Nuclear Solutions (part 2) for the Medium-Term

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Jump To: The Nuclear Armed Countries ~ The Pathway to Elimination ~ Verification ~ The Steps

As with climate, we have a very clear short-term goal to achieve in the coming years when it comes to nuclear weapons: the United States must sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and begin the process of moving to a nuclear weapon-free world. The climate goal of cutting carbon emissions to 30 GtCO2-eq by 2030 does not eliminate the threat of climate catastrophe. It is only the first big and essential step to the total elimination of fossil fuel burning (and other steps) by 2050.Similarly, with nuclear weapons, getting the US on board with the TPNW is only a first big and essential step towards the complete elimination of these weapons in the medium-term. But what about Russia, China, North Korea, the UK, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan?

The US invented nuclear weapons. The US has used nuclear weapons to slaughter civilians. The US has led the way in every major development of nuclear weapons. So it is entirely appropriate that the US should lead the way to their elimination, starting with signing the TPNW.

But how will we get the other nuclear-armed countries, especially Russia, to eliminate their nuclear weapons? It’s one thing to suggest that the US must take the lead, and another to show what might lead the other nuclear states to disarm.

There is no single pathway that leads inevitably to nuclear abolition. The world is in a constant state of flux. No one can predict what may happen in any one country over the coming years, or how events in one country might impact events in other countries.

There were certainly people predicting in advance that Russia would invade Ukraine,[1] as well as those who predicted the current stalemate we are seeing there.[2] But where that war may go next is anyone’s guess. The same could be said of Israel’s war with Hamas. Of course our hope must be that neither of these lead to nuclear war, because then the rest of this exercise would be pointless. Nevertheless, if we are to chart a way forward that leads to nuclear abolition, we need to take a long, hard look at the world as it is today, starting with Ukraine.

[1] Numerous former US diplomats and security advisors were warning about the risks of a war with Russia over NATO expansion, especially to Ukraine. See, for instance, Carpenter, T. G. (2022, February 24). Ignored Warnings: How NATO Expansion Led to the Current Ukraine Tragedy. CATO Institute.

[2] See assessment from the Institute for the Study of War from just one month after the Russian invasion: Kagan, F. W. (2022, March 22). What Stalemate Means in Ukraine and Why it Matters. Institute for the Study of War.

The Nuclear Armed Countries:

The United States ~ Russia ~ China ~ North Korea ~ the UK ~ France ~ Israel ~ India and Pakistan

A pathway to eliminating all nuclear weapons

First, the US fulfills its existing commitments by signing the Nuclear Ban Treaty and inviting the other nuclear-armed nations to do likewise. The next steps may start happening prior to ratification of the Treaty, or they may take place through the legally-binding, time-bound, verifiable, irreversible plans that each of the nuclear-armed countries must present to the States Parties of the TPNW once the treaty has entered into force in those countries.

Figure 11.2 Pathways to the elimination of nuclear weapons[1]


Unlike chemical or biological WMDs, it’s pretty hard to hide a nuclear weapons program. The mining and acquisition of uranium is carefully monitored. The enrichment of uranium to the degree needed for a bomb requires very large and expensive facilities that are easy to spot. Without hugely sophisticated equipment, nuclear weapons cannot be tested without an explosion that can be detected anywhere in the world. The missiles to carry such weapons likewise cannot be test-fired undetected. At every stage of the process, nuclear weapons are visible to the world. That’s why we know that North Korea has them. It’s also why we know that so far, at least, Iran does not.

There’s nothing new about dismantling and destroying nuclear weapons according to an agreed timetable. The disarmament procedure and the mechanisms for verification are well-established by now, tried and tested through the implementation of previous treaties.[2]

These involve regularly scheduled on-site inspections, as well as “surprise” inspections at short notice. Test sites, missile launches, plane and mobile launcher movements are all closely monitored by a global system of satellites and seismographs. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has sophisticated monitoring equipment and access to important sites along the supply chain required for making nuclear weapons.

