The problem of nuclear weapons

Ramesh Thakur Nuclear Weapons

Ramesh Thakur

Professor Ramesh Thakur, former UN Assistant Secretary-General, is director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament at Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University. Recent publications include Nuclear Weapons: The State of Play (co-edited with Gareth Evans, 2013), Nuclear Politics (co-edited with Maria Rost Rublee, 2014), and Nuclear Weapons and International Security (forthcoming, 2015).

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 35 Issue 3 Autumn 2014

Having learned to live with nuclear weapons, we have become desensitized to the gravity and immediacy of the threat. The tyranny of complacency could yet exact a fearful price with nuclear Armageddon.

Courting nuclear Armageddon

Forty-four years after the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force, the world still finds itself perilously close to the edge of the nuclear cliff. The cliff is perhaps not quite as steep as it was in the 1980s, but going over it would be fatal for planet Earth. Authoritative roadmaps exist to walk us back to the relative safety of a denuclearized world, but a perverse mixture of hubris and arrogance on the part of the nuclear-weapons states (NWS) exposes us to the risk of sleepwalking into a nuclear disaster. Even a limited regional nuclear war in which India and Pakistan used 50 Hiroshima-size (15 kiloton) bombs each, could lead to a famine that kills up to a billion people (Helfand 2012).

Nuclear weapons could be catastrophic if ever used by both sides in a war between nuclear-armed rivals; prospects for their use have grown since the end of the Cold War. For nuclear peace to hold, deterrence and failsafe mechanisms must work every time. For nuclear Armageddon to break out, deterrence or failsafe mechanisms need to break down only once. Unlike most situations where risk can be mitigated after disaster strikes, with nuclear weapons all risks must be mitigated before any disaster (Hellman 2011).

Deterrence stability depends on rational decision-makers being always in office on all sides—a dubious and not very reassuring precondition. It depends on there being no rogue launch, human error, or system malfunction—an impossibly high bar. The number of times that we have come frighteningly close to nuclear holocaust is simply staggering (Schlosser 2013). According to one U.S. study, more than 1,200 nuclear weapons were involved in significant incidents between 1950 and 1968 because of security breaches, lost weapons, failed safety mechanisms, or accidents when weapons were dropped or crushed in elevators, etc.

The most graphic example is the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. The U.S. strategy was based on the best available intelligence, which indicated that there were no nuclear warheads in Cuba. In fact Cuba had 162 warheads (McNamara 2013). In November 1983, in response to NATO war games exercise Able Archer, which Moscow mistook to be real, the Soviets came close to launching a full-scale nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons bring the added risk of proliferation to extremist elements through leakage, theft, state collapse, and state capture. A nuclear program breeds excessive centralization of political control and obsessive secrecy. It can lead to the creation of a national security state with a premium on governmental secretiveness, reduced public accountability, and increased distance between citizens and government. A nuclear program undermines democratic accountability and contributes instead to a culture of lies and evasions. The nuclear age has also left a trail of grave environmental damage.

The impact of the NPT

The NPT has kept the nuclear nightmare at bay since 1968. Virtually the entire family of nations has signed it. The number of countries with nuclear weapons is still in single figures. Yet at the same time, the nuclear arsenals of the five NPT-defined nuclear-weapons states (N5—the United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France) expanded enormously under the NPT umbrella. The global total of nuclear warheads climbed steadily after 1945, peaked in the mid-1980s, fell dramatically for about a decade and then stabilized in the new millennium. Currently there are more than 16,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled by the world’s nine nuclear-armed states; 5,000 warheads are launch-ready, 2,000 in a state of high operational alert.

The N5 must be deemed to be in violation of their solemn obligation to disarm. The advisory opinion of the World Court in 1996 was that the NPT requires them to engage in and bring to a conclusion negotiations for nuclear abolition. Yet a surprising number of arms control experts focus solely on the non-proliferation side to demand denial of technology and materiel to all who refuse to sign and abide by the NPT, and punishment of any who cross the threshold.

The symbiotic link between non-proliferation and disarmament is integral to the NPT. Most countries gave up the weapons option in return for a promise by the N5 to engage in good-faith negotiations to eliminate nuclear weapons. The most powerful stimulus to nuclear proliferation by others is the continuing possession of nuclear weapons by some.

