Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and Its Prevention

“A world free of nuclear weapons would be a global public good of highest order”-Ban-Ki-Moon


U.S. President Donald Trump declared that the U.S. is quitting the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a bilateral agreement with Russia signed in 1987.

Nuclear Proliferation

  • Proliferation means rapidly increasing the number or amount of something.The term nuclear proliferation means spread of nuclear weapons, weapons applicable nuclear technology and information to countries which do not already possess them.
  • Proliferation is of two types: Horizontal Proliferation and Vertical Proliferation
    • Horizontal proliferation means nation-states or non-state entities do not have nuclear weapons but are acquiring, nuclear weapons or developing the capability and materials for producing them.
    • Vertical proliferation means nation-states that possess nuclear weapons are increasing their stockpiles of these weapons, improving the technical sophistication or reliability of their weapons, or developing new weapons.
  • Another important aspect of nuclear proliferation is nuclear terrorism.

Nuclear Terrorism

  • The acquisition of nuclear weapons or the materials and know-how to produce them by non-state entities and the use of these to cause death, injury or massive devastation can be termed as “nuclear terrorism”
  • Nuclear terrorism can take different forms:
  1. Acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-state entities
  2. Production of nuclear weapons by non-state entities
  3. Attack on nuclear power plant or other nuclear installations which could result in massive release of radioactive materials
  4. Attacks involving radioactive materials: Use of “dirty bombs” in which radioactive material is dispersed by conventional explosives.

Prevention of Nuclear Proliferation


  • It was after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings in 1945 that people across the globe realized the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons.
  • Efforts to control nuclear weapons and seek their elimination began in the first session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946.
  • However, these efforts achieved little success and Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949
  • Nuclear proliferation emerged as a major issue during the Cold War period.
  • During the Cold War, nuclear weapons and deterrence policy were vital elements for assuring peace between USA and the Soviet Union. Understanding the danger of accumulating nuclear weapons, both the countries took initiatives to control them.

Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), 1968:

  • Put forward by USA, UK and USSR, the treaty was signed in 1968 and came into force in 1970.

The main objectives of the treaty are:

  1. To prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology,
  2. To promote co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy
  3. To further the goal of achieving nuclear disarmament and general and complete disarmament

The NPT classified its state-parties into 2 groups:

  1. Nuclear Weapon States (NWS):
  • It consists of United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom
  • These five states had tested nuclear weapons before the treaty was negotiated in 1968.
  • Three other nuclear armed states—India, Israel, and Pakistan have not joined the NPT
  1. Non-Nuclear Weapon States (NNWS):
  • The treaty prohibits the NNWS from developing nuclear weapons

The three pillars of NPT:

The NPT rests on three interrelated and mutually reinforcing pillars. These are:

  1. Non-proliferation:

NPT prohibits NWS to transfer nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices to any NNWS. It also prohibits the NWS to assist or encourage the NNWS in developing nuclear weapons.

  1. Peaceful Uses: NPT acknowledges the right of all Parties to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes and to benefit from international cooperation in this area
  2. Disarmament: One of the legal obligations of the treaty for the NWS is to eventually disarm.


  • NPT has successfully restricted the Non-Nuclear weapon States from acquiring weapons of their own and has also reduced both the American and Russian nuclear weaponries
  • However, few countries have not yet signed the NPT and do not adhere by the norms and process of inspection. This proves to be a major drawback of the treaty.
  • In 2003, North Korea pulled out of NPT and conducted first nuclear test in 2006. Since then, the country made considerable nuclear progress.

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty:

  • CTBT is a multilateral treaty that prohibits all nuclear explosive tests, above and below the Earth’s surface.
  • It was adopted in 1996 however did not come into force till date
  • India, Pakistan and North Korea are non-signatories to this treaty
  • With 183 signatories, CTBT is one of the most widely accepted arms control treaty. This is because its non-discriminatory nature- everyone has a same obligation of never conducting a nuclear explosion.
  • CTBT is the world largest multilateral verification system. It has more than 300 stations across the globe to monitor signs of nuclear explosions.
  • CTBT has also made major contributions in the field of nuclear safety.

Conference on Disarmament

  • The Conference on Disarmament (CD) is a multilateral disarmament forum established by the international community to negotiate arms control and disarmament agreements based at Geneva.
  • The Conference is formally independent from the United Nations.
  • The Conference was first established in 1979 as the Committee on Disarmament. It was renamed the Conference on Disarmament in 1984.
  • The Conference succeeded three other disarmament-related bodies:
    • Ten-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1960),
    • Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (1962–68) and
    • Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (1969–78).

Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty, 2017:

  • Over 120 countries in the United Nations voted to adopt The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, first multilateral legally-binding instrument for nuclear disarmament to have been negotiated in 20 years
  • India and other nuclear-armed nations —— the United States, Russia, Britain, China, France, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel had not participated in the negotiations
  • India maintained that the Geneva-based Conference on Disarmament (CD) is the single multilateral disarmament negotiation forum.
  • It prohibits and makes it illegal to possess, use, produce, transfer, acquire, stockpile or deploy nuclear weapons.
  • States are also prohibited from using or threatening to use nuclear weapons and other nuclear explosive devices.

Nuclear Weapon Free Zones:

  • It is a regional approach to strengthen global nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament norms
  • Many non- nuclear weapon states are party to NWFZs. Nuclear weapon-free zones are in force in South America and the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, Africa, and Central Asia.

Treaties involved are:

  1. Treaty of Tlatelolco — Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean
  2. Treaty of Rarotonga — South Pacific Nuclear Free Zone Treaty
  3. Treaty of Bangkok — Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone
  4. Treaty of Pelindaba — African Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone Treaty
  5. Treaty on a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia
  6. Antarctic Treaty
  7. Moon Agreement-It governs the activities of States on moon and other celestial bodies
  8. Outer space Treaty-Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies
  9. Seabed Treaty-Treaty on the Prohibition of the Emplacement of Nuclear Weapons and Other Weapons of Mass Destruction on the Sea-Bed and the Ocean Floor and in the Subsoil

Other Initiatives:

Nuclear Suppliers Group:

  • The Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) is a group of nuclear supplier countries that seeks to contribute to the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.
  • The group seeks to prevent nuclear proliferation by controlling the export of materials, equipment and technology that can be used to manufacture nuclear weapons.
  • As of 2016, there are 48 members.
  • India is not a part of NSG

Wassenar Arrangement, 1996:

  • It is an organisation which regulated the export of sensitive technologies
  • The goal of the arrangement is to “promote transparency and greater responsibility in transfers of conventional arms and dual-use goods and technologies”.
  • The arrangement seeks to prevent the acquisition of these arms by terrorists
  • The Wassenar Arrangement has 42 members- India was admitted as the 42nd member in December 2017

The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), 1987

  • The MTCR aims at restricting the spread of ballistic missiles and other unmanned delivery systems that could be used for chemical, biological, and nuclear attacks
  • India joined the MTCR in 2016

Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC), 2002:

  • Also known as International Code of Conductagainst Ballistic Missile Proliferation, it is a voluntary legally non-binding multilateral body
  • It aims at preventing the proliferation of ballistic missiles
  • India joined the HCOC in 2016

North Korean Nuclear Crisis:

  • North Korea pulled out of NPT in 2003
  • Since then, the country made considerable nuclear progress. It has tested nuclear weapons in 2006, 2009 and 2013
  • In 2017, North Korea accelerated its nuclear weapon programme and conducted a number of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) tests.
  • North Korea also threatened US Pacific territory of Guam and Japan
  • This has created tension in the Korean peninsula and further widened the rift between North Korea and USA

How does North Korea justify its possession of Nuclear Weapons?

  • According to the North Korean leader, nuclear weapons are its only deterrent against other countries like USA and South Korea seeking to destroy it.
  • The country justifies its possession of nuclear weapons as self-defensive means of defending its sovereignty and rights of resistance and development from the US nuclear threat

What has been the reaction across the globe?

  • The United Nations implemented tough actions to combat the North Korean nuclear crisis
  • China took certain measures in compliance with UN Security Resolutions and added to economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea. It has put restrictions on tradeitemsincluding textiles, seafood and petroleum products.
  • China also put forward the “dual-freeze” proposal which advocates freeze on North Korea’s nuclear weapons development in exchange for the suspension of joint U.S.-South Korea military drills on the North Korean borders.
  • India has been a critic of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation. It has acted in compliance with the UN sanctions and stopped all exports to North Korea except for food and medicine.
  • Russia seeks to solve the crisis through a negotiated settlement. The Russian government has provided diplomatic resources to solve the nuclear crisis and prevent a war between North Korea and USA

Recent developments

Panmunjom Summit

  • At Panmunjom leaders of North Korea and South Korea meet for declaration of peace.
  • It confirmed the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear free Korean Peninsula

US North Korea Meet in Singapore

  • US announced the suspension of joint military exercise with South Korea.
  • North Korea hinted that it would dismantle a major missile engine testing site.

