Theorising Nuclear Harm

People tend to think of ‘harm’ as limited to the individual human body or psyche. For Andrew Linklater, as increasingly with many other international theorists, such shared vulnerability forms the basis of a common or universal solidarity. However, the meaning of harm and its relationship to shared vulnerability was transformed with the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Despite this, nuclear thinking remains trapped within what I call, the human frame. I argue that there remains an unexplored, yet crucial, aspect of nuclear harms: they violate not only the human body, but also the global biosphere on which all life depends. To render these human-biosphere connections visible in nuclear discourse, this project problematizes our existing moral categories of harm and cosmopolitanism by turning to the variously self-published or unpublished work of the late Richard Routley. It uses Routley’s “last man example” to question the commonplace binaries between present and future obligations, the local and the global, as well as humanity and nature.

The notion that nuclear harms are fundamentally ecological invites us to interpret anew the prevailing understanding of human relations with the non-human world. Within this context, this thesis calls for a new, multi-centred, nuclear ethical theory for humanity and the biosphere. I argue that doing so requires nothing less than re-imagining the conceptual, empirical, and normative characteristics of harm in the nuclear age, but also our understanding of subsequent efforts to variously prohibit the pain, suffering and vulnerability that accompanies them.

Empirically, it involves expanding the notion of nuclear harm so as to encompass not only the harm that is inflicted by nuclear weapons and war, but also those forms of nuclear harm that arise from civilian and military nuclear accidents and waste. Conceptually, it awakens us to the fundamental fact that such nuclear harms reaffirm the co-constitution and mutual-implication of humanity and Earth’s biosphere. Further, that nuclear harms occur on greater-than-human spatio-temporal scales casts doubt on the continued distinction between the human and non-human, or natural, worlds. Normatively, it prompts us to take seriously the need for a new, multi-centred, nuclear ethical theory that neither de-centres the idea of humanity nor relegates it to the periphery, but rather (re)situates nuclear harm in ecological terms and the global biosphere in ethical terms.

Responding to criticisms that normative thought seldom addresses problems that actually arise, the potentialities for this new way of thinking is then demonstrated by applying these empirical, conceptual and normative re-imaginings to two types of nuclear harm prohibitions. The first type to be examined—in Chapter 4—is the civil society-led nuclear-free zones in uninhabited and inhabited areas (i.e. Antarctica and New Zealand) and nuclear-weapon-free zones in uninhabited and inhabited areas (i.e. the global biosphere and Southern Hemisphere). Analysed for their spatial insights, these zonal arrangements are re-imagined as denuclearised zones of life. The second type of nuclear harm prohibition to be examined for their temporal insights—in Chapter 5—are the state-sanctioned zones of containment which variously attempt to isolate radioactive waste (i.e. Onkalo and Semipalatinsk) and contaminated sites (i.e. Chernobyl and Fukushima). Analysed for their temporal insights, these isolation strategies are re-imagined as zones of containment. Taken together, these insights suggest that this new, multi-centred, nuclear ethics is both realistic and realizable.

Connecting the nuclear literature and environmental philosophy in this way draws attention to the absence, or neglect, of a sustained discussion in either literature on the critical importance of nuclear harm to understanding human and biosphere relations. Whereas the Cold War nuclear ethics literature principally concerned the moral dilemmas of nuclear deterrence and the ontology of the weapons themselves, various attempts have since been made to ‘revive’ and ‘re-evaluate’ the study of nuclear ethics for a post-September 11 world. Whilst these are welcome and necessary interventions, this thesis contributes a less hubristic, biospheric vision to this broader endeavour by re-imagining the ethics of the nuclear age in ecological terms. What is needed then is a new, multi-centred, nuclear ethics for humanity and the biosphere that displays a greater attunement to the impact of nuclear harms on the beings and things that comprise the non-human world.

Latest project outputs 

N.A.J. Taylor, Antipodean Nuclear Feminisms: Oceanic Denuclearisation of the Eurocentric Phallus. Under contract to Palgrave Macmillan’s Global Outreach programme, to be delivered in December 2018. [PDF of proposal]

N.A.J. Taylor, ‘The problem of nuclear harm for ecological cosmopolitanism’. Accepted with minor revisions in June 2016 at Global Society following peer review. [PDF available on request]

N.A.J. Taylor, ‘Anthropocosmic thinking on the problem of nuclear harm: A reply to Seth D. Clippard, and a plea to Mary Evelyn Tucker and Tu Weiming’, Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, Vol.10 No.1, March 2016, pp.58-65. [PDF]

N.A.J. Taylor, ‘On the possibility of an Arendtian nuclear theory’, Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, January 31, 2016. [LINK]

N.A.J. Taylor, ‘Explorations in Antipodean Nuclear Thinking: Val Routley/Plumwood and Richard Routley/Sylvan’. Paper presented at The Seed Box: Environmental Humanities Collaboratory and The Posthumanities Hub, Linkoping University, Sweden, September 20, 2015. [PDF available on request]


Australian Postgraduate Award, Australian Government, 2011-15 ($85,000)
Australia Awards Endeavour Research Fellowship, Australian Government, 2015 ($25,000)
University of Queensland, 2014-15 ($9,500)