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The Rise of a White Knight State: Sweden's Nonproliferation and Disarmament History

Johan Bergenäs

Research Associate, Monterey Institute of International Studies

Dr. Hans Blix, former Chief UN Weapons Inspector & Chairman of the International WMD Committee Dr. Hans Blix, former Chief UN Weapons Inspector & Chairman of the International WMD Committee
Source: WMDcommission.org

Since the beginning of its nuclear weapons research program after World War II, Sweden has been deeply involved in all things nuclear. After abandoning early aspirations to pursue the nuclear weapons path, Sweden has joined all nonproliferation treaties, accords, agreements, and voluntary organizations (see the Inventory of International Organizations and Regimes). Historically, Swedish governments across party lines have been very outspoken about nonproliferation and disarmament issues. As a result of long-standing commitment to these issues, Sweden has produced diplomats and politicians who have made key contributions to global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. The most well-known individuals include Dr. Hans Blix, Rolf Ekeus, and Henrik Salander, who have chaired, or currently chair, the United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission, the United Nations Special Commission, and the Middle Powers Initiative, respectively. Additionally, the late Anna Lindh, Sweden's former foreign minister, initiated the process leading to the European Union's strategy to combat the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Lindh also instigated the International WMD Commission, chaired by Blix, which in 2006 released its study offering over 60 recommendations on how to reduce the threat posed by WMD. In short, Sweden has historically been a nonproliferation and disarmament powerhouse, which has earned the country the status as a White Knight state, a term applied to a select few countries well known for long-established support and advocacy of nonproliferation and disarmament. However, after the 2006 Swedish elections, when a center-right government took power, there were indications that nonproliferation and disarmament were becoming lower priorities than under the previous parliament led by the Social Democratic Party. Yet recent statements by Sweden's current foreign policy suggest that Sweden will remain a nonproliferation and disarmament powerhouse.

Sweden's Nuclear Weapons Program

With the conclusion of World War II and the emergence of the Cold War, the Soviet Union became Sweden's greatest security challenge. Since conventional military parity was impossible, a tactical nuclear Swedish deterrent vis-à-vis Moscow became increasingly appealing.[1] Beginning in 1946, Sweden quickly established a well-organized and well-funded nuclear weapons research program divided into five distinct areas: research, plutonium production, construction funding for reactors and enrichment facilities, acquisition of delivery systems, and testing and assembly of nuclear weapons.[2] The newly established Swedish National Defense Research Institute (FOA) assumed responsibility for consolidating and overseeing these individual areas and military research in general. Furthermore, the program emerged as a joint government-business venture quite distinct from other nuclear weapon programs, which are traditionally solely state-run.[3] AB Atomenergi, a company jointly owned by the government and private firms, assumed responsibility for establishing the fuel cycle assets while the military worked on the bomb design.[4]

Subsequently, Sweden constructed a series of nuclear reactors to provide an indigenous source of plutonium. Sweden's large domestic reserves of uranium constituted a more than sufficient supply for heavy water reactors and allowed the state to avoid political commitments and restrictions resulting from international procurements. The reactor construction focused on creating dual-use facilities capable of producing both electricity and nuclear material for research purposes. By the late 1950s, construction of plutonium production reactors and cost projections for plutonium and weapon production were complete. Concurrently, Swedish weapon designers also perfected implosion technology, and deployment and usage plans for nuclear weapons were finished.[5] In 1958, however, the Swedish government prohibited research and development (R&D) of nuclear weapons, although it permitted activities related to how best to defend against a nuclear weapons attack.[6] Since nuclear R&D for offensive and defensive measures is closely related - for example, it is helpful to know how a nuclear detonator works in order to defend against it - it is difficult to say when exactly Sweden ceased activities in connection to its offensive nuclear weapons program.[7] It is, however, safe to say that by the time Sweden signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1968, Sweden's nuclear weapons ambitions and R&D had ceased. Some analysts suggest that Sweden reached a deal with the United States, whereby the U.S. nuclear security umbrella would extend to and protect Sweden, rendering nuclear arms unnecessary.[8] In the end, the Swedish government and military jointly concluded that a nuclear weapon capability would likely attract attention from the Soviet Union, potentially exacerbating the security dilemma in Sweden's neighborhood.[9]

