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Illustration by Tracy Walker

Rising threats and “sleepwalking” policy are fanning fears of a nuclear conflict, accident, or terrorist attack.

The opening and closing sessions of the 2023 Perry World House Global Order Colloquium—titled “Disarming the World? Uniting Nations for Nuclear Nonproliferation” and “A World Without Nukes? How a Treaty Seeks to Ban All Nuclear Weapons”—included plenty of sobering content. But at least their punctuation gestured toward progress, the question marks offering the possibility that the work of the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs, or the recent Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—the symposium’s respective subjects—might actually make a difference before it’s too late.

By contrast, the session they bracketed—“Ninety Seconds to Midnight: Nuclear Dangers in the 21st Century”—was all declarative, and mostly depressing. Moderated by national security and foreign policy writer Bryan Bender, formerly of Jane’s Defence Weekly and Politico, the session featured Rachel Bronson C’90, president and CEO of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [“The Timekeeper,” Jan|Feb 2022], and Joan Rohlfing, president and COO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), which aims to reduce nuclear and biological threats. The two experts described how a decades-long consensus on managing nuclear weapons has fallen into disrepute in recent years, while policymakers are “sleepwalking” through the most dangerous era since the dawn of the nuclear age.

“Why are we here?” Bender asked at the start, noting that over the past generation the “specter of a nuclear war” had receded from consciousness for most of the global public. That has changed—most starkly with Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and the accompanying suggestion that nuclear weapons were “on the table,” he added.

Bronson acknowledged that the war in Ukraine was the immediate cause for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock to tick 10 seconds closer to midnight—from 100 seconds to 90—but added that the invasion had occurred against a backdrop of more general deterioration. Over the last decade, she said, there has been a “true breakdown in relations between the United States and Russia,” which together account for 90 percent of the world’s nuclear arsenals, on arms control. “Not only are we not building new restraints, given all the new technology that’s out there and the new investments being made, but we are shredding” what agreements have existed, Bronson said.

Increased weapons spending by the world’s nuclear nations is another troubling trend. “Every major nuclear country is investing in their nuclear arsenals, and some are changing their military doctrine and exercising as if they if they are usable.” The US alone is on track to spend $1.8 trillion over the next 30 years to refurbish and add to its nuclear stockpile.

Though conceding that it is “not well appreciated,” Rohlfing reinforced the view that “we are at one of the most dangerous, if not the most dangerous, moment in the nuclear age in terms of the risk of use.”

For almost 80 years now, she said, the prevention of nuclear war has been built on the theory of nuclear deterrence. “But the world has changed dramatically since the days when that strategy was adopted,” she added. “We’ve gone from basically a bipolar world to one with nine nuclear weapons states. We have much more powerful, more lethal weapons. We have a hot war happening in Europe.” Further threats include rising tensions between the US and China and the risk of nuclear terrorism. Combined with “the disintegration” of arms control safeguards developed in earlier eras, “I worry very much about intentional use,” Rohlfing said, “but I worry equally as much about a mistake.”

The NTI periodically puts out a Nuclear Security Index—“basically a report card for how the world is doing in terms of securing the material, the building blocks for nuclear weapons,” Bender said. “From the most recent report, we’re not doing very well on that front either.”

“This is going to sound crazy,” Rohlfing responded, “but [making] nuclear weapons is not rocket science.” A lot of the basic principles behind a nuclear weapon can be found “for free on the web.” The stumbling block is getting hold of the “fissile materials”—plutonium and highly enriched uranium—“that power a nuclear weapon.” But it doesn’t take a lot of material, and there’s a lot more of it around. Over the last three years, they’ve seen an increase in 17,000 kilograms of separated plutonium around the world, Rohlfing said, “enough for 2,000 additional weapons.”

And after a long period of progress in securing nuclear materials by the countries that possess them, “for the first time, in this year’s index we saw regression, backsliding,” she said. “We’re losing ground. Leaders are not paying attention, states are not performing as well as they did in the past.”

Between 1970 and 2010, Bronson pointed out, negotiations between the US and Russia were fitful but “significantly” reduced the total number of nuclear warheads. Since then domestic support in both nations for such agreements has been “chipped away,” she added. Russia’s move into Crimea in 2014 prompted even more skepticism about negotiation. “I think now it’s very hard to argue on behalf of arms control without appearing weak.”

Meanwhile, with the end of the Cold War in 1991, the public relaxed. “I think people around the world said, ‘We did it,’” Bronson suggested. “‘We marched in Central Park. We marched in Europe. We made it clear to our leaders that we wanted a different future.’” But “like crime and poverty,” she added, “these weapons are always there, and if we don’t pay attention to them, they get worse.”

“If the world has changed, arms control needs to change, too,” Bender said, asking Rohlfing whether policymakers are “really thinking through what we do about this. How do we modernize our approach to this new world?”

“The short answer is no,” Rohlfing answered, pointing to an “innovation gap” in the strategy of managing nuclear risks. “It’s super important that we continue to talk to each other and negotiate the next round of constraints,” she said later. “But while we do that, we need the smart students in this room to be thinking about how we innovate a better strategy, one that cannot fail catastrophically for humanity.”

Bronson echoed the call for fresh thinking. “It’s not your parents’ nuclear landscape. This is new, and it’s really dangerous. And we really need new thinking on this.”

Recently there has been “phenomenal innovation in the technology space, mostly outside of government,” Rohlfing said, citing biotech and artificial intelligence as “two big areas that also pose existential risk.” Meanwhile, “in the nuclear space, we’re seeing, I would say, sleepwalking in terms of the technologies we’re deploying and the way we’re thinking about deploying them.” In particular, the “intersection between AI and nuclear weapons” is a key area where “innovation is overdue.”

Yet another challenge is lack of funding. “We’ve seen a 50 percent decline over the last 10 years from the major funders within the nuclear space. It’s ironic and sad that as the threat is growing, our capacity to manage it has been shrinking,” Rohlfing said. —JP

Videos of all the sessions in the 2023 Global Order Colloquium can be found on the Perry World House YouTube channel.

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