Photo credit: mwmosser (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
There is only one solution to the nuclear threat: not to have nuclear weapons at all.

Developments and trends, 2022

The year 2022 began on a high note when, on 3 January, the nuclear-weapon States[1] of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) issued a joint statement affirming that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. The joint statement also reaffirmed those States’ commitments under the Treaty, including those related to nuclear disarmament.

Such optimism was short-lived, however, following the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation on 24 February. The conflict had significant negative ramifications for nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. The Russian Federation's veiled threats to use nuclear weapons, for example, raised the imminent danger of such use to heights not seen since the cold war. The invasion also undermined non-proliferation through a false narrative that Ukraine could have deterred Russian aggression if it had kept the nuclear weapons stationed on its territory at the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Additionally, it raised the unprecedented issue of the safety and security of nuclear power plants in armed conflict, derailed bilateral arms control and risk reduction dialogue and, ultimately, was responsible for the failure of the tenth Review Conference of the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, when the Russian Federation broke consensus over language related to Ukraine.

Compounding those negative developments were the continued fracturing of relations between States possessing nuclear weapons. That fracturing was especially apparent between the United States and China, with further allegations about Chinese nuclear expansion. Deteriorating relations were also reflected in the continued growth of global military spending; the acquisition and deployment of sophisticated conventional weapons systems, including at regional flashpoints; and armed clashes between States that possess nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, proliferation drivers accelerated in regional hotspots as States openly debated the possibility of acquiring nuclear weapons or stationing allied weapons on their territory. Concerns regarding nuclear accidents and miscalculation continued to grow amid increasing military activity related to new domains in cyberspace and outer space, as well as new investments in conventional weapons systems with potential strategic capabilities. On the occasion of the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, the Secretary-General said, “We can hear once again the rattling of nuclear sabres. Let me be clear. The era of nuclear blackmail must end. The idea that any country could fight and win a nuclear war is deranged. Any use of a nuclear weapon would incite a humanitarian Armageddon.”

The Treaty between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (New START Treaty), the bilateral arms control agreement between the possessors of the world's two largest nuclear arsenals and the only cap on strategic nuclear forces, was not fully implemented in 2022, largely owing to disagreements over inspections. In August, the Russian Federation advised the United States that it would not allow inspections of its treaty-accountable weapons owing to travel restrictions imposed by the United States on Russian inspectors. A proposed meeting of the Treaty’s Bilateral Consultative Commission in December to resolve the issue was indefinitely postponed by the Russian Federation.

The Russian Federation-United States bilateral Strategic Stability Dialogue, announced in 2021, was effectively in abeyance in 2022. Although the leaders of both countries signalled their willingness to engage in negotiations on a successor framework to the New START Treaty when it expires in 2026,[2] no steps were taken, largely owing to ongoing tension over the conflict in Ukraine. The High Representative for Disarmament Affairs consistently called for the Russian Federation and the United States to commence negotiations on a successor arrangement to the Treaty, noting that “time is running out to negotiate a successor, and that cannot happen without dialogue and engagement”. Separately, the war in Ukraine also froze the P5 Process, the only forum in which China had stated its willingness to participate. The process had previously received support, including as a venue for future efforts designed “to deepen engagement on nuclear doctrines, concepts for strategic risk reduction and nuclear arms control verification”.

The war in Ukraine raised the alarming prospect of an accident at a nuclear energy facility with potentially catastrophic results. The occupation of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant — the largest nuclear-power-generating station in Europe — and the ongoing conflict around that facility raised concerns and spurred calls for an agreement to prevent an accident. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was active in attempting to avoid such an outcome through its IAEA Support and Assistance Mission to Zaporizhzhya and the stationing of its experts at the plant (GOV/2022/66). Furthermore, the Agency articulated seven indispensable pillars for ensuring nuclear safety and security during an armed conflict that should be followed to prevent an accident. The Agency’s Director General also called on all relevant parties to agree on establishing a nuclear safety and security protection zone around the plant. As at 31 December, discussions about such a zone were ongoing.

