The nuclear non-proliferation treaty – at the heart of the global debate

The nuclear non-proliferation treaty – at the heart of the global debate

The word “nuclear” is often on the front pages of the press, whether you’re in Tehran, Tokyo or Tunis. 
The issue of nuclear safety was thrust onto the front pages last year during the massive emergency response to the accident at the Fukushima nuclear plant, following the tragic earthquake and tsunami in Japan. And given our expectation that world-wide energy demand is set to double by 2050, and the stark reality that we must reduce global greenhouse gas emissions if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change, then it is clear that the debate about the peaceful uses of nuclear power and the risks of the spread of nuclear weapons is set to continue. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is at the heart of our approach to this debate. 

The treaty, borne out of fear that the Cold War era would lead to a nuclear arms race, has in many ways surpassed expectations in terms of longevity, participation and meeting its counter-proliferation objectives. Today, with 189 states parties to the treaty, it has more signatories than any other treaty of its kind. The three non-signatories India, Israel, and Pakistan, are the only additional states believed to have gained possession of nuclear weapons since the treaty’s inception in 1968. 

We have long left the Cold War era behind us, and while the treaty continues to be a considerable deterrent to the spread of nuclear weapons, we must all work to ensure that it evolves and adapts to counter current and future threats to international peace and security. 

We took a big step toward achieving this in 2010. The outcome was a significant boost to multilateralism. A five-year action plan was agreed by consensus, spanning the three so-called “pillars” of the NPT – progress toward disarmament by existing nuclear weapon states, measures to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons to others and supporting the peaceful use of nuclear energy for those that want it. The real test will be through delivery of the action plan to meet our commitments by the next review conference in 2015.

The 2012 NPT Preparatory Committee starting this week in Vienna (April 30 to May 11) will be the first meeting of states parties to assess our progress and build on the success of 2010. I hope that all states will come ready to discuss the progress they have made and plans for implementation of the NPT action plan. I am pleased that the United Kingdom will have a strong story to tell. 

Since 2010 the U.K. has set out our plans for the reduction of our nuclear warheads, missiles and overall nuclear weapons stockpile. Among the nuclear weapons states (China, France, Russia, the U.K. and the United States), all members of the NPT, stockpiles already stand at their lowest since the Cold War, and we meet regularly to discuss how we will work together to make further progress toward our long-term goal of a world without nuclear weapons. The U.K. has also been conducting groundbreaking work with Norway on the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement, a crucial aspect of any future disarmament regime, and this month hosted the first-ever meeting of the five nuclear weapon states on this issue. 

We continue to support a universal, strengthened system of safeguards to verify that states comply with their international obligations to uphold the non-proliferation regime. The regime is also strengthened by Nuclear Weapons Free Zones which enhance regional and international security. In support of this, the U.K., together with the other nuclear weapons states recognized under the NPT, reached an agreement with the Association of South East Asian Nations, underscoring that we will not use, or threaten to use, nuclear weapons against the 10 states party to the South East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. 

Furthermore, since 2010, the U.K. has worked to support the safe expansion of civil-nuclear energy – and has recently completed agreements to share nuclear energy knowledge and capabilities with the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait. Following the tragic events at Fukushima, the U.K. undertook comprehensive nuclear safety checks and reviewed our own nuclear energy future, including identifying eight potential sites for new nuclear power stations. 

*Alistair Burt is the United Kingdom’s foreign office minister.