Note: This is one of many ‘problem profiles’ we’ve written to help people find the most pressing problems they can contribute to solving, and thereby have a larger social impact. Learn more about how we compare different problems, see how we try to score them numerically, and check the list of all problems we’ve considered so far.

Summary

Nuclear weapons that are armed at all times have the potential to kill hundreds of millions of people directly, and billions due to subsequent effects on agriculture. They pose some unknown risk of human extinction through the potential for a ‘nuclear winter’ and a social collapse from which we never recover. There are many examples in history of moments in which the US or Russia came close to accidentally or deliberately using their nuclear weapons.

Nuclear security is already a major topic of interest for governments, making it harder to have an effect on the situation compared to how it otherwise would be.

How to contribute to this problem

Most opportunities to influence the risk from nuclear weapons seem to be through work in the military or foreign policy establishments, or research in the think tanks that offer them ideas for how to lower the risk of nuclear conflict. Some less conventional approaches would be working independently to improve relationships between people in the nuclear powers, or trying to improve the resilience of our food supply in the case of a serious agricultural collapse.

FactorScore (using our rubric)Notes
Scale15Nuclear war would have devastating impacts.1
Neglectedness5$1-$10b of annual quality-adjusted spending.2
Solvability3Some possible ways to make progress, with significant controversy.3

RecommendationRecommended - second tierThis is a pressing problem to work on, but not among the very most pressing.
Level of depthExploratory profileWe’ve made an initial evaluation of this problem by summarising existing research.

What is this problem and how much does it matter?

What is our analysis based on?

What is this problem and what are the arguments for working on it?

Despite reductions in nuclear weapons arsenals following the Cold War, there are still around 16,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with the United States and Russia in possession of >95% of the world’s weapons. These weapons have the potential to cause suffering and destruction on an unprecedented scale. A 1979 report by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment estimated that in an all-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, 35-77% of the U.S. population (105-230 million people) and 20-40% of the Russian population (28-56 million people) would die within the first 30 days of the attack.4

The problem of Nuclear security, explained by 3 Minute Physics

Although initial effects from such a nuclear exchange would be horrible, the after-effects could be worse. A nuclear exchange could cause a nuclear winter – a release of black carbon into the atmosphere, blocking the Sun’s thermal energy, and lowering temperatures regionally and globally for several years, opening up new holes in the ozone layer protecting the Earth from harmful radiation, reducing global precipitation by about 10%, triggering crop failures, and resulting in widespread food shortages. Nonetheless, there remains controversy about whether the effects of a nuclear winter would be merely bad, or a complete catastrophe, and how many nuclear weapons would have to be detonated for long-lasting climatic effects to be triggered.5

A large nuclear electromagnetic pulse attack could destroy a large fraction of electronics-based infrastructure in a country, with a recent report estimating that up to 90% of the U.S. population could die from starvation, disease, and societal breakdown in the ensuing 12 months after such an attack.6

Although the risk of such a catastrophic nuclear exchange is fairly low, because neither side would want such an outcome, there remains some possibility of:

  1. escalation from a traditional conflict over, e.g. the independence of Taiwan, unintentionally leading to a nuclear war;
  2. one side believing incorrectly that they are being attacked due to a technical error and retaliating;
  3. a highly irresponsible leader being elected to a nuclear power, or a breakdown in the nuclear chain of command.

Chatham House has compiled 16 examples of nuclear ‘near misses’ through history that include examples of each of these risks.7

Nuclear war is thought to create some risk of outright human extinction. A survey of academics at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference by Oxford University estimated a 1% chance of human extinction from nuclear wars over the 21st Century.8

What are the major arguments against working on it?

This area receives a lot of attention already from governments, the military, think tanks, international organisations (such as the United Nations), and non-profits (like the Ploughshares Fund). It is almost universally recognised as a risk that needs to be reduced. As a result it is likely less neglected than other problems.

Because the risk is dominated by decisions at the highest levels of foreign policy and the military, it is hard for most people to have an influence over the problem without dedicating their career to building expertise and credibility.

Because of the nature of nuclear deterrence and conflict between countries, there is the risk of unintended effects. For example, countries maintaining an aggressive posture in which they say they will use nuclear weapons if attacked could make the world safer, by discouraging other countries from threatening them even indirectly.

If one is concerned with the long-run future of humanity, the chance of nuclear war resulting in complete human extinction appears low. Luke Oman estimates the probability “for the global human population of zero resulting from the 150 Tg of black carbon scenario in our 2007 paper would be in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.”9 This being said, we think this estimate is too low, as it doesn’t account for the potential for weaknesses in their model or the risk of a societal collapse causing a permanent reduction in humanity’s ability to reach its potential (which is nonetheless an existential risk even if people remain).10

Key judgement calls you need to make

  • Mutually assured destruction – A nuclear war would almost completely destroy both countries that waged a nuclear war. You need to decide whether this is sufficiently reliable to prevent nuclear war. We think it is a pretty good deterrent, but not sufficient to completely eliminate the risk.
  • Importance of existential risks – This problem has a particularly large scale if you place value on mitigating a disaster that would prevent the existence of all future generations. We think this is indeed very important.
  • Comfort with uncertainty – It is not possible to have strong evidence that interventions to solve this problem will succeed, so you need to be comfortable with a high chance of not having any influence.
  • Likelihood of recovery from collapse – If there were a nuclear catastrophe and ensuing societal collapse, how likely is it we would be able to recover back to our present state? We think this is unclear, though think recovery is more likely than not.

