OEWG Report, Vol. 2, No. 5

Transparency, trust, and the irrationality of nuclear deterrence: day four of the OEWG
25 February 2016 

Mia Gandenberger and Ray Acheson

Thursday’s meeting of the open-ended working group (OEWG) on taking forward multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations was divided into two parts. The morning discussion focused on transparency measures related to the risks associated with existing nuclear weapons; and the afternoon discussion examined measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of accidental, mistaken, unauthorised, or intentional nuclear weapon detonations. Austria also took on the concept of nuclear deterrence.


During the morning session Mr. Tariq Rauf, Director of the Disarmament Programme of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) provided a comprehensive overview of transparency measures undertaken by the nuclear-armed states so far, possible measures non-nuclear-armed states could take in the immediate future to strengthen the call for increase transparency, and measures for nuclear-armed states to increase transparency and trust by reducing the risks of accidents, based on the recommendations of  the Global Zero Commission on nuclear risk reduction. Egypt, Malaysia, Japan, Austria, Germany, Italy, Iraq, Mexico, Australia, Ireland, Thailand, Sweden, Tunisia, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Switzerland participated in the discussion and posed questions to the panelist that provided more information in two further interventions.

All states speaking on this issue stressed the importance of increased transparency on the part of the nuclear-armed states.

Addressing the challenge of implementing existing reporting commitments, Japan, Australia, Sweden, and Poland in the afternoon session referred to the additional measures for transparency in the draft outcome document of the 2015 NPT Review Conference and working papers submitted on the matter in the lead up to it as possible measures to be considered. In that context, Mr. Rauf also suggested making use of the information provided by the nuclear-armed states under the current NPT reporting commitments and suggested using the difference in the depth and extend of reporting by those states to incentivize more reporting. He also suggested focusing on a working paper for the next review cycle of the NPT.

Some speakers, including Austria, Australia, Sweden, and Switzerland, suggested developing recommendations for measures on transparency that would be directed to all nine nuclear-armed states and not only those party to the NPT, as is the case for action 5 of the 2010 NPT Action Plan.

With regard to achieving a balance between secrecy because of national security concerns of some states and the legitimate interest for more transparency by others, Austria wondered what the line is here. Given the understanding of the risks involved with nuclear weapons and their catastrophic consequences for non nuclear-armed states, Ambassador Kmentt believes more transparency is needed. Mr. Rauf agreed that this needs to be discussed further and suggested identifying ways to include non-nuclear armed states in the verification process.

Australia regretted that the role of alliance states was portrayed in Mr. Rauf’s presentation as one category with the nuclear-armed states. The ways these states can influence their nuclear-armed alliance partners is sometimes not acknowledged or understood, argued the Australian delegate. Mr. Rauf, however, pointed out that while alliance states play an important role, they could also be perceived as providing cover for the nuclear sharing practices of nuclear-armed states.


Another issue closely linked to transparency was trust. Mexico recalled that transparency is essential to building confidence. There is a clear need for a common baseline to allow accurate disarmament progress assessments within each state, suggested Ambassador Lomanaco.  

Japan, speaking on this matter in the afternoon session, agreed with the importance of trust building measures because lack of trust leads to suspicion, which might tamper with efforts for nuclear disarmament.


In response to a question raised by Egypt if the IAEA would be the right institution to verify nuclear disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear warheads, Mr. Rauf explained that he did not think the IAEA in its current form would be able to meet that challenging task. Currently a majority of inspectors are from non nuclear-armed states and do not have the expertise to verify the dismantlement of a nuclear warhead. In order to do so the Agency would have to hire experts from nuclear-armed states, which would then result in challenges around their loyalties.

The way the unilateral disarmament of South Africa was conducted seemed like the most feasible way with the existing structures to verify the elimination of nuclear weapons. South Africa dismantled its nuclear weapons and the IAEA conducted extensive inspections and assessments of the completeness of its inventory of nuclear facilities and materials and the status of the nuclear weapon programme.

