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Science: a Force Multiplier for Disarmament

Science: a Force Multiplier for Disarmament

On 5 October 1993 at 3.00 am British summertime, China conducted an underground nuclear explosion at their test site at Lop Nor. Three hours later, before most people had finished their first cup of coffee, VERTIC had announced not only the test itself, but also the yield range, location and orientation of the shaft—and also commented on the political implications of the event. It was the first instance of a small non-governmental organisation (NGO) demonstrating the potency of open-source monitoring in the arms control field, at a time when the internet was mostly unheard of, and state-of-the-art desktop computers were less powerful than today’s mobile phones.

In a forerunner to today’s International Monitoring System deployed by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation, VERTIC used commercial satellite imagery, seismic data scraped from the then US National Earthquake Information Service (NEIS), and computer programmes designed to automate seismic monitoring of the Chinese test site. NEIS sent an electronic bulletin to VERTIC every 30 minutes. Once the algorithm identified a seismic event, the computer set off an air-raid siren. A next software upgrade was supposed to replace this with an audio clip from the movie Robocop, stating “dead or alive, you are coming with me”. According to the principal investigators, Vipin Gupta and Philip McNab, “the Robocop program was never fully operational because of a fatal hardware problem—cat hair in the hard drive”.

VERTIC’s project demonstrated that, without reliance on anything but openly available data, a global seismic network would be adequate for monitoring nuclear yields above a few kilotons at known test sites. In addition, VERTIC’s outreach to international media served a quasi-diplomatic function, by raising awareness of the test and highlighting the value of the verification regime of the then-proposed Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Highly scientific and technical data was communicated clearly to a wider audience. While the project was principally designed to demonstrate the verifiability of the test ban treaty, it also showed that science, technology and diplomacy combined could be a powerful tool.

Governmental and non-governmental science diplomacy

In his report, ‘Sweden and the bomb,’ submitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 2001—Sweden had signed the so-called Additional Protocol in 1998—Dr Thomas Jonter outlined how science diplomacy had played an important role in nuclear non-proliferation in Scandinavia. Beginning in 1972, the then Swedish National Defence Research Institute (Försvarets forskningsanstalt, FOA), previously tasked with the job of developing a nuclear weapon, started to “support Swedish foreign policy with technical information which would enable Sweden to operate effectively in disarmament negotiations”. Many of the country’s former nuclear weapon researchers began working on nuclear weapons disarmament. Even today, the Swedish Defence Research Agency (Totalförsvarets forskningsinstitut, FOI) actively participates in technical disarmament verification exercises.

The United States has long upheld the interface between science and diplomacy. The US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) was established in 1961 and operated until it was subsumed under the US State Department in 1999. The same year, the US National Research Council published a report entitled ‘The Pervasive Role of Science, Technology, and Health in Foreign Policy: Imperatives for the Department of State’ in which it argued that expert scientific and technical knowledge is “essential to the anticipation and resolution of problems” and to achieving foreign policy goals. It recommended that the US State Department work to establish mechanisms that “facilitate ready access by the department to technical communities for advice on complex issues”. It also advocated scientific and technical support “during intergovernmental negotiations, major international conferences, and implementation of international programs”. One practical outflow of this report was the establishment, also in 1999, of the Key Verification Assets Fund, which is still in operation today. The extensive web of National Nuclear Laboratories overseen by the US Department of Energy still make significant contributions to the scientific and technical understanding of arms control.

In the United Kingdom, science diplomacy efforts have been conducted by both Porton Down laboratory (formerly known as the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, CBDE) and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE). The CBDE emphasised verification and monitoring when the UK signed the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, while verification research has been undertaken for two decades at the AWE. Since 2007, the AWE has been collaborating with Norway on the first ever formal technical exchange on nuclear disarmament verification between a nuclear and a non-nuclear weapon state.

The AWE exchange with Norway sparked debate in the United Kingdom on the need for science diplomacy. In January 2010, for example, the UK Royal Society published a report entitled, ‘New frontiers in science diplomacy’, which held that to be effective, science diplomacy “requires international policymakers to have a minimum level of scientific literacy or at least access to others who have it”. As there are relatively few policymakers who are also scientists, the Society argued that the effective use of science diplomacy also ‘requires scientists to communicate their work in an accessible and intelligible way, which is sensitive to its wider policy context”. The Royal Society, while noting that science diplomacy is a “fluid concept”, pointed to three areas where it could, nevertheless, play an essential role:

  • informing foreign policy objectives with scientific advice (science in diplomacy);
  • facilitating international science cooperation (diplomacy for science); and
  • using science cooperation to improve international relations between countries (science for diplomacy).

