I have heard quite many researchers saying that nuclear risk reduction cannot be achieved unless complete elimination of nuclear weapons takes place. The same idea is mentioned by Thomas Hajnoczi, former Head of Disarmament Department in Austrian MFA, in his blog published by PIR Center last week. But the pool of potential measures is much larger than just nuclear disarmament. Let me outline some other ways to ensure nuclear risk reduction.
Nuclear risk reduction is about decreasing the possibility that nuclear weapons are used, whether deliberately or inadvertently, which makes the measures to enforce it combined into two major groups: those increasing safety and security of nuclear weapons and those decreasing the likelihood of a state to resort to nuclear weapons use.
Safety and security of nuclear weapons
When talking about safety and security of nuclear weapons, we can recall safety and security of civilian nuclear facilities. The nuclear risk despite from accidental or intentional use of nuclear weapons includes the risk of theft of nuclear material, sabotage of nuclear facilities, and nuclear terrorism in general.
If we follow the logic that disarmament is the only option for risk reduction, we are going to miss many other important factors. After the catastrophes of Chernobyl and Fukushima, the world didn’t stop using nuclear energy – even more nuclear power plants have been constructed instead. What we are doing now to prevent a new catastrophe with nuclear reactors is peaceful nuclear R&D for more reliable protection of nuclear reactors to reduce the risk of explosion. This is exactly what states can do with their nuclear weaponry.
Nuclear-possessing states are diligently working on increasing safety and security of nuclear weapons. For instance, US National Nuclear Security Administration is going to spend around 16 billion USD on securing weapons activities and around 2 more billion on defense nuclear nonproliferation. We cannot exclude any accidents, but increased safety and security will drastically decrease the risk.
The main development needed in nuclear weapons safety and security, is nuclear security culture. The report by Union of Concerned Scientists with close calls with nuclear weapons contains 13 historical examples of the close calls, 5 of which were caused by human error or lack of training, and all others needed prompt and weighted decision-making to prevent the nuclear war. Raising of security culture could be achieved by extensive training of all personnel at the facilities in cooperation with the IAEA to a certain extent.
What we can also do now is to decrease the territory where nuclear weapons and delivery systems are located to reduce the number of sites to be potentially sabotaged by malicious actors. What I mostly refer to here is the US nuclear sharing in Europe. It poses several challenges to risk reduction: (1) six more countries with nuclear weapons on their territories increase the risk of physical sabotage; (2) nuclear sharing implies common planning of missions along with European states supporting the weaponry systems on their territories by themselves, which gives them access to the extra information about nuclear weapons functioning and poses the risk of weapons’ development by these states. Pia Fuhrhop, Ulrich Kühn, and Oliver Meier, the experts from the Arms Control Association, suggest Russia and NATO agree on a moratorium on any further placement of nuclear weapons in Europe until 2025 to provide ground for potential political compromises and confidence-building measures between NATO and Russia. Although this suggestion was made in October 2020, it is greatly in line with the ongoing Russia-US Strategic Stability Dialogue.
Preventing intentional use of nuclear weapons
The main argument to prevent intentional use of nuclear weapons is to decrease state’s reliance on the nukes in their military doctrines.
Some developments in this field were also achieved at the international level. On June 16, the presidents Putin and Biden at their Geneva Summit reaffirmed their commitment to the Reagan-Gorbachev Memorandum at their Joint Statement on Strategic Stability that reads “Today, we reaffirm the principle that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought”. Furthermore, two stages of the US-Russia Strategic Stability Dialogue have taken place and resulted in creation of two working groups – on principles and on potentials.
Moreover, as the result of the Paris Conference of the P5, held on December 2-3, 2021, the Nuclear Five issues a Joint Statement, in which they affirmed the exchange of “updates on their respective nuclear doctrines and policies” and their belief that the negotiations on nuclear doctrines is a tangible nuclear risk reduction measure. Nevertheless, it is important to note here that states do not have authority to impact each other’s doctrines. Instead, they need to put more attention to developing security assurances based on the concepts of strategic stability and undiminished security for all.
