2015 NPT Review Conference Backgrounder

2015 NPT Review Conference Backgrounder

Want to dive deeper?

Visit the Education Center

This paper provides background on some of the key issues being discussed during the 2015 NPT Review Conference and recommendations that were made by over 100 global leaders in the following statement

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime. It opened for signature in 1968 and entered into force in 1970. The treaty is covers three mutually reinforcing pillars—disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy—and provides the foundation for international cooperation on halting the spread of nuclear weapons. A total of 190 states are party to the treaty, including the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and China, the five nuclear-weapon states (NWS) that tested nuclear weapons before 1967. India, Israel, Pakistan, and South Sudan have not signed or ratified the treaty and North Korea withdrew its membership in 2003.

The treaty has a core bargain: NWS will take steps towards disarmament; NNWS will not acquire nuclear weapons; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear technology.

Recent Review Conferences:

NPT Review Conferences have been convened every five years since 1975 for states parties to review the progress of the treaty. Adoption of the conference’s final document requires a consensus from all parties.

  • 1995: NPT extended indefinitely and states parties agreed to a package deal that included a resolution calling for the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and all weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East.
  • 2000: States parties adopted 13 steps to implement disarmament commitments in the treaty and decisions reached at the 1995 conference.
  • 2005: States parties failed to agree a final document, largely because of divisions between NWS and non nuclear weapon states (NNWS). NWS were focused on strengthening nonproliferation efforts and cases of noncompliance with the treaty while NNWS emphasized lack of progress towards meeting disarmament obligations set out in Article VI of the treaty.
  • 2010: The conference’s final document included an action plan with 64 items across the NPT’s three pillars—nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The plan included giving the P5 an unofficial mandate and requesting they report progress to the NPT in 2014, and take practical steps on implementing the 1995 Middle East resolution, such as convening a 2012 conference to bring together states from the region. This was an important step for the NPT because it was the first time a deadline for action had been included in a consensus decision.

Key Issues for 2015

Given the devastating effects of any nuclear weapon use, the commitment and cooperation by all parties to strengthen the NPT is in the global collective interest. The long-term health and viability of the treaty can only be assured through the political will and determination of all NPT members. However, there are a number of challenges that the 2015 Review Conference will need to address:

  • Lack of progress in ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) or working on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT).
  • The perceived slow pace of disarmament steps taken by the NWS, and the absence of substantive disarmament outputs from the “P5 process.”
  • Strident disagreements within the NPT community over whether to promote a humanitarian-focused conversation.
  • Failure to convene a conference in 2012 on a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.

Moreover, the last two years have seen states increasingly divided over how best to address the world’s growing nuclear dangers. This has been driven in large part by the crisis in Ukraine and decline in U.S.-Russia relations, which has damaged prospects for global nuclear disarmament. Civilian nuclear security cooperation between the U.S. and Russia has largely halted, and in July 2014, Russia was accused of violating the INF treaty. Furthermore, recent Russian rhetoric has suggested that nuclear weapons play an important role in and add value to Russia’s security. For many countries, the crisis has brought back questions about the value of negative security assurances given by nuclear weapon states, with some commentators going as far as praising the value of nuclear weapons as an ultimate security guarantor. Even more concerning is the potential risk of unintended escalation between Russia and NATO.

Implementation of the 2010 Action Plan

A key concern over the 2010 action plan agreed by states parties is that many of the action items relating to disarmament lack clear targets and deadlines. This leaves considerable room for interpretation and disagreement over what constitutes sufficient progress within a particular review cycle, especially between the NWS and NNWS.  It is not clear whether the 2015 conference will reaffirm the actions relating to disarmament, update some items, add new ones, or insert deadlines. It is also possible that some states disappointed with the progress of implementation may question the whole validity of the plan.

Non-proliferation and Peaceful Uses

The crisis around Iran’s nuclear program has heavily influenced the NPT for the past decade, including discussions about the IAEA safeguards system and verification activities, limits of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and conditions of withdrawal from the NPT. The Iranian case has highlighted the importance of the IAEA having at its disposal the legal authority and technical capacity to monitor and verify compliance of the NPT. It also fleshed out some of the challenges connected with the Agency’s ability to clarify the history of a complex nuclear program with a possible military dimension.

Key Recommendations: The E3+3 group and Iran should present at the Review Conference the political arrangements for a long-term settlement, and they should confirm their commitment to reach a final deal by June 2015. Iran must cooperate fully with the IAEA and ratify the additional protocol. All NPT members should re-confirm their commitment to non-proliferation, per the treaty, and adopt additional protocols for their comprehensive safeguards agreements. All states also should commit to bring the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and Fissile Material Cut-Off Treaty into force as soon as possible.