Genesis of Sweden's Nonproliferation and Disarmament Commitment

After the political decision to cease offensive nuclear weapons activities, the Swedish government took steps to establish an international legal framework for nuclear weapons. On 4 December 1961, the UN General Assembly, based on a Swedish initiative, adopted Resolution 1664 (XVI), requesting the organization's Secretary-General to investigate the circumstances under which non-nuclear weapon states would eschew the nuclear option.[10] A follow-up resolution that same year, introduced by Ireland and adopted by the General Assembly, called on all states, in particular those with nuclear weapons, to seek a treaty on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons.[11] Sweden's and Ireland's initiatives in the beginning of the 1960s were the precursor to the NPT.

Throughout the NPT negotiations, Sweden remained skeptical about whether the nuclear weapon states would actually disarm. Thus, Sweden joined with West Germany and Italy in insisting that a state retain the ability to withdraw from the treaty on three months' notice if extraordinary events related to the treaty might jeopardize its supreme interests.[12] NPT Article X codifies this right to withdraw. In recent years, however, some states and experts have criticized Article X saying that it provides proliferators with a cover to develop nuclear weapons as an NPT non-nuclear weapon state and then, prior to declaring itself a nuclear weapon state, simply leave the treaty.

Treaties, Accords, Agreements, and Organization

After the conclusion of the NPT, Sweden emerged as a prominent actor within the nonproliferation regime. Together with other countries, including Australia, Canada, and Japan, Stockholm emerged as a "White Knight" state on the issues of nonproliferation and disarmament, primarily through a consistent record of promoting the dismantlement of nuclear weapons as well as effective export controls to prevent proliferation to new states.[13]

Shortly after Sweden joined the NPT, it became a founding member of the Zangger Committee, which emerged amid concerns regarding the exact definitions of the material and equipment restricted by the NPT. The Committee drafted a "Trigger List" of (a) source or special fissionable materials, and (b) equipment or materials especially designed or prepared for the processing, use, or production of special fissionable materials.[14] Sweden actively participated in producing the list as well as the subsequent agreements on the minimal requirements that should control the export of the listed items to non-NPT states. These requirements and Trigger List, published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1974, constituted the first major agreement on nuclear export rules.[15]

The creation of the Zangger Committee preceded the founding of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), a multilateral export control regime that formed as a result of the Indian nuclear tests in 1974. Intended to place increased scrutiny on the management of nuclear exports, the NSG established general guidelines on nuclear transfers and dual-use technologies. Sweden, along with seven other states (Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, and Switzerland), joined the NSG between 1976 and 1977.

With a flagship nuclear nonproliferation treaty in place, signed and ratified by Stockholm, Sweden went on to sign a number of nonproliferation treaties. Among these were the Sea Bed Treaty in 1972 and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1976. Subsequently, Sweden assumed an active role in strengthening the implementation, verification, and gradual universalization of the BTWC that forbids the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling and maintenance of microbial or other biological agents or toxins.[16] This is an important task as the BTWC does not provide for verification measures, nor does it have a secretariat. Subsequently, Sweden continued to maintain an active role in advocating against biological and chemical weapons. In particular, the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs has supported continued research cooperation between the Swedish Defense Research Agency and the Swedish Institute for Disease Control with various Russian scientific institutes in regards to the former Soviet Union's enormous biological and chemical warfare programs.[17]

In the early 1980s, Sweden, along with 57 other states, signed the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material. To implement the Convention domestically, Sweden adopted the Nuclear Activities Act and the Nuclear Activities Ordinance in 1984. These acts transferred regulation-making powers to the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority and formed the foundation for the Swedish policy of ensuring the safety of nuclear activities through the prevention of unlawful dealings with nuclear material.[18] Accordingly, the major provisions of the Nuclear Activities Act declare that the operation of Swedish nuclear activities must adhere to the state's obligations to prevent nuclear explosions, unauthorized dealings with nuclear material, and proliferation of nuclear weapons.[19]

By 1984, Sweden had signed and ratified the Antarctic Treaty, which was originally established in 1961 effectively banning all military activity in Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty was not, however, the first "nonarmament" treaty that Sweden signed; it had previously participated in the establishment of the Outer Space Treaty in 1967, which restricts the placement of nuclear weapons or other types of weapons of mass destruction in space.