Lately, the European Commission has also taken an interest in the concept. Under the EU’s ‘Horizon 2020’ initiative, nearly €40bn of funding has been supplied to research initiatives since 2014. One strand of this has been the ‘S4D4C’ project, which, amongst other goals, aims to provide “new insights and a better understanding of the contributions of science and science collaborations to foreign policy goals”. This research effort continues to yield results, one of which is the recently adopted ‘Madrid Declaration on Science Diplomacy’. The Declaration understands science diplomacy as a “series of practices at the intersection of science, technology and foreign policy”, responding to “identified challenges at the interface of science and foreign policy”. The Declaration espouses seven principles to which, presumably, science diplomacy should adhere. It should:

  • generate value for citizens;
  • recognise and embrace methodological diversity;
  • have a demonstrable impact, and also take account of unintended consequences;
  • be evidence-informed, in terms of content, context and process;
  • be based on collaboration and inclusion;
  • be geared towards capacity building, to include training and education at all stages; and 
  • recognise independence, ensuring that ideological goals do not distort scientific findings.

VERTIC’s contributions to science diplomacy

Originally formed as the Verification Technology Information Centre, VERTIC was for a long time one of the few NGOs residing in the brackish waters where politics and science coexist. However, there is now a discernible trend of emphasising scientific collaboration in areas where political disagreement is rife—arms control and disarmament is one of those areas. The Centre has, in the meantime, continued its emphasis on exploring the boundaries between the policy world and the scientific and technical world. Three projects, out of several in our archives, illustrate our approach: the UK-Norway Initiative; our technical exchange with China; and our exploration of the IAEA’s role in disarmament verification.

The UK-Norway Initiative

In 2006, the Centre held consultations with the UK Ministry of Defence and the Norwegian Radiological Protection Authority with the aim of finding common ground for cooperation. After a few months, we saw the potential in bringing together active UK and Norwegian efforts on nuclear warhead dismantlement as part of a joint research programme. Building on those talks, in early 2007 we organised and hosted the first workshop bringing together various research centres from the two countries. On the back of this meeting, the UK-Norway Initiative on verified warhead dismantlement was started and is still on-going.

The establishment of a research cooperation project to study the verification aspects of nuclear disarmament was a deceptively simple idea. However, the initiative was resource-intensive and called for a not insignificant investment in resources, facilities and personnel. Nonetheless, it proved—and continues to show—that practical exercises are necessary to explore and test various verification choices for nuclear disarmament. It also demonstrated how important it is to build trust and confidence in scientific exchanges.

Scientific collaboration between nuclear and non-nuclear states is both achievable and sensible. It allows those in the laboratory of the nuclear-weapon state to escape the intellectual confines of their classified environment. Moreover, on the other side, it enables those in the non-nuclear-weapon states to grasp the many theoretical and practical problems that face those in the weapons camp. On the outside, it allows parliamentarians and the public to gain some idea of the many scientific, technical and procedural steps—and obstacles—that are a prerequisite to nuclear disarmament. In so doing, the initiative fulfils many of the principles of the Madrid Declaration, mentioned above.

This joint UK-Norwegian initiative identified several starting points for the verification debate, which are still being explored today. It noted, for example, that the authentication of warheads would remain an essential feature of a future disarmament verification regime. The initiative developed an authentication device—an ‘information barrier’—mainly to confirm that such equipment can be built and that it would have technical utility. The design principles agreed by the initiative remain of great value and include the use of commercially-available components, as little computation as possible and joint development.

The initiative also demonstrated that on-site inspections will be necessary to reach acceptable confidence levels in disarmament verification. Unlike the verification of delivery vehicles, warhead dismantlement cannot be verified by national technical means. Inspectors must be allowed access to nuclear dismantlement centres—and for such inspections to be effective, nuclear-weapon states need to accept some level of inspection intrusiveness. At the same time, states’ national security concerns need to be respected. VERTIC concluded that, despite several practical problems encountered during the project, verification of warhead dismantlement is technically feasible.

