By Sergey Batsanov, Vladislav Chernavskikh, and Anton Khlopkov
Despite the near-universal recognition of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as the cornerstone of international security, it faces growing challenges. This was amply demonstrated at the recent 10th NPT Review Conference, where issues relating to all three pillars of the treaty—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—were the subject of contentious debate.
Delayed four times because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference has shown that as the international security environment continues to deteriorate, the NPT discussions are becoming increasingly politicized. This situation poses challenges for the future: Can states-parties adequately prioritize issues directly related to the NPT and compartmentalize them from their numerous disagreements in other areas, and what is the best way to do this? These are profound and difficult questions, but the ability to find a solution will have a direct impact on negotiations at the review conference in 2026 and the ability of the NPT to remain the bedrock of international arms control and nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.
Despite four weeks of intense negotiations, participants at the review conference, which ended on August 26 in New York, were unable to reach consensus on the substantive part of the outcome document.1 That was not unprecedented. Four of nine previous review conferences, in 1980, 1990, 2005, and 2015, concluded with a similar result.2 This one, however, was somewhat special. First, it was held in the context of the 50th anniversary of the NPT’s entry into force and the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension. Second, it marked the first time that two consecutive review cycles ended without the adoption of a consensus final document or substantive decisions.
In 2015, consensus was blocked by the Canadian, UK and U.S. delegations. This year, Russia was the only one to openly oppose adoption of the draft outcome document as submitted by the conference president. Even so, statements at the closing plenary and earlier discussions demonstrated a wide range of disagreements among delegations about the draft outcome document regarding all three NPT pillars. The New Zealand delegation, for example, expressed “deep disappointment” at how little had been achieved on disarmament issues despite “demands from non-nuclear weapon states.”3 The Mexican delegation, on behalf of more than 60 countries that are signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, noted that the draft final document falls dramatically short of advancing nuclear disarmament and implementing Article VI of the NPT.4
Iran’s representative said the language regarding the weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the Middle East is the weakest its delegation has ever seen.5 The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries emphasized that the growing interest of states-parties in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy should not be used as grounds to impose additional restrictions under the pretext of preventing proliferation.6 The Austrian delegation called the document “very disappointing” and regretted that the only chance to achieve an outcome document is when no delegation wishes to take the blame for breaking consensus.7
Even before the conference opened, many experts warned that NPT states-parties had accumulated too many disagreements and that reaching consensus on the outcome document would be extremely difficult if not impossible.8 For example, the Trump administration withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in 2018. It also refused to seek ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty as documented in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. The United Kingdom decided to increase its nuclear stockpile and the trilateral AUKUS alliance took shape, under which the United States and the UK agreed to help Australia obtain nuclear submarines that are likely to use highly enriched uranium (HEU) as fuel.
Other factors looming over the conference were the unprecedented international security challenges manifested by crisis in Ukraine and the high level of confrontation among the delegations, including the five nuclear-weapon states. Indeed, some experts noted that this review conference was perhaps the most politicized in the history of the NPT. Ukraine, including the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, became a major issue and the major politicizing factor at the conference. To the detriment of consensus building, some participants, mostly EU members, consistently brought up issues related to the Ukrainian crisis during the plenary sessions and meetings of all three main conference committees.
Many delegations were eager to find compromise on most agenda items and drafted an outcome document that addressed to some degree the majority of the key NPT challenges. Even so, the draft document ultimately was weak in language and substance, and the willingness to look for compromise was not enough to find language on the Ukrainian issue that would be acceptable to all delegations. Apart from Ukraine and disarmament issues, much of the debate focused on issues of nuclear nonproliferation and the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, which previously were considered relatively less divisive in the context of recent NPT review cycles.
The new AUKUS political and military alliance among Australia, the UK, and the United States has provoked, as expected, strong negative reaction from China, which AUKUS is designed to counter, mainly by military means. The Chinese delegation, supported by Russia, was sharply critical of the alliance at the conference.9 Austria, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, and the Philippines also expressed concerns about AUKUS and related “naval propulsion arrangements.” Their arguments included concerns about the further militarization of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the prospect of military infrastructure expansion in the region by the nuclear-weapon states, and the application of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program. These factors run the risk of rekindling Australia’s appetite for nuclear weapons, which was evident in the late 1950s and almost until the country acceded to the NPT in 1973.10
Under the agreement, the UK and the United States are expected to supply the HEU needed as a fuel for the nuclear-powered submarines that Australia will receive. The failure to design and implement effective IAEA safeguards solutions with regard to this nuclear material would risk setting a precedent that could weaken the safeguards regime and facilitate the proliferation of sensitive nuclear materials and technology.
