Research project

Understanding Nuclear Weapon Risks

This research project was carried out from September 2016 to April 2017

The facts-based discourse on the humanitarian consequences of detonation of nuclear weapons has since 2010 drawn increasing attention to the need to better understand the causes and level of risk surrounding those armaments. Developments in this discourse include three international conferences on humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons, various published studies on particular aspects of risk such as close calls, nuclear-weapons arsenals on high-alert, challenges for humanitarian response, and systems accidents, as well as public revelations about safety lapses.

To date policy attention has predominantly focused on understanding the consequences of nuclear weapon detonation events. Yet there is growing recognition that the causes and level of nuclear weapons risk warrant closer scrutiny. In December 2015 the ICRC President said that that greater policy exploration of nuclear weapons risk would allow issues around these weapons to be considered in a different way, and so be especially helpful for constructive engagement with nuclear-weapon-possessor states.

Related to this, in 2015 the UN General Assembly established an open-ended working group (OEWG) to discuss (among other things) transparency measures related to the risks associated with nuclear weapons and measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional nuclear weapon detonations. In addition, the OEWG was tasked to consider the need for measures to increase awareness and understanding of the complexity of and interrelationship between the wide range of humanitarian consequences of a nuclear detonation.

The tenor of the OEWG discussions during 2016 suggests that to extend policy understanding of nuclear risk, further research and engagement will be required, both to detail the risk ‘picture’ and to communicate these findings to the disarmament community. Greater policy exploration of nuclear weapons risk will allow issues relating to these arms to be better understood, facilitating constructive engagement with nuclear-weapon-possessor states. UNIDIR’s ‘Causes of Nuclear Risk’ project aims to address this through specially commissioned papers and meetings devoted to this theme organised in collaboration with relevant institutions.

Researcher(s): John Borrie, Tim Caughley, Wilfred Wan

Support from UNIDIR's core funders provides the foundation for all of the Institute's activities.
In addition, dedicated project funding was received from the Governments of Norway, Sweden and Switzerland.