Also published in Volume 8, Number 1-2, Winter/Spring 2006 of “Global Dialogue”

In 1945, the United States became the world’s sole nuclear power, and almost immediately used its new weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Following the creation of the first nuclear weapon by the United States, all further development of these weapons has constituted some form of nuclear proliferation, either horizontal proliferation to other countries or vertical proliferation within a country already possessing nuclear weapons.

Many scientists who worked on the Manhattan Engineering Project – the US nuclear weapons development program – warned the government that use of nuclear weapons against Japan launch a dangerous nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union. They were right. It took the Soviet Union just four years to succeed in its pursuit of nuclear weapons, conducting its first nuclear test in 1949.

During the four year period from1945 to 1949, the US continued to develop and test its nuclear arsenal, engaging in a kind of unilateral nuclear arms race. Once the Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons in 1949, a bilateral nuclear arms race began, concluding only with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s.

In the decade and a half following the Soviet Union’s development of nuclear arms, the UK, France and then China also developed nuclear weapons. By 1967, the five declared nuclear weapons states formed an exclusive club. They were the only states with nuclear weapons, and they were all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. As such, these nations had considerable prestige in the world. They all justified their nuclear arsenals on the basis of deterrence – the threat to retaliate to a first-strike nuclear attack – and all but China, which had pledged “No First Use” of nuclear weapons, held open the possibility of responding to a conventional attack with nuclear force.

Among the five nuclear powers, there was a great deal of posturing by means of atmospheric nuclear tests and missile launches, first by the US alone, then by the USSR, and finally by the other nuclear weapons states. They all played the game of comparing explosive force and missile sizes, demonstrating their power through these highly visible means. Australian physician and nuclear activist Helen Caldicott characterized this posturing as “missile envy.”

At the height of the nuclear arms race, there were more than 60,000 nuclear weapons in the world. Today there are still some 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and more than 95 percent of these are in the arsenals of the US and Russia. The trend is in the right direction, but the pace of reductions has been agonizingly slow.

The unwillingness of the nuclear weapons states to give up their reliance on nuclear arsenals or their options for vertical proliferation, and to move with greater rapidity toward a nuclear weapons-free world, remains a significant incentive to horizontal proliferation. This is extremely dangerous, and particularly so in a world in which extremist groups seek nuclear weapons capabilities to threaten massive destruction of powerful states.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

In the mid-1960s, following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, the US, UK and USSR forged ahead with a treaty to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. They feared a far more dangerous world in the event of proliferation to many states. In negotiations with non-nuclear weapons states, they agreed to a trade-off in which the non-nuclear weapons states would not develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons and the nuclear weapons states would in turn make three commitments: first, end the nuclear arms race at an early date; second, engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament; and third, assist the non-nuclear weapons states in developing nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1968 and entered into force in 1970.

Despite making this agreement, the nuclear weapons states subsequently demonstrated little effort to stop the nuclear arms race or to engage in good faith negotiations for total nuclear disarmament. Instead, they focused their efforts on partial measures of arms control, such as the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (SALT) and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties (START). Through these negotiations, the nuclear arms race continued largely unabated and there were no good faith efforts to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

On the third part of the bargain, assisting with the development of “peaceful” nuclear technology, the nuclear weapons states were more helpful, particularly when profits could be made by selling nuclear reactors. The problem with this part of the bargain was that nuclear reactors used enriched uranium and produced plutonium that could be used in weapons programs. In other words, nuclear energy programs, particularly those involving enriching uranium and plutonium separation, have actually aided in nuclear weapons proliferation.

Over the years, many countries, and finally nearly all countries, became parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. A few, however, stayed outside the treaty so as not to be bound by it. Israel was one of these, and is widely understood, although has not admitted, to have developed an arsenal of some 200 or more nuclear weapons. Mordechai Vanunu, a technician at the Dimona reactor in Israel, released information on Israel’s clandestine nuclear program to British newspapers, and subsequently was kidnapped, secretly tried and served 18 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. Even after his release from prison, Vanunu is not allowed to leave Israel or speak with foreign journalists. Israel still refuses to confirm the existence of its nuclear arsenal.

