Module 4:

Current Issues and Challenges

The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons faces many challenges. Largely due to the perennial tension between nuclear weapon states and non-nuclear weapons states, the Treaty has been under severe strain for some time. The two most daunting challenges facing the NPT are disarmament and nonproliferation. Although nuclear weapons numbers have fallen sharply since the peak of Cold War numbers in the mid-1980s, many non-nuclear weapon states argue that disarmament is not occurring fast enough. This tension will undoubtedly have a significant impact on nonproliferation efforts.

Other challenges facing the NPT can be observed as an outgrowth of the Treaty’s age, as well as ambiguity within some of the Treaty’s provisions. The crafters of the NPT could not have predicted current global trends and as such were not able to draft a Treaty that could evolve with the times. Current interpretations of the Treaty have led to considerable challenges in NPT implementation.

Nuclear Disarmament

All states parties to the NPT, and in particular the nuclear weapon states (NWS), have a legal obligation to pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament.

Article VI of the NPT obligates parties to the Treaty to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” Additionally, at the 1995 Review and Extension Conference, NWS agreed to undertake “systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally” as part of the package to extend the treaty indefinitely, and at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, states parties adopted a final document that included “Thirteen Practical Steps” to achieve nuclear disarmament, including an “unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon-states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals. As well, the Conclusions and Recommendations for Follow-on Actions, adopted at the 2010 NPT Review Conference, contain a 22-item action plan on nuclear disarmament.”

Despite progress made through agreements and joint initiatives since the height of the Cold War, some non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) believe the NWS have not made a concerted effort to relinquish their nuclear weapons.


  • NWS argue that warheads and delivery systems require regular maintenance to ensure safety and extend service life, and that they must spend money to maintain and upgrade nuclear weapons systems in order to ensure their effectiveness and longevity. They claim that such maintenance does not constitute modernization, since they are not producing new warhead designs.
  • NNWS welcome New START and other initiatives, but are anxious to see more concrete actions on reducing the role of nuclear weapons in national security doctrines, reducing alert levels, increasing transparency, and other steps. They have also expressed concern over the lack of progress in the field of nuclear disarmament and about the possible undermining of bilateral disarmament efforts through the NWS’ modernization and life extension programs for their nuclear arsenals. Many NNWS believe that the development of new delivery systems and qualitative improvements to arsenals constitute modernization. To them, such upgrades suggest that the NWS have no intention of getting rid of their nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future.



United States

Russia and the U.S. Other NPT NWS Other NW Possessor States NNWS
Russia and the U.S. possess 95% of the world’s nuclear weapons Some countries, like China, have supported nuclear disarmament and have stated they will reduce their stockpiles once the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals reach their levels Other possessor states have not given similar pledges Welcome New START and other initiatives, but eager to see more concrete actions
Nuclear arsenal reduction treaties have been largely bilateral between the United States and Russia / the Soviet Union China has not officially disclosed the size of its arsenal or indicated whether it has implemented any reductions Persuasion of some states such as North Korea, India, and Pakistan will be difficult due to tensions in their regions Concern over the New START treaty: “domestic commitments to nuclear weapon modernization undermine the minimal reductions agreed therein”
New START was signed 2 February 2011 and will expire 5 February 2018. New START decreases deployed warheads to 1,550 France and the United Kingdom have implemented unilateral reductions to their arsenals Israel’s opacity regarding its nuclear capability remains a large obstacle to its inclusion in nuclear disarmament negotiations Concern over the lack of progress in the field of nuclear disarmament
In April 2009, U.S. President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev jointly expressed their commitment to achieve “a nuclear free world” Both India and Pakistan are expanding their nuclear arsenals

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Noncompliance is the most serious nonproliferation challenge facing the NPT. The failure of some non-nuclear-weapon state parties to the treaty to comply with the NPT’s provisions and their safeguards obligations erodes confidence and undermines the goals of the treaty. Nonproliferation noncompliance may also have a negative impact on the pace and future progress of nuclear disarmament. The NPT review process has not so far proved to be an effective tool for tackling noncompliance, and disagreements over how to address some states’ breaches of their commitments complicated the 2005, 2010, and earlier review cycles.

Example States of Compliance Concern

North Korea

  • Violated its safeguards agreement, secretly developed plutonium separation and uranium enrichment programs
  • Withdrew from the NPT in 2003, but the legitimacy of its withdrawal is contested
  • Conducted three nuclear tests in October 2006, May 2009, and February 2013
  • UN Security Council Resolution 2094 (2013) condemned North Korea’s tests and tightened the sanctions placed upon it


  • Previously violated its safeguards agreement with the IAEA, leading the Agency to express concern about possible military dimensions to its nuclear program
  • Has in the past continued to develop its ability to enrich uranium despite UN Security Council resolutions condemning its actions
  • Opaque intentions and continued refusal to fully comply with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and UN Security Council resolutions, as well as revelations of earlier nuclear weapons work, have led many to worry that Iran may soon be able to develop nuclear weapons
  • On November 24, 2013, diplomats from Iran and from China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom negotiated the first phase of an agreement that rolls back Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for limited sanctions relief. Officials hope that a more permanent deal can be reached that will allay many of the concerns about Iran’s nuclear program

Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy

Article IV of the NPT ensures that NNWS have access to the peaceful use and development of nuclear technology. Rising energy demands have led to a growing number of countries pursuing nuclear energy, and many countries wish to be energy-independent, maintaining a closed nuclear fuel cycle in order to ensure a sustainable and dependable domestic energy supply. An increase in nuclear fuel cycle activities places a significant burden on the IAEA safeguards system, which is tasked with detecting and deterring the diversion of materials and equipment for military nuclear activities. The challenge for the international community will be to reconcile states’ desire for energy independence with their desire to both reduce the intrusiveness of IAEA safeguards and diminish the possibility of proliferation.

Multilateral Approaches to the Fuel Cycle: A possible solution?

  • Idea has been explored since the 1940s, but failed to win approval; however, it has recently reemerged. The most ambitious versions of this concept involve placing proliferation-sensitive nuclear fuel cycle technologies under international rather than national control
  • June 2004: Then-IAEA Director-General Mohamed El-Baradei commissioned an international Expert Group to examine incentives and disincentives for multilateral approaches to the front and back ends of the nuclear fuel cycle
  • The El-Baradei Report outlines five approaches to strengthen controls over fuel enrichment, reprocessing, spent fuel repositories, and spent fuel storage, and explores the establishment of an “intergovernmental fuel bank
  • Opposing arguments:
    • Developing countries are concerned that additional restrictions on access to the civilian nuclear fuel cycle would contradict the provisions of Article IV of the NPT
    • Some argue that proposals to internationalize the nuclear fuel cycle may further enhance the discriminatory nature of the NPT and cement the technological dominance of the NWS over the NNWS