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Nuclear Security

Note: this is a shallow overview of a topic that we have not previously examined. For shallow overviews, we typically work for a fixed amount of time, rather than continuing until we answer all possible questions to the best of our abilities. Accordingly, this is not researched and vetted to the same level as our focus area reports. If you have additional information on this cause that you feel we should consider, please feel free to get in touch. We use our shallow overviews to help determine how to prioritize further research.

In a nutshell

  • What is the problem? Nuclear risks range in magnitude from an accident at a nuclear power plant to an individual detonation to a large-scale nuclear war. Our investigation has focused on the risks from a global nuclear war, which, while extremely unlikely, could have a catastrophic global impact.
  • What are possible interventions? A philanthropist could fund research or advocacy aimed at reducing nuclear arsenals, preventing nuclear proliferation, or attempting to more directly prevent the use of nuclear weapons in a conflict (e.g. by working with civil society actors to reduce the risk of conflict).
  • Who else is working on it? Several major U.S. foundations fund approximately $31 million/year of work on nuclear security, while the U.S. and other governments also play a major role in funding research and security measures.

Published: July 2013

What is the problem?

There are numerous conceivable scenarios in which some sort of nuclear incident could occur, ranging from a meltdown at a nuclear power plant to the detonation of a “dirty bomb” to an outright nuclear war between states.1 Though this is not a question we have thoroughly investigated, the risk of nuclear war between states strikes us as the most potentially destructive scenario, simply because of the magnitude of some states’ nuclear arsenals and the possibility of wider escalation. Accordingly, although we recognize the devastating potential of other kinds of nuclear incidents, our discussion below focuses on the risk from nuclear war.2

Our understanding is that the risk of global nuclear escalation has decreased substantially since the end of the Cold War.3 We do not have estimates of the current likelihood of a nuclear detonation or a broader nuclear war, though we see both scenarios as possibilities.4

What are possible interventions?

George Perkovich, Director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, identified several areas of work that we would classify under the overall rubric of efforts to prevent nuclear war:5

  • Reduction of nuclear arsenals
  • Prevention of nuclear proliferation
  • Direct efforts to prevent nuclear escalation

Work to reduce nuclear arsenals typically focuses on the permanent five members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which possess the largest numbers of nuclear weapons. For instance, foundations might try to lay the intellectual groundwork for further talks between the U.S. and Russia about reducing the number of warheads in each country’s stockpile, or work on getting the U.S. executive branch to decide to reduce its nuclear stockpile.6 The Ploughshares Fund, amongst other organizations, argues in favor of cutting the U.S. federal budget for nuclear weapons.7 Other organizations, such as Global Zero, advocate for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. We have not investigated the question of whether outright elimination is likely to be the best policy option, but we understand this to be an area of active debate within the academic community.

It is not clear what philanthropists can do to prevent nuclear proliferation,8 but some funders appear to focus on advocacy to individual countries that may attempt to acquire nuclear weapons or funding academic and civil discourse surrounding nuclear weapons in key regions through non-nuclear states such as Turkey, Brazil and South Korea.9 Others focus more on supporting strong international institutions.10 Another approach would be to support appropriate monitoring of existing nuclear material in an attempt to prevent it from falling into the hands of terrorists, though our understanding is that governments are already working concertedly to address this risk.11

Direct efforts to prevent nuclear war may focus on attempting to reduce the likelihood of deployment of nuclear weapons in a given conflict situation, or on attempting to reduce the risk of conflict between nuclear states. In our conversation, Dr. Perkovich gave some examples of both kinds of efforts with respect to India and Pakistan, focusing on various forms of civil society engagement and “track II” diplomacy.12

We do not have a strong sense of the likely costs or benefits of any of these approaches.

Who else is working on this?

A 2012 report by Redstone Strategy Group, commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation, estimated that philanthropic funding for work on nuclear security between 2010 and 2012 was $31 million/year.13 An earlier report by the Peace and Security Funders Group estimated that U.S. foundations spent roughly $35 million in 2009 on “controlling and eliminating weaponry—mainly focused on nuclear weapons.”14

A few foundations account for the vast majority of this funding.15

The 5 Largest Philanthropic Funders of Nuclear Safety Work

Funder 2008-2009 average16 2012 estimate17
MacArthur Foundation $8 million $8.5 million
Carnegie Corporation of New York $8 million $6.5 million
Ploughshares Fund $5 million $5 million
Hewlett Foundation $3 million $4 million
Sloan Foundation $3 million $3 million

We do not have a very detailed understanding of the activities that this funding supports, but we understand the primary activity to be policy research.18

There are also some nonprofits that work on nuclear security issues that do not receive most of their funding from foundations, including, most notably, the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which spent $14 million in 2012.19 We do not have an overall accounting of activity by other nonprofits in this area.

