MSU Distinguished Nuclear Policy Lecture: Pushing Nuclear Frontiers

MSU Distinguished Nuclear Policy Lecture: Pushing Nuclear Frontiers

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Good evening. Can you hear me okay? Yes. Always good to make sure the mic is working. So. Thank you, Director Glasmacher,

and Dean Garnett. I'm really honored to be here with you tonight and particularly humbled that I'm here as the first inaugural speaker in this new series. And I'm excited to be here right in this room at this fabulous facility. I've had such a wonderful day. I’ve met many of the students here, had a tour of the FRIB, which until two days ago I was referring to as “The FRIB,” but I was corrected. And I have to say, it's so exciting to see this facility.

It's an example of the absolute best in kind of big science and what we can do in the United States when we combine and collaborate at the local university, the state and federal levels. And it's just, you know, breathtaking to see this gleaming facility and also to come to appreciate from the tour, the skill sets that came together in constructing this facility. And as an international user facility, the kinds of international science and the impact that you're going to be able to create. So thank you for the invitation. I have spent my entire career now, 36 years and counting, working at the intersection of science and security. I'm not a scientist, I will hasten to add, and therefore I'm giving you a policy lecture tonight.

And notwithstanding the fact that I'm not a scientist, I deeply respect and appreciate the value of science. I have a deep appreciation for the boundary-pushing work that's happening on this campus and at this facility. So let's talk about what we're going to talk about. What I'm going to talk about tonight. Tonight, I want to discuss how we can build a better future and what you can do to help using the facilities, the tools, the brainpower you have right here on this campus and in this community, we can all shape and play a role in building a better future, despite what may feel like overwhelming odds these days.

How can we harness nuclear science and policy innovation to create a future free from preventable nuclear risks imperiling humanity? But before we get to the future, let's take a look at the challenges of the present. So today, most of us in this room are acutely aware of the range of global challenges that we face. I'm actually not planning to go into the Ukraine crisis. We can talk about that during the Q&A. I want to zoom out and really have us take a bird's eye view of where we are.

The images on the slide kind of captured what we're seeing in the news on a regular basis. And, you know, the climate crisis, the continuing pandemic, nuclear weapons threats, these are all palpable challenges. An increasing number of people are feeling so overwhelmed and stressed by the unrelenting nature of the news that mental health professionals have coined some new terms. I'm not making this up myself. There is something called headline stress disorder.

There's something called hope fatigue. And these are actually real things. People reading the news every day are feeling overwhelmed by what they're seeing and these people, the people who feel this way, have good company. NTI conducted some public opinion research over the last 18 months looking at a representative cross-section of the American public. So this was U.S.-focused,

and we asked our participants, this was not the usual ten-minute poll, while someone’s making dinner or a few yes or no questions. This was a deep dive. We spent an hour and a half with each of our participants and asked them to do some preparation by bringing images of their feelings about the future.

And let's go to the next slide to look at some of the images that were shared with us. This is a pretty depressing representation of current American views about the future. Across the board, so 100-percent of our study participants, shared a universal sense of dread that the world was headed into a dystopian future: Machines taking over, our environment being burned by climate disasters, feeling imprisoned, feeling kind of pulled by forces beyond our control, addicted to social media, the image in the upper right-hand side. These are just a few, a sampling of some of the images that were brought forward. And despite this widespread fear, there's a high percentage of these people who are able to hope for a better future.

But another depressing statistic, only 30-percent of the participants felt they had any agency whatsoever to affect the outcome. Thus, the despair. So this new period has a name. It's called the Anthropocene. So what you see here is the Merriam-Webster definition of the Anthropocene.

This term was first coined by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen in the year 2000. He suggested that we are now living in a time when the global environment at some level was shaped by humankind, rather than vice versa. And he proposed that we should be calling this period the Anthropocene.

Since 2000, when he coined that term, scientists have begun exploring whether there are measurable global markers of human impact on the Earth. Geologists, in particular, have been studying this for some years now, and looking at how they might determine when precisely this age began. What are the markers? So since geologists study geologic epochs, that is, you know, epochs as in e-p-o-c-h-s, and they're looking at, guess what, planetary geology, and they're looking for changes in the Earth's rock strata. The official international body that studies rock strata is called the International Commission on Stratigraphy.

They created a working group like a dozen years ago, maybe more now, called the Anthropocene Working Group. And they are looking for evidence of scientific markers of man's impact on the Earth's rock strata. They began by debating should they be looking for the impacts of agriculture, nitrogen fertilizers and runoff, causing ocean acidification, looking at things like the use of plastics and plastics distribution around the world, the rapid increase in carbon energy, leaving its own deposits, and also the advent of nuclear weapons and the spread of nuclear radioactivity across the planet to see if they could determine whether, and if so, when they could see a clear signal of humanity's impact on the Earth's geology. And what they discovered is interesting. When did this new period begin? With the advent of nuclear weapons.