India and Pakistan also never became parties to the treaty. India was always clear that it was willing to forego the nuclear option, but not live in a world of nuclear apartheid. In other words, India was prepared to be a non-nuclear weapons state in a world where no state had nuclear weapons, but would not do so in a world where some states reserved nuclear weapons status for themselves but denied such status to others. India first tested a nuclear weapon in 1974, and then tested more extensively and openly in May 1998. Immediately following India’s 1998 nuclear tests, Pakistan conducted its own nuclear tests, sending a message back to India that it too could play the nuclear game. India and Pakistan, two rival states that have warred many times over the disputed territory of Kashmir, are now engaged in a nuclear standoff.

The last state thought to have developed a small nuclear arsenal is North Korea, a country that withdrew from the Non-Proliferation Treaty in January 2003. No one is certain that North Korea actually has a nuclear arsenal, but it claims to have developed nuclear weapons and it has the technological capability and the weapons-grade nuclear materials from its nuclear reactors to have done so.

The 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference

By the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a Review and Extension Conference was held in 1995, 25 years after the treaty had entered into force. Some states parties to the treaty and many civil society organizations argued that the treaty should not be extended indefinitely because that would be akin to giving a blank check to the nuclear weapons states who had been so lax in fulfilling their disarmament obligations under the treaty. These states and groups argued that instead of an indefinite extension, the treaty should be extended for 5 or 10 year periods with automatic extensions if the nuclear weapons states had achieved concrete progress on nuclear disarmament.

Under heavy lobbying and arm twisting by the United States, the treaty was extended indefinitely. To reach this outcome, certain additional promises were made. Among these were the following points listed in the Final Document of the conference:

First, completion of negotiations for a universal and verifiable Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty no later than 1996;

Second, The immediate commencement and early conclusion of negotiations on a treaty banning production of fissile materials; and

Third, the “determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon states of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goals of eliminating those weapons….”

The document also made reference to UN Security Council Resolution 984 (1995), which provided security assurances to non-nuclear weapons states, and called for further steps that would be “internationally legally binding.”

While the international community did manage to complete and open for signature a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) by 1996, the treaty required the ratifications of all nuclear capable states. As of this time, there are still about one-quarter of the 44 states in this category that have not ratified. The United States was the first to sign the treaty, but the US Senate rejected ratification in 1999, and the Bush administration has been hostile to the treaty and has not resubmitted it to the Senate.

The Bush administration’s opposition to the CTBT is best understood in relation to its interest in developing a new generation of nuclear weapons, such as “bunker busters” and low yield nuclear weapons. This is reinforced by the administration’s efforts to reduce the time needed to resume nuclear testing from 36 months to 18 months, suggesting that it is holding open the possibility of breaking the current moratorium on underground nuclear testing.

There have not been negotiations in the UN Conference on Disarmament on a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty. Nor have there been any efforts to provide legally binding assurances against the use of nuclear weapons on non-nuclear weapons states. Given this lack of progress, it is hard to argue that there has been a “determined pursuit…of systematic and progressive efforts” by the nuclear weapons states to achieve nuclear disarmament. In fact, the Bush administration’s secret Nuclear Posture Review, released to Congress at the end of 2001, states that US nuclear policy includes a possible nuclear response to a non-nuclear attack against the US or its allies.

2000 NPT Review Conference: 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament

At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the parties agreed by consensus to 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. This was viewed as an important step forward on the path to achieving nuclear disarmament. These steps included the early entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, the establishment in the Conference on Disarmament of a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament issues, preserving and strengthening the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, applying the principle of irreversibility to nuclear disarmament, and an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals….”

Unfortunately, the nuclear weapons states have not taken these steps seriously. In the world community, the United States has been the country least responsive to these steps, putting up obstacles to nearly all of them. The US opposed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, opposed a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty, opposed a subsidiary body to deal with nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament, abandoned the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and made nuclear disarmament completely reversible in the one agreement they did reach with Russia.

The 2002 Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), entered into by the US and Russia, calls for reducing deployed strategic nuclear weapons from about 6,000 on each side to about 2,000 on each side by the year 2012, but makes no provision for destroying these weapons or otherwise making the reductions irreversible. After 2012, the treaty ends with no further prohibitions on the size of nuclear arsenals. In some respects this treaty may even promote proliferation by allowing both sides to keep many nuclear warheads in reserve, and therefore potentially more vulnerable to theft by extremist groups.

2005 NPT Review Conference

The most recent NPT Review Conference in 2005 ended without progress and without a Final Document demonstrating even a modicum of agreement. The US opposed any mention of the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament in the agenda of the conference, giving the impression that they wanted to rewrite history, blotting out any memory of the progress made in the year 2000.

