Transparency: The beginning of the end of nuclear weapons?

The United Nations General Assembly will hold its first-ever high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament this week.The meeting is a recognition by the international community that nuclear weapons remain an existential threat to humankind. And in theory, humankind knows precisely how to deal with nuclear weapons: They must never be used; they must not proliferate to new states; and they must be prohibited and eliminated over the long term. Otherwise, they will eventually be used again.

But why don’t states act on this acknowledged reality?

There are a few good signs. The United States and Russia, who hold more than 16,000 of the estimated 17,000 or so nuclear warheads in the world, have reduced their arsenals considerably. International collaboration on nuclear security is improving. The norm against nuclear testing is strong, and in regard to the actual use of nuclear weapons, the global norm is extremely strong. Also, the debate on nuclear armaments and deterrence has changed for the better—the concept of a nuclear weapon-free world has gained some ground, at least as a topic for analysis and a serious goal.

But non-nuclear weapon states see negative developments, as well. Weapons reductions are uneven and unpredictable; some nuclear weapon states are not pursuing them at all. No test ban for nuclear weapons is in force. Alert and readiness levels for weapons carriers and warheads are still dangerously high. No negotiations on prohibiting production of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium for nuclear weapons are under way, or even on the horizon, in spite of repeated undertakings to that end.

In addition, no serious multilateral discussions for nuclear disarmament are taking place. This means that Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-based agreements and promises are continuously being broken. Nuclear weapon states are preparing large modernization projects. Last but not least, transparency on holdings of nuclear weapons and fissile material is poor.

This last point may sound less sinister than the other trends and threats. It underscores, however, how very little non-nuclear weapon states know about the plans and capacities of those that possess nuclear weapons. Disadvantaged by this information gap, non-nuclear weapon states may understandably assume that the nuclear weapon states plan to retain their monopoly on ultra-violence for the foreseeable future. The logical conclusion, for a few countries at least, may be that they need to acquire their own nuclear weapons.

But the arsenals of the nuclear weapon states don’t have to be opaque. Transparency, actually, is in the interest of states with and without nuclear weapons and is the best way to build accountability and mutual confidence. Confidence about the size and scope of other states’ armaments and accountability (i.e., the ability to monitor any changes in arsenal size and capability) is vitally important for all states, regardless of whether they plan to keep their nuclear arms or want the weapons of other nations eliminated. Confidence and accountability—brought about by reliable public information about the size and make-up of nuclear arsenals and stockpiles of weapons-usable material—may be the only way to make sure that the quest for nuclear deterrence does not get out of hand.

The need for reporting standards.The need for transparency has been recognized, at least formally. In 2010, during the most recent NPT review conference, treaty members agreed to an action plan on nuclear disarmament that includes (as Action 21) the nuclear weapon states agreeing to construct a common reporting standard that would make it possible to evaluate progress on reductions of nuclear arsenals and establish a mechanism for confidence-building. The nuclear weapon states have discussed the possibilities for such a reporting regime among themselves without revealing the results. More publicly, several non-weapon states and some non-governmental organizations (including the International Panel on Fissile Materials, of which the authors of this piece are all members) have presented draft reporting outlines to fulfill the 2010 agreements.

To reach a generally accepted reporting standard will not be easy. An unusual level of cooperation between nuclear weapon states will be required. They will have to find solutions for many political and legal problems that are highly sensitive for all nuclear-weapon states. But similar problems have been resolved in the past, and all NPT states party are committed to realizing this goal.

Progress toward transparency could start in different ways. There is already openness to build on, especially between the United States and Russia, but also among other NPT nuclear-weapon states. They have all released information about their production and stocks of both warheads and fissile material for weapons, although in varying degrees of detail. Four of them have reduced their stockpiles of nuclear warheads, formally ended their production of fissile material for weapons, and publicly declared a moratorium on future production. The fifth, China, has not produced any such material for about 25 years.

Further progress on openness will be a slow and deliberate process, but handled cooperatively and constructively, it will build trust and accountability over many years. As a start, the International Panel on Fissile Materials proposes in the forthcoming Global Fissile Material Report 2013 that the nuclear weapon states publish and annually update the total numbers of nuclear weapons in their arsenal; their holdings of highly enriched uranium and plutonium; and the portions of their stockpiles of weapons-usable material available for monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This level of reporting would be a minimum, which could be broken down in more detail by weapon states willing to do so.

As a natural next step, the nuclear weapon states could establish detailed public baselines for their arsenals that would help to verify further reductions in nuclear weapons. A commitment to such further common action could be undertaken at the next review conference of the NPT in 2015, where the nuclear weapon states could commit to develop and publish information on the histories of their nuclear warhead and fissile material stockpiles. Such records would include the numbers of warheads constructed, retired, and dismantled on a yearly basis, as well as production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium and information on the use and disposition of both materials. Reports of actions and plans for conversion and decommissioning of production facilities should also be included.

These records should be progressively refined, preserved, and kept open for all states to study. Every step in such a transparency program would start on a fully voluntary basis and then be developed multilaterally into more formal and detailed transparency commitments.

Transparency: A strategic interest of all. Why should the present nuclear weapon states bother to reveal data on the size and constitution of their nuclear arsenals and fissile material stockpiles, a process that requires the development of complicated procedures and could be criticized internally as jeopardizing national security? The answer is simple: It is in their strategic interest to do so. These processes build confidence over time—and not only among the nuclear weapon states. They also help assure the non-weapon states that the nuclear weapons states are in fact reducing their arsenals and moving toward abolition.

In addition, a process of this or a similar kind will facilitate achieving a goal that has so far eluded the parties to the NPT, nuclear and non-nuclear alike, namely regular reporting by the nuclear weapon states, which was first promised at the 2000 NPT review conference but hasn’t yet materialized.

There are a number of other things that the non-nuclear weapon states want from weapons possessors. Along with reductions in numbers of nuclear weapons, they want a genuine devaluing of those weapons. The non-nuclear-weapon countries want changes in doctrines concerning the use of nuclear weapons, and honest preparations for a disarmament process that would include development of verification and control methods, changes in laws, creation of government units tasked with analysis of disarmament requirements, and so forth. While waiting for these complementary measures, non-nuclear weapon states would genuinely welcome and support a concerted effort towards increased transparency and accountability by the nuclear weapon states.

It is yet unclear whether implementation of the transparency commitments agreed upon within the NPT would represent the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons. But at the very least, increased transparency will make it easier to discuss further steps toward nuclear disarmament as well as a fissile material cut-off treaty, and in the longer run, transparency in regard to nuclear weapons arsenals can help to ensure a safer world for all states.

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