By Ramesh Jaura
The release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer sparked a media frenzy just weeks before the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in Vienna.
It is a biopic about the “father” of the atomic bomb, which wiped out the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, killing between 129,000 and 226,000 people.
In Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Magritte Gordaneer writes that eight days after the atomic bombings, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist over the nuclear bomb’s development at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, sent a letter to the secretary of war doubting the possibility of peace through continued development of nuclear arsenals.
Magritte Gordaneer, a policy and research intern with the 2017 Nobel Peace laureate ICAN, writes in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that eight days following the atomic bombings, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist over the atomic bomb’s development at the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, sent a letter to the secretary of war doubting the possibility of peace through continued development of nuclear arsenals.
Eight years later, he warned “about the potential for this new weapon to provoke an arms race fuelled by profiteering, the instability of the myth of nuclear peace, and the constant overwhelming threat these weapons pose to civilization”.
“70 years later, Oppenheimer’s post-war concerns appear amply justified. And those of us who have only known the atomic age Oppenheimer initiated have had enough of this risk”, Gordaneer explains.
Council on Strategic Risks’ communications director Andrew Facini praised Nolan’s article in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists for “showing the speed and tenacity with which power brokers took over the nuclear weapons enterprise once weapons were developed”.
According to Facini, when only an “essentially defeated” Japan was left to target, Oppenheimer became more concerned about starting an arms race with the Soviet Union.
Ultimately, his commitment to arms control—and willingness to speak out for it—was incompatible with those who drew power from the bomb, and they systematically and deliberately destroyed him.
He is said to have later recalled: “We knew the world would not remain the same… A few people laughed, a few people cried, and most people remained silent.” Oppenheimer quotes a line from the Bhagavad Gita in the film: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” The Bhagavad Gita is a 700-verse Hindu scripture.
Despite the dangers of nuclear weapons, the Oppenheimer movie provides an opportunity to educate the public and encourage participation in the movement to eliminate them, according to the 2017 Nobel Peace Laureate ICAN. Raising awareness of these risks can spread a message of optimism and opposition that is crucial.
While Oppenheimer delves into the origins of nuclear weapons, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) “signifies our path towards their abolition,” says ICAN.
It was adopted on 7 July 2017, opened for signature on 20 September 2017, and entered into force on 22 January 2021. It is the first legally binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons comprehensively.
Nuclear non-proliferation was addressed in UN negotiations as early as 1957 and gained significant momentum in the 1960s.
The structure of a treaty to uphold nuclear non-proliferation as a norm of international behaviour had become apparent by the mid-1960s. An agreement on a treaty had been reached by 1968 that prohibited nuclear weapons proliferation, enabled cooperation for the peaceful use of atomic energy, and helped advance the goal of nuclear disarmament.
According to Article X of the Treaty, a conference will be held in 25 years following its entry into force to decide whether it should continue in force indefinitely or be extended for an additional fixed period or periods.
At the NPT Review and Extension Conference in May 1995, States parties to the Treaty agreed—without a vote—that the Treaty should be extended indefinitely.
Before the first session of the Preparatory Committee for the 2026 Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons from 31 July to 11 August 2023 in Vienna, the Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons, Abolition 2000 warned that nuclear war is increasingly likely to occur by accident, miscalculation, crisis escalation, or intentionality.
In a working paper, Abolition 2000 underscores the importance of the gathering in light of the Russian aggression on Ukraine, in which President Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons, emphasizing the urgency of disarmament. According to the report, Russians’ willingness to use nuclear weapons is demonstrated by their public tests of nuclear-capable missiles and forward deployments of atomic weapons to their neighbours (Belarus).
According to Abolition 2000, the Ukraine war has demonstrated the dangers of 21st century warfare as well, with its mix of missiles, missile defences, aircraft, unpiloted vehicles, increasingly complex sensing and communication technologies, disruptive electronic warfare, and cyberwarfare pushing war to the limit of human comprehension.
A broad-spectrum multipolar arms race is accelerating due to increasing antagonisms among nuclear-armed governments, of which the Ukrainian war is just one manifestation, according to the Global Network to Eliminate Nuclear Weapons. Fast-developing technologies create non-nuclear capabilities of strategic significance and are incorporated into new or modernized systems for delivering nuclear weapons and defending against them.
Among a more general high-stakes AI technology competition, this has also led to the temptations and perils of applying artificial intelligence to weapons systems.
Furthermore, the European theatre is not the only region experiencing increased tensions among nuclear-armed states. These also occur in North-East Asia, the South China Sea, South Asia and the Middle East.