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Special Report - Nonproliferation in an evolving world

Nonproliferation: Traditional & nontraditional approaches

Tom Shea directs Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation Programs, one of four business sectors in the National Security Directorate at PNNL. Shea's program is tied to the National Nuclear Security Administration and ranges from local threat reduction to safeguards, treaty verification and disposition of excess nuclear materials.

Carol Kessler leads the Pacific Northwest Center for Global Security in Seattle, which is part of PNNL's National Security Directorate. The Center, which focuses on global security policy issues, uses the science and technology capabilities of the Laboratory to develop projects that can impact possible root causes of proliferation and regional security problems.

What are some of the issues involved in international nuclear arms proliferation?

Shea: Weapons of mass destruction present the greatest security threat to our country. The risk of nuclear weapons or explosives can far exceed the risk of other weapons of mass destruction when the potential casualties, property destruction, recovery costs, economic loss, mass trauma and follow-on losses are taken into account.

There are three basic issues related to nuclear arms proliferation. One concerns the threats posed by existing arsenals of nuclear weapons and whether those might be used in a military confrontation. Our work is concerned with whether those weapons are safe and secure or whether they may be sold, stolen or copied. Another issue is countries that are attempting to proliferate or acquire nuclear weapons. The third issue is nuclear terrorism, which might be carried out by organizations principally motivated by hatred. The concern is how we, as a nation, can protect ourselves against these threats, how we can lead in creating international frameworks that attempt to prevent threats from becoming reality.

At PNNL, we have a three-pronged approach: we discover new scientific principles and phenomena, we develop the technologies to implement those discoveries, and we deliver science to solutions, bringing our knowledge and experience to meet real world requirements. We also look for new methods of detecting proliferation or illicit traffic. For example, we might use our science and technology base to develop specific instruments and methods needed to help verify treaties.

Kessler: The Center looks at nontraditional mechanisms for evaluating proliferation problems. We look at the root causes of a country's problems, which could range from regional tensions to natural resource problems to political issues. India is a good example of a country that felt its international status was low relative to China, the U.S. and Russia, and so it determined that developing nuclear weapons could improve its stature. The Indian program led to a Pakistani one, in part due to political tensions, but also natural resource competition, such as water supplies. The Center supports the U.S. government and international agencies in their efforts to help alleviate those tensions through application of PNNL's science and technology capabilities.

Addressing the root causes of proliferation can provide an avenue into a dialogue with that country. This helps us establish the trust that's needed for us to cooperate on more sensitive national security where proliferation is clearly related. For example, we developed a relationship with the Russians working on a less sensitive area—nuclear reactor safety—and then moved into dismantling their nuclear weapons.

What expertise or capabilities does PNNL have that stand out to address these issues?

Kessler: We're looking to apply the scientific capabilities that we at PNNL have in environmental cleanup, energy security and grid issues—the kinds of problems that may be part of the root cause of the country's insecurity, which leads it to believe it needs to rely on weapons of mass destruction. PNNL also has political scientists, economists and sociologists who can help with some of the social and cultural dimensions of the issues that underlie proliferation or other major global security problems.

Shea: The Laboratory stands out in several areas, including the proliferation detection science we're doing. Another is the ability to deliver field projects—science and technology solutions to solve critical needs—particularly related to securing fissile materials in Russia. Our government spent a large amount of money to make certain that fissile materials are not available for sale or theft in the Russian Federation after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Now we're entering the more sensitive types of facilities that are closer to military applications and we must find ways we can continue to cooperate and provide assistance without crossing sensitive boundaries.

How does the nontraditional approach to proliferation problems differ from the traditional one?

Kessler: "Nontraditional" is the term coined by PNNL. The Laboratory traditionally has worked in radiation detection, nuclear material management, production of detection equipment and technology that helps resolve proliferation problems. We haven't done as much work on an international scale in the areas of energy security and environmental security, some of the root causes that can increase the pressure on a country to proliferate. So we're trying to create a space for the Laboratory on this "nontraditional" side, performing the root causes analysis and addressing problems that are identified. PNNL thus provides a more holistic approach to proliferation prevention.

Shea: Traditional approaches are normally identified with understanding the technological processes associated with weapons of mass destruction and the peaceful nuclear applications. Traditional approaches also involve looking for connections between those two types of activities and how to work the disarmament problem.

Kessler: We have a student working at the Center this summer, who is exploring how radical Islamic movements use social service providers to develop and recruit terrorists and whether there are ways for governments to recognize that the aim of a social service provider is nefarious. He's developed a model that he is trying to validate with examples from countries where, for economic reasons, social services are often provided by nongovernmental entities. An example is the madrassa schools in Pakistan, which are being used to inspire young people to support terrorism. The question is how to identify such schools without investigating every one. He is using mathematical game theory to help the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to determine if there are telltale signs that a service provider is developing a terrorism network.

How do science and technology fit into the larger issue of nonproliferation, which may seem very policy focused?

Shea: Because nuclear weapons require fissile materials, the basic nonproliferation framework is set up on the control, possession, use and export of these materials and the equipment and facilities that are used to produce or process them. Our science and technology focus is on detecting proliferation signatures and attributing the signals to specific sources. It's a very large problem and a great deal of research is under way in this area today.

The Laboratory is involved in export controls, for example, for the National Nuclear Security Administration so it looks at the functioning of the international framework. We work in a cross spectrum of areas, including radiological threat reduction, isotopic sources or other hazardous radioactive materials that might be used or controlled. All of those involve knowledge of technologies and in some cases, development of specific tools, and the delivery of the services.

Kessler: From the Center's perspective, security problems often have a policy basis and a technical basis. The Laboratory helps address both because its staff have technical and policy capabilities. For example, we're working with the Central Asian republics on water rights. Allocation of water is critical to sound economic development for all. Of the five Central Asian republics, only two have sources of water. This can create regional tensions over water rights and possibly lead them to consider developing weapons of mass destruction. We've brought our science capabilities in water management to the work we've done with these countries, helping them sort out technical and policy problems around water management.

How does the future look for nonproliferation?

Kessler: One of the most significant problems for the future of nonproliferation is the graying of the experts in this important field. Therefore, we believe education is an important factor in the future of nonproliferation and PNNL is taking a leadership role in this arena. The Center, together with the University of Washington, Jackson School of International Studies, has created the Institute for Global and Regional Security Studies. The Institute's major focus is creating the next generation of nonproliferation experts.

Shea: Today, with the possibilities for nuclear terrorism, with black markets offering a wide range of sensitive materials, equipment and technology, and with states such as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and Iran pursuing nuclear weapons, we are faced with new challenges that may be smaller in scale but perhaps more dangerous in prospect. There is an urgent need to establish a common commitment and an improved framework to secure future success in preventing nuclear conflict or nuclear terror.

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