Recap: PONI Summer Conference

Jul 28, 2010


By Mark Jansson and Anna Newby
Last week, PONI held its summer conference at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. A variety of topics were discussed, ranging from UN Resolution 1540 to Iran’s nuclear program to the future of U.S. stockpile stewardship, among others issues. Presenters and participants at the conference, which included both senior experts and young professionals in nuclear fields, generated a wealth of ideas and critical questions.
In the first panel, the speakers addressed nuclear security challenges posed by non-state actors, more specifically, meeting these challenges with two different types of efforts: those that deny the ability to carry out an attack with nuclear weapons or radioactive material and efforts that would deny the gains of carrying out such an attack.
On the denial of ability, in two talks about UN Resolution 1540, presenters acknowledged the central role that this resolution plays in U.S. nonproliferation policy, as well as in international security more broadly. Challenges remain, however, in translating rhetorical commitment into action. In that vein, the Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program was discussed. EXBS tries to build efficient and transparent national export licensing systems; works with law enforcement to ensure that industry representatives understand and comply with national regulations; teaches local law enforcement and intelligence authorities how to interdict problem materials; and helps law enforcement investigate and prosecute cases of violation. 
Articulating 1540 implementation as an economic development goal of sorts was raised as a possible means to get better buy-in, with the benefit for the implementing countries being perceptions as a reliable station for trade. Moreover, enhancing border security and monitoring can help states address a variety of smuggling problems, even if the nuclear threat is not the most pressing concern.
The panel also discussed the notion of deterrence by denial – that is, deterring a radiological attack by terrorists by sending the message that such an attack would be difficult and ineffective. This would require that governments build up their ability to frustrate an attempted radiological attack by terrorists, as well as to mitigate the effects of an attack, should one occur. Such a strategy may complement programs to deny terrorists the ability to acquire and use potentially dangerous nuclear materials.
The Obama administration has sought to integrate international nonproliferation and disarmament objectives with a plan for the U.S.’ nuclear force into a comprehensive U.S. nuclear policy. Iran, which plays a key role in today’s thinking about the nonproliferation regime, was therefore discussed with specific attention paid to the intersection of nonproliferation and the broader political issues. The extent to which the Islamic nature of Iran’s government will restrain it from acquiring a (arguably un-Islamic) nuclear weapon was considered in light of the fact that the appeals to Islam in elucidating Iran’s stance on nuclear issues have been more-or-less situational.
The panel discussed how to better harmonize efforts to encourage a more open democracy while simultaneously implementing sanctions intended to curb proliferation. For example, restrictions on new media technologies such as encryption technologies can have consequences for internal movements to liberalize Iranian society.
The panel also looked retrospectively at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. In an atmosphere of growing treaty weakness, the Obama administration’s prioritization of nonproliferation, active U.S. diplomacy on nuclear matters with NAM members and others, as well as increased political will among international leaders to achieve a consensus document all contributed to an overall successful conference.  
The Nuclear Posture Review, of course, made an effort to synchronize the message that the U.S. wanted to deliver at the RevCon with its need to maintain an effective nuclear arsenal. The logic of this approach, and the extent it can be expected to pay dividends, was debated to account for the interaction between the U.S.’s conventional capability and proliferation pressures.
Relying on the NPT to alone prevent the spread of nuclear weapons may not be the best strategy; creating an environment conducive to facilitating solutions to longstanding political and security problems, and, more immediately, considering how to deal with potential drivers of nuclear acquisition without compromising national security needs, are two issues that need to be considered.
The afternoon panel focused on how to better align the science community’s efforts with nuclear policy goals in several key areas: stockpile stewardship, nuclear forensics, and in the relationship between the scientific and policy communities.
With respect to stockpile stewardship, the panel discussed the CTBT, noting that the term “zero yield” is ambiguous and has been subject to varying interpretations: after all, nuclear materials release energy regardless of whether or not they are involved in any testing to verify the nuclear stockpile. Leaving the definition of a nuclear explosion vague presents substantial technical hurdles in monitoring and verification.
