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The Science and Security of Nuclear and Biological Weapons (Module)

Module description

*Please note that although all module information is correct for the 2017/18 academic year, it is subject to change for future academic years.


Weapons of mass destruction and the technologies related to them have long posed serious questions to policy makers, states and the international community at large. This module investigates the impact of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons on state and international security. It combines key concepts and theories in International Relations and Security Studies with the necessary understanding of how these weapons work and to what effect. In doing so, the module offers a rounded understanding of these weapons that combines science, security and policy. It is suitable for students with a variety of backgrounds including in the social sciences, history and science. The module is one of the compulsory elements in the MA in Science and Security. It is also available as an option for students on other MA programmes.

The module begins with an introduction to some of the key concepts and theories in International Relations and Security Studies that are relevant to nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. These concepts will frame discussions on the role these weapons play. We then examine some of the scientific and technical challenges involved in the manufacture of these weapons. The biggest hurdle to building nuclear weapons is the acquisition of fissile material and as such the enrichment and reprocessing stages of the nuclear fuel cycle will be explored in depth. The module also addresses the effects and the production processes of biological and chemical weapons, and contrast them with nuclear and radiological weapons. For biological weapons emphasis will be placed on recent developments in the biosciences, in particular genetic engineering and the spread of the biotech industry, and what this means for preventing the proliferation of biological weapons. The module also addresses topics at the intersection between science and security including dedicated sessions on the concept of deterrence as it applies to chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, nuclear modernization and the verification of arms control agreements.


The aims of the module are:

  • Familiarize students with the basic science underlying nuclear and biological weapons
  • Develop a systematic understand of the key concepts and theories from the fields of international relations and security studies, especially as they relate to the analysis of nuclear and biological weapons
  • Provide a framework for the original analysis of the historical and contemporary role of scientific and technical issues and developments in international security
  • Foster the capacity of critical analysis, independent judgment and communication at a level commensurate with taught postgraduate study

Learning Outcomes

Students who successfully complete this module will have:

  • A basic understanding of the science underlying nuclear and biological weapons
  • An understanding of the relevance of the science to key policy problems
  • Critically engaged with the key concepts and theories used in security studies and applied those concepts and theories to an analysis of biological and nuclear weapons
  • Exercised informed and independent judgment on the primary intellectual and policy debates regarding nuclear and biological weapons
  • Practiced a range of intellectual, practical and transferable skills, through participation in classes and through the preparation and submission of module work

Staff information

Dr Hassan Elbahtimy*

Teaching pattern

Typically, 1 credit equates to 10 hours of work. For a one term 20-credit module, this will equate to 20 hours of teaching (2 hours per week) with 180 hours of self study.

Module assessment - more information

Coursework & Exam*

Key information

Module code 7SSWM020

Credit level 7

Assessment coursework written examination/s

Credit value 20

Semester Semester 1 (autumn)

Study abroad module No