In 2019, the Anthropocene Working Group decided a likely marker of the Anthropocene is the spread of nuclear radioisotopes from nuclear weapons testing. The working group has sent scientists to look for evidence of these radioisotopes at 10 different sites around the world. And the sites are diverse.

They all represent diverse environments. They're looking to identify something called a golden spike, a primary geological marker at a single location that can be correlated with the other sites around the globe. According to National Geographic, the Anthropocene Golden Spike needs to demonstrate that there was a globally synchronous moment when physical, chemical, and biological processes amounted to the irreversible crossing of a geologic threshold from the Holocene, the previous geologic epoch, to the Anthropocene. But that's not all that nuclear weapons have ushered in. The advent of nuclear weapons also represents a different kind of boundary.

A crossing of the Rubicon. With the first nuclear test in the New Mexico desert in 1945, humanity crossed a threshold to a new era where for the first time in human history, we developed a technology that could end human civilization, the capacity to damage human civilization. So the nuclear challenge is global. It's epochal, and it is existential. The challenge is clear.

We need to reduce the growing use of nuclear risk if we humans are going to survive the long future. As we all appreciate, this is not a trivial challenge. So let's dig in to how we might rise to the challenge, starting with an assessment of where we are today. So unfortunately, the risk of use is high and growing.

You only need to read the newspaper to see the latest threats from President Putin. But even before the Ukraine war, we were headed in the wrong direction. We no longer live in the relatively stable, bipolar nuclear world of the 1950s. Today's world is much more complex. We have nine nuclear weapons states, more lethal weapons.

These weapons, by the way, are up to 30 times- -modern nuclear weapons are up to 30 times more powerful than the weapons dropped in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And we built weapons even more powerful than that. They're mostly they're not deployed right now. They can fly at hypersonic speeds that can maneuver around air defenses.

And so the world has has become even more dangerous since the advent of nuclear weapons 77 years ago. And here's one of the primary reasons why it has become more dangerous. The strategy for preventing the use of nuclear weapons, nuclear deterrence, has changed very little, even as the world has changed dramatically. What other system or profession that you know of is still operating on a 70-year old operating system? Let's take a deeper dive on why this strategy leaves us so vulnerable. So let's talk about the failure modes of, well, the kind of the foundation of nuclear deterrence, and then we're going to talk about the failure modes.

So first of all, the system operates on the threat of annihilation in the absence of any nuclear defenses. At the time, the strategists who developed nuclear deterrence around 1950 reasoned that the best they could do to prevent a deliberate nuclear attack was to threaten nuclear retaliation against the attacker. In order for this system to work, you needed to have credible forces, credible deployed forces, ones that your adversary believes will work. You need rational decision makers on both sides of the equation, leaders who are actually deterred from using nuclear weapons because they fear annihilation.

You also need consistently accurate information about your adversary's nuclear actions so that you're not spooked into thinking you're under attack when you aren't, or caught off-guard by a sneak attack. You need reliable systems and technical components that have to perform flawlessly forever in order to provide accurate early warning and communications with your forces. If all of this worked according to the 1950s logic, a nuclear-armed state might be able to prevent a deliberate nuclear attack.

But today's world is highly complex, and there are other pathways to nuclear use that deterrence was never designed to address. The system has not adapted with the threat environment. And the problem is that if the system fails, it fails catastrophically for humanity. So let's talk about the ways in which deterrence strategy has not adapted and how it might fail.

There are at least five possible failure modes that nuclear deterrence was never designed to address. First of all, accidents. There have been dozens of accidents involving nuclear weapons over the years. A number of them have resulted in lost lives.

We've been incredibly lucky so far that we have not seen an accident that produced a chain reaction. But can we count on that never happening in the future? Nuclear terrorism. We know that terrorist groups are seeking nuclear weapons and they're quite unlikely to be deterred. Irrational leaders. We have some vivid, sadly, recent examples of leaders who have threatened or are threatening to use nuclear weapons either to secure their regime or maybe advance some messianic view of the world that they have. We also have to worry about blunder, miscalculation in the heat of a battle.

Will leaders interpret signals correctly and take the right actions, or might they act on false warning or misleading information? Cyber is a real concern. In 2013, the U.S. Defense Department and the Defense Science Board of the Defense Department published a study looking at resilience of U.S. military systems to cyber attacks. And the one-sentence conclusion of that report— —I'm giving you the high level conclusion—says the following quote: “The United States cannot be confident that our critical I.T. systems will work under attack from a sophisticated and well-resourced opponent.”

