NPT News in Review, Vol. 17, No. 4

Editorial: Stopping the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Risks, and Harms
10 August 2022

Ray Acheson 

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As Main Committees (MC) II and III got underway this week, many states parties focused on the imbalanced implementation of the NPT. While the nuclear-armed states refuse to comply with their Article VI obligations to disarm, they simultaneously demand more restrictions to ensure against proliferation. This is not a new problem, but one that has persisted since the NPT’s creation. But as yesterday marked 77 years since the US atomic bombing of Nagasaki, the double standards and disarmament failures are as striking as ever. To address the risks of proliferation, as well as the inherent dangers of nuclear power, states parties must eliminate nuclear weapons and stop spreading nuclear materials and technology. “Just as we reject the fatalism that the existence of nuclear weapons is a reality and a necessity," said Palestine, “we also reject that their spread is inevitable and unpreventable.”

The proliferation of double standards

For the last fifty years, NPT states parties have worked collectively to set up safeguard systems and export controls to ensure protect against proliferation. At the same time, the nuclear-armed states have maintained their nuclear arsenals and are now modernising them in renewed arms races in violation of article VI, as noted by Costa Rica, Nigeria, and others in MCII. Since the NPT’s inception, regretted South Africa, nuclear-armed states have called on non-nuclear armed states “to do more on non-proliferation to create an environment that is conducive for disarmament,” without delivering on their end of the bargain to disarm.

“Like the NPT, other multilateral treaties impose different obligations on its States Parties,” noted Brazil. “Such differences are usually due to the need to ensure fair and equitable burden-sharing. One such example is the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibilities’ enshrined in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UFCCC).” However, Brazil pointed out, in the NPT, “this idea seems to apply in reverse: Non-Nuclear-Weapon States—precisely those States Parties that contributed the least to the problem the treaty seeks to address—are the ones called on to assume ever greater non-proliferation responsibilities.”

In a similar fashion, double standards are increasing when it comes to specific cases of proliferation concern. Several delegations have called out the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)’s nuclear sharing practices as violating the NPT’s articles I and II. Several have also warned against the impending spread of highly enriched uranium and related infrastructure to Australia through its intended acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines as part of the new Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) military alliance. But the states engaged in NATO and AUKUS reject these concerns, asserting that their actions are fully in line with the NPT.

Instead of doing their utmost to ensure their compliance with their non-proliferation obligations by stopping modernisation programmes, ending nuclear sharing, and not spreading weapons grade material around the world, these countries instead focus on other cases of proliferation concern such as Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). And while it is indeed imperative to resolve these cases of concern, it is equally imperative to resolve those cases raised by other countries, rather than summarily dismissing them.

Perpetuating proliferation through possession

It is, after all, the sheer existence of nuclear weapons that poses the main—only—risk of proliferation. As several delegations pointed out in MCII, a key driver of proliferation is the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. Using a recent example, Austria argued that “Russia’s illegal war against Ukraine and Russia’s corresponding nuclear threats have harmed this pillar by insinuating that the possession of nuclear weapons might have averted this overt aggression.” It said, “This thinking is not only wrong but points to a deeper issue: Some states still arguing that nuclear weapons are essential for their security is a powerful driver for proliferation.” Uruguay and others made similar remarks, contending that the money spent on nuclear weapons and the institutionalisation of these weapons in military doctrines works directly against non-proliferation objectives and efforts.

This is yet another reason why the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is so important. As well as creating a credible pathway for nuclear disarmament, the TPNW “also makes a vital contribution to the global architecture and norms of non-proliferation,” noted Costa Rica, “by strengthening the legal framework and global stigma against nuclear weapons possession.” Austria similarly explained that the prohibitions and obligations of the TPNW do not just support the NPT but go beyond it, from ensuring safeguards to prohibiting assistance, thus strengthening the NPT’s norms and its impact. The TPNW’s states parties reaffirmed their commitment to non-proliferation at their first meeting in June.

Nuclear security in war time

The links between nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation are clear. But disarmament is also imperative for nuclear security.  Ireland emphasised this connection in its MCII statement, noting, “The fact that only a limited proportion of fissile material worldwide is used for civilian purposes speaks for itself and further demonstrates the clear link between nuclear security and nuclear disarmament.”

These discussions are not occurring in a vacuum. As is clearly being demonstrated right now in Ukraine with the recent shelling of the Zaporizhizhia nuclear power plant, there are also links among nuclear disarmament, nuclear security, and nuclear power. Working for disarmament and non-proliferation to prevent catastrophic, radioactive humanitarian and environmental harm is not just about ending nuclear weapons. It’s also connected to the spread and use of nuclear materials and technology more broadly.

The Russian occupation of and the attacks on the Zaporizhizhia nuclear power plant should be dominating MCIII discussions, but has only been raised by some delegations. In this sense, the commitment to asserting the safety and benefits of nuclear power is perhaps greater than the alleged commitment to preventing humanitarian and environmental catastrophes.

Russia and Ukraine continue to accuse each other of shelling the Zaporizhizhia plant. Russia reported that the attacks have caused a power surge and has warned that this situation is potentially “fraught with catastrophic consequences for vast territories, for the entire Europe.” Ukraine says Russia has planted explosives at the site and has accused the Russian military of “nuclear terrorism”. The UN Secretary-General called the attacks “suicidal” and requested the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) be granted access to the plant.

As Beyond Nuclear has pointed out, “any damage to the six-reactor site, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, could result in long-term catastrophic consequences that would extend far beyond the war zone.” Nuclear reactors are not designed to withstand missile attacks and are vulnerable even in normal times, as was seen at Fukushima when an earthquake and tsunami caused loss of both off-site and on-site power. The extent of the damage to the Zaporizhizhia plant, reported Scientific American, would depend on the type and location of assault and its severity, but an unmitigated loss of cooling capacity could result in breach of containment—and a radioactive disaster.

At MCIII, Malaysia noted—not specific to Zaporizhizhia—that “any nuclear or radiological incident could put lives at risk and harm the environment” and highlighted that the “transboundary nature of potential hazards” requires greater international cooperation to address. New Zealand similarily pointed out that history has shown “that nuclear accidents are not confined to national borders, and that the effects of such incidents can be long-lasting and dire in terms of their impact on human and environmental health.” Japan, which is still dealing with the impacts of the Fukushima disaster in 2011, warned that the “military operations at and around nuclear facilities of Ukraine have caused unprecedented danger of a nuclear accident, putting the lives of people living in Ukraine and in neighboring countries at enormous risk.”

In response to this situation, the European Union, Ireland, and Switzerland, among others, noted that attacks on nuclear power facilities are prohibited by international law, including the UN Charter, and would violate the IAEA Statute. “In view of the current international situation,” said Mexico, “it is indispensable to reiterate, as many times as necessary, that there is no justification for military attacks on nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes, something expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law.”

As this dangerous and destabilising situation continues, it is imperative that all attacks against the Zaporizhizhia plant cease. But beyond this immediate crisis, it is clear that, like nuclear weapons, nuclear power can have no place in a sustainable future. Even when not under armed attack, nuclear power is not safe, secure, affordable, or fossil-fuel free.

In the case of both nuclear weapons and nuclear power, the key imperative is compliance with obligations and commitments to disarm and to protect the plant from radioactive harm. The legal instruments and other agreements by which governments are contractually and politically bound must not be shirked because of narrow perceptions of national interest or technological prestige. As Lebanon said in MCII, “There is no weapon that can protect like peace, and no weapon is more effective than justice and international law.”

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