Assurances should be provided via IAEA safeguards implementation that Australia will honor its obligation under its comprehensive safeguards agreement not to use the nuclear material in question for the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.11 There are other legal, technical, and procedural issues that deserve serious and thoughtful consideration. China, Russia, and some other countries also are concerned that the AUKUS participants may engage the IAEA in backroom negotiations and declare whatever they precook as a gold standard of safeguards application in connection with the naval nuclear propulsion program.
The review conference negotiations resulted in compromise language on this issue. The draft outcome document notes the interest of the NPT parties in this issue, as well as the need for non-nuclear-weapon states that pursue naval nuclear propulsion to engage with the IAEA in an open, transparent manner.
In various post-conference commentaries, there was a strong sense that by agreeing to this compromise language China had departed from its more far-reaching initial proposals. Regardless, Beijing and Moscow succeeded in defending their main interest: the AUKUS-related safeguards issue is now recognized as a serious one, and a proper way for addressing it with the IAEA has been indicated.
Middle Eastern WMD-Free Zone
In 2015, disagreements over the issue of the zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East were the main reason why that year’s review conference was unable to reach a consensus outcome document. Many experts anticipated it would also be one of the most controversial topics at the 10th review conference, given the unresolved differences between the Group of Arab States and the United States and the absence of the U.S. and Israeli representatives at the first two sessions of the UN conference on establishing a zone.
The working paper submitted by the Group of Arab States stressed that the UN conference was “an additional step” toward establishing a zone and called on all invited parties to “participate earnestly and constructively.”12 The Arab states noted that Israel had not yet taken part in the zone conference. They urged Israel to join the NPT as a non-nuclear-weapon state and to place all its nuclear facilities under IAEA comprehensive safeguards. Russia stressed that the UN conference “was a necessary step to break the deadlock in implementing the 1995 resolution on the Middle East.” It called on Israel to join the negotiations and the United States to join as an observer.13
The review conference draft outcome document “acknowledged the developments” of the first and second session of the UN conference on the zone in November 2019 and November 2021 and completely omitted references to Israel from the relevant section. According to some reports, several Middle Eastern countries were not invited to help draft the text in question; the main negotiations were carried out by the Egyptian and U.S. delegations. This prompted rumors that Iran, which essentially was excluded from the drafting process, might block adoption of the final document. Several other participants, including Lebanon, Syria, and the Palestinians, expressed dissatisfaction with the “weak” final text.
Thus, despite the agreement on the language of the relevant paragraphs in the draft final document, serious contradictions on the issue of a Middle Eastern WMD-free zone within the NPT process have persisted. The United States refrained from commitments to participate in the next zone conference in November. Continuing the negotiating process without Israel and the United States is likely to increase further confrontation on this issue in the next NPT review cycle.
Iran Nuclear Deal
It would seem logical to see references in the draft final document to the importance of restoring the JCPOA as early as possible. Strengthening the NPT is, in essence, the goal of the JCPOA and UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the deal. Moreover, despite the uncertainty and stagnation that preceded the NPT review conference, many hoped the JCPOA talks had reached the final stage and would soon conclude successfully.
The most common explanation for the absence of any reference to the JCPOA in the draft final document is that the European Union, as coordinator of the JCPOA negotiations and in agreement with the United States, thought it counterproductive to give additional exposure to the nuclear deal. In principle, such a policy was justified, given the delicate stage of the negotiations, but it does not explain the complete absence of any mention of the JCPOA. One can assume that it was complications related to the Biden administration’s fears about the potential effect that restoring the JCPOA might have on the U.S. midterm elections in November.
Moreover, given Israel’s negative attitude toward the JCPOA, the inclusion of language calling for a swift and successful conclusion of negotiations could have led to a behind-the-scenes dispute between Israel and the United States. Ironically, Iran also was not eager to see a call for a successful conclusion of the JCPOA talks because of concern that the wording would be used to pressure Iran on its negotiating position and further complicate delicate internal political discussions in Tehran.