I'm going to read that one more time, because let that sink in: “The United States cannot be confident that our critical I.T. systems will work under attack from a sophisticated and well-resourced opponent.” The lead author of that study came knocking at our door at the Nuclear Threat Initiative shortly after that study was published. A very highly esteemed scientist working at one of our national labs, he briefed us on this, and I said, “There must be a workaround, there must be a technical fix, right?” And the next thing he told me was, ”There is no technical fix.” Our nuclear weapon system, it's a highly complex system of systems, with tens of thousands of digital components in them. And we don't have secure foundries producing all of those components.

We've seen vivid examples where even systems that are air-gapped are compromised by malicious code being introduced in one place or another. What happens if our nuclear deterrent has been compromised with faulty components or code? How might the system fail and how might the Russian system fail, which is maybe what should get more of our attention? What if President Putin were to receive an erroneous warning of an incoming U.S. nuclear attack in the middle of the Ukraine crisis, as tensions are escalating, as he's even more paranoid and desperate, would he launch his own nuclear forces at the U.S.

on the basis of that false warning? Only to learn that a third party had committed a successful cyber attack against their early warning system? And here's another challenge. The consequences of such a mistake would be grave, but we don't fully understand just how grave. So this might sound implausible, but when it comes to consequences, we have no comprehensive understanding of the societal effects. Let me explain.

Let's talk about what we do know. From thousands of nuclear tests around the world. The U.S. conducted more than a thousand of our own. A large number of which were atmospheric tests.

We learned a lot about the immediate physical effects of nuclear weapons. Blast thermal radiation, which I like to call hurricanes of fire. Thermal radiation sounds pretty genteel. In reality, I think it would be. I think it's one of the most damaging effects of nuclear use a large-scale nuclear weapon. Ionizing radiation fallout, electromagnetic pulse.

Next slide. We also know there's been some very good research on a concept called nuclear winter, the climatic effects of nuclear use at scale. You may have heard this term, ”nuclear winter.” What scientists have concluded is that the millions of tons of soot and smoke lofted high into the stratosphere could block the sun for a period of years, up to a decade, causing global cooling.

Some of the earlier studies said 7 to 8 degrees Celsius drop. I've seen other studies suggesting it could be even more than that, catastrophically disrupting agriculture and food supplies and potentially threatening several billion people around the world from famine. This phenomenon has been studied by serious scientists since the 1980s, but there's been a resurgence in scholarship around nuclear winter.

As we have more sophisticated climate modeling or our predictions are even better. There's a lot of folks who are looking at agricultural impacts and also fisheries, impacts on fisheries. So a lot of research backing this up. And these numbers, by the way, were from a study that looked at the hypothetical use of a hundred nuclear weapons exchanged in a conflict between India and Pakistan. And I think we have a way in this country of thinking something that happens over there won't affect us.

And what the study says is actually this is a global scale catastrophe, even if it's just a regional exchange. We're in for a decade of pain. And I would also remind you, while the modeling done for this scenario was 100 nuclear weapons that both the U.S. and Russia, under a treaty, have about 1,500 nuclear weapons, high-power nuclear strategic nuclear weapons deployed. So these are some of the effects we understand. What we don't know, we don't understand, we haven't done the research, is what are the broad societal effects that could be triggered by a large-scale nuclear attack? So, you know, things like the impact on critical infrastructure, trade and the economy, governance, civil unrest, political stability.

Well, so how do these pieces intertwine? Right? What does it look like if the entire power system is taken out in the United States? How well does the banking system work? Would we have Internet? How do we do trade? How can we distribute food? You can imagine a pretty catastrophic collapse. It could perhaps even be existential. Maybe not every single human on the planet dies, but maybe a large percentage does, and what kind of a world does that look like? So this is the point in the lecture where you're thinking, “Get me out of this room.

This is really depressing.” So here's a more hopeful thought. Catastrophe is not inevitable. Nuclear weapons and the system we've created for managing it are manmade inventions. If the problem is manmade, so too can be the solutions to the problem. And this is not just a theoretical assertion.

The track record of actions we've taken in the past have demonstrated that nuclear risk reduction is possible. How? It's a tractable problem. I'd start by observing, right, at a policy level. There are still only nine nuclear weapon states. That is a limited number of states, in this respect.

