Nuclear war prevention and recovery
Decreasing the risk of nuclear war and increasing civilisational resilience

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Start here for an introduction to existential risk research. Read more

This profile is tailored towards students studying agricultural sciences, earth and environmental sciences, economics, history, political science and sociology, however we expect there to be valuable open research questions that could be pursued by students in other disciplines.

Why is this a pressing problem?

The use of nuclear weapons would cause direct suffering on a massive scale, potentially killing tens of millions of people. The indirect impacts – such as famine and increased societal fragility – could be even more catastrophic. 

There are about 10,000 nuclear warheads in the world, held in nine countries and concentrated in Russia and the US. In addition to the two uses of nuclear weapons that have happened during warfare, there have been many times when nuclear weapons have come close to being inadvertently or deliberately used

Estimates of the risks of nuclear conflict occurring in future and the amount of harm this would cause vary, but estimates are sufficiently concerning that further research exploring the magnitude of the risk, potential methods for prevention and ways to increase resilience in the event of nuclear war could be very important. In 2015, a poll of 50 international relations experts estimated a median 5% chance of a nuclear great power conflict killing at least 80 million people in the next 20 years, while a survey of academics at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference estimated a 1% chance of human extinction from nuclear war this century. See additional estimates in this report. 

Nuclear war could leave societies more vulnerable to catastrophic risks such as pandemics, global totalitarianism, or worse values ending up in artificial intelligence, thereby indirectly contributing to existential risk. 

It could potentially also lead to widespread damage to electrical infrastructure via nuclear electromagnetic pulses – bursts of electromagnetic radiation created by a nuclear explosion. 

Nuclear weapons could also potentially cause a nuclear winter due to smoke and debris blocking out much of the sunlight and leading to a dramatic drop in temperature. Billions could starve as a consequence of the resulting impact of climate changes on agriculture. The likelihood of nuclear winter is still a subject of significant debate; see here for an overview of relevant papers. Further research might be valuable to inform how many resources should be allocated towards tackling this versus other existential threats.

Nuclear security is a major topic of interest for many governmental and nonprofit organisations, so this is a less neglected area than some of the other potential existential risks we have profiles on. However there are neglected areas of research where further work could be impactful.

For a longer introduction to this field, watch the video below from the Nuclear Threat Initiative which explores ways to build a safer nuclear future. You could also listen to this podcast episode featuring David Denkenberger on how to feed everyone in a catastrophe such as the aftermath of a nuclear war. 


Explore existing research


Some think tanks whose work encompasses research on nuclear war include the Brookings Institution (US), Chatham House (UK), Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (US), RAND (US), the Belfer Center (US) and the Wilson Center (US).

Find a thesis topic

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, below are some ideas that could be particularly valuable to explore further. If you want help refining your research ideas, apply for our coaching!

80,000 Hours writes that opportunities for reducing the risk of nuclear conflict – such as improving foreign relations between the nuclear powers, improving the monitoring of first strikes and encouraging declarations of no first use policies – are primarily available within the foreign policy, intelligence, and the military institutions of nuclear powers. Therefore, generally building your knowledge in the nuclear policy landscapes of countries where there are existing nuclear stockpiles makes sense if you plan to work on these issues in your career.

You could explore this project idea on climate, agricultural, and famine effects of nuclear conflict. Start with the introduction for more context on this research project first.

You could explore this project idea on climate, agricultural, and famine effects of nuclear conflict. Start with the introduction for more context on this research project first.

  • There are lots of unanswered questions about existential risks from nuclear war. We’d be particularly excited about research looking at the interaction between nuclear risk and other existential threats. There may also be important forecasting research into how likely certain events might be.’ (80,000 Hours)
  • In their review of nuclear weapons policy, Open Philanthropy describes work on nuclear weapons policy done outside of the US (rather than about other countries from within the US) as one of ‘the largest potential gaps in the field.’
  • You could also explore this project idea on Nuclear EMPs, which includes questions such as ‘how likely is it that one or more nuclear EMP attacks will actually occur?’ and ‘what are the most likely pathways to such an attack?’ Start with the introduction for more context on this research project first.
  • You could explore this project idea on polling or message testing related to nuclear risk reduction. The project would involve surveying people about their views relevant to nuclear risk reduction, various potential intermediate goals for nuclear risk reduction, or various potential interventions,’ to inform nuclear risk reduction efforts. Start with the introduction for more context on this research project first.
  • How many people would be killed by famine under different scenarios in which crop yields are reduced? Could agriculture continue to flourish in any geographical regions, and to what extent?

Further resources

Seth Baum, the director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, has written this advice for students who want to study global catastrophic risks.

Internships in this area

If you’re interested in working on this research direction, apply for our coaching and we can connect you with researchers already working in this space, who can help you refine your research ideas. You can also apply to join our community if you’re interested in peer connections with others working in this area. 

Apply for our database of potential supervisors if you’re looking for formal supervision and take a look at our advice on finding a great supervisor for further ideas.

Our funding database can help you find potential sources of funding if you’re a PhD student interested in this research direction.

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Our profiles on great power coordination and preventing great power conflict are also relevant if you want to work on preventing nuclear war. Our profile on resilient foods research is relevant if you’re interested in working on increasing societal resilience in the aftermath of nuclear war.


This profile was last updated 24/01/23. Thanks to Vaneesha Jain for first creating this profile and to David Denkenberger and Juan Garcia Martinez for helpful feedback. All errors remain our own.

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