The recently released film Oppenheimer has drawn public attention to the real and present danger of nuclear weapons. This is long overdue, as the nuclear threat has often been overshadowed in public discourse despite these weapons presenting as much of an existential risk to the world as the climate crisis.
The Doomsday Clock, a symbolic measure of humanity’s vulnerability to nuclear catastrophe, was recently adjusted from one hundred seconds to just ninety seconds to midnight. There are multiple reasons for this. Over the past twenty-five years, the global nuclear security architecture has come under strain, and international tensions have severely tested it, reminding us that the apocalyptic fears depicted in “Oppenheimer” remain pertinent. It is imperative that the world take the threat of nuclear weapons seriously and map a pathway towards nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
Kazakhstan knows all too well the disastrous consequences of nuclear weapons. For almost half a century, our land endured atmospheric, ground, and underground tests. This impacted the health of roughly 1.5 million Kazakhs living near the Semipalatinsk test site, where the Soviet Union conducted nuclear tests between 1949 and 1989. The after-effects of radiation persisted three decades after Kazakhstan decommissioned the Semipalatinsk test site in 1991.
The UN Secretary-General António Guterres was right when he said last year that it is vital to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons before they eliminate our world.
What can be done to achieve this?
Firstly, the international community must resist any attempt to normalize nuclear threats, challenging those who assert that even a limited nuclear strike can be justified.
Secondly, negotiations on arms control and further reductions of nuclear arsenals must be resumed. In particular, the United States and Russia must negotiate a new arms control framework to supersede New START, the last remaining major nuclear arms control agreement between the United States and Russia still in force. Unless updated, New START will expire in 2026.
The international community must underscore the need to restore global nuclear diplomacy and reaffirm worldwide commitment to nuclear disarmament—the ultimate goal of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Weapons and the more recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
The upcoming G20 summit in New Delhi in September, which will bring together senior representatives of global powers, presents an ideal opportunity for political leaders to reaffirm their commitment to nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament.
One year ago, the tenth Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference concluded without agreement. Ahead of the next Review Conference in 2026, states parties to the NPT should leverage preparatory meetings to redress this and advance an agenda to reduce nuclear risks and strengthen the treaty that has long been the cornerstone of the global nonproliferation regime. NPT signatories have entrusted Kazakhstan to chair the second session of the NPT Preparatory Committee. It is my country’s hope that a balanced approach can reinforce the Treaty’s review process.
To support the global push for nuclear disarmament, Kazakhstan was among the first states to join the TPNW in 2019. Given our painful history with nuclear testing, we have partnered with Kiribati—a Pacific nation that has similarly experienced the devastating fallout from nuclear tests—to co-chair a working group focused on victim assistance, environmental remediation, and international cooperation under the framework of the TPNW. A key goal is to establish an International Trust Fund. We are optimistic that this initiative can be realized during Kazakhstan’s presidency at the Third Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW in 2025.
Even amid global geopolitical unease, progress in nuclear disarmament is possible. The number of nuclear weapons has decreased from around 65,000 in the mid-1980s to about 12,500 today. Kazakhstan can act as a blueprint for nuclear powers as a country that voluntarily relinquished its nuclear weapons after independence from the Soviet Union and closed the world’s largest nuclear test site. Together with its neighbors in the region, Kazakhstan established a Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone in Central Asia. This process can be applied to other areas of the world, too.
Of course, numerous political and technical obstacles stand in the way of a nuclear-weapon-free world. Yet, as international tensions and nuclear arsenals rise, there’s no alternative if we are to avert potential disaster. The record of close calls over the decades shows just how near the world was to a nuclear catastrophe. Amidst other pressing global challenges, the time to eliminate the man-made threat of nuclear weapons is now.
Kairat Umarov is First Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.