powers, a de facto moratorium on testing since the mid-1990s has been broken only by India, Pakistan, and the DPRK.

The PSI was launched by the United States in 2003 and currently involves 15 core countries and another 60 who cooperate on an ad hoc basis. It aims to inhibit transfer of banned weapons and weapons technology—nuclear, chemical, and bacteriological. One offshoot is a set of bilateral ship-boarding agreements between the United States and Belize, Croatia, Cyprus, Liberia, Marshall Islands, and Panama, that among them represent the flags of registration of about 60 percent of ocean freight traffic tonnage. The treaties facilitate searches for WMDs (nuclear, chemical, and biological), their delivery systems, and related materials. Another offshoot of the initiative is UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (2004), aimed at non-state acquisition of WMDs. A Committee of the Council endeavors to enforce the resolution.

The Security Council has also been reacting strongly under Chapter VII of the Charter to proliferation issues involving particular countries. Thus, Security Council Resolution 1718 addresses the situation created by the DPRK’s nuclear test of October 9, 2006. The resolution condemns the test and seeks to have North Korea suspend nuclear activities and return to the NPT and IAEA regimes. Security Council Resolutions 1737 and 1747, from 2006 and 2007, pressure Iran to comply completely with the IAEA regime.

While moves such as these act against horizontal proliferation, the failure of the Nuclear Five to negotiate seriously on nuclear disarmament means that vertical proliferation remains relatively unchecked and a double standard applies to haves and have-nots. Critics of the U.S. 2002 National Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction, which includes the option of nuclear force in response to the use of WMDs, and of developing British policy debate on how to replace their aging Trident missile system, detect further possibilities of backsliding from the commitment to negotiate an end to vertical proliferation.


  1. Boisson de Chazournes, Laurence and Philippe Sands, eds. 1999. International Law, the International Court of Justice and Nuclear Weapons. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  2. International Court of Justice. 1996. Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons. ICJ Reports 226. New York: United Nations.
  3. Moxley, Charles J., Jr. 2000. Nuclear Weapons and International Law in the Post Cold War World. New York: Austin & Winfield.
  4. Schwartz, Stephen I., ed. 1998. Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
  5. Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. 2006. Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Weapons. Stockholm, Sweden: EO Grafiska.

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