Progress on fulfilling the disarmament objectives set by the 2010 Review Conference will be at the centre of this year’s conference and many NNWS likely will arrive with high levels of frustration given the challenges listed above and the perceived slow progress in implementing the 2010 disarmament action items. This is an area where the perspectives of the NWS (and some of their partners) and the majority of NPT members collide. While the former highlight specific actions such as quantitative reductions as part of a long-term step-by-step approach to disarmament, the latter group refuses to recognize them as “real” disarmament, especially if accompanied by modernization of the weapons. Adding to the frustration are the limited outputs that have been produced by the P5 Process, including the glossary of nuclear terminology that will be presented to the Review Conference. Another key concern of many states is that while there has been some progress in reducing nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles in some states, the deterioration in relations between the U.S. and Russia raises questions about any further reductions and concern that nuclear weapons have been given an extended role in the political strategies and military doctrines of some states or alliances.

Key Recommendations: Russia and the United States have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership and should continue to abide by all existing bilateral and multilateral agreements and understandings. They also should discuss and agree on steps to lower the prompt-launch status of elements of their forces and commence talks to reduce their nuclear arsenals. All nuclear-armed states should pursue voluntary caps at or reductions below their current levels and respect the NPT obligations in planning the future of their nuclear forces. All nuclear-armed states also should narrow conditions for use of nuclear weapons. While the P5 process serves a purpose, the group must intensify its dialogue and present new commitments for the 2015-2020 period. It should also be noted that the P-5 dialogue is an insufficient process and the objectives of disarmament can only be reached when all nuclear-armed states are held accountable to the goals and requirements of the NPT.

Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW)

The recent international dialogue on the HINW increased focus on disarmament efforts. However, this renewed emphasis on disarmament fueled tension between NWS and NNWS, and the NWS refused to participate in conferences until the December 2014 conference in Vienna, when the U.S. and UK sent representatives. The reluctance to participate stems from concern that the initiative contradicts a ‘step-by-step’ approach and that the aim of the conferences has been to delegitimize nuclear weapons and/or seek a nuclear weapons ban. 
Awareness of the risks associated with maintaining a nuclear stockpile and the catastrophic consequences of a nuclear explosion is important for the international community and should inform the NPT debate on advancing the 2010 agenda, especially regarding changes to nuclear postures and doctrines, prevention of accidental nuclear war, security of the stockpiles and fissile material, threat of nuclear terrorism, and preparations for managing consequences of a nuclear explosion.

Key Recommendations: Following the encouraging decision of the U.S. and UK to participate in the Vienna conference, the remaining NWS should declare at the Review Conference that they will engage constructively in further discussions on the topic. 

Middle East

Agreement on the 1995 Middle East resolution was essential to gain the support of Arab states for extending the NPT indefinitely and is viewed by some countries as central to measuring the success of the treaty. Thus, there is valid concern about the lack of a breakthrough in convening a conference on the Middle East WMDFZ, as agreed in the 2010 action plan. Progress on the conference has been slow for a variety of reasons, including the non-NPT status of Israel, the scope of the agenda, and security developments in numerous states in the region. Some Arab countries also have questioned the commitment of the U.S. to the conference. Concessions will be necessary from all sides if the process is to be a success.

Key Recommendations: States parties should recognize the progress, albeit slow, that has been made and the efforts of the states in the region, the Middle East conference co-conveners (U.S., UK, Russia, and the UN Secretary-General), and the facilitator, Jaako Laajava, Finnish Undersecretary of State for Foreign and Security Policy. The organization of the conference should be a priority for the next review cycle with states parties confirming the paramount importance of creating a WMDFZ in the region for global security.

Nuclear Security

Although issues relating to nuclear security are not covered by the NPT, securing nuclear weapons-usable material around the world is not only vital for our immediate security but is a crucial early step in disarmament and a necessity for non-proliferation.

Key Recommendations: All NPT states parties should become party to and implement all international instruments for the prevention of nuclear terrorism and illicit trafficking of weapons-usable materials and technology. States parties also should secure all radioactive sources, minimize stocks of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and separated plutonium, convert reactors to low enriched uranium fueled, and support efforts to use non-HEU technologies for the production of radioisotopes.

Stay Informed

Sign up for our newsletter to get the latest on nuclear and biological threats.

Sign Up

Statement by the EASLG: Advancing Global Nuclear “Fail-Safe”

Statement by the EASLG: Advancing Global Nuclear “Fail-Safe”

EASLG leaders Des Browne, Wolfgang Ischinger, Igor Ivanov, Ernest J. Moniz, and Sam Nunn, along with 34 dignitaries from 12 countries, call for all nuclear-weapons states to conduct internal reviews of their nuclear command-and-control and weapons systems.

Eric Brewer on “South Korea’s Nuclear Flirtations”


Eric Brewer on “South Korea’s Nuclear Flirtations”

Eric Brewer, deputy vice president for NTI’s Nuclear Materials Security Program, co-authored a piece for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace titled “South Korea’s Nuclear Flirtations Highlight the Growing Risks of Allied Proliferation.”


My Resources