Symposium on International Safeguards 2022

At the “Symposium on International Safeguards 2022: Reflecting on the Past and Anticipating the Future”, held at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) headquarters in Vienna on 31 October. (Credit: IAEA)

The nuclear risks generated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine increased fears within the international community about the possible use of nuclear weapons. According to one United States poll, for example, more than half of those surveyed worried that the United States was about to engage in nuclear war. A review of polls conducted within European Union States revealed similar results. Threats to use nuclear weapons received significant condemnation in 2022, including by the Group of 20, which argued that such threats were “inadmissible ”.

The nuclear-weapon States expressed support for a world free of nuclear weapons but also continued to modernize their arsenals in ways intended to qualitatively improve their reliability, accuracy, speed and stealth. While the United States reiterated, in a new Nuclear Posture Review, its commitment to a world free of nuclear weapons and emphasized the importance of arms control, it disappointed disarmament advocates with its effective continuation of a focus on great power competition and arsenal modernization introduced in the preceding review. Many advocates were concerned, in particular, about the decision to maintain the low-yield W76-2 warhead for submarine-launched ballistic missiles and the failure to reduce the salience and role of nuclear weapons in the United States strategy, including through a “sole purpose” doctrine, which had been a campaign priority for President Biden. In the new Nuclear Posture Review, the United States also confirmed that it would modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad and expressed concern that increasing competition with China and the Russian Federation would impact further deliberations on arsenal reductions. Separately, the United States, backed by allies, alleged that China was accelerating expansion of its nuclear arsenal such that it could have around 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035. China strongly rejected the allegations and pointed to its long-standing policies of no first use and minimum deterrent. However, China also declined to engage in further transparency initiatives related to its nuclear arsenal or in bilateral dialogue on the matter. In April, the Russian Federation tested its new intercontinental ballistic missile, the RS-28 Sarmat. It also deployed the Avangard hypersonic glide vehicle to one regiment.


In recent years, States possessing nuclear weapons have stepped up nuclear modernization efforts, resulting in the development of new weapon systems, qualitative improvement of existing systems and the development of new nuclear-capable platforms. It has been argued that the modernization programmes of the five nuclear-weapon States identified in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are inconsistent with commitments undertaken as parties to the Treaty.

world map showing nuclear-weapon States and non-nuclear-weapon States
  • Open sources reported sustained investment in and expansion of China's modernization programme saw sustained investment and expansion of its force capability in 2022, including in land, sea and air-based delivery platforms. Commercial satellite imagery from 2022 appears to show the first hull section of a new submarine, allegedly the Type-095 Tang-class attack submarine (SSN) or the first Type-096 ballistic missile submarine (SSBN). China has allegedly equipped its six Jin-class submarines with JL-3 intercontinental missiles. China has not announced the commissioning of the JL-3. The United States Department of Defense, in its 2022 annual report to Congress, alleged that China's stockpile of operational nuclear warheads had surpassed 400.
  • The Democratic People's Republic of Korea continued its development and testing of various delivery systems and carried out a record number of launches using ballistic missile technology, including of an intermediate-range or intercontinental nature.
  • France is continuing its planned modernization campaign for new submarine-launched ballistic missiles, third-generation ballistic missile submarines and refurbishment of ASMP-A air-launched cruise missiles. In 2022, the United Kingdom and France agreed on contracts for its joint Future Cruise/Anti-Ship Weapon programme, which will assess a subsonic low-observable missile and a supersonic missile with high manoeuvrability.
  • India's nuclear forces continued to be expanded and improved in 2022. It completed a test launch of a submarine-launched ballistic missile from its first nuclear ballistic missile submarine. It also held a third test of its Agni-P missile, which showed new usage of canisterization.
  • Although Israel is alleged to possess nuclear weapons, it neither confirms nor denies its nuclear status.
  • Pakistan continued to expand and enhance its nuclear forces. Efforts to strengthen strategic deterrence included tests of new delivery systems such as the Shaheen-III surface-to-surface ballistic missile.
  • The Russian Federation continued its decades-long nuclear modernization programme. In 2022, the Russian Defence Ministry announced the successful test launch of the Sarmat fixed-based intercontinental ballistic missile from a silo launcher. This new RS-28 Sarmat missile is a liquid-fuelled, silo-based, heavy intercontinental ballistic missile and is intended to be deployed by the end of 2023. The programme of state trials was completed for the Tsirkon, and in July 2022, it was announced that the Black Sea Fleet would be equipped with anti-ship hypersonic cruise missiles. The design and manufacture of a mobile launcher for the Tsirkon missiles, as part of a coastal defence missile system, are also allegedly under way. It was also announced that a second regiment of Avangard hypersonic missiles assumed combat duty in 2022.
  • The United Kingdom remains on track for the construction of the four planned Dreadnought-class ballistic missile submarines. These will replace the Vanguard-class submarines in accordance with the United Kingdom's “once-in-two-generations” modernization programme to ensure its continuous at-sea deterrence. In its 2021 Integrated Review, the United Kingdom raised the ceiling of its overall nuclear weapon stockpile to 260 warheads, a departure from the previous cap of 180 warheads. An update of the Integrated Review is ongoing.
  • The United States' nuclear modernization of its nuclear triad continues, including the modernization and expansion of its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense system. The 2022 Nuclear Posture Review reaffirmed the commitment to the modernization of its nuclear forces, nuclear command and control and communication systems, and production and support infrastructure. The Review cancelled the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile programme, given the deterrence contribution of the W76-2 warhead. It announced the pending deployment of the new B61-12 nuclear bomb to Europe. The Congressional Budget Office of the United States estimated that plans for nuclear forces would cost $634 billion over the 2021-2030 period, which was $140 billion or 28 per cent more than the 2019 estimate.