Note: During the summit there was no deadline for denuclearization. Also, there was no indication of how the denuclearization will be carried out.

The South-Asian Crisis:

  • The crisis has its roots in 1998 when India and Pakistan had set off a round of nuclear weapons tests thus highlighting South Asia as a potential arena of nuclear war.
  • However, China has also emerged in the picture and India’s nuclear strategy, which has traditionally focused on Pakistan, currently seems to place increased emphasis on China
  • The Malabar exercise in July 2017 highlighted the crisis. It elevated the possibility of a confrontation between China, the U.S., and India, and between India and Pakistan
  • The drill brought together the US, Japanese, and Indian navies to practice shutting down a waterway through which 80 percent of China’s energy supplies travel and to war game closing off the Indian Ocean to Chinese submarines.

China-Pakistan ties- a growing concern?

  • Pakistan has always enjoyed close military tie-ups with China.
  • China has repeatedly beenaccused not only of providing Pakistan with designs and equipment to manufacture nuclear weapons, but also the know-how and materials for manufacturing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons to different parts of India.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine:

  • India’s nuclear doctrine was first enunciated following a Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) meeting in January 2003.
  • Some of the main features of India’s nuclear doctrine are –
  1. Building and maintaining a credible minimum deterrent
  2. Posture of ‘No First Use’, nuclear weapons will only be used in retaliation against a nuclear attack on Indian Territory or on Indian forces anywhere
  3. Nuclear retaliation to a first strike will be “massive” and designed to inflict “unacceptable damage”.
  4. Non-use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states
  5. In the event of a major attack against India, or Indian forces anywhere, by biological or chemical weapons, India will retain the option of retaliating with nuclear weapons
  • The concept of “credible minimum deterrence” is used in conjunction with the concepts of “No First Use” and “No-Use” against nuclear weapon states.
  • It clearly indicates that India envisages its nuclear weapons as only a deterrent merely for defensive purposes and not as a means to threaten others.
  • India’s nuclear doctrine emphasises that global, verifiable and non-discriminatory nuclear disarmament is a national security objective.

India’s Nuclear Doctrine vis-a-vis China and Pakistan’s Doctrine


  • Pakistan’s perspective for its nuclear doctrine as presently evident that it is India-specific. However, India’s perspective encompasses a wider range than South Asia in keeping with its strategic potential.
  • Pakistan’s rationale for its nuclear weapons is not only to deter the threat of India’s nuclear weapons but also to counter India’s conventional military superiority.
  • India has a “no first use” policy. However, Pakistan has even stated that it is disinclined to give any such guarantees, as ‘no-first use’ policy might invalidate its deterrence advantage against India


  • Initially, China’s doctrine was based on self-defence during the era of “people’s war”.
  • It gradually shifted to one of minimum nuclear deterrence during the 1960s and 1970s and now appears to have stabilised at limited nuclear deterrence, which includes nuclear coercion.
  • China has maintained a “no first use” policy since 1964.

The Way Forward:

  • Nuclear weapons today pose an unimaginable threat to mankind and a nuclear weapon free world is call of the hour.
  • The recent North Korean nuclear crisis highlights the fact that the world is heading toward a dangerous nuclear era which poses threat not only to human life and property but has the potential to cause irreversible damage to the environment.
  • There is a need to continuously reduce substantially the size of nuclear forces in all states that possess them.
  • There is a need for increased efforts to resolve regional confrontations and conflicts that give rise to new nuclear powers.
  • The security of nuclear weapons and materials should be increased
  • There should be an inclusive step-by-step approach toward nuclear weapons free world
  • Non –governmental organisations also have important role to play. Recently, ICAN received the Noble Peace Prize. Geneva-based ICAN is a coalition of nongovernmental organizations from different countries working together to eradicate nuclear weapons. ICANhad been at the forefront to bring about the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
  • There are multiple nuclear equations — U.S.-Russia, U.S.-China, U.S.-North Korea, India-Pakistan, India-China in today’s world but none is standalone. Therefore, world requires to think afresh to bring nuclear stability.
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