During the 1990s Sweden became even more active in nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. In 1991, Sweden joined the Missile Technology Control Regime, which established missile technology export control guidelines in order to reduce the risk of nuclear weapon proliferation. Although the Australia Group, comprised of an informal coalition of states intent on identifying and subsequently limiting exports with potential uses for chemical and biological weapons, emerged in 1985, Sweden did not officially join until 1991. Beginning in 1992, Sweden started cooperating with Russia in order to improve the overall safety of Russian nuclear power plants, placing particular emphasis on nuclear reactor safety, proper nuclear waste management, radiation protection, and nonproliferation.[20] Furthermore, Sweden also signed and ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in June 1993 followed by the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) in 1998.

Speaking Out Against Nuclear Testing

Sweden has also been a prominent voice against nuclear testing, such as the 1998 Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests. Although both states' tests were universally condemned, few states actually protested with anything stronger than words. As one of the few countries to impose sanctions, Sweden, along with Canada, Denmark, and Japan, suspended large amounts of funds in development aid to both India and Pakistan.[21] In response to the Pakistani nuclear tests in 1998, Swedish officials declared that all weapon sales to Pakistan were immediately suspended. Although Sweden agreed to honor existing contracts, future weapon exports became strictly forbidden; these restrictions are no longer enforced, however.[22] Although Sweden did not sanction France for its nuclear tests in 1995, Sweden's Prime Minister Ingvar Carlsson issued a statement condemning the detonations: "The French decision is particularly disappointing because it comes only one month after the conference on the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), where the nuclear weapons states promised to demonstrate the utmost constraint on continued nuclear testing."[23]

Furthermore, Sweden quickly condemned the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests by North Korea. In response to the 2009 test, Sweden publicly protested, summoning the North Korean ambassador and expressing the need for North Korea "to resume the six-party talks, to comply with the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) and to allow inspections by the [IAEA]."[24] Subsequently, both Sweden and the European Union (EU) have supported the demand that North Korea must dismantle all nuclear weapons and missile programs in a complete and verifiable manner as mandated by various UN Security Council resolutions.

Sweden has also been an active participant at various international nonproliferation and disarmament meetings throughout the years. With regard to NPT Review Conferences, Sweden since the 1980s has been part of a group of countries, the G-11, which jointly prepared position papers in advance of the meeting, including on the treaty's disarmament provision.[25] In 1998, Sweden was a founding member of the "New Agenda Coalition" (NAC) that called on the nuclear weapon states to commit to their disarmament obligations under Article VI of the NPT.[26] At the 2000 NPT Review Conference, the NAC was able to break the meeting's deadlock by proposing the "13 Steps," which provide a series of steps to meet the disarmament obligations contained in Article VI.

Additionally, Sweden has taken an active role in other multilateral forums, especially the Conference on Disarmament (CD) and the Hague Code of Conduct (HCOC) against Ballistic Missile Proliferation. The CD initially formed as the Ten Nation Committee on Disarmament in 1960. It eventually evolved into the Eighteen Nations Disarmament Committee, which included Sweden, in 1961. Subsequently, Sweden has actively contributed to all the major disarmament treaties negotiated by the CD.[27] The HCOC, brought into effect in 2002, focuses on curbing ballistic missile proliferation worldwide. Not surprisingly, Sweden was one of the original participants. Two years later in 2004, Sweden ratified an IAEA Additional Protocol, giving the IAEA greater inspection rights; Sweden had signed a Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA in 1995.

In addition to the various treaties and multilateral groups, Sweden has also maintained an active role in a wide range of international initiatives; some of the most important are the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), G8 Global Partnership, Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism (GICNT), and United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540.