Within the constraints of the NPT, a non-nuclear industrialized country such as Japan can build the necessary infrastructure to provide it with the ‘surge’ capacity to upgrade quickly to nuclear weapons. The NPT proscribes non-nuclear states from acquiring nuclear weapons, but fails to offer a strategy for dealing with non-signatory countries. It permits withdrawals, such as North Korea’s in 2003, much too easily.

There are other problems. The definition of an NWS is chronological: a country that manufactured and exploded a nuclear device before January 1, 1967. India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea, or Iran could test, deploy, and even use nuclear weapons, but would not be described as nuclear powers. Conversely, the UK and France could dismantle their nuclear edifice and destroy their nuclear arsenals, but would still count as nuclear powers.

The world is at a loss on how to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold and how to persuade, coax, or coerce North Korea to step back into the NPT as a denuclearized member in good standing. The NPT is creaking badly even with respect to its nuclear energy bargain. More countries are bumping against the nuclear weapons ceiling at the same time as the world energy crisis is encouraging a move to nuclear energy.

There is a gathering sense around the world that nuclear threats are intensifying and multiplying. There is a growing conviction that existing policies have failed to mute the threats. In the meantime, scientific and technological advancements since 1968 have greatly expanded our technical toolkit for monitoring and verifying weapons reduction and elimination. It is time for a multilaterally negotiated, non-discriminatory, and universal nuclear weapons convention.

Restarting a stalled agenda

The only certain way of avoiding a nuclear war is to abolish nuclear weapons.

The nuclear agenda was reenergized with the Prague promise of President Barack Obama in April 2009 to aim for the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States negotiated, signed, ratified, and brought into force New START to cut back their deployed nuclear arsenals by one-third.

Yet there is a palpable and growing sense, heightened by the crisis in Ukraine, that New START might mark the end of nuclear accomplishments. Not one country that had the bomb in 1968 has given up nuclear weapons. Indeed all nuclear-armed states seem determined to retain their weapons indefinitely. To would-be proliferators, the lesson is clear: nuclear weapons are indispensable.

A Cold War nuclear posture persists; one good example of this is weapons held on high alert. Some 2,000 nuclear warheads are kept at high readiness to be launched en masse before the apprehended arrival of incoming enemy missiles. Like nuclear terrorism, the launch of nuclear weapons on high alert by mistake, miscalculation, or through a malfunction is low probability but high impact. In the tense environment of nuclear decision-making, high-alert weapons carry a fourfold risk of unnecessary nuclear war:

Accidental launch (technical failure caused by malfunction);

  • Authority to launch usurped by a subordinate official or terrorists (custody failure leading to rogue launch);
  • Misinterpretation of incoming warning data (information failure leading to miscalculation);
  • Premature and ill-judged response to an actual attack (miscalculation caused by decision-making failure in a crisis).

Taking nuclear warheads and systems off high alert can deepen the stability of nuclear deterrence.

Civil society and the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have a crucial role to play in promoting global norms, monitoring state compliance with agreed commitments, and reflecting community values and concerns that do not always find expression in governmental processes.

The most productive way for committed states and NGOs to generate political momentum for the nuclear disarmament cause may be to emphasize the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons. This was the primary motivation behind the challenge to the legality of nuclear weapons mounted in the World Court that resulted in the 1996 advisory opinion that their use was indefensible except, possibly, in self-defence when a state’s very survival was at stake.

The 2010 NPT Review Conference expressed “deep concern at the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and reaffirm[ed] the need for all states at all times to comply with applicable international law, including international humanitarian law.” A key message from the first humanitarian consequences conference in Oslo in March 2013 was that no country or international body has the capacity to address the immediate humanitarian emergency caused by a nuclear weapon detonation or provide adequate assistance to victims. The second conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons was held in Mexico in February 2014, with Austria scheduled to host the third this coming December. The momentum building up behind the humanitarian impact movement is proving to be a diplomatic irritant to the nuclear-armed states.

A roadmap to abolition

Like chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented. But, like them, nuclear weapons can be controlled, regulated, restricted, and outlawed under an international regime that ensures strict compliance through effective and credible inspection and verification.

The circuit-breaker in the countervailing nuclear-weapons capability spiral is the United States. It has a special responsibility to light the way to nuclear abolition as the only country to have used them and as the world’s biggest military power. By destroying its nuclear stockpile, Washington would prove that national security can be safeguarded without a nuclear-weapons capability.

