Peering into nuclear futures

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Analysis favors policy over technology

By Roger Snodgrass

Under American leadership, the arms control pendulum has swung back in the direction of abolishing nuclear weapons, after a period in which such a sweeping aspiration has been outside the mainstream of political thought.

This is the perspective of James Acton, an associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who specializes in non-proliferation and disarmament. Acton talked about those two closely related goals, as their technical and political aspects have increasingly intertwined in the post cold war era. He spoke to an audience of non-proliferation and threat reduction specialists Wednesday on the campus of Los Alamos National Laboratory about “The Politics of Proliferation


“You can’t solve a political problem with a purely technical solution,” Acton said at the beginning of his talk, quoting from a famous paper by ecologist Garett Hardin, who applied the warning to the question of population control in 1968. Hardin believed that those who thought population pressures could be averted through an easy technological fix were simply avoiding the inconvenience of political changes that could disrupt their privileges.

Similarly, Acton argues that technical solutions, like proliferation resistant forms of nuclear power, may be inadequate safeguards against countries that pursue nuclear energy as a means of developing nuclear arms.

Countries have their own reasons for wanting nuclear weapons, he said, whether it is for national prestige, to emulate a superpower, whether for regional security or motivated by historic rivalries. “It is relatively difficult and painful,” he said, “to extend research in an undeclared nuclear weapons program,” especially when the world is opposed to it, but it’s easier to get away with it politically, as both North Korea and Iran have demonstrated.

Acton cautioned that technical solutions that try to suppress the weapons potential of a given nuclear technology as a means of preventing a country from developing nuclear weapons are not likely to succeed in the long run, because there is no escaping the essential connection between nuclear power technologies and nuclear weapon applications.

The “atoms for peace” side of civilian research and the use of nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes can’t be divorced from the military potential because technologies from uranium enrichment to plutonium recycling or reprocessing have “dual use” potential regardless of whether they are passively or clandestinely pursued.

“Almost all nuclear technology in use around the world today is ‘dual use,’ able to contribute to the production of fuel for nuclear reactors or the explosive components of nuclear weapons,” Acton has written. “For this reason, there is serious concern that supposedly peaceful nuclear programs are being used for, or could become, cover for the development of nuclear weapons.”

The changes in the American approach to a global nuclear regime were recently reflected in the Obama administration’s budget request. The National Nuclear Security Administration this month requested a 9.8 percent increase in weapons activities and a 25.8 percent increase in defense nuclear non-proliferation.

NNSA’s describes its work in non-proliferation as a mission to detect radiological materials and to secure and dispose of vulnerable nuclear weapons and materials.

The budget request has been explained as an extension of the principles announced in the president’s speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, when he pronounced America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.

That statement in agreement with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, echoed by leaders of the United Kingdom, France and India, Acton believes, has demonstrated that nuclear abolition has become a mainstream proposition once again.

But, he said, the countries that have not entered the nuclear race want more from the nuclear powers on disarmament in exchange for their help on nonproliferation.

“You care about non-proliferation,” he said, as if to the nuclear powers on behalf of the non-nuclear countries. “We care about disarmament.”

A new approach to non-proliferation will take new directions, including stronger safeguards and techniques, but also policies that demonstrate that the arms race is winding down, he said.

Acton’s research has devoted special attention to the civilian nuclear industry, International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and practical solutions to strengthening the nonproliferation regime.

In a career-oriented profile in Physics Today, Acton recalled that physicists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, the laboratory’s first director, have long been involved in arms control and disarmament issues.

“Today, even more so, technological developments help shape the international security environment,” he wrote.  “It is vital that physicists become involved in helping to understand and manage those developments.”