The 2005 NPT Review Conference was almost surrealistic. In the basement of the United Nations where the conference was taking place, there was a broad corridor leading to some of the conference rooms. At one end of this corridor were a group of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki earnestly pleading for progress on nuclear disarmament so that their fate would not befall others in the future. At the other end of the corridor was a representative of the United States handing out slick brochures claiming that the US was leading the world in nuclear disarmament. Conveniently removed from the timeline in one of these brochures was any mention of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty being opened for signatures in 1996 or of the agreement on the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament in the year 2000. George Orwell’s presence seemed alive and well in the US promotional literature.

Nuclear Double Standards

The original intent of the Non-Proliferation Treaty was to stop proliferation and put an end to nuclear double standards by achieving nuclear disarmament. The nuclear weapons states have, however, largely made it clear that they are committed to double standards rather than to fulfilling their obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament.

In an attempt to quell proliferation, while maintaining nuclear double standards, George W. Bush has promoted a Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), which he first announced in Krakow on May 31, 2003. The PSI was described in a White House press release as “a broad international partnership of countries which, using their own laws and resources, will coordinate their actions to halt shipments of dangerous technologies to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern – at sea, in the air, and on the land.” The original members of the PSI were all European states except Australia and Japan, and included the three Western nuclear weapons states – the US, UK and France. A PSI “Statement of Interdiction Principles” was adopted on September 4, 2003. The first and key principle is: “Undertake effective measures, either alone or in concert with other states, for interdicting the transfer or transport of WMD, their delivery systems, and related materials to and from states and non-state actors of proliferation concern.”

On April 28, 2004, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1540, which called upon states to “refrain from providing any form of support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport, transfer or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery.” The resolution also called upon states to establish domestic controls to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons and their means of delivery, as well as border and export and transit controls.

Resolution 1540 was in effect a Security Council effort to further the Proliferation Security Initiative, seeking to enforce controls against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The Proliferation Security Initiative, its Statement of Interdiction Principles and Security Council Resolution 1540 all seek to prevent proliferation by means of international cooperation and, if necessary, the use of force. They also seek implicitly to maintain the nuclear double standard, since they make no reference to the current arsenals of nuclear weapons or the need for their dismantlement.

A key question for the international community and for any thinking person concerns whether proliferation can be prevented in a world composed of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots.” Those who promote the double standard initiatives, seem to believe that they can hold back nuclear proliferation while continuing to rely themselves on nuclear weapons for security. Their argument, however, leaves no room for inevitable errors and misjudgments.

Zero Tolerance

So long as nuclear weapons and materials exist in the world, there is the possibility that they may proliferate to other states or non-state actors. In the hands of non-state extremist groups, the prospects of deterrence by means of retaliatory threat are zero. Deterrence is a psychological theory, which requires rationality and also fear of retaliation. It cannot work against a terrorist organization that cannot be located. Nor can it work against groups or individuals who are prepared to die for their cause. Therefore, the tolerance level for nuclear weapons falling into the hands of extremist groups is also zero.

The more nuclear weapons in the world, the greater the possibility that some will be obtained by extremist groups. The fewer nuclear weapons in the world, the less weapons-grade nuclear materials and the greater the international controls, the less likely these weapons will fall into the hands of extremists groups.

Zero tolerance requires zero nuclear weapons and full international controls. It requires implementation of the Article VI nuclear disarmament obligations in the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Viewed in this light, the PSI and Security Council Resolution 1540 may be viewed as band-aids, possibly comforting but unlikely to solve the problem.

We have already seen that the criminal ring headed by Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan, was quite active in spreading nuclear technology and materials for proliferation. It appears that his ring was stopped in time, but it is not fully certain how much damage was done by Khan’s efforts or what their results will be in the future.

Iraq, Iran and North Korea

In his 2002 State of the Union speech, George W. Bush named Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “Axis of Evil.” These states, along with some others, had already shown up in the US Nuclear Posture Review as states for which the US was making contingency plans for the use of nuclear weapons. In 2002, Bush and other US administration officials began talking about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons. Subsequently, in March 2003, the US invaded Iraq, initiating a war of aggression against that country and using the justification in part of nuclear proliferation.