Further exploring issues about testing, the group discussed the challenges of reconciling the data retrieved from above-ground experiments (AGEX) with that which was collected during the underground testing era to verify the usability of models that are crucial to stockpile sustainment.
The relationship between scientific capabilities and policy goals is especially important to nuclear forensics. Information sharing that would help build a comprehensive international database of forensics data is constrained by state security concerns and, as was pointed out by participants, propriety rights of private industry. There are, of course, layers of sensitivity for forensics-relevant data. In some areas, this poses problems in light of the NPT’s ban on sharing sensitive nuclear information with non-nuclear weapons states, and it was noted that details of what information could be shared would need to be specified. 
All of this pointed to the conclusion that the broader relationship between the policy community and the technical community needs to be considered and addressed with sophistication. The more cooperatively these two communities can work together, the greater the chance for realizing potential improvements across the board in all nuclear missions. Increasing trust and communication and getting on the same page sooner rather than later can help the policy and technical communities build a more fruitful dialogue and clearer expectations on both sides.
Day Two
The following day, panelists turned to the more “traditional” issues pertaining to nuclear strategy and arms control, and the overarching goal of making these two pursuits complementary. The first panel considered whether full nuclear disarmament is viable in a world arguably dominated by realist, rational-actor calculations and where nuclear weapons are closely linked to national power and prestige. The unattainability of zero may not by itself end the discussion of when, why and how to reduce nuclear stockpiles, but it does raise important questions about how to understand these steps in much broader historical terms.
For instance, the trend towards achieving a full nuclear “triad” was observed and discussed. The robustness of the triad, and the balance between the “legs” of it, are subject to political and financial constraints, but the desirability of working towards it remains for reasons that are quite familiar. However, achieving a triad isn’t the end of the story. Mobile missiles, as soft targets, make counterforce targeting quite difficult. Hence a potential weak link in the chain of deterrence can be identified. In the East Asian theatre, participants discussed challenges to counterforce targeting in light of new developments.
Returning the nub of the issue of nuclear strategy and arms control tradeoffs, evidence was presented that nuclear superiority may be an important factor in determining who backs down first in a nuclear crisis, since states with larger or more developed nuclear arsenals may (according to historical data) be willing to take the crisis to higher levels.
Whatever the strategy during times of high tension, nuclear arms control remains an important pillar of international security. One potential step towards disarmament is the removing of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe. Although these weapons do play an important symbolic role in U.S.-NATO relations, symbolism alone is not enough to make nuclear weapons credible as a deterrent. However, U.S. tactical weapons in Europe arguably still serve a counterforce function, and therefore have a strategic utility.
Another focal point of efforts to expand global nuclear arms control is the INF treaty. Although the INF treaty has been successful in mitigating the “use it or lose it” dilemmas posed during the Cold War, if the treaty were to be opened up for global signature, it would need to be renegotiated. In light of recent progress towards disarmament – such as the NPT Review Conference, the release of a new NPR, and progress on a new START treaty – some expressed optimism that expanding the INF to additional states may be possible. Others were more skeptical, and questioned whether controls on missiles were more important than stockpile reductions.
Taking another angle on how to size a nuclear force, the economics of nuclear deterrence were modeled in an effort to investigate the claim that nuclear deterrence is more cost-effective than conventional deterrence. Although economic theory can help explain efficiency, it struggles to account for psychology or perceptions about nuclear weapons. However, if additional assumptions were made about the kind of resources available, as well as the missions for which nuclear weapons were intended, economic modeling might be able to illuminate more about the relative efficiency of trying to deter attacks with nuclear weapons.
Overall, the conference presenters and participants proposed a wealth of innovative ideas for approaching contemporary challenges in nuclear issues, both the U.S. and abroad. The discussion certainly benefited from diversity of participants, namely the inclusion of experts from both policy arenas and technical ones, as well as the participation of both junior- and senior-level scholars.