Concerns Continue over Nuclear Proliferation

Berlin meeting on Iran's nuclear program i i

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (from left), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among those who met in January in Berlin to discuss Iran's nuclear program. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Berlin meeting on Iran's nuclear program

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (from left), German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were among those who met in January in Berlin to discuss Iran's nuclear program.

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Representatives to the six-nation talks in Sept. 2007 i i

Russia's Alexander Losyukov (from left), South Korea's Chun Yung-woo, North Korea's Kim Gye Gwan, China's Wu Dawei, the United States' Christopher Hill, and Japan's Kenichiro Sasae attended the six-nation talks in September 2007 in Beijing aimed at bringing about the disarmament of nuclear weapons in North Korea. Andy Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andy Wong/Getty Images
Representatives to the six-nation talks in Sept. 2007

Russia's Alexander Losyukov (from left), South Korea's Chun Yung-woo, North Korea's Kim Gye Gwan, China's Wu Dawei, the United States' Christopher Hill, and Japan's Kenichiro Sasae attended the six-nation talks in September 2007 in Beijing aimed at bringing about the disarmament of nuclear weapons in North Korea.

Andy Wong/Getty Images

The world first learned of nuclear weapons in 1945 when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in an effort to bring about the swift end of World War II.

Then came the shock of the Soviet Union's first nuclear test, in 1949, far more quickly than experts in the United States had predicted.

The nuclear arms race was born.

The Quick Acquisition of Weapons

Britain began to acquire a small nuclear arsenal in the 1950s. In the early 1960s, France and China followed with nuclear tests.

It took less than 20 years from the first atomic blasts for five nations to acquire nuclear weapons. And by the mid-1960s, America's leaders feared that in another 20 years, the number of states with nuclear weapons could grow to 20 or more.

By that time, too, the combined nuclear arsenals of just the United States and the Soviet Union had grown to more than 20,000. In 1962, the two superpowers nearly launched the world's first nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.

So President John F. Kennedy — and then President Lyndon B. Johnson after him — decided that the world needed some mechanism to slow the rush to global nuclear armageddon.

Creation of the NPT

In 1968, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was created with the hope that all nations of the world would sign it and abide by its essential bargain — that the five nations with nuclear weapons would give them up, if the rest of the world's nations pledged not to acquire them in the first place.

Now, 189 nations have signed the NPT. It has become the international standard by which nations are judged on their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. Its categories still stand — the five "official" nuclear weapons states and the rest, which all pledged to remain non-nuclear weapons states.

Abiding by the Treaty

But the NPT has not had a perfect record. Three states — India, Pakistan and Israel — have never signed the treaty and have acquired nuclear weapons. Another, North Korea, signed the treaty but cheated and developed a nuclear weapons program in secret. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the treaty. The country exploded a nuclear weapon in 2006.

Others have joined the treaty but also cheated — Iraq, Iran and Libya among them. Iraq was forced to give up its nuclear weapons program in the 1990s, and Libya in 2004. Iran's possible pursuit of nuclear weapons is one of the flashpoints in international relations today.

A few states acquired nuclear weapons but willingly gave them up. South Africa dismantled its small nuclear stockpile in 1993 and then joined the treaty. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan found themselves with nuclear weapons on their territory after the disappearance of the Soviet Union. They all chose to become non-nuclear weapons states and returned the weapons to Russia.

Successful Disarmament?

Over the years, some states began research in nuclear technology that could lead to weapons, but ended those programs. Many more nations possess non-military nuclear technology — such as civilian nuclear energy programs — that give them the potential to develop nuclear weapons.

The five nuclear weapons states recognized under the NPT have not yet fulfilled their end of the bargain. They have not given up their nuclear weapons, although the United States and Russia have been engaged for nearly 20 years in reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles. Each still possesses several thousand nuclear weapons that could be ready to launch in very little time.

The prediction nearly a half-century ago that the world would soon see 20 or more states with nuclear weapons has not come to pass. That fear, though, still remains.

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