Questionable Decisions

Stockholm's decision in 2008 to join, without a fight, an NSG consensus that exempted India from the group's ban on nuclear exports to countries that do not have IAEA full scope safeguards raised questions about Sweden's long commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament. While other countries, including Austria, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, and Switzerland, raised concerns and offered amendments to the Indian exemption, Sweden remained largely silent. Sweden's foreign minister, Carl Bildt, even threw his support behind the U.S.-India nuclear agreement.[28]

Stockholm's capitulation at the NSG was criticized at home. In the 2006 Swedish general election, the Alliance for Sweden, consisting of four center-right parties, achieved a majority, ousting a Social Democratic Party coalition. The opposition in Swedish politics, led by the Social Democrats, as well as Swedish and foreign commentators, criticized the government for not upholding its nonproliferation position at the NSG or even debating the issue.[29] It is very difficult to say with certainty why the Swedish government did not join other states in opposing the Indian exemption, but Stockholm has identified its relationships with India and the United States as its top priorities outside of the European Union. Thus, it is probable that Sweden did not want to risk to creating tension with either country by opposing their nuclear deal or India's NSG exemption. Notably, other steadfast supporters of nonproliferation and disarmament, for example Australia, Canada and Japan, also did not speak out against the NSG exemption.[30]

In 2009, there were further indications that Sweden might be backing away from its strong commitment to nonproliferation and disarmament issues. In 2009, the Swedish government cut the funding for the WMD Commission, headed by Dr. Blix, and when Sweden assumed the EU presidency in July 2009, nonproliferation and disarmament were not priority topics. As EU president, Sweden did promote the entry into force of the CTBT, however, it failed to use its new position to push forward other nonproliferation issues that it has typically championed. For example, Sweden made no effort to use the EU presidency to push for the goal of a world without nuclear weapons as outlined earlier during U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in Prague.[31]

However, more recently Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt has re-engaged on important nonproliferation and disarmament issues. The day before addressing a Global Zero conference in Paris, Bildt co-authored an op-ed for the New York Times with the Polish Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, advocating deep reductions, and eventual elimination, of nonstrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons stockpiles currently located in Europe.[32] Accordingly, the authors called upon Russia to commit to a withdrawal of nuclear weapons from areas adjacent to European states and the destruction of the relevant storage facilities.[33] They supported including nonstrategic nuclear weapons in an arms control regime.

The center-left coalition in Sweden has charged that the current government does not do enough on nonproliferation and disarmament issues; they promised to return those issues to the top of the foreign policy agenda if they win the next election scheduled to take place in September of 2010.[34] Nonproliferation and disarmament issues, however, are unlikely to have a prominent role in the election. Parliamentary elections tend to center on domestic issues, and while the nuclear energy issue is discussed from time to time, foreign policy matters in general receive very little attention in the Swedish political debate.


After the abandonment of its nuclear weapons research program, Sweden emerged as a White Knight state that regularly contributed to the development of the nonproliferation regime by joining and promoting nonproliferation and disarmament initiatives worldwide. Numerous initiatives, resolutions, and other measures are all a direct result of Swedish efforts in cooperation with other states. Sweden itself has also produced active diplomats and has exerted strong pressure to further consolidate the nonproliferation movement.

An election is approaching and the Swedish opposition bloc continues to complain that the nonproliferation and disarmament actions by the current government are inadequate and overly passive. The ruling party, naturally, contends that nonproliferation and disarmament remain critical issues on the Swedish political agenda.[35] The opposition party has subsequently stated that it will return Sweden to the forefront on nonproliferation issues. Furthermore, the foreign minister's editorial advocating the removal of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in Europe suggests that any shift in policy in recent years has now been reversed. If anything, his op-ed and Bildt's attendance at the 2010 Global Zero summit in Paris likely signify a continued commitment to prevent the further spread of WMD.


