Nuclear Challenges Big Bet: 2020 Evaluation Report
February 4, 2021 | Evaluation | Nuclear Challenges
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Evaluation Period: 2014-2020
Total Awarded: $100.8 million
Total Number of Grants/Investments: 228
Geographic Focus: Global



Since 2015, the Nuclear Challenges Big Bet has sought to reduce global nuclear risk via ceased production and elimination of stockpiles of weapons usable material (W-UM). In response to significant challenges in the landscape, including the change in the U.S. Administration in 2017, the strategy aimed to reinforce investments related to protecting and strengthening the global nuclear regime, recognizing the growing risks to nuclear stability. To realize its goals, the Nuclear Challenges strategy has supported activities in dual pathways: (1) protect, stabilize, and strengthen the nuclear regime; and (2) assure safety and security across the fuel cycle, in processes related to production, storage, and disposal of W-UM. This combination of regime- and fuel cycle-focused efforts was believed to be necessary to realize the strategy’s end goal.

The Nuclear Challenges theory of change identifies three approaches: (1) develop and advance policy solutions, i.e., develop a fund of credible, viable, and innovative policy-relevant ideas and share these with governmental decision makers; (2) enhance relationships among key actors, i.e., via pursuit of opportunities for bilateral and multilateral dialogue that foster trust and goodwill; and (3) increase the capacity of actors in the nuclear field. These approaches are applied to five modules that represent critical countries and relationships, which are believed to play a significant role in the stability of the nuclear regime and advancement of ceased production and elimination of W-UM due to their existing weapons or W-UM stockpiles, and/or that address risks that potential proliferation poses to global nuclear security. The five modules and related components are: United States (U.S. Congress, U.S.-Russia, Fuel Cycle, and Weapons Policy components), Tough Cases (Iran and North Korea components), Possessor/Non-Possessor Tensions, Threshold Countries (Fuel Cycle and Weapons components), and Global Fuel Cycle. The Nuclear Challenges strategy posited that the approaches, when applied to the five modules, will contribute to a more stable regime in which the three core regime principles (disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses) are upheld, and there is widespread agreement and commitment by countries toward the strategy’s end goal.


What We Evaluated

Since November 2017, ORS Impact has served as evaluation and learning partner to the Nuclear Challenges team. The purpose of this report is to present a strategy-level synthesis of data and findings gathered between May 2019 and May 2020. The report lays out substantive findings regarding the strategy’s outcomes and the external landscape that, together, present a picture of progress to date. The report sets out to answer three overarching questions:

  • Does progress to date demonstrate momentum and provide a line of sight to significant, meaningful, and sustainable long-term outcomes and impact?
  • Is the theory of change valid and adequate to reach the intended impacts?
  • Does the landscape suggest continued windows of opportunity for progress toward Nuclear Challenges’ intended outcomes and impacts?

To answer these questions, ORS employed a mixed-methods design to measure the status of and progress within module components and related to the strategy’s end goal. This report presents the first synthesis of evaluation data about the Nuclear Challenges strategy.


What We Learned

We drew the following conclusions from the findings of the synthesis report:

  • The Nuclear Challenges strategy has been able to effect progress toward identified short-term outcomes across the dual pathways of the nuclear regime and fuel cycle. Grantees have produced a deep reservoir of credible solutions related to nonproliferation, disarmament, and peaceful use, and have helped to make the case for minimizing use and production of highly-enriched uranium and plutonium. Grantees have also supported bilateral and multilateral communication and dialogue channels and kept these channels open despite challenges in key countries’ relations. In some cases, grantees’ work helped to inform and advance policy developments in United States as well as other country-specific contexts.
  • It is not clear that investments related to policy development and productive dialogue will catalyze identified intermediate- and long-term outcomes related to a strengthened regime and regime-positive policies which require political will, alignment between key leaders, and supportive decisions within the highest echelons of government. In addition, there has been degradation of treaties, agreements, and norms that uphold the nuclear regime and its core principles of non-proliferation, disarmament, and peaceful uses. Compared to the situation at the inception of the strategy, the nuclear regime is considerably weaker today, and it is unclear if the current mix of investments will be able to prevent further degradation of the regime or result in a sufficiently stable regime to realize desired outcomes and the ultimate goals within the Big Bet timeframe.
  • In addition, despite early progress toward a negotiated agreement that would eliminate global W-UM stockpiles, there are no positive signs regarding further progress on the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty, nor is there clear evidence of a viable multilateral mechanism through which such an agreement would be negotiated and adopted.
  • Overall, there is not a clear line of sight to intermediate and long-term outcomes, including a stabilized nuclear regime by 2025, or a negotiated agreement by 2030 to eliminate W-UM stockpiles—unless the landscape evolves in ways that facilitate progress, and there are changes to the strategy’s theory of change and investments.


View the full report ›


Other Supporting Documents 

Annex 1: Methods ›

Annex 2: Data collection tools ›

Annex 3: Secondary sources ›

MacArthur's evaluation philosophy ›

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