MAP SOURCE: United Nations Geospatial Information Section.

NOTE: The boundaries and names shown and the designations used on this map do not imply official endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations. A dotted line represents approximately the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir agreed upon by India and Pakistan. The final status of Jammu and Kashmir has not yet been agreed upon by the parties. The final boundary between the Republic of Sudan and the Republic of South Sudan has not yet been determined. A dispute exists between the Governments of Argentina and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland concerning sovereignty over the Falkland Islands (Malvinas).

Optimism for a breakthrough in restoring the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dissipated in 2022. The remaining parties[3] to the Plan of Action and the United States were unable to produce an outcome during their talks in Vienna to facilitate a return to the Plan’s full and effective implementation. Reaching an agreement was reportedly close in March[4] but eluded the parties amid unresolved differences between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the United States, for example on a prospective binding commitment by the United States not to withdraw.

In 2022, IAEA continued to provide quarterly reports to its Board of Governors and the Security Council on the implementation of nuclear-related commitments of the Islamic Republic of Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as well as on matters related to verification and monitoring in the country. The Agency noted in those reports that the Islamic Republic of Iran continued to engage in several activities that were inconsistent with the Plan of Action, including breaching the cap on its stockpile of enriched uranium (GOV/2022/62), enriching to levels above 3.67 per cent U-235 at two sites (GOV/INF/2022/24), and operating, manufacturing and developing advanced centrifuges (GOV/INF/2022/10).

The Islamic Republic of Iran also reduced its cooperation with the IAEA verification and monitoring of its nuclear programme. In June, the Islamic Republic of Iran requested the Agency to remove all its equipment previously installed for surveillance and monitoring under the Plan of Action, a total of 27 cameras. The Agency responded that the removal of the monitoring equipment would have detrimental implications for the Agency's ability to provide assurance of the peaceful nature of the country's nuclear programme (GOV/2022/62, paras. 64–65). In that context, in 2022, the Agency continued its efforts to obtain clarification from the Islamic Republic of Iran regarding information related to anthropogenic uranium particles found at an undeclared location in the country in early 2019, as well as possible undeclared nuclear material and nuclear-related activities at three locations that had not been declared (GOV/2021/15). In March, the Agency and the Islamic Republic of Iran agreed on a series of steps to resolve the impasse. However, in his June report to the Agency’s Board of Governors, the Director General stated that the Islamic Republic of Iran had not provided technically credible explanations (GOV/2022/26, para. 36). Subsequently, the Board adopted a resolution expressing “profound concern” that the safeguards issues remained unresolved. The situation remained at an impasse as at 31 December.

