The Nuclear Risk Reduction Approach: A Useful Path Forward for Crisis Mitigation

The Nuclear Risk Reduction Approach: A Useful Path Forward for Crisis Mitigation

The political divide between the nuclear-weapon states (NWS) and the non-nuclear-weapon states (NNWS) is growing due to a lack of progress on nuclear disarmament. In the past few years, several negative trends have exacerbated nuclear risks and dangers. Nuclear-armed states are now relying more on strategic weapons in their security doctrines and have embarked upon modernization programs. Simultaneously, arms control is waning, and the Russo-Ukraine War has contributed to a destabilization of peace and security.

Amid these global challenges and developments, like the Ukraine crisis, a nuclear weapons build-up, and waning arms control efforts threatening to weaken the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) regime and disrupt the status quo, nuclear-weapons states need to focus on nuclear risk reduction measures as the necessary way forward.

Risk reduction can be defined as “any action, statement, or agreement, whether unilateral, bilateral, multilateral or omnilateral, which reduces the risk of use of a nuclear weapon.” Focusing on risk reduction fosters trust and prevents crisis escalation among the nuclear-weapon states. It serves a two-fold purpose. First, it promises to foster trust among the five NPT nuclear-weapon states (US, UK, France, Russia, and China) to reduce nuclear dangers. Second, short of progress on disarmament, it prevents crisis escalation and promotes strategic stability among these states which are also the permanent five members of the UN Security Council (P5). Although critics often call risk reduction a “distraction” from efforts at making real progress on disarmament, such trust-building efforts bolster the NPT regime. Risk reduction defuses nuclear tensions and builds bridges among the P5 and between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states. In the absence of a conducive security environment, the risk reduction approach is an effective logical step toward building a habit of coordination to diminish the likelihood of nuclear weapons use.

The NPT 2022 Review Conference (RevCon), highlighted how the pursuit of nuclear risk reduction and disarmament efforts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the nuclear risk reduction approach is the logical prelude to creating conditions and enabling trust among nuclear-armed states toward pursuing disarmament. Although there is less clarity and specificity among the P5 countries on how best to approach nuclear risk reduction, there is an appetite among them to jointly address the challenges at hand. The P5 countries must be encouraged to adopt a problem-solving approach toward nuclear risk reduction. Such efforts need to include the designing of effective and reliable crisis communication measures aimed at preventing miscalculations, accidents, and miscommunications, and incorporating greater transparency efforts.

For more than fifty years, the NPT has slowed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and vertical proliferation (nuclear-armed countries building up WMD inventories) and harnessed the benefits of peaceful nuclear energy. In short, the NPT has made our world safer, strengthened security, and enabled NPT states parties to work together to advance the goals and objectives of all three pillars of the treaty – nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. At the most recent NPT RevCon, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres noted that the world is witnessing “nuclear dangers not seen since the height of the Cold War.” In the backdrop of a changed and evolving security landscape, the nuclear risk reduction approach encourages states to build transparency and address the challenges of miscalculation and inadvertent escalation. Even though the nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon states are unable to make progress on disarmament issues, nuclear risk reduction is one area which is in the interest of all NPT states parties.

At RevCon, P5 countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom focused on nuclear risk reduction efforts. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted in his statement, “the United States is committed to pursuing a comprehensive risk reduction package, including creating secure communications channels among nuclear-weapon states. We’ll continue to emphasize strategic stability, seek to avoid costly arms races, facilitate risk reduction and arms control agreements wherever they are possible.” Similarly, the UK delegation mentioned that it “will continue to play a leading role in disarmament by pioneering verification work, championing transparency, and advancing risk reduction”.

However, countries like Sri Lanka and others have questioned the sincerity of the NWS towards disarmament and emphasized that the risk reduction approach cannot substitute progress on disarmament. The NNWS have cautioned all states parties that the risk reduction approach shouldn’t be the focus of the conference and that nuclear risk reduction shouldn’t be seen as an “end in itself”. Furthermore, the NNWS have added that the approach to nuclear risk reduction seems “to emerge as a compromise for the unsatisfactory pace of progress on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation objectives of the treaty.” The lack of clarity and specifics on the nuclear risk reduction approach has also been a concern. The vagaries of the domestic politics of the P5 countries invited questions on the consistency with which the NWS plan to follow through with their risk reduction commitments.

The Stockholm Initiative has sponsored a “Nuclear Risk Reduction Package” calling for “urgent action” and providing a clear roadmap of actions that the P5 can adopt to eliminate and minimize nuclear risks. It outlines concrete mechanisms including, (1) declaratory language; (2) clear commitments by nuclear-weapon states and all other NPT states, including a reaffirmation of past commitments; and (3) decisions to establish a comprehensive process to allow for follow-up work within the NPT context. Furthermore, the Working Paper makes a critical point that improvements in emerging and disruptive technologies “increases complexity, create new risks, and may even fuel a new arms race”.

Against the backdrop of rapid military modernization and innovations, the P5 countries will find it necessary to engage in dialogues and codes of conduct governing the use of several of these emerging technologies. And by doing so, they would also contribute to the overarching goal of nuclear risk reduction.

As NPT states parties discussed the draft final document at RevCon, it was encouraging to see both the language and substance on nuclear risk reduction efforts. The draft document mentions the need for effective crisis communications and the necessity of preventing miscommunications, misperceptions, and accidents. Akin to the idea of the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) CATALINK – a multilateral hotline to avoid catastrophes amidst rising tensions among adversaries – the NPT RevCon draft document mentions the need for the “establishment of crisis-proof communication lines and risk reduction centres.” Despite the justified criticism against the lack of action on disarmament issues, the NNWS should take note of how a risk reduction approach is an additive and effective measure to meet the present challenges. All states parties should encourage and give strength and legitimacy to the nuclear risk reduction approach.

The intense deliberations at RevCon unfortunately ended in disappointment as Russia blocked the adoption of the NPT RevCon consensus draft document which all NPT state parties were prepared to agree and adhere to. A consensus final document at RevCon matters as it sets the tone and tenor for the global nuclear order. States aim to carry forward their commitments made at the review cycles and advance their treaty obligations in critical ways. Despite the lack of a consensus document, not all is lost. The draft document from NPT RevCon explicitly shows that all countries were able to find consensus on several contentious issues – from nuclear risk reduction to peaceful uses. As Adam Scheinman, the US Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, stated, “there is still more that unites us than divides us.” State and non-governmental organizations need to continue advancing efforts toward progress on nuclear risk reduction.

In the absence of specifics on disarmament, the nuclear risk reduction template provides a critical framework for nuclear-weapon states to diffuse tensions and maintain strategic stability. Thus, sustaining momentum on advancing risk reduction and bolstering crisis communication is more critical than ever and is a necessary path forward to diffuse nuclear risks.


About the Author

Sylvia Mishra is a Senior Nuclear Policy Associate at the Institute for Security and Technology. Her research focuses on nuclear strategy and non-proliferation, Southern Asian security, emerging and disruptive technologies, and military innovation. She is Policy Advisor on emerging and disruptive technologies at the European Leadership Network and Nonresident Fellow at the Stimson Center.

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Image: A Trident II missile launched from a ballistic missile submarine in 2020. US Navy/Thomas Gooley.