Mitigating the Environmental Risks posed by Nuclear Weapons: The Need to Enhance the Environmental Provisions of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

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The international community welcomed the adoption of the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), by the UN General Assembly, as a major development, and a final step, in prohibiting weapons of mass destruction (WMD) - biological, chemical and nuclear.

The TPNW is modelled on previous “humanitarian disarmament treaties”, notably, the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty and the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munition. It has, consequently, adopted an anthropocentric stance, focusing on the protection of humans from harmful effects of testing and use of nuclear weapons.

However, unlike conventional weapons and their remnants, the environmental, ecological and humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons and nuclear testing transcend geographical boundaries. In addition to generating destructive shockwaves (blasts) and incinerating heat, they release ionising radiation and radioactive fallout, resulting in extensive radioactive contamination of urban and natural habitats, thus posing significant risks to human and non-human species for centuries to come. Parts of the Republic of Marshall Islands, where US nuclear tests were conducted some seven decades ago, are still uninhabitable due to terrestrial and aquatic contamination. Indeed, the IAEA has recommended that the "Bikini Island should not be permanently resettled under the present radiological conditions".

The environmental provisions of the TPNW, albeit limited, are enshrined in Article 6 (Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation) and Article 7 (International Cooperation and Assistance regarding Victim Assistance and Environmental Remediation). The provisions of these Articles are narrow in scope. They are concerned with the rehabilitation of the human environment, and implementation of measures which minimise human exposure to ionising radiation (radioactivity). The anthropocentric approach adopted, thus, fails to fully address the environmental and ecological risks associated with nuclear weapons and nuclear testing. A more holistic and integrated approach, i.e. the ecosystem approach, could have been adopted to ensure adequate protection of both human and non-human species (fauna and flora), and to sustain the intricate and dynamic interaction of biota and their physical environment.

To offset the strong anthropocentric stance of the TPNW, and to mitigate the environmental and ecological risks, the Treaty may be amended or an additional protocol or annex adopted. In accordance with Article 10 of the TPNW, the adoption and inclusion of new provisions could be considered at future meetings of the State Parties. However, adoption of an ‘additional protocol’, under Article 8, may prove to be more practical. Equally, States Parties may consider the adoption of an annex to the Treaty. To facilitate approval, and implementation at national level, the scope of such annex or protocol may be limited to scientific, technical and procedural matters.

The additional protocol or annex could contain the internationally agreed definitions for, inter alia, the Precautionary Principle, the Polluter Pays Principle, the Environment, Environmental Protection, and the Ecosystem (eco-centric) Approach. This would assist in the implementation and interpretation of the provisions of the TPNW, as well as in the resolution of disputes. Moreover, the text of such an annex or protocol may make reference to the scientific findings of the United Nations Scientific Committee on Effects of Atomic Radiation  (UNSCEAR), the work of the International Union of Radioecology (IUR), the Recommendation of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Standards, Conventions and Treaties.

In addition, in mitigating the significant radiological risks posed to humans and radio-ecological risks posed to non-humans, the future meetings of the State Parties could consider the risks associated with nuclear weapons at every stage of their life cycle - generation of Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) and Plutonium (Pu); production of warheads; underground testing; transport; storage; dismantling; decommissioning; and disposal. In this context, provisions of the 2006 Central Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (Semipalantinsk) Treaty may be noted, the scope of which encompasses activities related to the development, production and storage of nuclear explosives devices and nuclear test sites.

Notwithstanding the limited environmental provisions of the TPNW, the adoption of the Treaty is a welcome development, by the international community, in addressing the significant risks posed by the production and testing of nuclear weapons, and the catastrophic consequences of their use. Indeed, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) for drawing attention to the issue, and also for its efforts to achieve the adoption of the Treaty. ICAN, and its 547 Partner Organisations in 103 countries, could, equally, play a pivotal role in enhancement of the environmental provisions of the TPNW.

The TPNW will enter into force once it has 50 States Parties; the current ratification status is 35 States Parties.

Dr Bahram Ghiassee is a GSDM Principal Associate. He holds dual qualifications in Nuclear Science & Technology and International Law. He is able to offer technical expertise and legal advice on these and related issues.

For a more detailed discussion of these issues see: Ghiassee B (2019) Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons - Assessment of the  Environmental Provisions, Intl J Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, Vol.4, No.4, pp.1-19.

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