The U.S. government departments of State, Energy, and Defense, and several European governments also fund a sizable amount of work in this area, though it is difficult to quantify precisely.20

Questions for further investigation

Our research in this area has been quite limited, and many important questions remain unanswered by our investigation.

Amongst other topics, our further research on this cause might address:

  • How likely is the detonation of a nuclear weapon or a broader nuclear escalation? Which sources or conflicts contribute the most to these risks?
  • How do various activities aiming to reduce the risk of nuclear war compare in terms of costs and likely effects?
  • What areas are existing funders in the field focused on? Are there areas that might be overlooked by current funders?

Our process

We initially decided to investigate the cause of nuclear safety because:

  • The potential devastation from the use of nuclear weapons is so great that an investment in nuclear safety could conceptually have high returns.
  • Unlike some other high-impact, low-probability risks, there is an established philanthropic community working to address nuclear safety issues.

Our investigation to date has been rather cursory. We spoke with three individuals with knowledge of the field, including:

  • Megan Garcia, Program Officer for the Hewlett Foundation’s Nuclear Security Initiative
  • George Perkovich, Director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.21

In addition to these conversations, we also reviewed documents that were shared with us.


Source name used in footnotes Link Archived link (for external files)
Hewlett Foundation Nuclear Security Initiative Logic Model Source -
NTI 2012 Annual Report Source Archive
Peace and Security Funders Group 2011 Source Archive
Perkovich conversation Source -
Ploughshares Fund blog post Source Archive
Redstone Strategy Group 2012 Source -
  • 1.

    Perkovich conversation.

  • 2.

    Note also that:

    • George Perkovich, Director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told us that prevention of nuclear war is the nuclear policy area “where there is [likely] the largest scope for philanthropy.” Perkovich conversation.
    • We interpret efforts to address the risk of nuclear war broadly, to include issues like reduction of nuclear arsenals, prevention of nuclear proliferation, securing nuclear materials, and facilitating domestic civil discourse regarding nuclear weapons among countries that may seek to acquire nuclear weapons.
  • 3.

    “As reflected by its large funding share, concern about nuclear weapons arms control and nonproliferation has been a mainstay of the field — and of the Peace and Security Funders Group — for the past two decades. Although the danger of a nuclear war engulfing the planet receded dramatically with the end of the Cold War, the possibility of limited nuclear exchanges or accidents still jeopardizes large populations. Moreover, funding during the time period of this study may have been slightly boosted in anticipation of perceived historic opportunities with the change of administration in 2008.
    However, funding for nuclear weapons work has declined significantly relative to other issue areas over time in response to the end of the Cold War and the increased appreciation of the perils posed by persistent, deadly intrastate and regional conflicts.” Peace and Security Funders Group 2011, pg 11.

  • 4.

    “Dr. Perkovich believes that the highest risk of nuclear war stems from conflict in South Asia. If there were another terrorist attack on a major Indian city that could plausibly be linked to Pakistan, there is a significant chance that India would respond with a conventional military attack on Pakistan. Following the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament, India marched troops to the border with Pakistan but didn’t attack. After that, Indian military leaders drew up plans to be able to launch an attack on Pakistan within three days, called “Cold Start,” to make their threats more credible. Following the 2008 attack on Mumbai, Indian leaders showed restraint and didn’t retaliate against Pakistan, leading some to believe that another attack would force India to retaliate. In response to the Cold Start plan, Pakistan, because it would not be able to match India’s conventional military strength, has pledged that it would respond to any Indian attack on its territory with a nuclear bomb. This makes the Indian-Pakistani situation the lowest threshold for use of nuclear weapons in the world. The chance of a terrorist attack on India that could be linked to Pakistan is
    reasonably likely….
    There is some dispute and uncertainty around whether the India-Pakistan situation should be the primary focus of nuclear conflict prevention, though almost all scholars agree that South Asia is where the greatest risk of a detonation is. ” Perkovich conversation.

  • 5.

    Perkovich conversation. The two areas that Dr. Perkovich discussed that we exclude here are safety of nuclear power plants and prevention of accidental discharge of nuclear weapons, neither of which we see as closely tied to the goal of preventing nuclear war, and both of which he characterized as featuring a limited role for philanthropy.

  • 6.

