A nuclear-weapon-free world: Prohibition versus elimination

By Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky | March 4, 2007

Today, a world free from nuclear weapons would be a safer world, and a United States within a nuclear-weapon-free world would be a safer country. Yet nuclear weapons cannot be uninvented. Two nuclear weapons used over Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed one-quarter of a million people. Since then, however, nuclear weapons have not been used in anger, and arguably, the existence of nuclear weapons has deterred major world wars since 1945. But during this time period, there have been about 100 armed conflicts. The absence of use of nuclear weapons in these conflicts may be attributable to the wisdom of national leaders, but more likely to good fortune. There is ample documentation that several U.S. presidents seriously considered using nuclear weapons. 1 So attainment of a nuclear-weapon-free world remains an urgent objective. But is it attainable?

Advocacy of a nuclear-weapon-free world has been legion. In 1955, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto was issued, and immediately after World War II, the United States introduced the (understandably rejected) Baruch proposal that advocated the international control of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1970, requires in Article VI: “Negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date to nuclear disarmament . . .” But while the worldwide inventories of nuclear weapons have now shrunk to below half their Cold War peak of 70,000–still an inexcusable amount–a nuclear-weapon-free world appears utopian to most.

Whether a nuclear-weapon-free world is attainable depends on the meaning of that term. Unfortunately, the verbiage in this respect has been confusing. Do we mean abolition, disarmament, or prohibition?

In the strict sense, abolition means that no nuclear weapons remain worldwide. This indeed appears utopian. But prohibition is clearly an attainable goal. The world has succeeded to prohibit chemical weapons and biological weapons through international agreements, but in the face of possible and even probable violations and slow implementation. 2 But most would agree that the world is safer by virtue of such prohibitions. Prohibition of nuclear weapons does not imply their disappearance. Knowledge of their design and construction is widely disseminated, and barriers to knowledge are no longer a feasible means for preventing their further spread.

Evasion of prohibition is possible to a limited extent. But to evaluate the merits, cost, and feasibility of prohibition, answers must be provided as to what is to be prohibited and what monitoring system needs to be in place internationally to implement such a prohibition.

In a 2005 report, the National Academy of Sciences analyzed the technically and politically feasible monitoring systems that could be made available. 3 That report estimated the extent of violations of a prohibition agreement that could escape such monitoring systems. Violations of a prohibition of nuclear weapons could take place through clandestine retention of nuclear weapons by those states now possessing them, by diversion of weapons-useable material from existing stockpiles to the manufacture of new nuclear weapons, or by a clandestine production complex producing such materials for incorporation into nuclear weapons.

The academy report judged the extent of possible violations both from history–that is, the past success and timing of U.S. intelligence in uncovering foreign nuclear weapons programs–and from the potential of present and future monitoring systems. That analysis projected that under a prohibition of nuclear weapons and with implementation of the monitoring system described in the report, Russia and the United States could perhaps clandestinely retain several hundred nuclear weapons without detection, while the other nuclear weapons states could retain only a very small number. New production facilities could be uncovered with high confidence. As a result, it is clear that prohibition, while not guaranteeing a nuclear-weapon-free world, would result in only a very small potential number of nuclear weapons worldwide. Therefore, the potential damage should one of those weapons ever be used would still be horrendous, but it would be small compared to the risks of the present situation.

The size of such remaining risks depend on the then-existing political climate and the agreed upon details of the prohibition. Among the questions that must be answered:

  • What is to be prohibited? Presumably acquisition and storage–yet alone deployment–of nuclear weapons. But shall possession of nuclear weapon parts be outlawed? How about production facilities or other elements of a nuclear weapons infrastructure?
  • How quickly can nuclear weapons reappear? Even if nuclear weapons are prohibited, they retain their function as “existential deterrents,” meaning that the very possibility that nuclear weapons can come into being in the future constitutes a deterrent to their clandestine possession, let alone use. Therefore, the extent of the reach of prohibition determines the lead time for regenerating nuclear weapons in case violations become evident and therefore the power of potential existential deterrence. That lead time could be a fraction of a year for the highly industrialized nations.
  • Prohibition presumably requires enforcement, but this must remain a political question for future international arrangements.

Worldwide attainment of prohibition seems only a remote possibility under present conditions, but these conditions can (and must) be changed; the present role of nuclear weapons in the conduct of international relations remains an intolerable anachronism inherited from the Cold War and a burden that must be reversed. Irrespective as to whether prohibition is being kept in view, a regime of progressive constraints must be enacted, including for instance:

  • Major reductions in inventories encompassing all categories of nuclear weapons–not only strategic.
  • Improvements in the verified accounting and security arrangements governing such reductions.
  • Changes in the operational practices of current nuclear forces to limit their rapidity of response.
  • Cessation of nuclear tests through coming into force of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Progress along these lines would also pave the way toward prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Negotiations toward prohibition of nuclear weapons will by necessity be protracted, but it should be remembered that the NPT was negotiated from 1959 to 1968. The NPT remains a cornerstone of today’s nonproliferation regime, notwithstanding the current challenges to that regime. As outlined in another National Academy report, prohibition could either be negotiated through an analogous protracted international process, or it might alternatively be obtained by a covenant among the existing nuclear weapons states turning over their nuclear weapons to international management. 4

As a further alternative, prohibition might be obtained by amending the NPT. But this would also require extensive negotiation and would leave the current nonparties to the NPT outside of the prohibition regime. Whatever the chosen path toward prohibition, the time is now to constrain existing nuclear weapons and to reduce their quantities. Such moves are of grave urgency and would make prohibition appear far less utopian.

1 J. E. Goodby, At the Borderline of Armageddon: How American Presidents Managed the Atomic Bomb (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006).
2 J. Tucker, Arms Control Today, January/February 2007, p. 6.
3 J. Holdren, Chair, “Monitoring Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Explosive Materials,” National Academy Press, 2005.
4 “The Future of Nuclear Weapons Policy,” National Academy Press, 1997.

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