Nuclear Weapons and Ethical Investment

Sectors & Issues
December 18 2020 - Jonny White, Senior Researcher - Client Specialist

2020 has marked the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It has also come to mark the year when the United Nations ratified a treaty to ban nuclear weapons.

Over the course of these last 75 years, the world has at various instances teetered on the edge of nuclear apocalypse. Whether it be the Cuban Missile Crisis, or the various computer glitches that have triggered first launch warnings within the Soviet Union and the United States. The result of this has left just one or two individuals, acting on their own intuition to quite literally divert the course of human history and prevent catastrophe, most notably Stanislav Petrov in the Soviet Union, who spotted a false alarm and disobeyed orders to avert a nuclear disaster in 1983. Despite incidents such as this, the relative safety of the world concerning nuclear weapons has arguably decreased, rather than improved since the Cold War. As cyberwarfare, the threat of nuclear terrorism or a nation blundering into nuclear conflict, nuclear weapons have become a relative afterthought compared to other contemporary issues, such as climate change. Three out of five changes to the Doomsday clock in the last five years have been climate related. Most recently in 2020, the clock changed to its closest ever time to midnight following the end of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

There is little pressure to dismantle these weapons and in turn the political incentive to do so is notably absent. The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) notes the fading of nuclear discourse following the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century. The CND themselves now largely look at the costs associated with nuclear weapons as being the main driving force for nuclear disarmament. Both major political parties of the UK and the USA largely agree with maintaining their respective nation's nuclear arsenal. Indeed, the Cold War mind set of disarmament has shifted dramatically. We have continued to see nuclear weapon proliferation, as well as arms-limit treaties due to expire with no apparent renewal framework in place. We no longer think of nuclear weapons in terms that essentially equate to every household in the world to be rigged with explosives, with single individuals able to literally pull the trigger on nuclear war.

So, what does something that is almost entirely driven by political policy have to do with investment? Between 2017 and 2019, some 325 financial institutions invested roughly $750 billion USD into nuclear weapons manufactures. Over half of which stemmed from just 10 of these financial institutions - those being, Vanguard, BlackRock, Capital Group, State Street, Newport Group, T. Rowe Price, Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

The investment framework has already established itself with criteria for weapon exclusions. Many banks, firms and funds readily exclude what they deem to be controversial weapons (cluster munitions, weapons of an indiscriminate nature, chemical weapons etc.). Nuclear weapons on the other hand seemingly still remain in their own category. Only The Co-operative Bank in the UK has a comprehensive policy to prevent investment in nuclear weapon producers. The framework for exclusion already exists, it is now simply a case of recognising the importance of such exclusions and applying them to nuclear weapons. Currently, the UN Global Compact integrity policy regarding weapons is limited to personnel landmines and cluster bombs.

The problem nuclear weapons present, compared to conventional or even other unconventional weapons, is the fact that their use relies so heavily on the policies of nuclear armed states. All the countries that possess nuclear weapons have done so for decades, and in turn are reluctant to give up the power that this provides them. You only have to look at how seriously other nations now take North Korea, to get a glimpse of power a nuclear armed state can wield. Due to this, contracts for these weapons are in themselves decades long and encompass billions of dollars and a multitude of companies. Company involvement can occur anything in the nuclear process; in the production of both software and hardware, the launch facility and testing, as well as the production or procurement of nuclear material.

Nuclear discourse is somewhat reappearing in the public arena. Following Trump's election in 2016, concern centred on him and the 'nuclear football'. While that is incredibly unlikely to be an actual concern, it did seemingly reintroduce nuclear weapons into people's minds. However, commentator's worst fears were realised in 2018, when the President withdrew the United States from the Iran deal. It is only due to the European nations continuing to have dialogue with Iran that the deal is still in place. More recently, concerns were raised again when the United States urged for the countries which have ratified the U.N. Treaty - to ban nuclear weapons - to withdraw. Even with the treaty now being ratified, it seems unlikely that the nuclear states will simply decommission their arsenals come January 22nd 2021. However, this sets an important precedent for international norms, as well as bringing pressure on the financial institutions currently financing the production of nuclear weapons. The treaty would essentially ban financial investment for any company associated with the production of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear discourse has largely entered the public domain through the investment and pension fund sector. Earlier this year, the UK Nuclear Weapons Financing Research Group, published its concerns regarding a number of pension providers and investment into nuclear weapons. Gary Lineker joined the discussion when he tweeted that he had "no idea where his pension was invested", and encouraged others to follow suit and check. 'Make My Money Matter' is a campaign designed to move individual's pensions out of the arms industry (among other areas such as fossil fuels), while also ensuring they are placed into funds that support clean energy and good human rights practices.

The importance of finance within nuclear weapons is increasingly growing. The United States, Russia and (to a lesser extent) the United Kingdom have all talked about 'modernising' their current stockpiles. Conservative estimates would place the price of 'modernising' at some $2 trillion USD accordingly for those nations, with the US making up 1.1 trillion USD alone. Likewise, the US, Russia and China are looking to develop 'smaller' nuclear weapons - in the range of 10-15 kilotons (for comparison, 'Little Boy' that was dropped on Hiroshima was 15). This may superficially appear to be a good thing, but may in fact simply mean that they are more likely to be used.

According to 'Don't Bank on the Bomb' many of the contracts associated with the smaller scale nuclear weapons as planned by the US, Russia and China are on short 5-10-year contracts. This hopefully allows for financial institutions to have significantly more influence on the renewal of these contracts. Institutions such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) are putting pressure on policymakers directly. However, the financial sector will become increasingly important to ensure success when wielding political capital. With the Nuclear Ban treaty now being ratified, there will be legal implications regarding nuclear weapon investment. Understanding just how many ways companies can actively participate in the construction of a nuclear weapon will be essential, by providing a clear and comprehensive framework.

Ethical Screening divides company involvement in the nuclear industry into three broad groups: military issues; direct involvement in power generation; and related industry services. Concern arising from nuclear military activities relate to concerns over armaments, but Ethical Screening gives the issue separate consideration here due to the indiscriminate and long-term effects of nuclear weapons and the more general hazards associated with nuclear-fuelled warships.

This in turn breaks down into major and minor involvement with regard to nuclear weapons. Major involvement is assigned to companies involved in the following; design, manufacture, support or maintenance of nuclear weapon systems, or nuclear-powered naval vessels; processing and enrichment of nuclear materials for weapons; or weapons testing and storage. Minor involvement is subject to nuclear-related military activities, such as reactor components; electrical and electronic systems; computer systems and software relating to the nuclear-power system or nuclear weapon systems.

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