Speaking on the same point, the representative of the IAEA confirmed that verification will be complex and difficult. Additionally, a crucial factor for the effectiveness of verification efforts will be intense cooperation between the verifying entity and those whose programmes will be verified.

Sweden highlighted that due to its abandoned nuclear weapons research and development programme, it still holds the expertise for verification, but stressed that knowledge-sharing efforts such as those hosted by the CTBTO were an important way of broadening the expertise of all countries. In that context, Germany, Sweden, and Australia as well as Japan and Poland (in the afternoon) highlighted value of the International Panel on Nuclear Disarmament Verification. Mr. Rauf, however, regretted the lack of regional diversity of the members of the Panel and encouraged the inclusion of a more diverse cross-section of countries.


The second panel focused on measures to reduce and eliminate the risk of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized, or intentional nuclear weapon detonations. Panelists Ms. Beyza Unal, Research Fellow on Nuclear Weapons Policy of the International Security Department of the Chatham House and Mr. Pavel Podvig, Programme Lead on the Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme of the United Nations Institute for Development and Research (UNIDR) outlined existing and potential risks associated with nuclear weapons.

Ms. Unal reviewed Chatham House’s work on past near-misses and highlighted how the human factor in these cases is what prevented crises from unfolding. Further, she highlighted the possible risks surrounding emerging technologies, such as an increased risk of cyber attacks on nuclear weapons storage sites, bases, delivery systems, and laboratories. She suggested as immediate measures that could be taken the de-alerting of those nuclear weapons on high alert as well as a pledge against nuclear-equipped cruise missiles. In closing she stressed that people as well as states are risk adverse, therefore better understandings of the consequences will inform necessary unilateral and multilateral actions.

Mr. Podvig reviewed different categories of risks, such as risks related to accidents with deployed warheads, the risk of neglect, and the risk associated with command and control structures and the accidental or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons. As immediate measures he suggested nuclear weapons should be kept in a safe place and out of circulation as much as possible and de-alerting would be the right measure that can and should be implemented immediately and unilaterally. There was no need to wait for other states to do so. Ultimately, however, the elimination of nuclear weapons should be approached without hesitation as there are no good mechanisms of managing the system in a safe way. Regardless how hard states tried to make it safe, he argued, nuclear weapons are inherently unsafe.

In building on these presentations, many speakers, including Austria, Ireland, New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland, and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), highlighted the conclusions from the three conferences on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. The information at these conferences shed a light on the risks surrounding nuclear weapons and has rendered the status quo unacceptable. For most, including the ICRC, the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons is the best prevention of a nuclear disaster.

Ireland in this context highlighted the gendered impacts of nuclear radiation on women as described during the Vienna conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons. For Ireland, this increases doubts about the compatibility of nuclear weapons with international law.

Modernisation and autonomisation

With regards to emerging technologies, Malaysia sought the panelists’ views on how nuclear weapon modernisation might increase the risks for accidental use of nuclear weapons and how they thought the increased automation of weapons may impact nuclear weapons. In building on that question, Ireland recalled that most accidents have been prevented by human action, therefore there is a risk of reducing the failsafe of human judgment by greater automation of these systems.

The panelists agreed with these observations. Mr. Podvig pointed out that modernisation programmes are justified by increasing safety and security of the arsenals; however, the increased complexity of the systems might lead to a higher risk of accidents. The automatisation of processes or weapons would contain enormous risks, as the whole command and control system is vulnerable in particular with regard to the automatisation of decision making. In the same context, Ms. Unal cautioned that there have already been cases of drones infiltrating nuclear plants and the jamming and spoofing of communication systems would have dangerous effects. She also underlined that any modernisation efforts run counter to the commitment to nuclear disarmament.


