By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS (IDN) — As a politically and militarily tense 2022 came to an inglorious end, nuclear threats kept hitting the front pages of newspapers with monotonous regularity last year.
The rising tensions were triggered primarily by threats from Russia, the continuous military rhetoric spilling out of North Korea and Iran's unwillingness to give up its nuclear option—and its increasingly close relationship with two of the world’s major nuclear powers, Russia and China. [2023-01-04-27] FRENCH | ITALIAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | SPANISH
US President Joe Biden sparked further fears when he blurted out, perhaps unintentionally, that Iran’s nuclear deal was “dead”.
But the more important question was: Is it dead, or is it dead—and buried?
Still, there are other politically-loaded questions on the horizon: Will 2023 be free of nuclear threats? Or will tensions continue to rise in the new year, with no hopeful signs of nuclear deterrence?
But the state of nuclear disarmament last year was characterized mostly by negative signs—regress more than progress.
“It is hard to come up with something positive to report on nuclear disarmament for 2022, except for the first meeting of the parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons,” said Professor M.V. Ramana, Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security, Graduate Program Director, at the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, Vancouver.
At the same time, he told IDN the continued and persistent nuclear threats in various parts of the world should remind people everywhere that the risk of nuclear weapons use is still very much with us.
“Although some people need no such reminders, the majority of the population might need this reminder since the media seldom talks about nuclear weapons”.
“The challenge for those interested in nuclear disarmament is how to convert this heightened awareness into concern, and that concern into action towards concrete steps forward,” Professor Ramana declared.
A report published December 15 by PAX and ICAN, the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, says fewer long-term investments were made in the companies behind the nuclear weapons industry last year.
The total value of investments in 24 named nuclear weapon producers was higher than previously, but this is partly attributed to share price variances through a turbulent year in the defence sector.
However, data from the Don't Bank on the Bomb report shows a $45.9 billion drop in 2022 in long-term investments, including loans and underwriting.
“This could signal that a growing number of long-term investors do not see nuclear weapon production as a sustainable growth market and regard companies involved in it as a risk to be avoided”.
The report provides an overview of investments in 24 companies heavily involved in the production of nuclear weapons for the arsenals of China, France, India, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Overall, the report finds that 306 financial institutions made over $746 billion available to these companies in loans, underwriting, shares or bonds. US-based Vanguard remains the biggest investor, with $68.18 million invested in the nuclear weapon industry.
Alejandra Muñoz, from the No Nukes project at PAX, said: "Banks, pension funds and other financial institutions that keep investing in nuclear weapon producers enable these companies to continue their involvement in the development and production of weapons of mass destruction. The financial sector can and should play a role in ongoing efforts to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in society."
The Executive Director of ICAN, Beatrice Fihn, said the long-term trend shows the growing stigma attached to nuclear weapons is having an effect: "The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons - the TPNW - that came into force in 2021 has made these weapons of mass destruction illegal under international law.
Involvement in producing nuclear weapons is bad for business, she noted, and the long-term impact on human rights and the environment of these companies' activities is making them a riskier investment.
Tariq Rauf, former Head of Verification and Security Policy at the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), told IDN 2022 has been a fateful year for heightened nuclear dangers, including the possible use of nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants being shelled in a region of active hostilities, and an absence of civilized discourse on nuclear arms limitation and risk reduction.
At year’s end, only one nuclear arms reduction treaty, New START, remains in force between Russia and the United States. It will expire on 4 February 2026, in about 1100 days.
Under New START that entered into force on 5 February 2011, each side is limited to 1550 nuclear warheads on 700 deployed intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles and on long-range bombers.
“While onsite inspections were suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, fortunately, the two sides continued data exchanges,” he noted.
According to the latest data, the US has 1420 nuclear warheads deployed on 659 delivery systems; and Russia's 1549 nuclear warheads on 540 deployed long-range ballistic missiles and bombers.
