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The TPNW, Equity, and Transforming the Nuclear Community: An Interview with Nuclear Scholar Dr. Aditi Verma

  • Laura Grego
| Jan. 21, 2021

In anticipation of the entry into force of the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on Friday, I had the honor of corresponding with Dr. Aditi Verma, a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom and the International Security Program.  Dr. Verma, who holds undergraduate and doctoral degrees in Nuclear Science and Engineering from MIT, is broadly interested in how nuclear technologies can be designed in collaboration with publics such that traditionally excluded perspectives can be brought into these design processes. She’s one of the five authors of the essay, “A call for antiracist action and accountability in the US nuclear community.”

(And if you didn’t get a chance to read our colleague Miyako Kurosaki’s thoughtful post putting the TPNW into the context of the decades-long struggle of the hibakusha community to “To make sure that no one else suffers as we have suffered,” please do.)

LG:  The nuclear ban treaty enters into force this week as an instrument of international law. This isn’t surprising: 122 states voted to adopt the treaty text, 50 states signed the treaty on the first day that it opened for signatures, and there has been a steady stream of state signatures and ratifications ever since. Yet the US-based nuclear policy community has consistently underestimated the nuclear ban treaty movement; at the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, one expert panelist and over a third of the surveyed audience estimated that the ban treaty had ten percent or less chance of entering into force by March 2021. How did so many in our policy community fail to anticipate such a major development in the field? Is this a consistent weakness, and if so what are the consequences?  

AV: Much of the surprise about the success of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) stems from a deep entrenchment of the received wisdom surrounding the nuclear non-proliferation regime as we have known it until recently. I am referring specifically to two things: First, an abiding belief that only the possessors of nuclear weapons should make decisions about what constitutes nuclear security and non-proliferation; and second, an excessive fixation on deterrence as a way of ensuring security. We have to recognize that ‘deterrence’ itself is a construct and was created after the fact in order to legitimize the existence of nuclear weapons and their possession by a handful of countries. The belief in deterrence is so widespread that policymakers in the US and in other weapons states are not able to imagine a different set of institutions and norms for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, let alone dismantle them. What makes TPNW so groundbreaking is that it turns the existing normative logic of deterrence, which defines security as the accumulation of weapons and the threat of use of force as a deterrence, on its head and instead calls for a ban on nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds because the existence of nuclear weapons, rather than a guarantee of security, is a threat to human security.

The Treaty is also remarkable because it, perhaps for the first time ever, represents an instrument of nuclear security and governance that is democratic and representative of the views of people and communities of color from around the world, including especially from the Global South. The treaty is fully in line with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which, in article VI, calls for weapons states to work towards “ general and complete dismantlement.” Yet opponents of the TPNW have tried to delegitimize it by asserting that it undermines the existing non-proliferation regime. In fact, it is truly in line with it and advances it by reframing the normative logics that should underpin disarmament and non-proliferation. Increasingly, we should seek to reimagine and reconstitute our global governance institutions in more democratic and humanitarian ways as the TPNW does by foregrounding justice and equity. In other words, while the TPNW is certainly a landmark accomplishment, we should in fact consider it also as a starting point for considerable institutional rebuilding on a global scale.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Grego, Laura.“The TPNW, Equity, and Transforming the Nuclear Community: An Interview with Nuclear Scholar Dr. Aditi Verma.” Union of Concerned Scientists, January 21, 2021.

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