Despite the worst, the human mind tends to assume the best. Twenty-one years ago, as fragments of the Berlin Wall were being seized by souvenir hunters, a collective sigh of relief went up and the specter of nuclear Armageddon suddenly dimmed.
In 2010, we need no reminder that the end of the Cold War, unfortunately, did not bring with it the end of the nuclear threat. Twenty thousand nuclear weapons remain in the world’s arsenals. Eliminating those weapons is an imperative that must be urgently met.
As long as so many nuclear weapons remain in so many hands, we can’t ignore the risk of them falling into the possession of terrorists. Closing the door on the development of nuclear weapons, once and for all, is a critical step towards their elimination.
In New York this May, at the five-yearly Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference, nearly 190 states committed to a world free of nuclear weapons. Their commitments build on a worldwide groundswell of opposition to nuclear weapons.
But such concern needs to be turned into concrete action. This is not a quixotic venture and naysayers who contend that nuclear disarmament is an illusion that cannot be fulfilled fly in the face of history.
The nuclear arms race began on August 29th, 1949, when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device, “First Lightning,” at the Semipalatinsk test range in Kazakhstan. The detonation came four years after the United States exploded the world’s first nuclear bomb at a test range in New Mexico.
In 1991, after the exploding of over 450 nuclear bombs, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev shut down the Semipalatinsk site. Kazakhstan eventually rejected its entire nuclear arsenal, which was the world’s fourth largest. A decade and a half later, Kazakhstan’s nuclear inheritance from the breakup of the Soviet Union is a part of history.
Fourteen-hundred nuclear warheads, intercontinental ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and heavy bombers were returned to Russia for disposal under the START 1 Treaty. Weapons-grade uranium was down blended into commercial reactor fuel and weaponizable plutonium was safely disposed of. Reactors that had provided weapons material were de-commissioned. The Semipalatinsk test site was spiked. Once one of the world’s most nuclear-armed nations, Kazakhstan acceded to the NPT in 1994 as a non-nuclear weapons state. In 1996, four days after the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) opened for signature, it was signed by Kazakhstan.
Without being able to test nuclear weapons, a state seeking to develop them will have its hands tied. Now is the time for the nine states — including the U.S. and China — whose ratification of the CTBT will bring it into force to show the political will to fully endorse it.
The U.S. has an historic opportunity to lead by example and ratify the CTBT by next August 29th to lend this anniversary the significance it deserves.
The desire to pursue a nuclear-weapon-free world is not in short measure, but we need to continue to observe August 29th as a reminder to act and not wait.
Ending nuclear explosions is a goal on the road to nuclear disarmament that must be reached.
Kazakhstan offers a clear example for the rest of the world of how nuclear disarmament can be undertaken. Kazakhstan’s example shows that states can abdicate their nuclear regalia without it impinging on their security. Belarus, South Africa and Ukraine have also renounced their nuclear arsenals, thus setting the same example.
The echo of Semipalatinsk should be heard every August 29th until nuclear explosions stop — once and for all.
Ambassador Tibor Toth is the Executive Secretary of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).