The strategic stability dialogue (SSD) started after the June 2021 meeting in Geneva between Presidents Biden and Putin, Rauf pointed out, was suspended after three rounds following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.
While belatedly recently, the US has proposed a meeting of the New START Bilateral Consultative Commission, as well as resuming talks on a follow-on treaty and onsite inspections, Russia unwisely has rebuffed these overtures citing that the time is not propitious, he declared.
A new publication from the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy (LCNP), on “Climate Protection and Nuclear Abolition”, released December 21, warns that the challenges posed by climate change and nuclear weapons have only grown more formidable in the ensuing years.
“Nuclear weapon possessors are modernizing their arsenals, and in some cases, increasing them. US-Russian nuclear arms control negotiations have stalled, and multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations are non-existent.”
The Russian invasion of Ukraine and the strong international reaction against it has severely disrupted already tenuous cooperation among major powers on matters of peace and disarmament, the report said.
“And climate change has grown impossible to ignore. A recent IPCC report cites an all-but-unavoidable increase in global temperatures, sparking worldwide climate disasters we are already seeing: raging fires, harsher hurricanes, flash flooding, and more.”
Elaborating further, Rauf told IDN it is imperative that despite the continuing proxy war in Ukraine, Moscow and Washington should find the space to resume dialogue on:
(1) further cuts in nuclear weapons resulting in an executive agreement that can be implemented without Senate and Duma ratification in February 2026 after the expiry of New START;
(2) strengthening strategic stability;
(3) reducing risks of nuclear war through changes in nuclear doctrines and deployments
(4) supporting the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons (TPNW), and nuclear test-ban treaty (CTBT); and
(5) resurrecting the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA).
Another looming threat emanates from the AUKUS plan to supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines that will exempt up to 2000 kilogrammes of weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium fuel from mandatory IAEA/NPT safeguards, said Rauf.
Should this come to pass, the IAEA/NPT nuclear verification (safeguards) system shall be fatally weakened.
He said three individuals deserve plaudits for their efforts in 2022 to make the world a safer place from nuclear dangers (in alphabetical order):
(1) IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi for his valiant and untiring efforts to reduce the risks to nuclear power plants in Ukraine;
(2) Ambassador Alexander Kmentt of Austria for successfully hosting in the June conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons and on the TPNW; and
(3) Ambassador Gustavo Zlauvinen of Argentina for his professional leadership at the NPT review conference in August that, despite his best efforts, failed to agree on an action plan due to some States prioritizing the Ukraine war over the core business of the NPT.
Meanwhile, the past ten months have seen an increase in declared and actual nuclear threats arising from the Russia/Ukraine war, nuclear missile testing by North Korea, tensions between China and Taiwan/USA and the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan, according to Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament (PNND).
“It was reassuring, therefore, to see the leaders of the G20, which includes six nuclear-armed states (China, France, India, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) affirming in the Declaration that “The threat of use or use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”
The Declaration, released November 16, indicated a breakthrough in nuclear risk-reduction and disarmament, consolidates a general practice against nuclear weapons use and elevates this to a norm which is now accepted, at least on paper, by the nuclear weapon states.
In its year-end statement, the Washington-based Arms Control Association (ACA) said last month that for five decades, US and Russian leaders have understood that verifiable cuts in their nuclear arsenals are in their national security interests and those of the global community.
“But as we close out 2022, talks on nuclear arms control matters remain on hold as Vladimir Putin’s illegal and disastrous war on Ukraine rages on.”
The last remaining treaty regulating the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals, New START, will expire in 1,140 days.
Unless Washington and Moscow begin serious negotiations on a new nuclear arms control framework, Russian and US nuclear arsenals will be left unconstrained for the first time since 1972.
The dangers of an all-out nuclear arms race with Russia (and China) will grow, the ACA warned. [IDN-InDepthNews — 04 January 2023]
Photo: US President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev, after signing the "New START" in Prague, the only arms control agreement still surviving. Credit: Kremlin.ru