Attempts at risk mitigation - Nuclear non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament

Immediately after the atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, first efforts at containing and eliminating the nuclear danger were made - and are still ongoing. In principle, bilateral, multilateral and universal agreements could have two goals: Disarmament and arms control. Disarmament is about the partial or total destruction of nuclear weapons and/or their delivery systems (missiles, aircraft, ships and submarines). This limits or even eliminates the number of nuclear weapons that can potentially be used.

The control of armament processes (arms control) in the context of nuclear weapons intends to minimize the risks of nuclear armament, the danger of a nuclear war as well as arms expenditures considered unnecessary. It is about limiting, eliminating or banning individual categories of weapons and/or particular military activities (in certain areas, for instance) or the passing on of goods that may be relevant to the building of nuclear weapons. In doing so, transparency measures can contribute to building political trust between those involved. Arms control can but does not have to entail the destruction of nuclear warheads and/or delivery systems. It can also have the effect that nuclear powers change over from older to more recent technologies. Moreover, it can have the goal of preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Since 1945, peace movements and the international public have urged governments to implement arms control and disarmament measures, particularly for nuclear bombs. One stumbling block was and still is the nuclear powers' belief that their security depends on the possession of such weapons and the ambition of the United States to by all means maintain its superiority in defence technology.

The history of nuclear arms control and disarmament

In the late 1940s, efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons even before the start of the nuclear age failed. While the United States was only prepared to give up its nuclear weapons after having received the guarantee of a comprehensive inspection of nuclear facilities worldwide, the Soviet Union demanded a ban on nuclear weapons in 1946 and the destruction of all weapons holdings within three months and only consented to limited inspections of nuclear facilities. In the following two decades, against the background of the Cold War, the United States' and the Soviet Union's nuclear weapons holdings expanded unchecked—both in quantitative and qualitative terms. At the same time Great Britain (1952), France (1960) and China (1964), that is the most important allies of the then nuclear superpowers developed their nuclear weapons.

Despite all this, they succeeded in entering into the first arms control agreement. Realizing the pressure of growing protest against the release of radioactivity caused by nuclear weapons tests, the United States, the Soviet Union and Great Britain entered into the Partial Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty in 1963. It banned nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere, in outer space and under water. Still, France and China continued with their tests above ground until 1974 and 1980 respectively.

These agreements, however, did not hinder the nuclear arms race between the United States and the USSR. Subterranean nuclear tests, even though they released small amounts of radioactivity, were permitted. Only in 1996 did the states enter into the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Despite the fact that the Treaty is not formally in force yet, all five 'old' nuclear powers adhere to the Treaty. In 1999, the US Senate refused its ratification. India, Pakistan and North Korea have not signed the Treaty and have also carried out underground nuclear tests.

The Non-Proliferation Treaty

In the 1960s, fears grew that more states would acquire nuclear weapons. The nuclear powers (United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China) at the time, however, were interested in upholding their monopoly for as long as possible. At the same time, many countries felt that unchecked nuclear armaments by the nuclear powers threatened peace. In this context, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was concluded. In it, its non-nuclear members commit themselves not to develop nuclear weapons and to have their civilian nuclear facilities inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In a relatively vague formulation, the Treaty commits the United States, Russia and Great Britain, who had signed the Treaty already in 1968, as well as China and France, who followed suit in 1992, "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control" (Article VI, NPT).

At the same time, the Non-Proliferation Treaty foresees the cooperation of the parties to the Treaty in the civilian use of nuclear energy and affirms the "inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes" (Article IV, NPT). In 2017, 190 states were parties to the Treaty—India, Pakistan, Israel and South Sudan have not acceded to the Treaty. In 2003, North Korea declared its withdrawal from the Treaty. In 1995, the parties to the Treaty decided in favour of an indefinite extension of the Treaty that was originally intended to last for 25 years.

The fact that the nuclear weapon states are not prepared to scale down their arsenals is a constant point of contention at the Review Conferences that take place every five years. Another ongoing topic is the demand to tighten verification mechanisms.

Treaties on nuclear arms control

Since 1969, the United States and the Soviet Union have negotiated with each other on the quantitative and qualitative restrictions of their nuclear arsenals. The reason for this was the fact that existing stockpiles had already reached a nuclear 'overkill capacity', i.e. both countries had enough weapons to destroy one another multiple times over. The Anti-Ballistic Missiles Treaty (ABM Treaty) in 1972 on the limitation of the anti-ballistic missile systems (from which the United States withdrew in 2002) was the first treaty to prevent an arms race between strategic defensive and offensive weapons. Since then, more treaties have been entered into to limit strategic nuclear weapons. The process started at the time of the East-West conflict and continued until the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The most recent treaty, the so-called New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was concluded in 2010 between the United States and Russia. While START I of 1991 still foresaw the reduction of nuclear weapons holdings to less than 6,000 warheads and 1,600 strategic delivery systems each, the new Treaty includes the provision that warheads mounted on strategic delivery systems (land and submarine-based intercontinental missiles and long-range bombers) are to be reduced to a maximum of 1,550 items each by 2017. The number of strategic means of delivery is limited to 800 for each country of which no more than 700 are permitted to be deployed.

Global solution of zero nuclear weapons

It is true that the number of nuclear weapons has dropped considerably—especially since the end of the East–West antagonism. Critics, however, point out that more than 20 years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, thousands of nuclear warheads are still being stored in the United States and Russia, in particular. They state that this amount cannot be justified, even when taking into consideration the potential new nuclear powers or the dangers of nuclear terrorism. They also believe that nuclear weapons are superfluous and not deployable in military terms and politically damaging as they undermine the credibility of efforts against nuclear weapons proliferation. On the contrary, they posit that one has to move more decisively towards a global solution of zero nuclear weapons (Eliminating Nuclear Threats. A Practical Agenda for Global Policymakers). Further nuclear disarmament by the United States and Russia is threatened to fail due to the planned US missile defence system. Without some more reductions of these holdings, the other nuclear powers are likely not to be persuaded to negotiate a global solution to zero nuclear weapons.

Sources and further information:

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