Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and Its Prevention


The accelerating spread of nuclear weapons, nuclear know-how and nuclear material and rising regional instabilities has brought us to a new nuclear age. Prevention of proliferation and use of nuclear weapons is the need of the hour.

What does nuclear proliferation mean?

  • In simplest terms, 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.

What is 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.

How can Nuclear Proliferation be prevented?


  • 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.

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.

Nuclear Weapon Prohibition Treaty, 2017:

  • The NWPT 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
  • As of October 2017, 53 countries have signed the treaty.

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

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 highlight 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. ICAN had been at the forefront to bring about the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.
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