Nuclear Risk Reduction and COVID-19: What One Existential Threat Can Teach Us About Another

Threat similarities between nuclear weapons and COVID-19
(Left) People watch news footage of North Korea's missile test in Seoul on January 1, 2020 - Photo: Jung Yeon-Je/AFP via Getty Images (Right) People participate in a COVID-19 test scenario in Rome, on April 27, 2020 - Photo: Antonio Masiello/Getty Images

by Laura Rockwood & Veronika Bedenko

An opportunity exists for better globally collaborative problem-solving to proactively address the warning signs

On April 27, 2020, the world should have celebrated the opening in New York of the 10th Review Conference of the parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the principal international treaty dedicated to saving the world from the existential threat posed by the proliferation of nuclear weapons. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Treaty’s entry into force and the 25th anniversary of its indefinite extension.

But we should face it – the international community has little to celebrate. Half a century after agreeing on a shared goal of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, we are still very far from achieving it, and indeed seem to be back-sliding. The post-Cold War progress in reducing the role and number of nuclear weapons has stalled. The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union is no longer operational; likewise, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. To date, the only remaining treaty that limits the world’s two largest nuclear arsenals - the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which will expire in 2021 unless extended - may not be extended.

As we struggle with another existential threat, the global COVID-19 pandemic, it is not surprising that competing priorities on the international security agenda, such as arms control, nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, are taking a back seat. But the largely delayed and inadequate response to COVID-19 suggests some troubling analogies to the current state of affairs in the nuclear arena.

The Pandemic Was Not Taken Seriously

The first and principle mistake in connection with the pandemic was in not taking the virus seriously from the very beginning. The lack of proactive and cooperative measures in the early stages allowed the infection to spread quickly throughout the world. It teaches us the dangers of underestimating the risk and the importance of taking preventative measures.

We are also learning the hard way the necessity of timely international cooperation; it’s high time to stop that harmful “it’s not my problem” thinking. The best time to start acting and collaborating is before a crisis strikes. The lack of proactive and cooperative nuclear risk reduction measures could result in the detonation of a nuclear weapon - whether intentionally or by mistake. The consequences would, like COVID-19, know no borders and could quickly escalate out of control, but with even more catastrophic results.

The main characteristic that makes the COVID-19 virus so troublesome is its contagiousness. The toxic atmosphere in all major international non-proliferation and disarmament fora, evidenced by the unconstructive overuse of the rights of reply, personal diatribe, mutual distrust and the overall politicization of security-related discussions, is likewise highly contagious. This contagion poisons the patient and erodes existing cooperative steps on the path to a world free of nuclear weapons. All this toxicity leads to serious breathing difficulties and leaves very little air for the much-needed cooperation.

The Nuclear Patient

The nuclear patient also shares with the COVID-19 patient the symptom of high fever; in the nuclear case it is a rising fever of tensions around the globe, in the escalation of existing conflicts and the surfacing of new conflicts. This fever feeds global instability, which leads to an increased risk of the use of nuclear weapons in response to error, uncertainty or misdirection. That risk is compounded by technological developments that blur the lines between conventional and nuclear weapons and that make hacking and spoofing of nuclear-related command and control equipment easier.

The nuclear patient is in dire need of immediate and intensive treatment. There are several measures that could be taken that would not only save the patient’s life, but ensure its longevity.

The first is securing qualified personnel. Just as with COVID-19, where the primary responsibility for saving lives rests on the shoulders of medical staff and scientists, the non-proliferation community should also be equipped with highly qualified and well-trained specialists. It is of crucial importance to ensure the continuity of expertise by investing in the education and training of the next generation of experts, scientists and diplomats. But also as with COVID-19, it is not only down to the experts to reduce the risk of contagion. It is essential to raise awareness among the general public about the nature of the risks, what they can do to mitigate those risks and how they can help make States more accountable for the reduction of those risks.

The second crucial measure is investment in the development of relevant equipment and technologies. Again, the parallels with COVID-19 are unavoidable. The world discovered its lack of technological preparedness for the pandemic: insufficient numbers of lung ventilation machines; inadequate testing technologies; limited capabilities to produce medical supplies. To avoid this mistake in the nuclear field, States need to invest more resources in the development of technologies for verification and support the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the world’s nuclear watchdog, in its activities to ensure that no nuclear material is diverted from peaceful uses to nuclear weapons.

The third measure is to ensure access to unbiased expert analyses by acknowledged and respected independent experts from civil society and non-governmental organizations. In a time of proliferating fake news and disinformation, when anyone can pretend to be an expert or advocate dangerous and untested solutions, it is of crucial importance to have reliable sources of fact-based expert assessments. This would also offset the all too real risk of politically motivated data manipulation, or denial of information, by governments, which we have already experienced in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Information is vital, and never more so than during times of crises.

This list of measures is by no means exhaustive, triggered as it was by the awakening awareness of the similarities with the unfolding COVID-19 outbreak. The pandemic crisis, and the consequent postponement of the NPT Review Conference, offer the global community a chance to rethink our preparedness for global disasters and the measures we are - or are not -  taking to prevent them.

The nuclear non-proliferation patient has long been sick, and its mortality is being threatened. If it doesn’t secure immediate and intensive treatment, it could expire, and with its death, achieve a lethality rate that far outstrips that of COVID-19.

Ironically, COVID-19 might serve as a lifesaver not only for the 2020 Review Conference, but for the NPT itself, by offering breathing space and an opportunity to remind ourselves of the need to heal and reinforce the global nuclear non-proliferation regime, the best prophylactic against a nuclear pandemic.

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