Nuclear 'Breakout': Risks and Possible Responses

Author/s (editor/s):

Andrew Mack

Publication year:


Publication type:

Working paper

Find this publication at:
IR Working Paper 1997/1 (PDF, 2.56MB)

Andrew Mack, 'Nuclear "Breakout": Risks and Possible Responses', IR Working Paper 1997/1, Canberra: Department of International Relations, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, The Australian National University, June 1997.

Critics of nuclear weapons abolition have long argued that, in an ostensibly disarmed world, 'rogue' states could renege on their treaty commitments, secretly build nuclear arsenals, and then €˜breakout' of the abolition treaty. The law-abiding majority would then be at the mercy of unscrupulous nuclear cheats.

This paper critically analyses some of the most-discussed risks of nuclear 'breakout' from a denuclearised world. It argues that while these risks are real, they must be measured against the risks inherent in a turbulent international system where states retain large arsenals of nuclear weapons indefinitely. It is the balance of risks which should the critical factor in determining whether or not a nuclear-free world will enhance global security. The paper suggests that the advantages of nuclear possession and risks of nuclear 'breakout' have both been exaggerated, while the risks of nuclear possession and the benefits of nuclear disarmament have been insufficiently stressed.

The paper considers a range of technical, strategic and political arguments and concludes that the so-called 'breakout' risk does not provide the basis for a compelling case against nuclear disarmament.

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