Regardless, the United States, Iran, and others were careful not to give negative signals about the JCPOA negotiations during the conference. Since then, there are signs that this kind of reasonable caution has given way to mutual recriminations about delaying the agreement. It looks certain that the endgame will be delayed until after the U.S. elections in November.
Unlike the JCPOA, tensions on the Korean peninsula, which for several years has stagnated as an issue with no dialogue or negotiations taking place, sparked a heated debate at the review conference. The Japanese and South Korean delegations, with French, UK and U.S. support, promoted the maximalist concept of the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the North Korean nuclear weapons program, essentially abandoning more pragmatic approaches that were used with some success during the Korean peninsula dialogue in 2018–2019.
China, supported by Russia, has tried to promote more balanced and realistic language, insisting on the generally acceptable term “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” instead of “denuclearization of the DPRK,” which refers specifically to North Korea. China also called for a “principle of phased and synchronized actions.”14 Russia stressed that “the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula should be phased and based on equality and mutual respect for interests.”15
As a result, the draft final document expressed “unwavering support for the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” while noting the need to reduce tensions and resolve the situation through negotiations and diplomacy.
In general, the conference discussions confirmed that South Korea and the United States have returned to the more confrontational policies vis-à-vis North Korea. This creates potential for an escalation of regional tensions, as well as widening differences over the Korean peninsula and other regional security issues with Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington on one side and Beijing and Moscow on the other.
Achieving progress requires these capitals to realize that the factors contributing to tensions are not only North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, but also increased military activity in Northeast Asia by the states inside and especially outside of the region. More subtle approaches that take into account the security interests of all states involved are needed urgently to unblock the current dangerous impasse on the Korean peninsula.
Nuclear Energy, Safeguards, and Export Controls
Conference discussions and the draft final document highlighted the growing role of peaceful nuclear technologies, especially nuclear power, amid the challenges of economic development and decarbonization. The document recognized that “nuclear technologies and innovations, including advanced reactors and small and medium-sized or modular reactors…can play an important role in facilitating energy security, decarbonization and transitioning to a low carbon energy economy.” It also stated that “nuclear technologies can contribute to addressing climate change, mitigating and adapting to its consequences, and monitoring its impact,” thus reflecting the ongoing process of rethinking the role of nuclear power in the global energy transition.
At the same time, the conference revealed deep disagreement over the balance between the inalienable right of all NPT states-parties to develop peaceful uses of nuclear energy and the multilateral and national export control regimes and strengthened IAEA safeguards that seek to control the nuclear activities of non-nuclear-weapon states. Many states-parties believe the current balance is not right.
Many states, including the NAM countries, expressed concern over “certain unilateral, politically motivated restrictions imposed on developing countries that seriously hamper states-parties from exercising their inalienable right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.” They cited as unacceptable the use of “interpretations in the application of safeguards” and “measures and initiatives aimed at strengthening nuclear safety and nuclear security” for these purposes.16 Some states singled out unilateral economic sanctions as one factor limiting the right to develop the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, while other states stressed that international export control regimes were developed without the proper involvement of developing countries.
There were many statements about the importance of safeguards and the need for their robust application, including at very high levels.17 The conference also discussed the role of an additional protocol to safeguards agreements. Some states, including the Vienna Group of Ten,18 EU countries, and the United States, insisted that an additional protocol “together with a comprehensive safeguards agreement represents the current verification standard.” Nonaligned countries noted that “additional measures related to the safeguards shall not undermine, condition, or in any way negatively affect the rights of the non-nuclear-weapon states-parties” to the NPT.19 Cuba rejected “proposals to make ratification of the additional protocol mandatory for access to nuclear assistance, cooperation, and technology transfer”20 while Brazil and Russia stressed its voluntary nature.
The draft final document attempted to bridge the disagreements, emphasizing the “distinction between voluntary, confidence-building measures and the legal obligations of states” and noting that “it is the sovereign decision of any state to conclude an additional protocol.” It said an additional protocol represents an “enhanced verification standard” but only for individual states and called on participants “to ensure that measures to strengthen nuclear security do not hamper international cooperation in the field of peaceful nuclear activities.”
