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Nuclear disarmament is top priority for science diplomacy

By David Dickson - posted Friday, 21 May 2010

The political climate is ripe for a new push to eliminate nuclear weapons; scientists can boost its chance of success.

Earlier this year, US satellites detected the first plume of steam from a nuclear reactor in Pakistan that has been built to produce fuel for nuclear bombs, confirming the country's desire to strengthen its status as a nuclear power.

The observation - coming shortly before this month's review conference in New York of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - is further evidence that the unregulated spread of nuclear technology remains closely linked to the dangers of nuclear conflict.


The good news is that US President Barack Obama seems determined to make eliminating nuclear weapons a top priority. Indeed, last month he invited 47 heads of state to an unprecedented summit in Washington to promote disarmament and agree strategies to prevent nuclear terrorism and safeguard nuclear material.

But the news from Pakistan, together with continued disagreement on how best to tackle other emerging nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea, illustrates how far there is to go - and the political hurdles that must still be scaled - before this goal is achieved.

New hope

Still, there is a sense of optimism for this year's review conference that was missing from the last meeting in 2005. Then, the aggressive stance taken by the Bush administration - describing North Korea as part of an "axis of evil", for example - doomed the discussions to a stalemate.

This time round, the prospects for agreement are significantly higher. Not only has Obama adopted a more moderate attitude towards international affairs in general, but he has already made significant achievements on the nuclear front.

Last month, for example, Russia and the United States announced an arms control agreement under which both will significantly reduce their nuclear arsenals. And since then, Obama has revised his nuclear policy to state, for the first time, that non-nuclear states that have signed the NPT will never be targets of US nuclear weapons.

Both agreements could have gone further. Some in Obama's administration wanted him to take the further step of banning the use of nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear threat or attack. And despite the new cuts, both Russia and the United States will still own enough nuclear weapons to destroy human life many times over.


But the recent moves have nonetheless created a political climate in which significant agreement, at least between nuclear weapons states, looks more realistic than it did five years ago. There are even signs that the United States could eventually ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the next major step towards global nuclear disarmament.

Need for vigilance

The reasons for optimism are not restricted to the shift in the US position. Equally influential has been a growing awareness within the developed and developing worlds of the threats of nuclear terrorism and the need to improve protection of nuclear materials.

Eighteen months ago, for example, an armed group was caught breaking into a nuclear facility in South Africa in an apparent attempt to steal weapons-grade uranium that has been stored at the site since the early 1990s, under international supervision.

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First published by on May 7, 2010.

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About the Author

David Dickson is director and editor of the website
He was news editor of Nature from 1993 to August 2001, and was the journal’s Washington correspondent from 1977 to 1982. Originally a graduate in mathematics, he has also worked for The Times Higher Education Supplement (1973-1977), Science (1982-1989) and New Scientist (1989-1992).

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