Nuclear rights and responsibilities

The 'mushroom' cloud created by a 1953 nuclear weapon test in Nevada, United States Copyright: US Department of Energy

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The developed world has no right to dictate unilaterally to developing nations how they choose to use nuclear technology. But the latter must build their own capacity to handle the technology responsibly, both individually and collectively.

Two important nuclear anniversaries take place in August. The first — for many the most significant — is that commemorating the dropping of the first nuclear bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. This not only brought a rapid end to the Second World War, but also introduced the world to the realities of nuclear devastation, defining much of the global military and political dynamics of the second half of the twentieth century.

The second event is likely to receive less notice. But it has, in its way, been just as significant. This was the organisation of the first Atoms for Peace conference. Described at the time as "the biggest scientific extravaganza ever held", 1,428 delegates from 73 nations gathered in Geneva, Switzerland, for four days in August 1955 to discuss the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and help establish the basic parameters by which its potential could be exploited by developed and developing countries alike.

The Geneva meeting was part of a broader initiative launched by US president Dwight Eisenhower to handle simultaneously the threats and promises of nuclear technology. At its heart lay a widely-shared desire to find ways in which the countries of the world could reap the benefits of this technology without increasing the risks that it would be used for military purposes. Out of it emerged many of the most important elements of today’s nuclear non-proliferation regime, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the concept of nuclear safeguards (the procedures needed to ensure that nuclear technology — such as uranium enrichment — are not diverted from civilian to military purposes). 

To an important extent, this initiative has been significantly more successful than is widely acknowledged. Those who — rightly — continue to criticise the size of nuclear arsenals owned by the world’s major powers sometimes ignore the extent to which the non-proliferation regime has, whatever its failures and weaknesses, so far successfully achieved its most important single goal. This was to reduce (and if possible eliminate) the chance that a nuclear weapon should be used in anger, with all the catastrophic results that this could have had, even on a local scale.

The paths to responsible use

But there is no room for complacency. As new tensions have emerged on the global scene, and states — such as Iran — that are enmeshed in these tensions demonstrate their keenness to master nuclear technology, the need for effective political instruments to ensure that the use of such technology is restricted to civilian applications remains as challenging as ever.

There are no simple solutions to the nuclear dilemma. Nor is the road ahead much clearer today than it was in the 1950s. But two essential components are sometimes forgotten, both reflecting broader issues about the appropriate ways to control science and technology in an era of globalisation.

The first component is the need to ensure that the ways of defining ‘responsible use’ of nuclear technology are compatible with the accepted norms of democratic control. This is particularly important at a time when demands are growing for nuclear technology not only as an essential source of economic growth, but also — more contentiously — as a source of power that does not contribute to the build-up of the ‘greenhouse’ gases considered to be the main source of current trends in global warming.

Each country, whether developed or developing, must be allowed to determine for itself how the nuclear option fits into its strategies for achieving such objectives. That does not mean that it should act unilaterally, or ignore international norms of behaviour (as incorporated into national legislation). But it does mean that it has both the right and the responsibility to use its own internal political mechanisms to determine its actions on nuclear issues.

The second component of an acceptable and effective solution is that it must be achieved through negotiation, not through bullying. One of the main weaknesses of 1968’s Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is that many weaker states have seen it as an attempt by the United States and its allies to use not only their monopoly on nuclear technology, but also their general political clout, to dictate the terms under which others would be granted access to this technology.

It was objections to this political asymmetry, as it became reflected within the treaty, that persuaded some countries — most notably India, but also for a long time France — not to sign. Furthermore the Atoms for Peace initiative itself sent out the signal that nuclear technology had become a magnifier of political power (in the sense of making the strong ever stronger).

Ironically, this then became an incentive for other states — notably India, Pakistan, and even Israel — to begin their pursuit of the nuclear option with both civilian and, it later became clear, military components. Many fear that the same thinking lies behind the decision by North Korea, which joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985, to announce its intention to withdraw from the treaty in January 2003, with all the subsequent political tension that it has created.

Handling Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Both strategies — namely a respect for democratic processes, and the need to avoid strong-arm tactics wherever possible — have important roles to play in the current negotiations over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. These have been triggered by Iran’s announcement that it intends to build its own nuclear capability, and signals (for example through its plans for a uranium enrichment facility, which could produce the plutonium used in nuclear weapons) that this could in practice include a military dimension.

The West has legitimate cause to be concerned. Whatever the purely political arguments about a country’s right to determine its own energy mix, any nation with such a wealth of oil and gas reserves will have a difficult task persuading the international community that its desire to develop a nuclear capacity is based primarily on its projected energy needs.

But this is not in itself an excuse for justifying the strong-arm tactics that some Western countries, particularly those on record as being opposed to the current regime in Iran, are now advocating. Reporting the country to the United Nations Security Council, for example, is unlikely to be particularly effective (and would probably be vetoed by at least one member of the council). While the consequences of another US invasion in the Middle East, as reported to be under consideration in some parts of Washington, are too distressing to contemplate.

Furthermore, the Iranian authorities have a powerful political argument when they point to the contradictions between the attitude of the United States administration towards themselves and towards India. In the Indian case, the administration has recently indicated it would drop a previous ban on the export of nuclear technology for civilian purposes — despite the fact that India has still not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, while Iran itself has.

Much more promising is the line being developed by the European Union in its discussions with Iran. This seeks to bring the country to the negotiating table through diplomatic persuasion, rather than by force. Sweeteners may be needed, just as the threat of stronger action needs to be present if negotiations fail. But excessive aggression at this stage — particularly if this appears to ignore Iran’s own democratic processes, and particularly if it reflects a broader political agenda on the part of the United States — will not only make the negotiations more difficult, but also threaten a successful outcome.

In return, the Iranian authorities (as other countries seeking to become important players in the nuclear game) must demonstrate a genuine commitment to ensuring that their nuclear development programmes are carried out within a framework of effective and transparent safeguards.

Even if the West has failed to make reductions in its nuclear arsenals on a scale promised within the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the safeguard regime embedded in the treaty has been remarkable for its overall effectiveness. The challenge ahead is to make it even more so, and even more widely. And part of this challenge, reflecting another complaint that is frequently heard, is to ensure that commitments to signatory states that do not develop nuclear weapons — particularly on the transfer of civilian nuclear technologies to meet genuine energy needs — are adequately met.