[1] Eric Arnett, "Norms and Nuclear Proliferations: Sweden's Lessons for Assessing Iran," Nonproliferation Review, 5:1, 1998, p. 35.
[2] Paul M. Cole, "Atomic Bombast: Nuclear Weapon Decision-Making in Sweden, 1946-72," Washington Quarterly, 20:2, 1997, p. 233.
[3] Andreas Persbo, "The Blue and Yellow Bomb (Part 1)," ArmsControlWonk.com.
[4] Persbo, "The Blue and Yellow Bomb (Part 1)."
[5] Cole, "Atomic Bombast: Nuclear Weapon Decision-Making in Sweden, 1946-72," p. 233.
[6] Christer Larsson, "Historien om en Svensk Atombomb, 1945-1972" [The History of a Swedish Atom Bomb, 1945-1972), Ny Teknik, April 25, 1985, pp. 55-83; in JPRS-WER-85-012-L (27 June 1985).
[7] Jan Melin, "Svensk atombomb utvecklades trots f örbud" [Sweden developed nuclear bomb despite government decision against it], NyTeknik, 4 April 2001, www.nyteknik.se.
[8] Persbo, "The Blue and Yellow Bomb (Part 1)."
[9] Paul Davis, "Giving Up the Bomb: Motivations and Incentives," International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, May 2009, p. 5.
[10] International Atomic Energy Agency, "Nuclear Non-Proliferation: Chronology of Key Events (July 1945 - Present)," www.iaea.org.
[11] United Nations General Assembly, "Resolution 1664 (XVI)," http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org.
[12] Davis, "Giving Up the Bomb: Motivations and Incentives," p. 6.
[13] Government Offices of Sweden, "Disarmament and Non-proliferation," www.sweden.gov.se.
[14] James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Inventory of International Nonproliferation Organization and Regimes, www.nti.org.
[15] Tadeusz Strulak, "The Nuclear Suppliers Group," Nonproliferation Review 1, No.:1, 1993, pp. 2-3.
[16] Permanent Mission of Sweden, "Disarmament and Non-Proliferation," www.swedenabroad.com.
[17] Roger Roffey, "Threats from Chemical and Biological Weapons a Swedish View," Conference Exploring Functional Security: National Responses and Prospects for Nordic and European Collaboration, at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Stockholm, 24-25 October 2002.
[18] OECD, "Nuclear Legislation in OECD Countries: Regulatory and Institutional Framework for Nuclear Activities," www.nea.fr.
[19] OECD, "Nuclear Legislation in OECD Countries: Regulatory and Institutional Framework for Nuclear Activities."
[20] WILPF, "Model Nuclear Inventory 2007: Sweden," www.reachingcriticalwill.org.
[21] Howard Diamond, "Indian Conducts Nuclear Tests; Pakistan Follows Suit," Arms Control Today, May 1998.
[22] James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, "World Reaction to the Pakistani Nuclear Tests," http://cns.miis.edu.
[23] Statement by Ingvar Carlsson, Swedish Prime Minister, Press Release, 14 June 1995. Other EU protests and condemnations included Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Austria, and Belgium.
[24] Government Offices of Sweden Press Release, "Swedish protest against North Korean test," 25 May 2009.
[25] The other G-11 states are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Hungary, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
[26] Other NAC states include Ireland, Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Slovenia.
[27] Government Offices of Sweden, "Disarmament and Non-proliferation."
[28] Carl Bildt, "Hotet om Kärnvapenspridning" [The Nuclear Weapons Proliferation Threat], Alla Dessa Dagar, 6 August 2008, http://carlbildt.wordpress.com.
[29] Johan Bergenäs, "White Knight States Deviate from Long Held Nonproliferation Ideals as Nuclear Suppliers Group Approves Waiver," WMD Insights, October 2008.
[30] Bergenäs, "White Knight States Deviate from Long Held Nonproliferation Ideals as Nuclear Suppliers Group Approves Waiver."
[31] "Remarks by President Barack Obama," Prague, Czech Republic, 5 April 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
[32] Carl Bildt and Radek Sikorski, "Next, the Tactical Nukes," New York Times, 1 February 2010.
[33] Bildt and Sikorski, "Next, the Tactical Nukes.".
[34] Mona Sahlin, Lars Ohly, Peter Eriksson, Maria Wetterstrand (heads of the social Democratic Party, the Left Party and the Green Party respectively), "Vi tänker driva på nedrustningen," [We will push for disarmament], Svenska Dagladet, 24 September 2009, www.svd.se.
[35] Government Offices of Sweden, "Disarmament and Non-proliferation," www.sweden.gov.se.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.


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