North Korean nuclear weapons

Are Nuclear Weapons a Real Threat?

Tomorrow marks 50 years since the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons opened for signatures. To date, 191 countries have signed the treaty, including the five designated nuclear states. The treaty entered into force in 1970 and more countries have adhered to this treaty than any other arms limitation or disarmament agreement in history. In 1963, John F. Kennedy speculated that by the 1970s there could be as many as 25 countries with nuclear capabilities. Instead, over half a century on from that prediction, there are 9. Do nuclear weapons really pose as big a threat as mainstream media want us to believe?

History of nuclear weapons

The Manhattan project. The infamous scientific collaboration between the US, UK, and Canada. In 1942 J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California theorised of a bomb that would use the same reaction as the Sun itself. Research proved to be much more difficult than anticipated; Oppenheimer’s theory of thermonuclear weapons seemed impossible, and attention turned to less powerful nuclear fission reactions. At the height of WW2, it was the retaliation to the Nazi Germany Nuclear Weapon Programme. The Allies succeeded and, in 1945 two bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively, vaporising the cities and causing widespread devastation years after they detonated. To date, however, these remain the only two nuclear weapons to be used in combat.

But many still advocated the further development of nuclear fission weapons. The Soviet Union was sure to develop their own nuclear capabilities in the years that followed and the Cold War was only just beginning. Edward Teller, who worked with Oppenheimer, claimed that the US must stay ahead. If development was refused it would be immoral, lest the Soviet Union become too powerful. In 1949 the USSR completed their first atomic bomb test and, just a few months later, Harry S. Truman announced a program to develop the hydrogen bomb which Oppenheimer had envisaged. In 1952 it was complete, and tests proved the H-bomb to be over 450 times more powerful than Fat Man. The Soviet Union followed suit less than a year later and thermonuclear development was dangerously important.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, tensions continued to rise, and the more countries gaining nuclear capabilities. The United Kingdom, France, and China all added thermonuclear weapons to their arsenal. In 1963 John F. Kennedy declared in an interview that there is “the possibility in the 1970s of the President of the United States having to face a world in which 15 or 20 or 25 nations may have these weapons. I regard that as the greatest possible danger and hazard.” This looming threat had forced the president into considering a nuclear test ban agreement.

There is the possibility of a world in which 25 nations have nuclear weapons. This is the greatest possible danger.

John F. Kennedy, 1963

Kennedy wasn’t the first US president to consider this. More than 10 years earlier, Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the UN with his Atoms for Peace proposition. It was an idea that sought to solve the atomic dilemma by turning atomic research into positive scientific progress. But the lack of public support in the midst of the Cold War meant that this idea largely failed. Yet fast-forward, not 10 years, but fifty, and there are only 9 countries who possess nuclear weapons. This is a stark difference to Kennedy’s prediction. So what changed?

Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

In 1968 a treaty was introduced, designed to limit and eventually eradicate thermonuclear and nuclear fission weapons. It was built upon 3 main axioms; non-proliferation, disarmament, and the right to use nuclear technology peacefully. This treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons came into force in 1970 by which time 92 states had signed the NPT. Today it stands at 191.

The first axiom, non-proliferation, required all signatories to not manufacture any nuclear weapons or to encourage any other nation to do so, as stated in articles I and II of the NPT. The exception to this requirement is that any country that had nuclear capabilities before 1967 was allowed to keep it. These countries are the nuclear-weapon states: the United States, Russia (whose rights were acceded from the USSR), the United Kingdom, France, and China. South Africa had developed a nuclear program throughout the 1970s and 1980s and had acquired a small nuclear arsenal. In 1991 South Africa acceded to the NPT but had to dismantle its capabilities before it could do so. This was because it did not have a nuclear arsenal before 1967.

Article VI details the responsibility of signatories to take measures towards the “cessation of the nuclear arms race” and towards eventual disarmament. This second axiom is, however, not so much a requirement but an ideal scenario. This is why, perhaps, that the five nuclear-weapon countries still have large and ready nuclear weapons. It may also be, however, that now is not the right time. The preamble of the treaty says that signatories have a desire towards the “easing of international tension and the strengthening of trust between States in order to facilitate the cessation of the manufacture of nuclear weapons”. This implies that disarmament may not be a responsibility of any sort until the political climate is one in which it is safe to do so. While tensions flare, most recently between the US and Russia, the US and North Korea, and the UK and Russia, nuclear weapons are a very important bargaining chip and deterrent.

Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant
Grafenrheinfeld Nuclear Power Plant in Bavaria, Germany. Nuclear power is harnessed peacefully in accordance with the third axiom of the NPT

The third axiom guarentees the use of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes such as nuclear power plants. Fundamentally, it allows countries the freedom to use nuclear technology as they like as long as it is demonstrable that it is not being maltreated. It is upon this point that many countries have stiffly regulated the global supply of Uranium and Plutonium. Because many nuclear technologies involve enrichment, it is feared that, if left unregulated, many non-nuclear states would possess the resources and capabilities to produce fissile material capable for weapons-use.

Has the treaty worked?

Disregarding the five designated nuclear states, only North Korea, India, Pakistan, Iraq, and Israel posses, or are though to posses, nuclear weapons. India, it is estimated, has a sizeable nuclear arsenal, of around 150 warheads. Former National Security Adviser of India, Shivshankar Menon, described India’s attitude to nuclear weapons to reflect India’s “strategic culture, with its emphasis on minimal deterrence”. Pakistan has the capability of producing a similar number of warheads and refuses to sign the NPT on discriminatory grounds, citing its right to defend itself. Israel has been deliberately ambiguous as to whether or not it has nuclear capabilities but most non-proliferation analysts assume they do. Israel is in a historically violent region, is a small country, and is relatively vulnerable hence Israel probably posses a nuclear arsenal for deterrence. Iraq and North Korea have been cited with sanctions by the UN for their non-adherence to the NPT. North Korea, originally a signatory, revoked its signature in 2003. The only other non-signatory in South Sudan which has only been seperate from Sudan since 2011.
Still, 191 have signed the treaty which is the most adhered-to weapons limitation or prevention treaty. Thus, many might say that the treaty has worked, given the very few countries that have nuclear capabilities. Others, however, claim that proliferation would or wouldn’t have happened regardless of the treaty; signing the treaty is causal of their non-proliferatory preferences. I would point out, however, that there is evidence to demonstrate that there is indeed a positive effect of the treaty. Personally I believe, that nuclear weapons, while a formidable and alarming prospect, are not a large threat. The NPT has done its job well; the countries with nuclear capabilities have been greatly limited and the countries of the world are slowly, but surely, working towards complete denuclearisation.

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