What more nuclear-possessing states can do to move forward towards nuclear risk reduction is to adopt the no-first-use policy (NFU). Currently, China and India have adopted NFU policies. Russia/Soviet Union had such a policy from 1982 to 1993. In contrast, France, North Korea, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States maintain policies that permit the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Israel does not acknowledge the existence of its nuclear arsenal and so has no publicly known position. However, as their nuclear weapons are developed primarily to defend Israel against non-nuclear states (Arab countries and Iran), it is probable that they have not ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons. The Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation has the following formulation regarding the use of nuclear weapons: “The Russian Federation shall reserve the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”. That means that Russia does not deny the probability of first nuclear strike if attacked by other kinds of WMD.
The adoption of NFU policy by all nuclear-possessing states in one of the most realistic and effective steps at the moment. First, since the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the global norm of no-use of nuclear weapons has been solidified. It is a common knowledge that nuclear weapons nowadays serve as a political tool more than as military units to be used in a conflict. Thus, it is implicitly clear that a state would not be willing to use nuclear weapons unless as a last resort. De jure states express their readiness to use nukes if necessary, but de facto they are not ready to face the global winter and global nuclear conflict. Second, if choosing among the reduction of nuclear stockpiles, increasing transparency on their nuclear arsenals, and adopting a NFU policy, believe, the latest choice is the least painful for a state.
Article VI of the NPT surely introduces general and complete disarmament as an ultimate goal of the Treaty and the nuclear nonproliferation regime as a whole, and I completely agree with this notion. However, positing that nuclear disarmament is the only way to ensure nuclear security reduction is a little too short-sighted.
When I took part in the 2019 Hiroshima-ICAN Academy on Nuclear Weapons and Global security, the Deputy Ambassador of Russia to Japan Dmitry Birichevskiy told me and other participants in the Academy that if nuclear weapons disappeared right that moment, a global conflict would have erupted instantly. We need to acknowledge the fact that nuclear weapons remain the major deterrence tool for the global powers, and the global order is still not ready for nuclear disarmament in the nearest future. It is a very costly process, both financially and geopolitically.
Nevertheless, do not hurry to say that I claim nuclear disarmament unattainable at all. All nuclear-weapon-states support nuclear disarmament, but they consider it in combination with other security factors, such as strategic risk and deterrence abilities.
We all need to understand the intentions of the Nuclear Five to ensure security for all before pursuing complete disarmament. However, we need to make sure to remind the nuclear possessing states that nuclear weapons are not supposed to remain in place forever, even though NPT set no deadlines for disarmament negotiations. This is the goal of experts and decision-makers – to find an optimal step-by-step approach that will eventually end in nuclear disarmament without undermining global security.
 Final Summary: Fiscal Year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 1605). URL: https://armscontrolcenter.org/final-summary-fiscal-year-2022-national-defense-authorization-act-s-1605/ (2021)
Close Calls with Nuclear Weapons. Union of Concerned Scientists. URL: https://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/04/Close%2520Calls%2520with%2520Nuclear%2520Weapons.pdf (January 15, 2015).
 Creating an Opportunity to Withdraw U.S. Nuclear Weapons From Europe. Arms Control Association. https://www.armscontrol.org/act/2020-10/features/creating-opportunity-withdraw-us-nuclear-weapons-europe (October 2020).
 U.S.-Russia Presidential Joint Statement on Strategic Stability. URL: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/16/u-s-russia-presidential-joint-statement-on-strategic-stability/ (June 16, 2021).
 Р5 Conference Paris, 2-3 December, 2021 FINAL Joint communique. URL: https://archive.mid.ru/en/foreign_policy/international_safety/-/asset_publisher/FXwQn3fmpBvm/content/id/4983321 (December 3, 2021).