Several states that mine and export uranium have adhered to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), including Kazakhstan, Namibia, and South Africa.
Briefing Note The TPNW does not directly address the legality of the mining and export of uranium. That said, under international law the mining and export of uranium is generally lawful, unless it is for the purpose of developing or assisting in the development of a nuclear explosive device. The peaceful use of nuclear energy is protected under the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation Weapons (NPT) 1), and the Preamble to the TPNW confirms that nothing in the Treaty should be interpreted as affecting that right. 2)
A state may therefore extract uranium and either use the nuclear material itself or provide it to another state for peaceful purposes, as long as it is subject to Safeguards Agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). 3)
The export of uranium is not prohibited by neither the NPT or the TPNW unless the state party exporting the uranium knows that the material in question is likely to be used to develop a nuclear explosive device. Otherwise, states parties to the TPNW – just like parties to the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) – are implicitly permitted to export uranium, including to nuclear-armed states and states not party to the TPNW.
Under the TPNW, the provision of even a very small amount of uranium to any other state where it is known or suspected that the importing state will use it for the development of a nuclear explosive device would violate the Treaty.
If a TPNW state party exports uranium to a nuclear-armed state on the understanding that the uranium would be used for peaceful purposes, the exporting state could not be held responsible under international law if the nuclear-armed state unexpectedly decided to use the uranium for weapons development instead. This would, though, be likely to affect the legality of future exports of uranium to that state.
- Art. IV, NPT.
- “Emphasizing that nothing in this Treaty shall be interpreted as affecting the inalienable right of its States Parties to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes without discrimination”.
- Art. III(2), NPT; Art. 3, TPNW.