The UK-China Technical Exchange

In 2014, the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office decided to support a new Track 1.5 dialogue between officials and scholars based in China and the United Kingdom. At the time, there was no such nuclear-focused initiative between the two countries, although it was possible to draw on experience from cross-cutting approaches from other fields, such as biological and chemical arms control. The dialogue was predominantly technical but also included consideration of the interfaces between policy, procedure and technologies. The initiative aimed to build strong Sino-British scientific and policy relationships both in the public sector and in the non-governmental communities, as well as advancing knowledge in the nuclear issue area.

The final project meeting was held in 2016 at the Royal Society. It discussed several issues, amongst them China’s technical approach to verified warhead dismantlement. One consequence of the work was increased Sino-British collaboration on the removal and destruction of legacy chemical weapons abandoned on Chinese territory after the Second World War, especially on safety training for handling discarded chemical munitions.

The role of the IAEA in disarmament verification

This project ran from 2012 to 2015 and aimed, in its first phase, to review the state of current technology and procedural development in verifying nuclear arms reductions and to also identify unresolved issues. It involved 58 researchers from five governments and one intergovernmental organisation. Specifically, the project asked two key questions:

  • What is preventing the verification of nuclear warhead dismantlement today—as well as the fissile components and material that is taken out of warheads as part of the dismantlement process?
  • What are the special constraints and problems when considering multilateral verification of the dismantlement processes, whether by a team sourced from an intergovernmental organisation such as the IAEA or by any team that includes inspectors from non-nuclear-weapon states?

The second aim of the project was to investigate a potential future role for the IAEA and, linked to that, what kind of capacity-building or institutional re-organisation would be required were the Agency to become the accredited agency for independent verification of nuclear weapons reduction activities worldwide.

The third aim was to identify the kinds of equipment—or at least the requirements and specifications of equipment—that inspectors from non-nuclear weapon states or the IAEA would need to have available to complete a successful verification mission in all the situations that they would likely face. Intertwined with this are the operating procedures and protocols that would be required for this kind of future activity. The project aimed to develop outlines of these equipment specifications, procedures and protocols.

The fourth aim of the project was to design a comprehensive verified nuclear disarmament exercise, taking into account the whole nuclear cycle of a nominal state. This was to be achieved using computer modelling, table-top exercises and other tools. It was also intended that this part of the project would provide a focus for some of the project’s other work-streams.

Overall, the project reached several conclusions. First, there is a role for intergovernmental organisations in disarmament verification, and the IAEA, in particular, appears to enjoy a large level of support among non-nuclear weapon states. Second, while existing initiatives examine warhead verification challenges, there is a vast area of unexplored work relating to nuclear material disposition, destruction and the application of safeguards on disarmed states. These areas must be explored before any deeper reduction of nuclear materials in the armed states can be realised. Third, there has been no attempt to survey and apply existing safeguards technologies to nuclear disarmament verification processes. This is a major weakness in already existing initiatives, which may lead to unnecessary and costly duplication of work. Fourth, the baseline knowledge of disarmament verification issues is relatively strong, especially in industrially advanced non-nuclear weapon states. Many of these states appear very capable in areas such as equipment development. Fifth, while the project found that the IAEA has excellent baseline knowledge and experience of disarmament verification, mostly found in Agency employees from nuclear weapon states, this depends on effective recruitment policies by the IAEA Secretariat. Finally, while there is support among non-nuclear weapon states for an IAEA role in multilateral disarmament verification, nuclear-armed states are either silent on the matter or publicly opposed to it.

Irrespective of how the findings of this project are interpreted, it did demonstrate that technical exchanges can generate additional value, have an impact and be evidence-based. The findings of this project were independently reached and free from policy bias.

Benefits and drawbacks

Scientists work on the principle of scientific consensus. This is separate from a political consensus. The debate on climate change illustrates this. While the scientific view, as formulated and refined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is that our climate is changing, potentially dramatically, and that greenhouse gas emissions are the predominant cause of this change, there is no political consensus on how to address the issue—and in some cases, the politics even disagrees with the science. Policymakers are, of course, free to make their decisions irrespective of what the science tells them.

Many may point to this as being a severe limitation on the value of scientific collaboration. Nothing, however, would be further from the truth. It is necessary to understand the problem in order to find a solution. Without a scientific evidence-base, decision-making is reduced to guesswork or opinion. Of course, judgement, including political judgement, also plays an important role. To quote the late Hans Rosling, the founder of the Gapminder Foundation, the “world cannot be understood without numbers. But the world cannot be understood with numbers alone”.

Andreas Persbo
Executive Director VERTIC