Steps to zero

Proposals from organizations like Global Zero describe the steps necessary to get from the current levels of nuclear weapons down to “zero” through gradual reductions of the number of warheads on all sides.[3] The START treaty process followed that kind of logic, but we are now well beyond the point of merely reducing stockpiles. If the goal is the total elimination of these weapons in line with the Nuclear Ban Treaty, then the steps needed to get there must address what is to be done with all nuclear weapons and not just a certain portion of them at each stage.

The draft Nuclear Weapons Convention,[4] first deposited with the UN in 1997 and then updated in 2007, sets out five phases for implementation. These follow similar patterns to the INF Treaty and START Treaties and are a solid basis for the process that would be required under the Nuclear Ban Treaty to finally eliminate all nuclear weapons.

Within each of the five phases are a series of steps that would need to be taken by all nine nuclear-armed nations in concert with each other. These could be done by each country unilaterally, one at a time, as in the GRIT process described in Chapter 10 above. They could also be done through an agreed set of protocols added to the TPNW, with dates and methods of verification built into the steps. And they could also be done by agreeing a whole new treaty defining in detail how the whole process will take place.

However it is done, these are the steps that would have to be followed in order to finally eliminate all nuclear weapons from the face of the earth:

  1. Remove all nuclear weapons from operational status:
    1. Remove targeting coordinates and navigational information
    1. Disable and de-alert all delivery vehicles 
    1. Cease all further production of components and equipment
    1. Cease all further funding and research on nuclear weapons, except as may be necessary for their elimination
    1. Cease production of fissile material
  2. Declare all nuclear weapons and related materials held:
    1. Submit a complete inventory of all nuclear weapons held, including locations and quantities, to the IAEA, UN Secretariat or other body assigned for this purpose.
    1. Submit an inventory of all fissile nuclear materials capable of making a nuclear weapon
    1. Submit a report on any nuclear material that has gone missing and plans for its recovery
    1. Submit a complete inventory of nuclear weapons facilities
    1. Submit a complete inventory of all nuclear-capable delivery systems
  3. Submit a legally-binding, time-bound plan for the verifiable and irreversible elimination of all remaining nuclear weapons
    1. Make a plan for dismantling and destroying the weapons and delivery systems
    1. Make a plan for decommissioning or converting testing facilities, research and production facilities
    1. Make a plan for the safe disposal of all fissile material under IAEA control
  4. Negotiate agreement with the IAEA for safeguarding all fissile material
    1. Allow IAEA access to all stages of the nuclear fuel cycle
    1. Provide full information to the IAEA on quantities and locations of fissile material
    1. Arrange for inspections and testing by IAEA experts
    1. Agree on final disposal and safe storage of remaining fissile material
  5. Schedule process to dismantle and destroy all nuclear weapons
    1. Separate warheads from delivery vehicles
    1. Destroy delivery vehicles
    1. Remove fissile material from warheads
    1. Destroy warheads
    1. Decommission or convert all remaining facilities
    1. Implement safeguards agreement with IAEA, including final disposal of fissile material

This total process would likely take several years. The TPNW allows up to 10 years, with an option to extend beyond that if necessary. This does not include the final, irretrievable disposal of remaining fissile material, for which no agreed plan yet exists. There would continue to be costs involved throughout that period of time, especially for the security of nuclear materials prior to final disposal.[5]

[1] Graphic: T. Wallis

[2]  See, for instance, Findlay, Trevor (1999), The Verification and Compliance Regime for a Nuclear Weapon-Free World, VERTIC Briefing Paper 99/5:

[3] For instance, both sides would first cut their arsenals in half by the end of phase one, then cut them in half again by the end of phase two, etc.  See Global Zero. (n.d.). The Global Zero Action Plan. Global Zero.

[4] Urbina, J., & Ali, H. (2007). Letter dated 17 December 2007 from the Permanent Representatives of Costa Rica and Malaysia to the United Nations addressed to the Secretary-General. In International Network of Engineers and Scientists Against Proliferation.

[5] Out of the trillions of dollars budgeted for nuclear weapons over the coming decades, as much as $500 billion, or $10 billion per year, will need to be set aside for their elimination and final disposal. Nevertheless, the savings will begin immediately and will be substantial (see Chapter 14).