The Nuclear Weapons Challenges of 2021


By Benoît Pelopidas and Clément Therme

In 2021, there are more than 13,000 nuclear arms on planet earth. Most of them have a destruction capacity superior to the bomb that razed the city of Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. More than 1,600 of them are in a state of alert in the United States and Russia. They can be launched in less than 15 minutes, and a war involving less than 1% of the current nuclear arsenals would endanger the planet’s supply of food provisions.1 Protecting populations against a deliberate or accidental nuclear attack has become impossible, at least since the invention of intercontinental ballistic missiles that can be neither intercepted nor called back. The Science and Security Board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists deemed at the end of January this year that the current nuclear threat—at a level similar to that of 2020—was the highest it has ever been since the start of the atomic age.

The end of the Trump presidency and the transfer of power to Joe Biden reminded us of this vulnerability and once again raised questions about the authority to use these weapons systems, the related chain of command, and what open source research can find out about these. We have discovered that once a launch order is given, the orders following it are far less supervised.

News from the beginning of 2021 has brought the issue of nuclear vulnerability and decisions about the future in this area back to the heart of diplomacy and very long-term defence policies. Such decisions oppose a logic of banning nuclear arms under the auspices of a multilateral treaty that has just entered into force, to an industrial process of modernisation , and thus continuation, of these weapons systems in all nuclear states that is planned at least for the next half-century, sometimes until the end of the century. Arms control appears as a third intermediary logic.

Seventy-five years ago, on 24 January 1946, the first resolution of the United Nations General Assembly provided for the creation of a “Commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy”, which was mandated to “eliminat[e] from national armaments atomic weapons and [...] and all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction". The anniversary of this event almost coincided (with a two days difference) with the entry into force of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which now has 52 member states. This treaty is the result of a long process of questioning nuclear deterrence as a meaningful and sustainable foundation for international security.

Beyond the logic of banning the bomb, the logic of arms control, embodied in multilateral treaties (such as the INF Treaty from which the United States and Russia withdrew in 2019) has reappeared with the extension of the New START Treaty for five years in February 2021. In force since 5 February 2011, this bilateral treaty between the United States and Russia, who together own more than 90% of the nuclear arms that exist on earth, was close to its expiration date. This choice of a bilateral control of nuclear armament coincides with the fact that the states that own nuclear arms have claimed they would never join the Ban Treaty.

While no new nuclear-armed state has emerged since October 2006—the longest period since 1945—and while the number of known nuclear programmes is at a historical low, the framing of the nuclear problem as a problem of proliferation remains, which neglects other forms of nuclear vulnerability.

The outcome of the Iranian nuclear programme will be crucial yet there are deep errors of perception on this issue. According to a survey we conducted in nine European countries in 2019,2  46% of the adult population is convinced that Iran already has nuclear weapons. No other non–nuclear-armed state has even remotely been wrongly identified as a state with nuclear weapons. In other words, there are far more Europeans who wrongly think that Iran has the bomb than Europeans who rightly suppose that the United Kingdom has nuclear arms. Similarly, the news that the Islamic Republic had resumed 20% uranium enrichment, even if it could give the country the capacity to militarize its nuclear programme, can be explained by Tehran’s will to reinforce its position in forthcoming negotiations. Whereas everyone in the West expected “duplicity” from Iran, it was the United States that withdrew from the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in May 2018. In the face of the Trump administration’s policy of “maximum pressure”, Iran waited one year before starting to reduce its commitments in the framework of the Plan. For instance, Iran has suspended adherence to the Additional Protocol, an annex to the Safeguards Agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency which allows UN inspectors to carry out snap inspections on Iran’s nuclear facilities. As of February 2021, Russia and China are the only signatories of the JCPOA that have not been accused by another member of violating the terms of the agreement. Iranians have considered the US retreat as a violation, along with the drastic reduction of economic exchanges with European countries due to American pressure since the spring of 2018. For their part, the three European state parties (EU-3: Paris, London, Berlin) and Washington consider that the shrinking of Iranian commitments constitutes a violation of the Plan. The French position vis-à-vis the Iranian nuclear issue is ambivalent, as it defends both its position as a mediator and a hard line, using the term “constructive firmness” coined by Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (François Hollande presidency). This recurring presence of the Iran nuclear dossier in international news is undoubtedly one of the factors at the origin of the perceptions that European populations have of the Iranian nuclear challenges.

In addition, at the European scale, Brexit has made France the only EU-member state to possess nuclear weapons. In such a context, it is possible that the proposal to Europeanise the French nuclear policy, which emerged in the 1950s and was revived by President Macron in February 2020, will be discussed again. Moreover, there is the issue of the relevant sizing of the French nuclear arsenal in light of what has been discovered about its past performances. The attitude of the European public, of which little was known until recently, appears to be particularly unequivocal and correlated to understandings of the events in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The next Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the most widely ratified multilateral treaty, will mark its 50th anniversary and the 25th anniversary of its indefinite extension in 1995. It was supposed to happen in May 2020 but has so far been postponed because of the COVID-19 global pandemic. This review conference will bring face to face incompatible interpretations of promises that were made in the framework of this Treaty, in particular in terms of nuclear disarmament and progress on a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East. This discussion will probably be resumed in a context where Israeli political authorities present the Iranian nuclear programme as an “existential threat” to the survival of the Hebrew state and in which the Israeli-Iranian ideological confrontation has become multidimensional since 1979.

Even if the stakes linked to nuclear arsenals remain understated on the international political agenda, events at the start of 2021 should force us to put nuclear vulnerability at the heart of our concerns and make clear long-term decisions about the way it should be dealt with. We have outlined the various attitudes that are present on the international scene: “modernisation/perpetuation” of arsenals, bilateral control of arsenals, and stigmatisation aiming for their elimination. It is important to realise that this confrontation is not only about armaments. It also questions the future of the entanglement between nuclear arsenals and the nuclear power sector, in particular the way the possibility of accidents and the limits of control over these technologies are understood, 10 years after Fukushima and 35 years after Chernobyl. The issue concerns the future of the EU and of NATO, which has considered itself as a “nuclear alliance” since 2010.

  • 1. Alexandra Witze, “How a Small Nuclear War Would Transform the Entire Planet”, Nature, 579, 2020, pp. 485-487.
  • 2. The November 2019 “NUCLEAR” survey was conducted in the same countries, with samples ranging from N = 700 to N = 1003, combining for a total of 6938 respondents. The respondents for this survey were aged above 18. The integrated panel for the 2019 survey was representative in terms of age, gender, socio-professional category, and geographic location of respondents. It was made possible by Benoît Pelopidas’ ERC-funded NUCLEAR grant n°759707 “NUCLEAR” (ERC Horizon 2020).
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