I think this is a much easier problem than solving the climate crisis, where you have to change the behaviors of effectively every state in the world. It's easier than the bio-security problem where we need to establish norms of science for every place in the world and in scientific capabilities distributed very broadly. That's not true with nuclear weapons. We also have new tools at our disposal. There are there are game-changing tools.

Here's where new technology and the work that you do is important. And I'm going to come to that in more detail in a moment. We also see there's widespread— this is not generally understood, it's probably counterintuitive— but there is widespread public support for disarmament. Consistent polling shows that about 80-percent of Americans would prefer a world without nuclear weapons. And I would also observe that there's a growing movement that is premised on the belief that we owe it to humanity to preserve the future for generations to come.

And this shift in thinking, mindsets, belief systems, culture is going to help us in the long run to preserve our long-term future. We also have a history of big wins. And here are just two examples. So there's a demonstrated tack record of change. After the Soviet Union dissolved, there was a lot of concern about the Soviet nuclear arsenal, loose control over both weapons and dangerous nuclear materials, weapons, usable nuclear materials. Congress passed some legislation called the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, and that legislation over a period of years resulted in 13,000-plus ICBMs, intercontinental ballistic missiles being destroyed, silos eliminated, and many more achievements.

We also began to work hard on removing poorly secured weapons, usable materials, plutonium, and highly enriched uranium from countries around the world, hundreds of bombs worth of poorly-secured material. So these are just two concrete examples. So what can we do to avoid a nuclear catastrophe? First of all, we have to move away from a business as usual approach. We need to engage with a sense of urgency that's commensurate with the threat innovating in both the technology and the policy spheres. Let me give you some concrete examples. There's both a near-term agenda and a long-term agenda.

On the near-term agenda, we know the kinds of things that could de-risk the system of nuclear deterrence. For example, we could further reduce the numbers of deployed nuclear weapons we have through arms control. We could employ confidence-building measures.

We could take our fingers off of the hair trigger by removing weapons from their prompt launch postures in the United States and in Russia, so that if there is a cyber attack, leaders have time to figure out what's going on before they make a decision. But the perennial challenge in implementing some of the near-term risk-reduction measures has been the lack of political will for these changes. And so we need a new generation of both political and policy engagement. These steps can make us safer in the near term, but they are not going to fundamentally eliminate the risks that are inherent in the current structure and inherent in the logic of the nuclear deterrence system.

And so to eliminate the catastrophic nuclear risks over the long term, we need to make some fundamental changes to our strategy. So let's talk about the longer term actions. And here I'm going to dig in a little bit. We need to build a better system that doesn't cause— that doesn't have catastrophic failure loads. So how do we do that? We need to design an innovative nuclear system that fails safe for civilization.

We need to invest in the transformative application of technology to nuclear security. We need to expand engagement beyond policymakers. And I would argue that Michigan State is incredibly well-positioned to advance all three of these objectives. So let's talk briefly about each of them. On designing an innovative nuclear system that fails safe for humanity.

A fail-safe system is designed or made in such a way that nothing dangerous can happen if a part of it goes wrong. Fail-safe has a specific meaning in the nuclear weapons community. But the broader engineering definition is that, at a minimum, I would argue, we should be working to create a nuclear security system where a civilization-disrupting catastrophe is not possible if the system fails. If the objective of a nuclear security strategy is to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used— or that if they are ever used, their use is so limited that it cannot jeopardize human civilization— then the current high risk, high-consequence annihilation based strategy of nuclear deterrence must be fundamentally redesigned. The security system that poses a catastrophic global scale risk to humanity is fundamentally flawed and is not, in fact, a security system at all.

I realize what I'm saying is controversial, right? I'm challenging a deeply-held assumption that underpins the system that we have in place today. And I know a lot of people will debate this, but I'm going to press on. What might a new fail-safe nuclear system look like? For starters, right, it should be based on the design principle that the consequences of system failure can't threaten to end or fundamentally disrupt civilization for years, decades, or centuries. So that should be at the very center, and it should be premised on the fundamental moral argument that we owe it to the generations before us and the many generations to come to allow future humans to exist and flourish. If we can agree that a durable, rational strategy is one that must enable humanity to survive by preventing a mass destruction event or worse, then we must build a system that cannot threaten us. The global system of nuclear deterrence fails this test.

So, by the way, I don't totally have my head in the clouds. I recognize that conflict is not going to disappear from the world. On the contrary, I think we have to recognize that conflict is an inherent human and societal challenge, but one that has to be managed differently in the age of existential threats.