What can you do about this problem?

What approaches exist for solving this problem?

There are a range of possible options for reducing the risk of nuclear conflict, none of which we have yet investigated in great detail:

  • Work on improving foreign relations between the main nuclear powers and defusing any potential (the US, UK, France Russia and China);
  • Convince politicians or voters in these countries to prioritise avoiding war above other concerns;
  • Ensure that monitoring of first strikes, and communication between nuclear powers, is sufficiently good to prevent a false alarm escalating into an full-scale war;
  • Ensure nuclear materials are safely guarded and can not be used by rogue actors;
  • Prevent the development of ballistic missile defense in the U.S. in hopes of making U.S.-Russia and U.S.-China mutual arms reductions more likely;
  • Work on improving foreign relations at other nuclear weapon flashpoints, such as India and Pakistan, North Korea, or Iran and Israel;
  • Shrink nuclear stockpiles;
  • Improve civilian resiliency and recovery in the face of an EMP attack;
  • Prevent nuclear proliferation.

Most of these opportunities are only available within the foreign policy, intelligence and military establishment of nuclear powers.

A few, such as peace activism, increasing cooperation between the nuclear powers, or foreign policy research, can be conducted independently through e.g. think tanks and academia.

The Open Philanthropy Project in their shallow investigation of the topic concluded that “the largest potential gaps in this space appear to be work on nuclear weapons policy outside of the U.S. and U.S.-based advocacy, with the former gap being larger but harder for a U.S.-based philanthropist to fill.”

What skill sets and resources are most needed?

  • Technical expertise in nuclear weapons policy;
  • Expertise in diplomacy, foreign policy and minimising the risk of war;
  • Influence over public attitudes.

The above skills sets are also most needed particularly relating to countries where there are existing or potential stockpiles, such as the U.S., Russia, Pakistan, India, Israel, Iran and North Korea.

Who is working on this problem?

The area is a significant focus for governments, security agencies, philanthropists, and intergovernmental organisations.

Some fraction of all work in government agencies in the nuclear powers dedicated to foreign policy, diplomacy, military and intelligence is directed at ensuring nuclear war does not occur. While it is hard to know exactly how much, it is likely to be in the billions of dollars or more in each country.

The U.S. budget for nuclear weapons is comfortably in the tens of billions.11 Some significant fraction of this is presumably dedicated to control, safety, and accurate detection of attacks on the US. Zooming out, the US Department of State has a budget of $66 billion while the military spends over half a trillion dollars each year.12

Outside of the government, a 2012 report estimated that funding from foundations for work on nuclear security between 2010 and 2012 was around $31 million per year.13 To this we can also add the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which is not funded by foundations, and whose 2015 budget is about $17-18m.14

In addition to this, some intergovernmental organizations devote substantial funding to nuclear security issues. For example, in 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency has a budget of €361m.15

What can you concretely do to help?

Less promising options we nonetheless think are worth mentioning include:

  • Work on improving resilience of the food supply in response to dramatic climatic disruptions.
  • Improving the attitudes of people in the main nuclear powers towards one another, especially mutual understanding or respect among political elites.

A smaller action suggested by the Future of Life Institute is to divest from companies that support nuclear weapons development, or encourage others to do so. We don’t know how much of an effect this could have on public opinion.

Learn more

Want to work on improving nuclear security? We want to help.

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Notes and references

  1. The risk of a significant nuclear war in the next 200 years is 2-20%; such a war would reduce the future potential of humanity by 30% through risk of extinction, worse values, further conflict and failure to recover; with a major effort at the problem, this risk could be reduced by a further 30%. This estimate is highly uncertain.
  2. The resources dedicated to preventing the risk of a nuclear war globally, including both inside and outside all governments, is probably $10 billion per year or higher. However, we are downgrading that to $1-10 billion per year quality-adjusted, because much of this spending is not focussed on lowering the risk of use of nuclear weapons in general, but rather protecting just one country, or giving one country an advantage over another. Much is also spent on anti-proliferation measures unrelated to the most harmful scenarios in which hundreds of warheads are used. It is also notable that spending by non-government actors represents only a tiny fraction of this, so they may have some better opportunities to act.
  3. Some possible ways to make progress, with significant controversy. This is because unintended effects make it hard to say what policies will truly reduce the risks.
  4. “The resulting deaths would be far beyond any precedent. Executive branch calculations show a range of U.S. deaths from 35 to 77 percent (i.e., from 70 million to 160 million dead), and Soviet deaths from 20 to 40 percent of the population.[…]” “These calculations reflect only deaths during the first 30 days. Additional millions would be injured, and many would eventually die from lack of adequate medical care. In addition, millions of people might starve or freeze during the following winter, but it is not possible to estimate how many.” Office of Technology Assessment 1979, pg 8. Source Archive
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  10. “Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.” Source
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