Following the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, no weapons of mass destruction were found. Surely, the war against Iraq has put other states on notice that nuclear weapons may be useful to them to prevent a US attack. This suggests that, while nuclear weapons may not be particularly useful to a powerful state, they would have deterrent value to a weaker state to prevent the attack of a more powerful state. This may be the lesson drawn by both Iran and North Korea.

Iran is relying on the Article IV provision of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (nuclear energy as an “inalienable right”) in maintaining its right to enrich uranium for nuclear reactors. This points to the inherent contradiction in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which seeks both to prevent nuclear proliferation and promote nuclear energy.

In the case of North Korea, it has withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, undertaken reprocessing of its spent fuel to extract plutonium, and claims to have developed a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. Six party talks have taken place for several years between the US, North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia. The North Korean negotiators have been clear that they are seeking security assurances and development aid from the US in exchange for giving up their nuclear programs and returning to the NPT. After several years of negotiating, little progress has been made, although it would seem that the conditions set forth by the North Koreans are reasonable.

Incentives to Proliferate

There are many countries that could develop nuclear arsenals, but have chosen not to do so. Among these are Canada, Sweden and Japan. Decisions by Canada and Sweden were taken early in the Nuclear Age. Japan is a good example of a virtual nuclear power. It has the technological capability to make nuclear weapons and tons of reprocessed plutonium for doing so, but has thus far foregone the option as it currently falls under the US nuclear umbrella. If Japan did decide to become a nuclear weapons state, it could become a major one in a matter of months. North Korea’s advances in its nuclear arsenal and missile technology may play a key role in determining whether Japan decides to join the nuclear club in future years.

Some states have developed or obtained nuclear weapons and given them up. South Africa actually developed a small nuclear weapons arsenal and then destroyed it just before the end of apartheid. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan inherited nuclear weapons when the Soviet Union split apart, but agreed to transfer all of their nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantlement. Brazil and Argentina had nuclear programs and were on the path to creating nuclear weapons, but gave up these programs.

Among the major incentives to proliferation are threats of nuclear attack, threats of conventional attack by a more powerful state, and national prestige. These incentives suggest that nuclear weapons serve the purposes of the weak more than they do the strong. They suggest that strong states would better serve their national security and their citizens by leading the way toward nuclear disarmament rather than clinging to nuclear arsenals. By their very act of reliance on their own nuclear arsenals, the nuclear weapons states provide incentives for other states to join them in the nuclear club. A two-tier system of nuclear “haves” and “have-nots” is ultimately unstable and untenable.

A Return to the Basics

Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty calls for “good faith” negotiations by the nuclear weapons states to achieve nuclear disarmament. The International Court of Justice in 1996 ruled: “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”

At the 2005 NPT Review Conference, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation called for the following eight commitments as the minimum necessary to revive nuclear disarmament in the non-proliferation regime.

  • Commitment to total nuclear disarmament and to good faith negotiations. This is the basic commitment of Article VI of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
  • Commitment to a timeframe for achieving nuclear disarmament. This is a necessary commitment to indicate to the international community that the nuclear weapons states are indeed acting in good faith.
  • Commitment to No First Use. Without this commitment there will always be pressure for some non-nuclear weapons states to consider developing nuclear arsenals to provide deterrence against larger nuclear weapons states.
  • Commitment to irreversibility and verifiability. This is one of the key steps of the 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament. It would close the door to reversing the progress made in disarmament efforts, and would be a strong confidence building measure.
  • Commitment to standing down nuclear forces. This would dramatically reduce the possibility of using nuclear weapons inadvertently, currently a serious danger to humanity.
  • Commitment to no new nuclear weapons. This would be another sign of good faith on the part of the nuclear weapons states, indicating that they are not basing their policies on the double standard of asking others not to develop new nuclear weapons while doing so themselves.
  • Commitment to a verifiable ban on fissile materials. This is one of the 13 Practical Steps and would rein in the amount of fissile material being created that could be used for nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons states should commit to placing their stores of weapons-grade fissionable materials under strict international control and to the elimination of this material.
  • Commitment to accounting, transparency and reporting. These are essential for building confidence and providing a baseline for verification of the disarmament process.In addition to these eight commitments for achieving nuclear disarmament, the Foundation called for five additional commitments for closing the loophole created by the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s promotion of the so-called “peaceful” uses of atomic energy. These are:
  • Commitment to a global ban on spent fuel reprocessing and reduced reliance on nuclear energy. Reprocessing of spent fuel may be good for nuclear industry, but it creates far more weapons-grade material that could be used for military purposes.
  • Commitment to bring uranium enrichment and plutonium separation facilities under strict international control. It is primarily enriched uranium and separated plutonium that can be converted to weapons use. These controls must be placed on all states, not only the non-nuclear weapons states.
  • Commitment to regulate and store spent nuclear fuel under strict international control. There need to be high standards of control for the regulation and storage of spent fuel in order to keep it from being reprocessed for weapons use.
  • Commitment to make the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol mandatory for all states. The IAEA Additional Protocol places states under a higher set of standards for safeguarding nuclear materials. Currently the Additional Protocol only applies to non-nuclear weapons states, and this should be universalized to apply to nuclear weapons states as well.
  • Commitment to highly restrict the trade of all nuclear materials and technology. The trade in nuclear materials and technology creates possibilities for proliferation through theft or enhancement of a country’s nuclear programs.These final five commitments can help to create a far stronger barrier between the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the military uses. They are critically important steps in keeping nuclear materials from being diverted to weapons programs. These commitments complement the eight commitments above to revive nuclear disarmament. Both sets of commitments are mutually reinforcing.