We need a system for controlling and regulating existential technologies because the cost of failure could well be our survival. So what does that new system look like? I mean, it's got three essential components. And let me go quickly through these beliefs. So at the heart of the nuclear deterrence system is a deeply entrenched belief that nuclear weapons make us safer and that the system needs to be premised on the threat of mass annihilation in order to work. Instead, we need to demand a system that cannot fail catastrophically. The technology control regime, an alternative strategy for preventing nuclear use, could rely on— instead of the threat of mass annihilation— it could rely on high security, high fences, around nuclear dual-use technology.

Seventy years ago, the technical capacity to do that, so when nuclear deterrence was developed, the technical capacity to build a technology control regime simply didn't exist. But today it does. We've learned a lot over the last 70 plus years about how to monitor, how to detect, how to regulate nuclear technology that could be used for weapons purposes. Building a high-confidence nuclear control regime is not an impossible task.

Technology is key. We have powerful tools to track every aspect of the nuclear fuel cycle, from uranium mining, to enrichment, to plutonium separation, to the deployment of weapons delivery systems, and more. But what we're missing is political will.

These existing tools are not yet universally deployed at scale. Nuclear states have not prioritized this work with the level of investment and urgency required to build a strong and effective nuclear control regime. We have not articulated this as a goal, but the potential exists to develop much more effective detectors and sensors by using new technologies to build the detection and verification architecture we need for the future.

I'm going to skip my examples of this because time is growing short, but we can come back to that if you want in the Q&A. And finally, the third piece of this new system is new governance structures. New governance arrangements will need to be developed. A legal prohibition against nuclear use has to be universalized. A high-confidence system of verification, as we were talking about, needs to be developed.

And a really important missing ingredient that has come up in some of the discussions I had today is a highly effective enforcement mechanism. We don't have those in the world today. And so violator states can get away with egregious violations of international law and even agreements that they've taken on freely. We see that playing out in Europe at the moment. Each of these goals are formidable and will require steady effort over several generations. So what's your role? So Michigan State and FRIB have, I think, a really significant role to play. As described before,

we need to push the frontiers of nuclear innovation in both the policy and the technology spheres to design a more effective strategy for reducing the risks of nuclear use. On the policy innovation side, MSU can work to help design this new fail-safe system. We need intellectual innovation. On the S&T side, Michigan State can contribute by developing better solutions for managing nuclear waste, spent fuel, nuclear forensics, new forms of nuclear detection, a new generation of nuclear reactors, the list goes on and on.

Michigan State is a powerhouse in the nuclear space. You have a unique set of capacities and you have a world-class facility and faculty. It would be wonderful to see these pieces being drawn even more tightly together and having the university play a leadership role on the global stage of development solutions. We'll also say international collaboration is going to be key to building a better, safer strategy for ensuring that humanity remains safe. This is not something that by definition, a global challenge cannot be solved by a single government working alone.

And, you know, I note that you all here are an international user facility where you're bringing people from all over the world. Michigan State can also contribute to the refreshment of a vibrant workforce, not just in the U.S., but globally. An international user facility, you can help train the world's new generation of scientists, practitioners and leaders in the nuclear field. Nuclear know-how Nuclear technology will be with us for the rest of time. I think it's important that we think about the challenge that we face, not just in terms of this year, this decade, one lifetime.

There have been 10,000 generations that came before us. And God-willing, there will be 10,000 generations that come after us. We have to manage this technology if we're going to survive that long, and we have not prioritized this yet in the way that it needs to be. So this workforce for the future has to keep pressing the frontiers of nuclear science. We have to keep pressing the frontiers of solutions for climate, the climate crisis, where nuclear energy and environmental sustainability play a role in mitigating climate change. You can play a leadership role in creating the future that looks like this.

So we started with a collage of pictures of, you know, really heavy, kind of scary visions of the future that we received from the participants in the public opinion research that the Nuclear Threat Initiative conducted. When we asked them to bring images of the future they hoped for, these are their images. These are not photos that I picked out. This is a sampling of the large number of images that were collected by our research participants. This is where people want to head.

A future safe from preventable existential risks, where the planet is verdant and abundant, where humanity can flourish, and we can realize our potential over the thousands of generations yet to come. In closing, let's endeavor to hand off a better world where Earth and humanity can flourish. I believe we owe it to the next 10,000 generations. I believe we owe it to the 10,000 generations that came before us, whose cumulative invention and creativity we have built on and brought us to this moment. We owe it to future generations to give them the chance not just to survive, but to survive and thrive, to have equal access to the values, the resources and the freedoms that we've enjoyed. There's no more worthy objective for our collective investment of our time and our resources.

So let's put our shoulders to the wheel together. Thank you. So I'm happy to take questions. Yes, sir. [Audience member]I have the impression that President Reagan and Premier Gorbachev were moving in the right direction and were doing the right things. But then we went back.

