Nuclear Norms Under Attack
The Korea Times Column

Nuclear Norms Under Attack

Sixty years after the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the brink of nuclear holocaust, the international community is still struggling to contain the malign manifestations of the atom while exploiting its benign uses in nuclear power generation and a multitude of other peaceful uses, most notably in nuclear medicine.

This year has seen a ramping up of nuclear risks. Russia’s threat to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine war was a reminder of the darkest days of the Cold War. Further, it was at odds with the much-repeated declaration of the nuclear weapon states, including Russia that “nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.” While Moscow has subsequently attempted to calm the fears it generated, the norm of nuclear restraint has been severely damaged.

And in our region, North Korea threatens to conduct a further nuclear weapon test. It is the only country to have left the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), asserting its rights under Article X of the NPT to withdraw from the treaty in light of what it claimed were extraordinary events jeopardizing its supreme interests.

The failure to date of efforts to have North Korea abandon its nuclear weapon program is a failure of the global instruments designed to contain nuclear weapon proliferation. At the same time, global condemnation of North Korea’s proliferation sends a strong message to other potential proliferators that the norm of non-proliferation has strong support among the overwhelming majority of the international community.

Military activity around nuclear installations in Ukraine and the Russian occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant pose unprecedented threats to the safety and security of peaceful nuclear activities. As argued by the International Committee of the Red Cross, nuclear power facilities are specially protected in international humanitarian law because of the danger to civilians and the environment from the possible release of radioactive materials should these facilities come under attack.

A further issue arising this year is the announced intentions of Australia and Brazil to acquire nuclear-powered submarines. To date, only countries with nuclear weapons have acquired nuclear-propelled submarines. However, the NPT safeguards system envisages other states acquiring nuclear propulsion reactors subject to arrangements, which would assure that there is no breach of non-proliferation undertakings.

This will be a matter of norm creation: setting the highest possible non-proliferation standard to be applied when nuclear material is used in submarine propulsion reactors. It is expected that Australian submarines will utilize weapons-grade uranium.

This will simplify safeguards as the reactor will be sealed and never require refueling. But it has attracted criticism from advocates of another emerging norm, that of a ban on the further production of weapons-grade nuclear materials. Much progress has already been achieved in converting reactors around the world from reliance on weapons-grade nuclear material to less sensitive fuel.

The norms governing global nuclear activities have developed since the dawn of the nuclear age through a range of organizations and instruments. Key to this has been the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog. Established in Vienna, Austria in 1956, the IAEA now has 175 members. It helps countries benefit from the peaceful uses of nuclear energy while providing safeguard inspections to deliver assurances that nuclear activity is not directed to making nuclear weapons.

Over the decades, the IAEA has responded agilely to challenges. In the 1970s, it took on the task of implementing the safeguards required by the NPT, contributing greatly to containing the spread of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and since.

This was aided by the ‘Spirit of Vienna’ – where Cold War opponents worked collaboratively in developing safeguards technologies and procedures. In the 1990’s, the IAEA safeguards system was challenged by Iraq and North Korea – the response: a major overhaul and strengthening of the safeguards system.

As nuclear safety and security became issues of international concern, particularly in the wake of the Chernobyl reactor fire and later the break-up of the Soviet Union which led to concerns about the creation of a nuclear black market, the IAEA was quick to respond with new programs of collaboration and new treaties to improve the management of nuclear safety and security worldwide.

Most recently, the IAEA has demonstrated its enduring importance by its response to the situation in Ukraine, issuing over 150 bulletins to date and, with United Nations assistance, deploying staff on the ground. The dynamic head of the IAEA, Director General Rafael Grossi, has personally visited Ukraine five times already this year. The IAEA has promulgated the “Seven Pillars of Nuclear Security and Safety,” a distillation of decades of work in these areas, and a further contribution to the evolution of nuclear norms.

The activity of the director general and the IAEA secretariat is subject to the overall guidance of the Member States of the IAEA expressed through its peak council, the annual General Conference, and throughout the year by its Board of Governors. Over these last critical 12 months, the IAEA Board has been ably chaired by South Korea’s Resident Representatives to the IAEA, reflecting South Korea’s high standing in global nuclear affairs and its depth of nuclear expertise.

Despite the intense political sensitivities involved, the IAEA Board and Secretariat have collectively evolved nuclear norms and enhanced the authority of the IAEA in their management of the challenges of the last year.

Support for individual multilateral institutions waxes and wanes over time, but the IAEA deserves our continuing support. Despite increasing demands for its safety, security, and safeguards services, the IAEA remains under political pressures from some quarters and faces a significant funding shortfall.

The Asia-Pacific is a region of growing global influence, of immense expertise in nuclear energy and science, and simultaneously a region of growing strategic nuclear risks. We have vital interests in strengthening global nuclear norms and are uniquely positioned to help.


About the Author

John Tilemann is APLN senior associate fellow. He served as chief of staff to two directors general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Dr. Hans Blix and Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei. As a career diplomat, he has also served in Australian embassies in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East.

Disclaimer: The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Asia Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members. The APLN’s website is a source of authoritative research and analysis and serves as a platform for debate and discussion among our senior network members, experts and practitioners, as well as the next generation of policymakers, analysts and advocates. Comments and responses can be emailed to

Image: A show-of-force drill in response to a 2017 North Korean intermediate-range ballistic missile launch. Robert Sullivan, U.S. Air Force.

This article was published in The Korea Times on 14 December 2022 as part of a dedicated, regular Korea Times column with analysis by APLN members on global issues. You can find the original post here.