Most of the problems are not new, and they were skillfully diluted in a number of generally acceptable paragraphs, which would have commanded general consensus if the document were to be adopted. Yet, there was one more matter, which received little attention: Because of a combination of factors, such as the growing need for nuclear energy, important technological innovations, and a general destabilization of the international security architecture, the world may soon witness an intensified competition on the global energy market. That may further complicate the developing world’s access to nuclear energy and stimulate nuclear proliferation risks.
Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant
The main issue complicating conference discussions was the safety and security of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. Russian forces took control of the plant, with its six VVER-1000 reactors, in March. In August, two reactor units were in operation, and Ukrainian management and staff have continued to carry out their day-to-day work while the site remained under Russian control.21
According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, over the past two months, Ukrainian armed forces have shelled the plant and its infrastructure more than 30 times and the nearby city of Energodar more than 70 times. There are other challenges, including difficulties rotating personnel who operate the station under stressful conditions.22
The topic of Zaporizhzhia, although urgent, disproportionately dominated discussions in the conference main committees 2 and 3 and was introduced in an extremely politicized manner. Delegates mixed up actual, legitimate issues with false information and with demands that have more to do with the battlefield situation. Ultimately, the paragraphs concerning Zaporizhzhia in the draft final document became the primary deal breaker that prevented consensus.
It is impossible to imagine that Western delegations were not aware of Russian redlines regarding Ukraine. They are understood to have included language that contained explicit or implicit criticism of Russia in the context of the Ukrainian crisis, could be instrumentalized for changing the situation on the battlefield, or questioned the status of Crimea as part of Russia.
The Russian delegation made several written proposals to find generally acceptable wording on those points, but they were not taken into account. By contrast, the proposed IAEA expert mission to Zaporizhzhia was never among the Russian redlines; Moscow had accepted that proposal in April.
Analyzing the conference from the general debate to the drafting process, there are reasons to assume that given the wide range of disagreements and the resulting practical impossibility of reaching agreement on a final document, some countries decided, even before the conference opened, to use it to advance political agendas unrelated to the NPT and to push the Russian delegation toward blocking the final document by insisting on unacceptable language referencing Ukraine-related issues.
Outlook and Priorities
Considering the heightened geopolitical tensions, it is hardly reasonable to judge the results of the next review cycle solely by whether there is a consensus document. At the same time, the NPT and the nonproliferation regime in general are facing serious escalating challenges that need to be addressed. If there is yet another failure to agree on an outcome document at the next conference in four years, that could lead to a profound systemic crisis for the NPT regime.
Against this backdrop, the NPT states-parties should start doing their homework as early as possible, nationally and internationally, to ensure they are well prepared for the 2026 review conference. The next review cycle will be shorter than usual, with the first meeting of the conference preparatory committee taking place next year. Most likely, the next cycle will also be more intensive because the just-concluded conference set up a working group on further strengthening the review process. The three sessions planned for the preparatory committee should be complemented by regular, inclusive informal meetings and consultations involving all major stakeholders. Think tanks and civil society also should play a role.
No matter the definition of success, the 2026 review conference is unlikely to succeed without constructive, regular expert- and political-level dialogue on all three NPT pillars among the five nuclear-weapon states, especially the three depositories of the treaty (Russia, the UK, and the United States). It is symptomatic that all the depositary countries were involved in blocking adoption of final documents at the last two review conferences.
At the moment, there is a need to generate the political will to assign higher priority to nuclear nonproliferation issues, understand real threats to the nonproliferation regime, and make an extra effort to keep the regime protected from new and dangerous challenges. To do that, there also needs to be serious informal, unofficial track 2 and 1.5 discussions where it may be easier to honestly explore and understand the risks the world is facing and their consequences.
2. The 1995 review and extension conference of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was unable to reach consensus on a comprehensive final document, but the states-parties agreed on a package of other decisions, which included the indefinite extension of the NPT.
3. Lucy Duncan, “Closing Statement to the NPT Plenary,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/ILjj78K3EC8e_en.pdf.
4. “Closing Statement: TPNW Supporting States,” n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/2DpugfhGk9QE_en.pdf (statement by Mexico on behalf of the states-parties and signatories of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022).