Were we right about that? [Rohlfing] So they were moving in the right direction. And you're aware of the summit that they had at Reykjavik, where they discussed the elimination of nuclear weapons. And I did some work with George Shultz, who was the secretary of state at that time, and was sitting alongside President Reagan in that summit.

And he personally was an advocate, a strong advocate for the elimination of nuclear weapons. And eventually that discussion ran to ground over really pedestrian issues. There was still more work to do in the relationship to overcome, and I have heard recited several times that Mr.

Gorbachev, when they were talking about how they would do this, looked Reagan in the eye and said, “You won't even agree to sell me chicken wings. How are we going to get this done?” And it also faltered over ballistic missile defense, which was a high priority for President Reagan of that time. But both of those leaders understood that this was the world we needed to try to get to eventually. And I would say it was not, I mean, it may have been a failure for a giant leap to nuclear disarmament, but it was not at all a failure in terms of the political momentum it built behind some very significant arms control agreements over the coming years. It was, to be honest, a golden age of arms control, and deep reductions happened. So I would say in that sense, not a failure at all, even if we didn't reach the ultimate end goal.

And it's also, I would just say, indicative of... In the lunch that I participated in with students, we talked about, you know, “How do you effect change?” And what I'm suggesting tonight is is a pretty revolutionary vision, which would require an awful lot of change. And how do you bring about this kind of change, and how do you make it stick? And I've come believe through the course of my career that while it's essential to be able to to get the buy-in from political leaders around the world and, you know, our own first and foremost in this country, that it's also not sufficient. That you need to have the political understanding and will of the public in a democracy to create the environment that can sustain that type of change over multiple administrations, crossing parties. And we haven't had that.

And the most vivid recent example of of that was that when President Obama came into office, even as candidate Obama, he took a cue from George Shultz and Henry Kissinger and Senator Sam Nunn and former Defense Secretary William Perry, who were calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons. And candidate Obama signed up for that. President Obama signed up for that in his first major speech about four months into his administration. His first major foreign policy speech in Prague called for a world without nuclear weapons.

And he did some things to move us in that direction. But it sparked pretty severe antibodies, and once the new administration came in, all of that was unraveled. And so, yeah, thus my lesson, that it's not good enough to have a small handful of political leaders bought in. You need to have the public demanding change. Yes. [Audience member] I’m a professor of history, not a physicist, and I’m a historian of Russia and Eastern Europe, and I’d like to respectfully suggest that terms like the “Ukraine crisis” and “The Ukraine War” obscure the fact that it's a war going on between two sovereign states, and removes the onus away from Russia.

And I think in many ways, Russia's war against Ukraine sort of challenges our picture of progress and rationality that undergirds an optimistic scenario, which I definitely want to buy into. But I guess I'm sort of skeptical, as many Ukrainians would suggest, that their forfeiture nuclear arms in 1994 is precisely the reason that Russia feels at liberty to engage in this war of aggression against Ukraine. So I'm interested in what you think about that, and then this sort of notion of rationality. What really defines rationality? Putin would claim, I suspect, that he has the rationality unto himself and it could be considered, under certain terms, rational to use tactical nuclear arms, to save whatever endeavor he's engaged in, in regards to Ukraine. In other words, if he wants to preserve whatever gains that he might have made. Obviously from a humanitarian perspective, it's entirely irrational, but that's not concrete.

But the notion of rational... [Rohlfing] Yeah. So I hear three different questions, and that’s all right.

You're right to point out, and I completely agree with you and I've tried to consciously shift from using the word “Ukraine crisis,” although I'm sure I probably did. And speaking to Ukraine war. And even that is an understatement of the current moment that we find ourselves in. This is a much larger than just Russian aggression and an incursion into the sovereign state of Ukraine.

This is impacting Western Europe. It's affecting the entire international order. It's flipped the global nuclear order completely on its head. So this is— and we see Russia having weaponized energy in a way that's clearly put Europe in the crosshairs.

And we're not done with this this war yet. There could be a next shoe to drop where things become much worse, where the U.S. find itself finds itself in the crosshairs, probably through asymmetric use, perhaps cyber attacks. So we're not done yet. But I recognize this is actually a pivotal moment in terms of the whole global system of security.

