Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Agenda

Tasneem Jamal

The Ploughshares Monitor Winter 2006 Volume 27 Issue 4

This article is drawn from a joint brief by Veterans Against Nuclear Arms (VANA) and Project Ploughshares.

The nuclear threat has not gone the way of the Berlin Wall. In the immediate post-Cold War period there were significant and welcome reductions in nuclear arsenals, but there are currently still about 27,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine states.1 Russia and the United States account for just over 26,000 warheads, and almost 10,000 of those are on strategic missiles kept at high levels of alert and ready to be fired within minutes of an order to do so. China, France, and the United Kingdom maintain relatively modest arsenals, in the low hundreds of warheads, but all five of the nuclear weapon states (NWS) officially recognized as such by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are committed to maintaining and modernizing their nuclear arsenals despite their obligation under the NPT to disarm.

Three additional nuclear weapon states have never joined the NPT. Israel refuses to confirm or deny its nuclear arsenal, but is understood to have at least several dozen warheads. India and Pakistan made a particular show of testing nuclear warheads in 1998 and have since each developed dozens of warheads, with intentions to build more. And both continue to develop ballistic missiles capable of delivering these warheads.

The continuing threat

The launch-on-warning policies still maintained by former rivals Russia and the United States mean that retaliatory strikes could be authorized in response to warnings of attack – raising the possibility of a nuclear launch being triggered by a mistaken warning. There have been such false warnings in the past, and while to date the mistake has always been discovered before the retaliatory launch order was given, there is no guarantee of that always being so.

The US Defense Department is persistent in its efforts to develop new tactical nuclear weapons designed to destroy hardened underground targets, the controversial ‘bunker busters,’ and the US has also recently funded the construction of a new facility to produce Plutonium pits, the cores for nuclear weapons, on a large scale. The Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program, which is intended to ensure that weapons in current stockpiles remain useable, is in fact a modernization program that replaces older warheads with newer versions with new capabilities. In the United Kingdom, the debate over replacing the Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile system, the UK’s only nuclear weapons system, continues. Much of the argument insists that it is essential for the UK to retain a “seat at the top table of nuclear powers” (Ripley 2004), a logic that could persuade others to pursue nuclear weapons as a ticket to some coveted table or other. In 2005 Russia tested maneuverable intercontinental ballistic missiles designed to circumvent US ballistic missile defences (Norris & Kristensen 2006). Both France and China are pursuing modernized delivery vehicles for their nuclear weapons.

North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), has claimed for the past few years to have built a warhead, and in October 2006 punctuated the point with an underground test explosion. Most analysts believe that the DPRK has produced enough fissionable material to have built about a dozen warheads and is producing plutonium at a rate sufficient to add several new warheads each year. The DPRK was a signatory to the NPT but announced its withdrawal in 2003.

Iran’s nuclear program, which includes the enrichment of uranium, a technology useful for both the production of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, is also currently at the centre of public and diplomatic concern. Iran is party to the NPT and has consistently insisted that it is interested only in non-military uses of nuclear technology, but the fact that it carried out much of its research in secret has undermined the international community’s confidence in Iran’s peaceful intent.

The nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran have been directly linked to the nuclear technology smuggling ring of A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani nuclear scientist who admitted to running a clandestine network to distribute nuclear technology.

The dysfunctional disarmament machinery

The Cold War saw the development of an elaborate arms control system. The ostensible aim of arms control was to reduce nuclear arsenals, but in practice the system functioned more as a joint management system to oversee the growth and modernization of the rival nuclear arsenals.

In the immediate post-Cold War period, American and Russian leaders took advantage of that system along with a radically changed political environment to reach agreements on substantial arsenal reductions. But the post-Cold War era gave way to the post-9/11 era.

The international community now faces an environment that is increasingly suspicious of multilateral arms control, and in which the arms control infrastructure is in serious disrepair and the political climate generally does not favour arms reductions or reductions in military spending.

Through the NPT, as well as the agreements reached at the 1995 and 2000 Review Conferences, the international community has developed a broad consensus, though not unanimity, on the core nuclear disarmament agenda. That agenda, confirmed and elaborated in the Weapons of Mass Destruction (Blix) Commission report (2006), is designed to achieve three broad objectives: a) prevent the use of existing arsenals, b) prevent the expansion or enhancement of existing arsenals and make progress toward their elimination, and c) prevent the diversion of nuclear materials for military use in non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) or by non-state groups.

The role of Canada

Canada has been a consistent advocate for nuclear disarmament. In 1999, through the official response to a report of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Government (p. 9) declared that “Canada’s objective has been and remains the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.” This was the position before 1999 and has continued through successive changes in Government and enjoys support across the full political spectrum.

