Let’s Talk about Nuclear Weapons: A Beginner’s Guide to the Nuclear Vocabulary

When it comes to talking about nuclear issues, experts tend to throw around many acronyms and hyper-specific terms that, from an outside point of view, can appear to be quite exclusive. In order to include a broader audience into the conversation, I’ve put together a beginner’s guide to some of the key words we should all know when discussing nuclear weapons:

Deterrence: The theory that nuclear weapons are intended to deter other states from attacking with their nuclear weapons, so as not to induce mutual destruction.

Disarmament: Most often refers to the total elimination of not just nuclear weapons, but of all weapons of mass destruction.

Hibakusha: A Japanese term to describe the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; historically and globally, ‘hibakusha’ means “irradiated people” (this includes people affected by nuclear test sites, nuclear waste disasters, etc, such as in Kazakhstan, Chernobyl, The Marshall Islands, Southwest United States, etc.)

IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency): An international organization that seeks to promote the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and to inhibit its use for any military purpose, including nuclear weapons.

ICAN (International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons): A coalition of non-governmental organizations in 100 countries promoting adherence to and implementation of the United Nations’ nuclear weapon ban treaty.

INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty: This treaty between the US and Soviet Union was adopted in 1987 in order to eliminate all short and intermediate-range missiles from their nuclear stockpiles. On August 2, 2019, the treaty expired as the US and Russia both refused to resume their compliance to the treaty, causing many around the world to wonder if we’ve just entered the beginning of a second Cold War.

NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty): Signed on July 1, 1968 and still in force today, this landmark treaty’s objective is to help curb the spread of nuclear weapons and to prevent countries from increasing their nuclear arsenals. While the treaty has effectively encouraged a great reduction in nuclear weapons worldwide, the treaty itself does not directly advocate for total disarmament.

PTBT (Partial Test Ban Treaty): Signed in 1963, this treaty bans all test detonations of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, underwater, and in outer space. The CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), adopted in 1996, endeavors to include underground explosions among other nuclear detonations in the total ban. As of this date, the CTBT has yet to enter into force.

Sustainable Development Goals: collection of 17 global goals set by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015 to be reached by 2030. Included in the list are goals such as no poverty, gender equality, zero hunger, clean water and energy, climate action, and more.

TPNW (Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons): Passed on July 7, 2017, this treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading toward their total elimination. In order to enter into force, 50 countries must ratify their signatures. As of today, there are 70 signatories and 25 ratifications. 


For a more comprehensive list of terms and information, check out Learn WMD and the Nuclear Threat Initiative.


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