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Nuclear Responsibilities at Sea: Early-Career Perspectives for Maritime Risk Reduction in the Asia Pacific

On 25th October 2022, BASIC and the Institute for Conflict Cooperation and Security at the University of Birmingham (ICCS) hosted ‘Nuclear Responsibilities at Sea,’ an online roundtable with young professionals and early-career experts to explore policy recommendations for maritime risk reduction in the Asia Pacific. The purpose of the roundtable was to create a space for participants to discuss and share their ideas, and bring new perspectives about how states can better implement their nuclear responsibilities in the maritime domain: this encompasses responsibilities with regards to nuclear weapons and radioactive material, as well as responsibilities to reduce the risk of escalation in the maritime domain. 

The Nuclear Responsibilities Approach is a way of reframing how we think, talk and write about nuclear weapons: one that puts meaningful exploration of responsibilities at the centre of our mindsets, our dialogues and our policy-making. In doing so, the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach aims to shift the conversation on nuclear weapons away from one characterised by blame and distrust towards one that promotes the concept of shared responsibilities, empathetic cooperation, and trust. 

In March 2022, BASIC-ICCS hosted a Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue in Dubai between states in the Asia Pacific (participants from ASEAN, Australia, India, Pakistan). During the dialogue, the importance of the maritime domain with regards to nuclear responsibilities was stressed. Therefore, the aim of the ‘Nuclear Responsibilities at Sea’ online roundtable was to further explore the intersection between maritime security and nuclear responsibilities in the Asia Pacific, and consider possible pathways for risk reduction in the maritime domain.

The roundtable discussions centred on the risks associated with nuclear weapons and radioactive waste at sea, as well as current risk reduction initiatives. Ideas and perspectives on new measures that might strengthen and advance risk reduction within the maritime domain were also shared. From the roundtable, four key policy recommendations were identified:

Recommendation 1: Develop an Awareness of ‘Nuclear Responsibilities at Sea’

There is a general lack of awareness of the concept of ‘nuclear responsibilities at sea’. By engaging with the Nuclear Responsibilities Approach, nuclear possessor and non-possessor states can critically assess their own responsibilities in the maritime domain. Once they have articulated their own nuclear responsibilities, they can exchange perspectives on each other’s responsibilities in order to identify and develop shared practices and policies in relation to the maritime domain, to promote risk reduction, trust and transparency.

Recommendation 2: Develop Crisis Management Mechanisms at Sea

Current tensions in Asia Pacific contribute to unpredictability and increases nuclear risks. The presence of ballistic nuclear submarines in the region increases the risk for nuclear incidents, miscalculations, and accidents at sea. The implementation of robust crisis communications channels, such as hotlines and a code for unplanned encounters at sea, could be developed to report near-miss incidents or when a nuclear launch has been made by mistake. In doing so, parties can reduce misperceptions and miscommunications in order to avoid crises and increase predictability.

Recommendation 3: Use Existing Regional Platforms (i.e. ASEAN) to Discuss Maritime Nuclear Issues

There is a lack of discussions within existing regional structures around both maritime security and nuclear issues within the Asia Pacific region. ASEAN meetings and institutions provide a model for regular interactions which could provide a framework for discussion on maritime security and nuclear issues. ASEAN could provide a platform for maritime discussions if it expanded its objectives to include nuclear risk reduction within maritime security concerns. To strengthen the existing regional framework, stakeholders can deploy confidence building measures, such as expanding information sharing and transparency mechanisms, as well as improving risk analysis, in order to address threats, avoid crises and increase predictability. 

Recommendation 4: Consider the Environmental and Humanitarian Effects of Radioactive Waste Disposal and Nuclear Weapons At Sea

Accidents involving nuclear-armed and/or nuclear-powered submarines could be dire for the environment, however, those are not the sole risks with regards to environmental perspectives. The impact of radioactive waste disposal and previous nuclear testing at sea also have had disastrous consequences for the environment. The release of radioactive materials into the sea would seriously harm marine life and pass into the human food supply, causing damage to human health. Moreover, fallout from the testing of nuclear weapons either in the atmosphere or underwater would disrupt the water cycle, unleashing acid rains and contaminating fresh water sources. Acid rain and water contamination would have a harmful effect on plants and animals, resulting in food shortages and famine, which would eventually generate worldwide humanitarian catastrophe. States should consider the potential environmental and humanitarian risk associated with radioactive waste disposal and nuclear weapons at sea, and how to address those risks through multilateral measures. 

Following the online roundtable, BASIC-ICCS hosted an in-person dialogue in Kuala Lumpur in November 2022, with different participants from ASEAN countries, Australia, India and Pakistan to promote further discussion on nuclear responsibilities at sea. The aim of the dialogue was for participants to identify possible policy options to address issues regarding nuclear weapons and radioactive waste at sea – as well as risk reduction measures – in the Asia Pacific.

This article was authored by Mhairi McClafferty and is a summary document of the discussions held by early-career participants during BASIC-ICCS ‘Nuclear Responsibilities at Sea’ online workshop. The views expressed belong solely to the participants and do not reflect the views of the author. The workshop was attended by young professionals and early-career experts from India, Indonesia, Pakistan and the US, including Zubaida Abbasi, Mubashar Rizvi and Madina Rubly – and other who wish to remain anonymous.

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