What it is: a region or country or district committed not to make, acquire, test, possess or house nuclear weapons. The nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (in force from 1970) affirms the right of countries to create zones free from nuclear weapons. In 1975 the United Nations also affirmed the right to create NWFZs, and gave advice on how to do it.

What it means: The movement to create NWFZs began in the 1950s, with Poland’s ‘Rapacki Plan’ to prevent nuclear weapons being deployed in central and eastern Europe. The Cold War prevented further progress, but the idea wasn’t forgotten. In 1967 the Treaty of Tlatelolco was signed by thirty-three states in Latin America and the Caribbean: the whole of South America is now committed to banning nuclear weapons. Under the Treaty of Rarotonga (1985) states in the south Pacific, including Australia and New Zealand, made the same commitment. In 1995 ten South-east Asian countries signed the Treaty of Bangkok. Fifty countries have signed the Treaty of Pelindaba (1996) which covers the whole continent of Africa. In 2002 five central Asian countries agreed the text of a similar treaty. Mongolia (1999) and Austria (2000) have both passed laws banning nuclear weapons from their territory. Besides these treaties and commitments, the Antarctic Treaty (in force from 1961), the Outer Space Treaty (in force from 1967) and the Sea-bed Treaty (in force from 1972) all ban the manufacture, testing and deployment of nuclear weapons. Most of the Treaties have been recognised by all or some of the five acknowledged nuclear states (the USA, the UK, Russia, France and China). These NWFZs mean that the world’s southern hemisphere, and more than half the world’s surface, is dedicated to being nuclear weapon-free. Most also ban the dumping of radioactive waste.

In addition, Nuclear-free Local Authorities (NFLAs) began to be created in the 1980s as local governments in Britain expressed the people’s opposition to the Cold War arms race and the deployment in Britain of cruise missiles. (In 1982 NFLAs forced the government to abandon a national civil defence plan intended to show that Britain was ready to put up with nuclear attack.) In 1986 a nuclear power station at Chernobyl (in Ukraine) was seriously damaged by fire, and dangerous radioactivity was released, killing or harming around 600,000 people and contaminating large areas of Europe to this day. As a result, the NFLAs (which lie within nuclear-armed states or their ‘nuclear umbrella’) began opposing nuclear energy as well as weapons. By the 21st century at least 4,000 towns and cities world-wide had declared themselves ‘nuclear free’, ‘convinced that nuclear weapons and energy systems present extraordinary and unacceptable risks to the planet and its people’.
Nuclear states, however, aren’t easily persuaded of this. Some NWFZs and NFLAs have faced problems with nuclear material, waste and weapons being transported across their territory: air, sea and rail transport is hard to monitor.

Think about it:

  • (1) In 1992 North and South Korea agreed to denuclearise the Korean peninsula, but went no further. North Korea withdrew from the Non-proliferation Treaty in 2002. Look at the history of these two countries to work out why they thought a nuclear-free peninsula was a good idea, and why by 2005 it still hadn’t happened. What other countries might find it difficult to become nuclear weapon-free? – suggest reasons why.
  • (2) None of the nuclear-armed states have signed their acceptance of the Treaty of Bangkok. These are the countries which have declared themselves part of the South-east Asia NWFZ: Brunei Darussalam, Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Starting with a good look at an atlas, work out possible reasons why America, Britain, China, France and the Russian Federation have not (by 2005) felt able to give the Treaty of Bangkok their full respect.
  • (3) Is there an NFLA near you? If not, why not? If possible, get in touch with the local government where you live, study or work, and find out what their policy is on nuclear weapons, nuclear energy, and nuclear accidents.