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Hiroshima for Global Peace

Column 4 A Call for Nuclear Emergency: Why Focusing on Risk is not Enough

by Beyza Unal

2020 marks the 50th anniversary of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). It is also the 25th anniversary of the treaty’s indefinite extension and the 75th anniversary of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in conflict. Over the course of these years, the NPT has vigorously incorporated the vision and the ambition of state parties in three pillars: nuclear non-proliferation, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy, and disarmament.

Recently, however, the NPT architecture has come under severe strain and progress towards nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament has stalled. Perhaps decision-makers have not yet grasped the severity of the issue at stake and neglected the urgency to take an action. A call for nuclear emergency is long-awaited and a focus on risk is not enough.

Nuclear risk reduction measures start to become a laundry list: reiterate not to conduct nuclear tests; reiterate Reagan and Gorbachev’s statement that ‘a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought’; declare no-first use, establish de-alerting measures, etc. etc. None of these measures alone can respond to the need to restore or to reassess the nuclear order. Moreover, states do not necessarily agree on the measures.

At present, there are at least five parallel international initiatives underway:

  • The US initiative on Creating an Environment for Nuclear Disarmament

  • The Swedish-BASIC ‘Stepping Stones’ Initiative

  • The German initiative on emerging technologies

  • Overall community work on risk mitigation measures

  • The uptake and normative work of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

These initiatives are bodies of work that operate in parallel with each other. Even though some of the key states work across the initiatives, they tend to miss each other’s points and each of the lead groups thinks that theirs is the best approach. Even when states talk about risk reduction, they have different views as to what this means.

Perhaps the nuclear communities got the priorities wrong.

The expert community have been urging state parties to implement risk reduction measures, due to concerns that nuclear risk is rising. While it is true that risks are changing, they are not necessarily increasing. Rather, the risk is dynamic and constantly changing. For example, comparing the level of risk of today to the risk height of the Cold War, risk might have decreased. However, the nuclear field lacks empirical data to measure nuclear weapon risks.

Although risk is an important concept to highlight; it has not been enough to raise awareness of the urgency of arms control and disarmament. Unless an incident sets alarm bells ringing, the decision-makers will likely continue with business as usual.

Moreover, the nuclear risk literature has been dominated by traditional risk analysis, where risk is the product of a probability happening and the consequences of an event. A high impact – low probability event (e.g. accidental/deliberate nuclear weapon launch) has been considered high importance because although it is rare when they occur; when they do, they inflict unacceptable damage.

Risk by itself cannot indicate how urgently to tackle the challenges of nuclear weapons.

The climate change movement provides a useful example of how urgency can be

rapidly applied to persistent problems. For instance, Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and his colleagues used urgency together with risk as a factor to define emergency. According to them, urgency is defined as ‘the time that it takes for countries to react to an incident divided by the intervention time left to avoid a bad outcome.’1 In other words, climate emergency required an assessment of both risk (R) and urgency (U). By doing this, they were able to separate climate emergency from climate management.2 When both risk and urgency are high, then the situation is called an emergency, Emergency = R x U. When there is enough time to control the situation, then it all boils down to how the situation is managed. They argue there is quantifiable relationship between urgency and risk. Climate modelling techniques have also helped to raise awareness on climate emergency.

The nuclear communities have not so far focused on the urgency of arms control nor the urgency of nuclear disarmament. The recently updated doomsday clock is the only initiative so far focusing on the urgency of the problem: and this year it is 100 seconds to midnight.3 Experts do not agree on whether there is an acceptable risk and decision-makers are still trying to manage all types of risk: from accidental/deliberate use to a nuclear arms race.

There are several reasons why the idea of a nuclear emergency has not gained the attention of decision-makers. Apart from the fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in conflict for 75 years, the intervention time left to prevent a nuclear catastrophe is a variable that is hard to quantify. Essentially, no one can state exactly when the next detonation might take place. For some countries, the risk of accidental and deliberate use is exaggerated while, for others, the sheer existence of nuclear weapons poses enormous risk.

Despite existing challenges, urgency should be integrated into the nuclear risk equation. There is a need to collectively and objectively decide which areas qualify as emergency situations. Different situations need to be analyzed and assigned a priority in terms of urgency: placing preventing future nuclear catastrophe being the main aim. The nuclear community must determine which areas require urgent attention in order to prevent future nuclear catastrophe.

An emergency approach that incorporates both risk and urgency would help to define which risk reduction measures are higher priority. For instance, the intervention time to prevent a catastrophe is quite small when it comes to the use of hypersonic weapons or to respond to cyber threats in nuclear command and control. Nuclear security or verification measures, for instance, receive high interest across the community because they are less politicized matters, but, do they currently require an urgent response? A more effective approach informed by risk and urgency could view certain problems, such as emerging technology applications to nuclear command and control, artificial intelligence, cyber technology etc. as nuclear emergency while others could be tackled solely through risk reduction.

Nuclear risk and urgency calculations should be based on existing facts. In areas of disagreement or lack of evidence, the precautionary principle should apply. With the Cold War arms architecture under unprecedented stress, the adoption of this approach could help to drive strident and much-needed action at the upcoming NPT Review Conference.

Dr. Beyza Unal, Senior research fellow, Chatham House

1 Graham Readfearn, “Scientist’s Theory of Climate’s Titanic Moment the ‘Tip of a Mathematical Iceberg,’” Guardian, December 1, 2019, theory-of-climates-titanic-moment-the-tip-of-a-mathematical-iceberg.

2 Timothy M. Lento, “Climate Tipping Points—Too Risky to Bet Against,” Nature, November 27, 2019,

3 John Mecklin, “Closer Than Ever: It is 100 Seconds to Midnight,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 23, 2020,

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