While supporting the broad agenda articulated through the NPT review process, Canada has focused on particular issues and policies that can be effectively advanced by middle-level powers, such as addressing the ‘institutional deficit’ of the arms control treaty regime, notably weaknesses in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the NPT. It also has worked on enhancing transparency among NPT member states through the reporting requirement called for in the Final Document of the 2000 Review Conference. Canada has also led in calling for new mechanisms to deal with such crises as the 2002 announced withdrawal of North Korea from the NPT and for annual meetings to discuss substantive issues. Canada was a co-sponsor of the 2005 draft resolution in the UN First Committee proposing a series of ad hoc committees to deal with the issues currently blocked at the CD. When this creative approach to the impasse could not garner the support of key allies, Canada withdrew its support and the resolution was not tabled.

Canada has also contributed to such tangible disarmament efforts as the G8 Global Partnership Program. The program partners have committed to raise $20-billion to reduce proliferation threats in, or emanating from, the Russian Federation and Canada’s commitment totals $1-billion over 10 years.

Continuity in Canadian nuclear disarmament priorities requires the Harper Government to embrace Canada’s historic commitment to the abolition of nuclear weapons and to commit to active diplomacy and concrete implementation measures in pursuit of that goal. Five particular priorities commend themselves to Canada.

1. Support and promote the multilaterally defined disarmament agenda

It is essential that Canada continue to press the nuclear weapon states, through bilateral and multilateral engagements, to fully implement their Article VI obligations and to take the concrete disarmament steps set out in the 1995 and 2000 NPT Review Conferences. It is especially important for the current Government of Prime Minister Harper to recognize that Canada’s commitment to nuclear disarmament, and to the active pursuit of that goal through diplomacy and concrete implementation measures, has the broad support of Canadians and the weight of long-term all-party support.

The entry into force of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the negotiation of a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) are two measures that are consistently and properly portrayed as key steps in support of the disarmament agenda and the prevention of both vertical and horizontal non-proliferation.

Canada should also call on the US and Russia to immediately remove all nuclear-armed missiles from their present launch-on-warning status and implement the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty with verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of their nuclear arms. Irreversibility and verifiability are the foundations for building confidence in the disarmament commitments of the NWS.
Canada must continue to press for multilateral arms control agreements and for multilateral verification and monitoring of those agreements. The multilateral inspections and analysis in Iraq were the clearest and most reliable indicators of the state of weapons of mass destruction there.

2. Addressing the policy contradiction

Canada’s commitment to nuclear disarmament is contradicted by its ongoing support for NATO’s declaration that nuclear weapons are “essential to preserve peace.” There is an urgent need for Canada and its NATO partners to revisit the NATO nuclear weapons issue. Canada should work with like-minded states to call for a new review of NATO nuclear policy with the aim of renouncing the policy of reliance on nuclear weapons to preserve peace.

At a minimum, NATO doctrine should be rewritten to reflect the NPT consensus that security for all states requires that nuclear arsenals be eliminated, not retained indefinitely. It should describe the deployment of nuclear weapons as a temporary measure in the context of efforts towards balanced nuclear disarmament, explain that the only role of nuclear weapons in such an interim is to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others, and declare that NATO therefore will adopt a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons. NATO doctrine should acknowledge that nuclear weapons represent an unacceptable risk to humanity, and that their early elimination is essential to human security.

It would also be appropriate for NATO to engage Russia on the reduction and elimination of all non-strategic nuclear weapons.

3. Making the CD work

It is nothing short of scandalous that the CD has not managed any substantive negotiation in more than a decade. The one UN body with an explicit mandate to negotiate multilateral disarmament agreements has had its work blocked by the failure of NWS states to agree on four key elements of action.

The CD has agreed to work toward the FMCT. While a broad consensus on the measure has been undercut by some objections regarding verifiability, negotiation of this issue is blocked only by the linkage to other measures also up for negotiation. One of these is the proposal to negotiate an international instrument to “prevent an arms race in outer space” (PAROS). In addition, the CD has been charged with negotiating a legally binding instrument to embody negative security assurances (NSAs) by NWS that they will not attack or threaten to attack NNWS signatories of the NPT with nuclear weapons. And finally, NNWS members of the CD have also insisted that the program of work include a special committee to address the broad program of nuclear disarmament and negotiate a process for meeting the objectives of the NPT Article VI and the very first resolution of the UN General Assembly – resolution A/RES/1/1 of January 1946, which called for the phase-out of all nuclear weapons.

In the fall of 2005 Canada explored the possibility of submitting a resolution to the First Committee of the General Assembly (the disarmament committee) that called on it to approve four ad hoc committees of the General Assembly to begin discussions on each of the above issues, and to continue such discussions until such time as the CD was prepared to take up action on each. The proposal met with strong objections from the NWS, especially the United States, so it was never formally put forward. However, it was effective in pushing the CD to organize focused discussions on the issues during its 2006 session. The challenge now is for the CD to not simply repeat last year’s model and to move from discussion to actual negotiation. Canada was effective in moving the CD to greater action and that pressure must now continue to ensure that the next steps are taken.

