Nuclear injustice: Suggestions in support of a research agenda

By Benoît Pelopidas | February 2, 2023

A scene from the film 'The Day After' (1983) about the effects of a devastating nuclear holocaust on small-town residents of eastern Kansas. (Credit: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)A scene from the film 'The Day After' (1983) about the effects of a devastating nuclear holocaust on small-town residents of eastern Kansas. (Credit: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.)

Editor’s note: This commentary is part of a roundtable on nuclear injustice.

In their recent essay in the Bulletin, Frankiska Stärk and Ulrich Kühn reassess the “distribution of the costs and benefits of nuclear deterrence” and set up a research agenda about nuclear (weapons) (in)justice (on humans but not the planet). I will not engage here with the scope of their proposed agenda, their implicit definition of justice, theory of change, and the implicit separation between nuclear power and weapons; I will not engage either with their claims about desirable nuclear weapons policies. I will simply identify and applaud ways in which they avoid common traps in nuclear studies, and then I will indicate problems with their propositions given what they say they want to do. Finally, I will suggest ways to address these problems.

First, I applaud the fact that Stärk and Kühn avoid three pitfalls that plague the field of nuclear security studies: They take into account the effects of national security policies on often neglected planetary boundaries. In doing so, they avoid the common unwarranted assumption of scholarship written as if civilization was bound to survive (survivability bias), and they include future(s) in their thinking about the consequences of nuclear injustices.

But their proposed research agenda suffers from a few inconsistencies.

The authors accept the notion of “nuclear peace” borrowed from Kenneth Waltz—a prominent American political scientist and long-time proponent of nuclear deterrence and managed proliferation—as a valid descriptor of the nuclear world since 1945. This choice unnecessarily distorts their thinking about (in)justice in favor of nuclear weapons in at least four ways: First, it overstates the stabilizing effects of possessing nuclear weapons and the sustainability of a nuclear-armed world by misattributing the absence of unwanted nuclear explosions so far to the success of (control) practices of nuclear deterrence only while factors independent from those control practices or the failures of such control practices (i.e., luck) have been demonstrated to be necessary to avoid catastrophe in key episodes of global nuclear history. Second, their approach similarly assumes that possessing nuclear weapons has been peace-inducive for the possessors when, in fact, the 1969 Sino-Soviet war and the many instances of attacks by nonnuclear countries against nuclear weapons possessors show otherwise. Third, they also assume that practices of nuclear deterrence have not yet had a negative impact on climate change and planetary boundaries when, in fact, the opposite is plausible. This issue deserves more research, which is important given Stärk and Kühn’s concern for intergenerational justice.

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Finally, the choice to frame nuclear (in)justice in terms of distribution of the costs and benefits of “nuclear peace” overstates the desirability of nuclear weapons by attributing to them such properties of stabilization and war avoidance. These are unnecessary distortions of the discussion of nuclear (in)justice.

These shortcomings can be addressed, though. A first step could be to start with studying the effects of practices of nuclear deterrence in terms of their costs and benefits—without neglecting the domestic effects of nuclearization—and how they are distributed, instead of accepting the concept of “nuclear peace” uncritically. More specifically, taking the issue of luck seriously in a research agenda about nuclear injustice would require reframing the discussion of cases of nuclear near use or close calls. Instead of the explosion/non-explosion dichotomy, which is conducive to a retrospective illusion of control or the common discussion of “how close we came to disaster,” the issue of close calls should be reframed around a distinction between cases in which the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosion can be explained by the perfect implementation of controlled practices and the others, which should be labeled lucky cases. Such “lucky” cases are particularly important for a discussion about justice[1] because they mean that proponents of nuclear deterrence cannot take credit for the absence of explosions in those episodes because the actions they took—and the institutions they have built—could equally have produced explosions.

A research agenda about nuclear (in)justice should certainly move beyond assumptions about the effects of possessing nuclear weapons and practicing nuclear deterrence on conventional war and climate change, and assess their actual effects in terms of material vulnerabilities and harm. I would recommend including epistemic effects beyond the material ones, i.e., the effects of practices of nuclear deterrence on the production, validation, and confiscation/dissemination of knowledge which may affect nuclear (in)justice by shaping knowledge about it.

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Finally, it is important that a research agenda about nuclear injustice does not overstate the desire to possess nuclear weapons and carefully documents the fact that no nuclear weapons possessor ever reached that status without the help of at least one of the UN Security Council’s five permanent members. It is also important to observe that no P5 member has a perfect track record of nonproliferation and that the relationship between nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament still requires further study, which can focus on its effects in terms of (in)justice. These suggestions are meant as encouragement to a productive research agenda!

Editor’s note: This essay has been made possible by funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement no. 759707), NUCLEAR.


[1] The third mode of luck is an exception here: unlike the other two modes listed above, the avoidance of unwanted nuclear explosions—despite the failure of at least one control practice—is indicative of imperfect control but robustness of the nuclear infrastructure.

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