    Hewlett Foundation Nuclear Security Initiative Logic Model. These strategies are each identified as ones that “others” focus on.

  • 7.

    Ploughshares Fund blog post: “It’s clear, however, that the Senate just made a bold move to cut one of the United States’ most wasteful nuclear programs. It’s an action that Ploughshares Fund and its grantees have been working to achieve. It’s also a strong signal that the days of unlimited nuclear weapons spending are finally coming to an end.”

  • 8.

    “[I]t is not clear what a philanthropist could fund to prevent nuclear proliferation to other states.” Perkovich notes.

  • 9.
  • 10.

    “Carnegie Corporation focuses on a more effective IAEA by working with the US and moderate NAM countries and the IAEA Board of governors.” Redstone Strategy Group 2012, pg 26.

  • 11.

    “Dr. Perkovich believes that the risk of a nuclear attack by terrorists is generally exaggerated, though he remains unsure of this view because there are people he trusts who tell him he is wrong about this. His view is based on the very high difficulty of obtaining weapons-grade nuclear fuel and of constructing a weapon, as well as his belief that detonating a nuclear weapon would not be in the interest of most terrorist groups because it would reduce their financial and political support.

    Governments are very much on top of this risk and it is unlikely that there is any valuable work that outside groups could do. Similarly, it is not clear what a philanthropist could fund to prevent nuclear proliferation to other states.” Perkovich conversation

  • 12.

    Perkovich conversation:
    “Examples of efforts to reduce the risk of a nuclear detonation in South Asia include:

    • Meetings between leaders and former leaders of both sides, diplomats, and experts in the field of nuclear conflict resolution to come up with ideas for how to build trust between the two countries and between both of them and the US. The US, with enough trust from India and Pakistan, could play the role of the mediator in a conflict situation. A recent meeting in Vienna brought together important Pakistani military leaders with US military leaders, diplomats, and nuclear conflict experts. Similar meetings have been held with Indian leaders. It is a delicate process because any progress gives war hawks and terrorists an incentive counteract this progress with a military action or a terrorist attack.
    • Brokering agreements that reduce the possibility of misunderstandings. India and Pakistan currently have an agreement to notify each other 24 hours prior to testing a missile. The current agreement does not cover cruise missiles, so Dr. Perkovich and others are working to get them to extend the agreement to cruise missiles.
    • Creating a center of excellence on nuclear safety in Pakistan to highlight Pakistan’s strong record on nuclear safety, as a way to boost Pakistan’s confidence and buy-in to the international system. The idea is that such buy-in would increase Pakistan’s willingness to comply with international nuclear law and norms.
    • In the 1990s, Dr. Perkovich worked on a program to bring together young scholars and policymakers from Pakistan and India to increase goodwill and communication among the next generation of leaders. The program ended because the governments weren’t in favor of the project and made it difficult to obtain the necessary visas. Restarting a program like this could be a good use of philanthropic funding.”
  • 13.

    Redstone Strategy Group 2012, pg 5.

  • 14.

    Peace and Security Funders Group 2011, pgs 10-11.

  • 15.
  • 16.

    Peace and Security Funders Group 2011, pg 12, table 3. We have excluded the Ford Foundation because they have exited the field. These estimates are for each foundation’s “funding for controlling and eliminating weaponry.”

  • 17.

    Redstone Strategy Group 2012, pg 8, figure 3. “Note that exact annual budgets are difficult to calculate due to multi-year grants and multi-project grants.”

  • 18.

    “Foundations supported a variety of strategies, but Policy Analysis and Research received nearly half of all funds.
    About 47 percent of the funds — or over $120 million — recorded in the database sup- ported work that was intended for Policy Analysis and Research. If one adds to this the funds for Technical Analysis, the total reaches nearly $125 million or half of all funds.
    There were 683 individual grants for work on Policy Analysis and Research, representing just over one-third of all grants. In particular, the three largest funders in the peace and security field, MacArthur Foundation, Carnegie Corporation and Smith Richardson Foundation, devoted the bulk of their funds to Policy Analysis and Research — or 69 percent of their collective grant dollars. In terms of total dollars devoted to Policy Analysis and Research these three foundations accounted for 63 percent.” Peace and Security Funders Group 2011, pg 20.

  • 19.

    NTI 2012 Annual Report, pg 24. Our initial oversight of the Nuclear Threat Initiative was pointed out by Carl Shulman.

  • 20.

    Redstone Strategy Group 2012.

  • 21.

    Public notes are available from our conversation with George Perkovich. See Perkovich conversation.