So a lot at stake. So I don't want to sound like I'm minimizing it. I completely agree with you. I'm in terms of Ukraine having given up its nuclear weapons, that is the lesson that I fear other sovereign states are drawing from this, that they need to acquire nuclear weapons in order to be able to combat an aggressive hegemonic powers. I worry in particular about

Asia and Northeast Asia. I worry about Japan, South Korea, Taiwan. If they're concerned about how they're in this sphere of influence of China, might they think that now is the time and they're all advanced states with nuclear energy programs that could flip a switch and become nuclear weapons states quickly, if they desired that. That having been said, you know, this might miss the broader point that you're making. I think it was never really an option for Ukraine to keep the Soviet weapons. They didn't really have the capacity to manage them.

They weren't their weapons. And it was really not on the table, with Russia, but it nevertheless complicates the ability to reach a better, safer world in the future. We're now—it was already an uphill battle. I didn't say this was going to be easy, but I do think we need a better vision of what's possible in order even to succeed in some of the near-term risk reduction that we need to do, that we could do. I’m forgetting the third part of your— [Audience member] What is rational? [Rohlfing] Oh, yeah, that's in the eye— that’s in the eye of the beholder, right? You know, we're having these daily debates in our office about whether Putin is rational or not, even around my dinner table at home.

And some people can argue, and maybe justifiably, that within his own framework, he's acting in a highly rational way. So in some ways, rational might not be the best— you know—calling him irrational might not be an appropriate critique. The problem is he has a view of the world and his place and Russia's place in the world that is really at odds with the global system of norms and rules that has been built up since the Second World War. And he’s frontally, directly, militarily challenging that order. And he appears to be becoming desperate, as his army, his military forces have broken. Some of the better analysts I know in this space say he's not going to be able to, even if he could recruit the 200,000 to 300,000 people that he's seeking, he's not going to have the equipment they need.

They can't get the training they need in order for it to be brought to bear in an effective time period from the standpoint of the war. So I think—I hate to say it, but this brings us to an even more dangerous moment. You know, today, tomorrow, over the next few months, this is an incredibly dangerous moment. The more desperate he becomes, the more he may find ways to escalate, to try and apply more leverage to bring Ukraine to the negotiating table. So yeah, this isn't easy.

But, you know, you don't make progress in getting to the world you want without defining what the endpoint should look like, even if it's going to take decades. [Audience member] Failure mode, in the current strategy... It seems that a problem with building a fail-safe system is that it also requires sustained input by rational leaders and so on. [inaudible] [inaudible] And the question is: At some point do our governance structures evolve at local, national or international levels to fail-safe against irrational actors? [Rohlfing] Yeah, absolutely.

You know, I think one of the big forms of innovation that we need in ways that I can't even fully describe to you now is innovation in governments. And what we see is we're still operating in a world that's highly globalized and interconnected and interdependent. We're still acting if we can just operate at a at a sovereign nation state level and function properly.

And that's no longer the world we're in. But we haven't built the structures to kind of work across states, across countries, in a way that can help us manage these kinds of crises. The vision I have for the future that we need to build a technology control regime for nuclear dual technologies is one tto changes in high-level leadership. If this is a system that becomes widely deployed, we've got norms that wrap around it that are very different.

And where we have enforcement mechanisms, I think if you have the occasional irrational leader, this system will give us some better tools for dealing with that and we'll be pretty robust at enabling us to take measures if we see violations happening early before we reach a catastrophic—a level that could cause a global catastrophe, that would be the goal. [Audience member] So I want to ask about the technologies that we could be building on our side. If the problem we’re discussing were global warming, if we could get fusion to work, that will not solve global warming, but it would help.

[Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Rohlfing] Yeah. Let me give you one example. And I know, by the way, there's a tremendous amount of really interesting work happening in the nuclear detection and monitoring and verification space, looking for new signatures, types of signatures, instruments that are better building systems that are monitoring— at a particular facility, but within an entire region by collecting and looking for radioisotopes. There's a lot happening. I'm just going to kind of put that over here for a moment. One of the technologies is how we might apply machine learning to harness all of the data that's been collected about patterns of life in various states to develop new signatures.

If we're in a world where it becomes prohibitive to build and possess nuclear weapons, where it becomes prohibited to threaten to use or to use them, then you've got to have a system where you can detect illicit behavior that’s been conducted by a state. We've always worried about, and the big critique of a world without nuclear weapons has been, “Thats not possible. Somebody can secretly build a weapon and, you know, the bomb in the basement, the bomb in the cave, and we'll never know it. And that country will hold the rest of the world at risk.” And I say, you know, first of all, one country with one bomb in a cave, it's a lot better than nine countries with 13,000, 14,000 weapons pointed it at each other. I would take that world over the one that we have today.