5. Gabriela Rosa, “Updates From the 10th NPT Review Conference,” Arms Control Association, August 26, 2022, https://www.armscontrol.org/blog/2022/updates-10th-NPT-RevCon.
6. “Statement by the Delegation of the Republic of Indonesia on Behalf of the Group of the Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/XTzgnxLhAvfb_en.pdf.
7. Alexander Kmentt, Closing remarks by Austria at the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 26, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220826/q82W3cj6s5AC/FRT4JM0nRL8m_en.pdf.
8. See, for example, Robert Einhorn, “COVID-19 Has Given the 2020 NPT Review Conference a Reprieve. Let’s Take Advantage of It,” Brookings, May 13, 2020, https://www.brookings.edu/articles/covid-19-has-given-the-2020-npt-review-conference-a-reprieve-lets-take-advantage-of-it/; Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, “The Postponement of the NPT Review Conference. Antagonisms, Conflicts and Nuclear Risks After the Pandemic,” May 6, 2020, https://pugwashconferences.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/20200506_npt_postponement_and_the_pandemic-3.pdf; Tariq Rauf, “The NPT at 50: Perish or Survive?” Arms Control Today, March 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-03/features/npt-50-perish-survive; Daria Selezneva, “Challenges of Maintaining the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” World Economy and International Relations, Vol. 64, No. 3 (2020): 29–35, https://doi.org/10.20542/0131-2227-2020-64-3-29-35.
9. Igor Vishnevetskii, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Russian Federation at Main Committee II of the 10th NPT Review Conference, n.d., https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/p4jjDsUzwclF/Lyfm0ubgY5Wt_en.pdf (hereinafter Vishnevetskii statement.)
11. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), “The Structure and Content of Agreements Between the Agency and States Required in Connection With the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” INFCIRC/153 (Corrected), n.d., para. 14 (a)(ii).
12. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Specific Regional Issues and Implementation of the 1995 Resolution on the Middle East: Working Paper Submitted by the Group of Arab States,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.8, August 26, 2020, paras. 10, 11.
13. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Suggestions of the Delegation of the Russian Federation to Be Reflected in the Outcome Document of the 10th Review Conference of the NPT,” NPT/CONF.2020/MC.II/CRP.2, August 16, 2022, paras. 6, 8, and 9.
14. Fu Cong, “Upholding the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons for World Peace and Development,” August 2, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220802/d9cjQBjtSPPR/qDSy5JAAfxdY_en.pdf.
16. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “The Inalienable Right to Develop Research, Production and Uses of Nuclear Energy for Peaceful Purposes: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.25, November 24, 2021.
17. See, for example, President of Russia, “Greetings on the Opening of the Tenth Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” August 1, 2022, http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/69096; Antony J. Blinken, Remarks to the NPT review conference, August 1, 2022, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinkens-remarks-to-the-nuclear-non-proliferation-treaty-review-conference/.
19. Tenth NPT Review Conference, “Safeguards: Working Paper Submitted by the Members of the Group of Non-Aligned States Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons,” NPT/CONF.2020/WP.22, November 22, 2021.
20. Yiliam Gomez Sardinas, Statement on behalf of the delegation of the Republic of Cuba in Main Committee III of the 10th NPT Review Conference, August 8, 2022, https://estatements.unmeetings.org/estatements/14.0447/20220808/fHzmajQMkLne/maEg2ohM0p34_es.pdf (in Spanish).
21. IAEA, “Nuclear Safety, Security and Safeguards in Ukraine: 2nd Summary Report by the Director General, 28 April–5 September 2022,” n.d., p. 14, https://www.iaea.org/sites/default/files/22/09/ukraine-2ndsummaryreport_sept2022.pdf.
22. Speech by the Governor from the Russian Federation, Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to International Organizations in Vienna M. I. Ulyanov on item 9 of the agenda of the session of the IAEA Board of Governors, September 15, 2022, https://www.mid.ru/ru/foreign_policy/news/1830064/ (in Russian).
Sergey Batsanov, director of the Geneva Office of Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a former Soviet and Russian ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament. Vladislav Chernavskikh is a research associate at the Moscow-based Center for Energy and Security Studies. Anton Khlopkov is the director of the Center for Energy and Security Studies.