A zero option that destroyed the infrastructure of the nuclear weapons industry would be far easier to police even against non-state groups. The best way to keep nasty weapons out of the hands of nasty groups is to keep them out of the hands of governments, including good governments.

What we need is a multiphased roadmap to abolition that prioritizes concrete immediate steps in the first few years, such as introducing more robust firewalls to separate possession from use of nuclear weapons; further significant cuts in existing nuclear arsenals and a freeze on production of fissile materials in the medium term; further constraints on the deployment of their nuclear weapons on the territories of other states, for example by means of regional NWFZs; and an enforceable, new, international nuclear weapons convention that requires total and verified destruction of all nuclear stockpiles within our lifetime.

Implementing the NPT’s Article 6 on nuclear disarmament would dramatically transform the NPT into a prohibition regime. Because the NPT has been subverted into a non-proliferation regime, the time has come to look beyond it to a nuclear weapons convention. There are many technical, legal, and political challenges to be overcome. Serious preparatory work needs to be started now, with conviction and commitment.

The most powerful stimulus to nuclear proliferation by others is the continuing possession of the bomb by some. It is difficult to convince others of the futility of nuclear weapons when all who have them prove their continuing utility by insisting on keeping them. The threat to use nuclear weapons, whether to deter their use by others or to prevent proliferation, legitimizes their possession, deployment, and use.

The only choice is between nuclear abolition and cascading proliferation. The notion that a self-selecting group of five countries can keep an indefinite monopoly on the most destructive class of weapons ever invented defies logic, common sense, and all human history. Not surprising, then, that the self-serving belief has already been proven decisively wrong.

As part of a forward-looking agenda, the United States and Russia could initiate negotiations for a new treaty to reduce stockpile numbers for all classes of weapons, significantly cut back on their 2,000 warheads held in high alert, and embrace the principle of ‘no first use’ in their nuclear doctrines. Washington could also address Chinese and Russian concerns about ballistic missile defence and prompt global strike capabilities.

The United States, China, India, and Pakistan could move to rapid ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. China, India, and Pakistan could freeze their nuclear capabilities at present levels and Pakistan could lift its veto on negotiations for a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. India and Pakistan should avoid destabilizing steps such as the development of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons and missile defences.

Finally, U.S. allies, including Australia and Canada, could accept a significantly reduced role for nuclear weapons in their security protection. None of these steps would jeopardize the national security of the country concerned; each would make the world a little safer.

We need to look beyond and perhaps outside the NPT to realize the goal of nuclear elimination. But we must not jeopardize the regime until we are ready to replace it with something that is better and more robust.

In the journey to a post-NPT world, in which all nuclear weapons have been eliminated and their associated infrastructure has been destroyed under a universal and verifiable nuclear weapons convention, we have to guard against two critical risks. First, at present a significant number of countries shelter under the nuclear umbrella of others. A hasty or premature dismantlement of the U.S. nuclear stockpile, for example, could tempt one or more to acquire an independent nuclear weapons capability. Second, we must make sure that we do not tip back into a world that is once again “safe” for major-power conventional wars.

The problem: Nuclear weapons

Without strengthening national security, nuclear weapons jeopardize international security and diminish our common humanity. Their very destructiveness robs them of military utility against other nuclear powers and political utility against non-nuclear-armed countries. As long as any country has any, others will want some. As long as they exist, they will be used again one day. That is why we must make the transition to a world in which nuclear weapons become progressively marginal and eventually unnecessary.

The problem is not nuclear proliferation, but nuclear weapons. They could not proliferate if they did not exist. Because they do, they will.

The only guarantee of nuclear non-proliferation is nuclear disarmament. The walk to freedom from fear of nuclear weapons may prove to be very long, but we must neither step off the path nor stop short of that destination.


Helfand, Ira. 2012. Nuclear Famine: A Billion People at Risk – Global Impacts of Limited Nuclear War on Agriculture, Food Supplies, and Human Nutrition. Somerville, MA: International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, April.

Hellman, Martin E. 2011. How Risky Is Nuclear Optimism? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 67:2, pp. 47–56.

McNamara, Robert. 1996. The Conference on Disarmament should focus on steps to move toward a ‘Nuclear Free World,’ Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 4, April.

Schlosser, Eric. 2013. Command and Control. London: Allen Lane.

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