Through rigorous analysis of the challenges that exist to abolishing nuclear weapons completely, this Adelphi suggests what can be done now to start reducing arsenals and creating the political and security conditions that would be needed for an effective ban.

Nuclear disarmament is firmly back on the international agenda. But almost all current thinking on the subject is focused on the process of reducing the number of weapons from thousands to hundreds. This rigorous analysis examines the challenges that exist to abolishing nuclear weapons completely, and suggests what can be done now to start overcoming them.

The paper argues that the difficulties of ‘getting to zero’ must not preclude many steps being taken in that direction. It thus begins by examining steps that nuclear-armed states could take in cooperation with others to move towards a world in which the task of prohibiting nuclear weapons could be realistically envisaged.

The remainder of the paper focuses on the more distant prospect of prohibiting nuclear weapons, beginning with the challenge of verifying the transition from low numbers to zero. It moves on to examine how the civilian nuclear industry could be managed in a nuclear-weapons-free world so as to prevent rearmament. The paper then considers what political–security conditions would be required to make a nuclear-weapons ban enforceable and explores how enforcement might work in practice. Finally, it addresses the latent capability to produce nuclear weapons that would inevitably exist after abolition, and asks whether this is a barrier to disarmament, or whether it can be managed to meet the security needs of a world newly free of the bomb.

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  • Introduction

    This paper aims to encourage a conversation about the abolition of nuclear weapons. How might the security conditions which would permit nuclear weapons to be safely prohibited be created, and how might measures to implement such a prohibition be verified and enforced? Over the past couple of years, there has been a growing awareness of the need to take nuclear disarmament seriously. In January 2007, and again in January 2008...
  • Chapter One: Establishing Political Conditions to Enhance the Feasibility of Abolishing Nuclear Weapons

    Some observers posit that none of today’s nuclear-armed states would fall prey to major aggression if they all eliminated their nuclear arsenals. A proportion go further and argue that if all nuclear-armed states made a credible agreement to eliminate their arsenals, the rest of the world would pitch in by agreeing to support a much more robust collective security system that would act against any actor that newly sought to...
  • Chapter Two: Verifying the Transition to Zero

    Verification serves a number of functions in any arms-reduction process. It helps to build confidence that states are abiding by the terms of an agreement. By detecting non-compliance, it acts as a trigger for enforcement actions, and is therefore also a deterrent. Without strong verification provisions, it is difficult to generate political will among states to give up military capabilities. Although non-nuclear-weapons states generally acknowledge the role of verification, there may...
  • Chapter Three: Managing the Nuclear Industry in a World without Nuclear Weapons

    Calls for nuclear disarmament are intensifying just as nuclear energy is expected to expand greatly worldwide. Much more tension exists between the two objectives of nuclear disarmament and the expansion of nuclear energy than has been publicly discussed. Shortly after the Second World War, the US, as the sole possessor of nuclear weapons, sought international agreement on a plan to control nuclear energy. The Baruch Plan and its more enlightened...
  • Chapter Four: Enforcement

    Chapter 1 posited that before states would proceed over the horizon to prohibit nuclear weapons, they would need to take mutually reinforcing steps to build political confidence, reduce the number and salience of nuclear weapons, and stabilise political and military relations to the point where nuclear weapons did not appear indispensable for preventing war among major powers. Chapter 2 assumed that such steps could be taken,and explored how a prohibition...
  • Chapter Five: Hedging and Managing Nuclear Expertise in the Transition to Zero and After

    Even if the nuclear-armed states were to destroy their nuclear weapons, raze their weapons complexes to the ground and submit their fissile material to IAEA safeguards, they would still, by dint of the expertise of their weapons scientists, engineers and process workers, retain a much greater ability than other states to manufacture nuclear weapons. Some nuclear hedging – that is, retention of a capability to reverse the renunciation of nuclear...
  • Conclusions

    The preceding pages are intended to be a contribution to the long and detailed international discussion that will be needed if nuclear weapons are to be prohibited. We have tried to define and briefly consider challenges of three broad types. Some are technical, such as the questions of how the dismantlement of nuclear warheads could be verified, and whether declared inventories of fissile materials can be monitored with high confidence...

George Perkovich is a vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and director of its non-proliferation programme. He is the author of the award-winning India’s Nuclear Bomb (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2001 edition) and lead author of Universal Compliance (Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005). He has testified on nuclear affairs before the US Senate and House of Representatives and has participated in numerous governmental and non-governmental multinational initiatives to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

James M. Acton is an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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