Opportunity to Overhaul the Value of Nuclear Policy NGOs

The non-governmental nuclear policy community is being pummeled by the twin crises of dramatic geostrategic change and drastically reduced funding. This has diminished the relevance of its research and withered its impact on real world nuclear policy making. 

Cillian Murphy, the actor that portrayed Robert Oppenheimer in the Academy Award winning movie named for the scientist, dedicated his Best Actor award to “the peacemakers everywhere” seeking to prevent the use of atomic weapons. 

But, in striving for that goal, the nuclear control agenda of the past may not be the most effective template for these very unstable times. 

An excellent new article by Theo Kalionzes, the former Senior Program Officer for nuclear policy grantmaking at the MacArthur Foundation, outlines how and why the foundation came to provide support for what was an outlier issue on the nuclear agenda and is now central to its future. 

The MacArthur Foundation was a leader in financing the traditional nuclear policy agenda that included nuclear arms control, deterrence, nonproliferation, and security, as well as regional initiatives aimed at Iran and North Korea. But last year it withdrew from nuclear policy grantmaking. 

One reason for this decision was that, while progress had been made, loftier objectives had not been met. And evolving domestic and geopolitical circumstances made achieving the next level of success very difficult. Those conditions have only grown more challenging. 

However, before it bowed out of the field, MacArthur implemented a bold, risk-taking strategy in its nuclear funding. It supported a small number of ground-breaking “maverick” initiatives that analyzed the role of nuclear power in addressing climate change and how nuclear power expansion would impact global security. 

It did this when virtually no other major philanthropic organization in America would touch the subject and in the face of a strong undercurrent of anti-nuclearism from a number of its grantees. 

These investments were made well before the Russian invasion of Ukraine raised the issues of nuclear power and energy security as top global priorities. And, while it was motivated by carbon reduction objectives, it preceded by years the governmental commitment made at December’s international climate conference in Dubai to support the tripling of global nuclear power by 2050. 

This prescience led to cross-disciplinary collaboration breakthroughs like the Global Nexus Initiative that explored the intersection of nuclear power, climate change, and global and energy security policy. This nexus has now become the policy foundation for the expansion of nuclear energy. 

What Kalionzes’ article makes clear is that there is now a significant opportunity for American philanthropy, in concert with governments and the nuclear industry, to revamp the future of the NGO nuclear policy community to increase its value in addressing the evolving challenges of the 21st Century. 

This does not mean abandoning the traditional agenda and efforts to improve it through established means. 

The opportunity is to build a new wing of the NGO nuclear policy community focused on cross-disciplinary expertise, crosscutting information and analysis, and professional partnerships that can close important collaboration gaps. 

This is a forward-focused agenda that can attract young, early career talent that wants to make a tangible impact on two of the greatest existential threats to humanity – climate change and nuclear war. 

It can be designed to sustain careers by using advancement strategies rather than forcing young experts to hit structural barriers to promotions that exist because many nuclear NGOs are organizationally stunted and derivative of academic designs. 

This Nuclear Nexus Agenda will support the governmental investment of billions of dollars in the development of new, smaller, and advanced fuel cycle nuclear technologies, and the secure expansion of reactors to new countries and regions. 

It will create a new breed of non-siloed nuclear specialist. They will need to understand how the energy, climate, and global security pieces all fit together to support nuclear power’s inevitable role in carbon reduction and energy security, while preventing nuclear weapons proliferation, and avoiding nuclear war. 

It is less social justice adjacent and more suited for a world in which no-nonsense authoritarians in Russia and China seek to depose the U.S. from leading on global rules and limit its technological exports and influence. 

Revamping an established field is a tall order and it will require new institutional agendas. The universities will need to pivot from producing academics, budding bureaucrats, and future national laboratory employees that primarily implement and study government policy. They will need to produce more students that can design innovative and effective policies and drive them forward armed with diverse data. The nuclear industry will have to stretch beyond its technical focus to include this policy talent in its companies. And governments will have to offer their full support and professional opportunities. 

The objective is to develop a sustainable pipeline of students and early career professionals that are trained to assess and respond to the new spectrum of nuclear policy and technology issues, and provide them with professional career advancement opportunities that will allow them to mature into a deep cadre of established experts. 

This would be an NGO nuclear policy community built for the future.

Ken Luongo, President, Partnership for Global Security