4. The NPT institutional deficit

The NPT is hampered by a complete absence of institutional infrastructure. For example, while states agreed in 2000 to undertake regular reporting on their holdings of nuclear materials and on their actions to implement the treaty, without a secretariat there is no body to receive such reports other than the Review Conferences, which are briefly constituted every five years.

Instead of a secretariat, Canada has called for an annual decision-making meeting or conference as well as a standing five-person bureau. This bureau would provide continuity and oversight, and would convene extraordinary sessions “when situations arise that threaten the integrity or viability of the Treaty,” and within two weeks of a withdrawal notice.

Canada should also continue to champion the participation of NGOs and civil society in the NPT review process. Civil society participation advances the goals of accountability and transparency.

The claim is certainly not that institutional changes can overcome the basic failures of political will that now prevent genuine disarmament. On the other hand, given that the political obstacles to action are so daunting, the institutional mechanisms should be designed to help overcome political inertia rather than to facilitate it.

5. Internationalizing the fuel cycle (in the context of India and Iran)

If processes to enrich uranium and reprocess spent fuel (which have applications for weapons development as well as for power production) are confined to a very few countries, there will of course be greater confidence in the international community’s capacity to detect and prevent diversion. But it is not realistic to expect to confine the relevant technologies and materials to a few select states. The technology is irretrievably spreading, and the NPT does not prohibit that spread as long as it can be confirmed that the technology is for peaceful purposes only.

It will not be possible to enforce a global double standard regarding the control of nuclear technologies and materials for non-military use – i.e., an essentially arbitrary determination that some countries can possess technologies such as uranium enrichment for civilian power production while others cannot. It will take multilateral controls to ensure a universal standard that will give all states equal access to the legal product of those technologies (e.g., civilian reactor fuel) on a non-discriminatory basis, but that will also have the means of preventing diversion to weapons purposes.

The proposed solution is to take production of civilian reactor fuel out of national hands and to place it under multilateral control.

Because Canada is a supplier of nuclear fuel it is poised to be an important player in this process. The key international player in the development of such controls is the IAEA, and the Blix Commission (2006, p. 77) calls on states to “make active use of the IAEA as a forum for exploring various ways to reduce proliferation risks connected with the nuclear fuel cycle, such as proposals for an international fuel bank; internationally safeguarded regional centres offering fuel-cycle services, including spent-fuel repositories; and the creation of a fuel-cycle system built on the concept that a few ‘fuel-cycle states’ will lease nuclear fuel to states that forgo enrichment and reprocessing activities.”

The three states with nuclear weapons that remain outside the NPT present a particular challenge inasmuch as they are all “fuel cycle states” that are not under the discipline of the NPT. At the 2005 Review Conference Canada “call[ed] upon the three States which have yet to adhere to the Treaty – India, Israel, and Pakistan – to accede to it as non-nuclear-weapon states.” At the same time, the essence of a proposed deal between the US and India is to accept India as a de facto nuclear weapon state, and grant India the basic prerogatives of a NWS (i.e., the operation of unsafeguarded nuclear facilities without any penalty) without India’s having in turn to accept even the NPT’s formal obligation to pursue disarmament, provide reporting, and so on. At the same time, India would gain access to nuclear materials and technology that are available to other states only if they are in verifiable compliance with the NPT as NNWS.

The US-India deal is critically important for Canada, because the pressure is already on for Canada to follow the American example. The issue will come before the nuclear supplier group (NSG), but there is no compelling reason why the NSG should deviate from the current standard that nuclear material is supplied only to countries with full-scope safeguards in place (i.e., that all the recipient country’s nuclear facilities are safeguarded), if they are producing fissile material for weapons purposes. In addition, India should be required to sign and ratify the CTBT and enrichment and reprocessing should be prohibited within its borders.

For more background, see the following items, all available on the Project Ploughshares website.

“Iran’s challenge to the nonproliferation regime” (Monitor, Summer 2006),

“A report on the UN First Committee on Disarmament and International Security” (Monitor, Winter 2005),

“Nuclear cooperation with India: A further threat to nuclear nonproliferation” (Monitor, Autumn 2005),

“From abolition to retention? The morning after the failed NPT Review Conference” and “Complying with Article VI of the NPT: Reports to the Review Conference” (Monitor, Summer 2005),

Rebuilding Confidence in the NPT: Resolving the NATO-NPT Contradiction (Working Paper 05-4, 2005).



1. Norris & Kristensen (2006) provide the following breakdown of the number of warheads held as of 2006: United States: 10,104; Russia: 16,000; UK: 200; France: 350; China: 200; India: 55; Pakistan: 45; Israel: 70; North Korea: 10.


Government of Canada. 1999. “Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: Advancing Canadian Objectives.” Government Statement, April.

Norris, Robert S. & Hans M. Kristensen. 2006. Russian nuclear forces, 2006. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 62:2, pp. 64-67.

Ripley, Tim. 2004. Secret plans for Trident replacement, The Scotsman, 9 June.

Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission. 2006. Weapons of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms. Stockholm.

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