But secondly, you know, with all the data that's been collected for any one of us sitting around here, assuming that you're on the Internet, maybe you use social media, you probably have used Amazon before. These companies know what we eat, what we wear, what movies we like to watch. They know an awful lot about our preferences. There's really not much we can hide. What if we applied that kind of, you know, looking for signatures of behavior for states, looking for signatures of behavior of nuclear production? You know, it could be—and this is an area that has yet to be developed, I know our national labs are doing a little bit of work in this domain, but not enough.

And there are weird constraints around their ability to acquire the data they need to really develop the models around this. But what if we could see signatures that say, “Wow, there is a lot of power being drawn to one particular place. Let's go look at that.” What if we could do some network analysis to look at— It's not rocket science, actually. You don't even need big data or machine learning to understand who are the networks of people like the people sitting in this room who have the unique skill sets to build nuclear weapons.

Let's look at their cell phone data. Where they're going every day? Who are they talking to every day? Right. When you begin to marry up these layers of information, suddenly the patterns of nuclear activity become more vivid.

And, even today, without the application of machine learning to this process, we know a hell of a lot about what's happening in Iran. This is mostly through intelligence. But one of my colleagues told the story about how when Natanz was still a secret facility beginning to do enrichment, they would bus people out to this facility every day. And it was all super secret, but apparently one of the bus stops where the workers would go to gather, to go out to the facility, every morning they would announce loudly on the loudspeaker, “Bus to Natanz Nuclear Facility” or something along those lines. So there's a lot more information that's discoverable.

And if we were to set a national goal of developing these new tools, we would be able to build a very different kind of system than the one we have today. But we haven't been motivated to do that. We haven't made it a high priority. So part of this is why, you know, pushing a different policy agenda is going to be essential for moving the science investments. Okay. [Audience member] So you mentioned cybersecurity...

[Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Inaudible] [Rohlfing] Yeah. So that's something we're working on with the Nuclear Threat Initiative and if you believe what the experts tell us that there's no technical solution to this problem, there are only policy solutions. That is, for as long as we continue to have a nuclear deterrent, that you need to put policy boundaries around it. If you want to try and protect it from a significant cyber event, then we need to work on the policy front.

And we've been having, until February 24th when the Russians invaded Ukraine, a very active working group with Russia and between American and Russian experts to talk about how might we establish some norms of practice where we draw red lines, not that these would be really enforceable, but it's better than nothing. Draw red lines to say and then make pledges to each other that we agree not to use cyber weapons to attack our strategic nuclear facilities because of the dangers inherent in that. Ultimately, I think that's, you know, again, why I get to the point of we need to dismantle the system to get the risk out of it. But I think we're a ways away from that, so we need to work harder on the policy side.

Let's take one more. This gentleman here. [Audience member] You spoke very little about the human factor, because the bombs were constructed by humans, they are controlled by humans. So the main danger comes from humans, not technical progress, and we live in a period of information lies, of propaganda and hate speech. And so I think this is at the moment perhaps the most critical factor in this. [Rohlfing] I don't disagree.

I think you are absolutely right. And it's one of the reasons why I'm quite concerned about nuclear deterrence as a viable long-term strategy, because we somehow assume that both humans and technology are infallible and will be forever. And yet in today's environment, as you say, where propaganda lies float freely through social media, where it becomes, you know, deep fakes are becoming more and more sophisticated, it's harder to discern truth from lies. This is a completely different threat environment than the one that the system was designed to operate in. So I completely agree with you.

And yeah, we could have done a whole lecture just on the role of humans and our fallibility. So thank you for that question. [Dean Garnett] I want to thank you, Joan. I'm sure since we've ended at this time, we might be able to have a few questions on the side afterwards.

But I did want to thank her, I wanted to thank all the audience and to also encourage over time, especially here at FRIB, and I'm going to be sending you some information about future talks, but also to get your views. The students today have given me some ideas for future talks as well. So we'd like to see a whole series develop. As we see that, we owe a lot you for starting this out in a visionary way.

But I also think when I was thinking about it in the some of the things one could do right away, I think there's a number of practical steps to substituting conventional forces for nuclear forces, for taking more things off direct line. Again, I think there are things one could do to move towards that world, to remember that even in the Reagan years, we did something. And so I want to thank you for this inspiration. I also discovered FRIB has a tradition that's very much like a defense tradition, which means there's a coin. So that's a military thing from my point of view. I assume you've never been given a coin before.

So now you had the best one. And I hope you got a sense of the quality of this place, the innovation of the leadership, the great staff and also these wonderful students. And so I hope we will respond to the challenge of trying to compose. [Rohlfing}Thank you. Thank you. So much. And [applause] This is an honor.

I'm really flattered to be here and actually I’m pretty excited to get the coin, so thank you.

2023-02-15 18:16

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