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75 years after Hiroshima, here are 4 things to know about nuclear disarmament efforts

- August 5, 2020

Seventy-five years ago, on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, the United States ushered in the nuclear age by dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki, Japan. Over 100,000 Japanese residents, and possibly up to double that number, died of the blast, fire and radiation. Since then, many survivors — known as the hibakusha — have advocated for global nuclear disarmament. Our research finds strong public support for nuclear disarmament in both the United States and Japan.

Here are four things to know about efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons.

1. What’s the status of existing nuclear treaties?

A total of 191 governments have joined the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, as it is widely known, allows the United States, Britain, China, France and Russia to maintain nuclear weapons if they move toward eventual nuclear disarmament. Three countries — India, Israel and Pakistan — have nuclear weapons but have not signed onto the treaty. North Korea was previously a member but withdrew from the treaty and developed nuclear weapons.

Today, more than five decades after the agreement opened for signature, there are approximately 13,410 nuclear weapons around the world. Over 90 percent belong to the United States and Russia, which had an intense Cold War nuclear rivalry.

The NPT’s non-nuclear members have long criticized the nuclear powers for continuing to maintain and modernize their weapons. NPT countries usually meet every five years to review the accord; the coronavirus pandemic forced the postponement of this year’s conference, which would have included more such criticism.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty in 2019, both designed to reduce nuclear dangers. Arms-control advocates fear President Trump may also not extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty if he is reelected, unless China agrees to join. This treaty, which limits the U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, will expire on Feb. 5 if it isn’t renewed. Chinese officials have refused to participate in arms-control talks, arguing that their nuclear forces are a small fraction of those of the United States and Russia.

The Trump administration has also floated the idea of conducting the first U.S. nuclear test explosion since 1992. That would violate the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which the United States has signed but not ratified. North Korea is the only country to have tested nuclear weapons in the 21st century. Experts warn that if the United States begins testing, that could trigger an arms race with China and Russia — and possibly a new era of nuclear testing around the world.

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2. Disarmament advocates have moved their efforts to abolish nuclear weapons beyond the Non-Proliferation Treaty

In 2017, 122 countries adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Known as the “Ban Treaty,” this agreement outlaws all activities related to nuclear weapons: building them, possessing them, testing them and threatening their use. Nuclear-armed nations and their allies predictably disapproved, and none voted to adopt the treaty.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons won the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for helping to establish the Ban Treaty. The campaign’s director, Beatrice Fihn, accepted the prize alongside Hiroshima survivor Setsuko Thurlow, a hibakusha disarmament advocate who has devoted her life to recounting her harrowing experiences on and after Aug. 6, 1945.

The Ban Treaty requires 50 governments to ratify it before it can come into force. On July 15, Botswana became the 40th. But the disarmament impact that the treaty could have remains unclear since the nuclear-armed countries and their allies have vowed never to join.

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3. Americans and Japanese favor nuclear disarmament, but Americans aren’t sure about the Ban Treaty

If U.S. and allied leaders don’t support the Ban Treaty, what about the public? To find out, we conducted nationally representative Internet surveys in the United States and Japan. Working with the survey firm Dynata and our colleague Jonathon Baron, we surveyed 1,219 U.S. and 1,333 Japanese residents in August 2019. One group of respondents read basic information about the Ban Treaty and were asked if they supported it. Other groups of respondents provided their opinion after reading the same information, followed by one of three possible critiques of the treaty advanced by their nation’s government. Finally, all subjects indicated their attitudes toward a range of statements about nuclear disarmament, in principle.

In the group that read about the Ban Treaty without any critique, 64.7 percent of Americans and 75 percent of Japanese said they wanted their governments to ratify it. But if Americans also read a U.S. government critique of the treaty, support dropped to as low as 45.5 percent. Yet even Americans skeptical of the Ban Treaty told us that, on average, they’d like to see nuclear weapons eliminated eventually. In Japan, citizens supported the Ban Treaty at the same rate, regardless of whether they read any Japanese government arguments against it.

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4. The Trump administration has taken a different approach to nuclear disarmament

In 2018, the Trump administration unveiled an initiative called Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Ford pitched the plan by rejecting the Ban Treaty and arguing that traditional U.S. approaches to reducing nuclear arms alongside Russia were no longer feasible.

In support of this initiative, the United States assembled a group of nuclear and non-nuclear nations to discuss long-term steps toward disarmament. Ban Treaty sympathizers, who seek swifter abolition of nuclear weapons, contend that this initiative appears to abandon the NPT’s disarmament commitments. Some even claim the Trump administration is trying to create “conditions to never disarm.”

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Rebecca Davis Gibbons (@RDavisGibbons) is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine and an associate at the Project on Managing the Atom at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Stephen Herzog (@HerzogSM) is a PhD candidate in political science at Yale University and a Stanton Nuclear Security predoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.