Aside from nuclear disarmament, de-alerting nuclear warheads was one of the more concrete immediate measures discussed in the afternoon. Switzerland reiterated that the high alert levels risk unintended launches due to accidents and unauthorised access. The cross-regional so-called de-alerting group has proposed concrete measures in its working papers apart from de-alerting, such as increasing the decision time for launch decisions or centrally storing the warheads in high-security storage facilities.

Sweden expressed some discomfort with the notion of unilateral non-transparent de-alerting that Mr. Podvig had suggested. Australia, however, thought it might be due to the difficulties of re-alerting in an acute crisis situation.  Mr. Pavel agreed that there were dangers in re-alerting, but de-alerting was indeed the right thing to do.

Deterrence and security concerns

Austria presented its second working paper entitled “Nuclear weapons and security: A humanitarian perspective,” in which it dissected the arguments behind the necessary security considerations and deterrence. Deterrence is based on the “credible threat of inflicting unacceptable destruction and consequences to a possible adversary, thus leading to restraint and rational behaviour on the part of all sides,” explained Ambassador Kmentt. For the threat to credible, the readiness to use nuclear weapons is required, however, given the catastrophic consequences, “nuclear deterrence rests not only on the readiness to inflict mass destruction with global consequences, but also on the readiness and awareness to commit to an essentially—at least potentially—suicidal course of action, as destruction and consequences would likely be unacceptable for friend and foe alike, indeed for all humanity.” To therefore reconcile deterrence with rational behavior is rather difficult, he noted. “The threat is either credible, which requires—in light of the new evidence—readiness to act entirely irrationally. Alternatively, the threat is non-credible since rational analysis cannot lead to the conclusion of risking the use of nuclear weapons.”

Thus the humanitarian perspective “raises valid concerns from the non-nuclear weapon States perspective as to the degree to which their own and their population's security may be threatened by the existence of these weapons in nuclear armed States. It equally raises questions to what extent the very security argument used by States that rely on nuclear weapons holds up to scrutiny.” Furthermore, citizens of nuclear-armed states live under a heightened danger of a possible use of nuclear weapons against their country, argued Ambassador Kmentt. “A ‘narrow security approach’ therefore does not appear to contradict the humanitarian approach. Rather, it leads to humanitarian considerations and reinforces the validity of the humanitarian approach.”

In that connection, Ms. Unal also recalled that there was no factual analysis that nuclear deterrence works, but rather to the contrary.


Transparency, trust, and risk reduction are interconnected. Trust can be built through transparency and risk reduction measures. Risk is reduced by building trust and being transparent. Each are important elements for a collectively secure world.

However, the concept of nuclear deterrence undermines it all. Austria’s assessment of nuclear deterrence as incoherent in terms of it’s assertions about rational behaviour was an excellent contribution to a discussion on transparency, trust, and risk reduction because as long as nuclear-armed and nuclear-allied states maintain this posture, the risks remain grave and unacceptable and trust remains impossible.

Who can trust someone that threatens their extinction?

“Nuclear deterrence is not a rational, objective, or exact science,” argues Dr. Nick Ritchie of York University in a 2014 paper. “It is not an effect automatically generated by the mere presence of nuclear weapons. Instead, it is a process and its effects are contingent upon the context of the threat. Indeed, nuclear deterrence is a theory, an intellectual construct that represents international society, states, and weapons, in a particular way. It is a theory that is contested, and ... carries a high risk of unacceptable nuclear violence.”

The process of nuclear deterrence has been repeatedly challenged and upended by historical fact and arguments of global injustice, yet it persists because it provides the people and states that employ it a space to hide in. But the facade is crumbling as the risks and consequences of nuclear weapons become ever more apparent. Non-nuclear-armed states are demanding accountability and the policy of nuclear deterrence is not accountable. It is dangerous and irresponsible and undermines any process to build trust among states and people. A prohibition on nuclear weapons would go a long way towards compelling an end to the reliance on the theory of deterrence and help foster alternative security arrangements for states—arrangements based on trust and cooperation rather than the treat of massive nuclear violence.