    Evaluating the Prospects for Preventing Proliferation

    If it is true that these commitments are needed to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons, then it may be unlikely that proliferation will be prevented. Most of the nuclear weapons states seem comfortable continuing with the double standards that have characterized their behavior, and seem unwilling to make the necessary commitments. The nuclear weapons states appear comfortable asking for commitments from others, but not in making commitments themselves. Over time, this promises to be a recipe for international failure in preventing nuclear proliferation.

    It is noteworthy that the nuclear weapons states at the bottom of the nuclear pyramid – namely, China, India and Pakistan – have all indicated a willingness to go to zero nuclear weapons if the other nuclear weapons states would do so. Additionally, Russia has offered to reduce its nuclear arsenal below the levels agreed to in the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, but the US has not accepted these lower levels.

    In the end, preventing proliferation will depend upon changes in the policies of the most powerful nuclear weapons state, the United States. The US sets the tone for the world. If the United States does not show leadership in this area, proliferation will certainly continue. At the present, the US non-proliferation effort is based entirely on double standards. It continues to rely upon its nuclear arsenal, while seeking to develop and implement mechanisms to prevent others countries from doing as it does. The US even seeks to develop new nuclear weapons, a form of vertical proliferation.

    Given the US aversion to serious nuclear disarmament measures and its failure to provide leadership to the other nuclear weapons states to fulfill their disarmament obligations, nuclear proliferation appears inevitable. This is not only due to the narrow policy positions of the Bush administration. It was also true, in a less extreme form, during the Clinton administration. The great irony of this is that the country most likely to be the target of a terrorist nuclear attack is the United States.

    This leads to the conclusion that the United States is acting against its own best interests in not ending nuclear double standards and making phased and negotiated nuclear disarmament a priority of its nuclear non-proliferation program. Perhaps at some point US leaders will awaken to the likelihood that their nuclear posturing is making it more likely that their cities and citizens will become the victims of their own nuclear policies.

    Hopefully, this awakening will not be the result of a nuclear attack, and that it will be possible to prevent such an attack against the US or any other country. This may be possible if we employ imagination, reason and leadership, and seek the necessary international cooperation.

    1. Caldicott, Helen. Missile Envy. New York, Bantam, 1984.

    2. 1995 Review and Extension Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Part I, (NPT/Conf.1995/32 (Part I), p. 10.

    3. 2000 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Final Document, Vol. I (NPT/CONF.2000/28 (Parts I and II)), Part I.

    4. “Statement on Proliferation Security Initiative,” White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 4, 2003.

    5. Proliferation Security Initiative: Statement of Interdiction Principles, adopted in Paris, September 4, 2003.

    6. S/RES/1540 (2004).

    7. Advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons, United Nations General Assembly, A/51/218, 15 October 1996.

    8. Krieger, David and Carah Ong, “Back to Basics: Reviving Nuclear Disarmament in the Non-Proliferation Regime.” Santa Barbara, CA: Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, 2005, pp. 13-15.

    9. Krieger and Ong, Op.Cit., pp. 16-17.

    David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( He is a leader in the global effort for a world free of nuclear weapons.