The Stimson Center, in collaboration with the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, hosted a workshop on nuclear effects in South Asia in Colombo, Sri Lanka from February 23-25, 2018. The workshop facilitated discussions in which participants worked through the effects of low-probability, high-risk nuclear events that might occur in the region. The four specific “unthinkable” or “black swan” scenarios considered in the exercise varied in intentionality and kinetics: a radiological dispersal device terror attack, a nuclear plant accident, a nuclear weapons accident, and a limited nuclear exchange. Short-, medium-, and long-term effects considered included general types—strategic, political, social/economic, and environmental/public health. Analysts and scholars from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the United States participated in research paper presentations, panel discussions, and small- and large-group breakout sessions. This report includes the full scenarios used by participants and summarizes workshop findings.
Key conclusions drawn from the workshop include:
- Nuclear effects are underappreciated. Compared to the safety and security challenges prior to a nuclear event, states, their publics, and the international community are less aware of the magnitude of consequences or prepared for the challenges of coordinated management required after a major nuclear event. There is both a need for and apparent interest in new research on the effects of nuclear events and resilience planning.
- Nuclear events are strategic. Security concerns are inherent in all things nuclear, and military involvement will be inevitable. At the same time, military involvement can impact military readiness and deterrence, rendering all nuclear scenarios—whether accidental or intentional—strategic concerns.
- Information challenges abound. In the aftermath of a nuclear event, states will face tradeoffs—between strategic, political, social/economic, and environmental/public health objectives—in deciding when and how to share information with domestic, regional, and international stakeholders.
- Consequence management ripe for cooperation and discussion. Focusing on the after-effects of black swan nuclear events that could mutually affect adversarial parties—together with third parties—may foster less contentious and more productive discussion on normally sensitive security topics. This may stem from a mutual need for information and contingency plans amidst the paucity of research, empirical data, or advanced scenario analysis on nuclear effects.