Perhaps the most anticipated nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation event of the year was the tenth Review Conference of the parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, postponed multiple times owing to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic but finally held from 1 to 26 August in New York. The Conference faced a variety of challenges, ranging from the new issues — the provision of nuclear propulsion technology to non-nuclear-weapon States and the safety and security of nuclear power plants, for example — to enduring topics, such as the pace and scale of disarmament, the establishment of a zone free of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s nuclear programme and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. States parties engaged in four weeks of active discussion across all three of the Treaty’s “pillars”: nuclear disarmament; nuclear non-proliferation; and peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

The draft outcome document that emerged from deliberations contained a range of measures to strengthen all aspects of the Treaty, including the implementation of existing commitments (a core priority for non-nuclear-weapon States), risk reduction and, especially, the role of nuclear science and technology in sustainable development. Few States parties were completely satisfied with the ambition of the document, which represented limited progress in many areas. However, they were prepared to join the consensus in adopting the document in order to achieve an outcome and bolster the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the regime it underpins. Unfortunately, on the final day of the Conference, the Russian Federation announced that it could not join the consensus on the draft document, effectively preventing its adoption. The Russian Federation’s last-minute objections to language related to the conflict in Ukraine did not allow time to resolve their concerns. Consequently, the Conference concluded without a final document, although the President of the Conference did submit the draft outcome as a working paper (NPT/CONF.2020/WP.77) under his authority. States parties agreed, however, to establish a working group on further strengthening the review process of the Treaty (NPT/CONF.2020/66 (Part I), para. 23). That working group would meet before the first Preparatory Committee meeting of the 2026 review cycle to recommend measures to the Committee to “improve the effectiveness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, coordination and continuity of the review process of the Treaty”.

Participation in major disarmament treaties related to weapons of mass destruction, 2012-2022

line graph on participation in major disarmament treaties related to weapons of mass destruction

Over the past decade, membership in multilateral treaties related to disarmament and non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction has continued to increase. In that time, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) had achieved near-universal status, with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) both making significant strides towards that end. In 2020, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) reached the threshold of 50 ratifications required for its entry into force, which took effect on 22 January 2021. By the end of 2022, 68 States had joined the Treaty. Taken together, these trends indicate that, even in the face of a difficult and deteriorating global security environment, States continue to value multilateral treaties related to the elimination of all weapons of mass destruction and the security benefits that they provide.

A brighter spot for many States, which saw it as a counter to increasingly negative trends in nuclear disarmament, was the successful holding of the first Meeting of States Parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Postponed twice owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Meeting was held from 21 to 23 June in Vienna. It was notable for its inclusivity, featuring strong roles of observers and civil society, who were present in large delegations. The Meeting emphasized the progressive elements of the Treaty, notably its concerns about victim assistance and environmental remediation and, above all, the understanding of the devastating humanitarian consequence of any use of nuclear weapons.

In the lead-up to the Meeting, States parties held extensive virtual consultations on the key areas of universalization, positive obligations, provision of scientific advice and the creation of a competent international authority to verify disarmament. Despite the limited time during the Meeting, such consultations enabled States parties to produce several progressive yet practical outcome documents: a political declaration; and an action plan and intersessional structure for the Treaty’s future implementation. Although the Meeting was held in a largely constructive manner, it too was not immune from the ramifications of the war in Ukraine, as any references — including oblique ones — had to be deleted from the declaration in order to preserve consensus.

Another positive outcome from 2022 resulted from efforts by the Provisional Technical Secretariat of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization to accelerate the universalization of the Treaty. As part of efforts to commemorate the Treaty’s twenty-sixth year since opening for signature, six new States (Dominica, Equatorial Guinea, Gambia, Sao Tome and Principe, Timor-Leste and Tuvalu) ratified the Treaty, effectively bringing it into force for all of Latin America and the Caribbean and South-East Asia.

[1] China, France, Russian Federation, United Kingdom and United States.

[3] China, France, Germany, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Russian Federation and United Kingdom.

[4] The talks initially began in April 2021, and the parties met intermittently in 2022 .