Meeting the security challenges of the future will require a sustained effort over the long-term by a multidisciplinary cadre of nuclear experts who are equipped with critical knowledge and skills. The Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) runs two signature programs – the Nuclear Scholars Initiative and the Annual Conference Series – to engage emerging nuclear experts in thoughtful and informed debate over how to best address the nuclear community’s most pressing problems. The papers included in this volume comprise research from participants in the 2018 Nuclear Scholars Initiative and the PONI Conference Series. These papers explore such topics as the impacts of emerging technologies and capabilities, deep-diving on nuclear strategy and national policies, proposing paths forward for addressing proliferation challenges, and enhancing arms control in contentious environments.
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Erin Connolly | Hospitals and Dirty Bombs: Removing Dangerous Radiological Material from the Public Space
Weapons of mass destruction have proven to be an arduous aspiration for state and non-state
actors given that they are generally kept in secure facilities. However, radiological materials such as
cesium-137 do not share the same obstacles and are often found in locations that are, by nature, open
to the public despite their security risk. This paper explores the risk posed by cesium-137 and how
alternatives, such as x-ray blood irradiation, can reduce the risk of a radiological dispersal device (RDD)
and increase public security. Cesium-137 is most commonly used to irradiate, or sterilize, blood and can
be found in hundreds of facilities worldwide. In order to fully eradicate the risk of radiological terrorism,
countries should transition from cesium blood irradiation to viable alternatives–a process that will
likely require government assistance. The Nuclear Security Summit process emphasized the need to
transition away from cesium, but it is critical countries such as the United States continue to lead the
process in the absence of summits.
India lacks a credible and sufficient nuclear employment strategy in the face of its evolving threat
environment vis-à-vis China. India’s nuclear strategy includes the maintenance of a credible minimum
deterrent and a “No First Use” policy with the promise of massive retaliation on a scale that will inflict
unacceptable damage to an enemy following a nuclear attack. This strategy lacks credibility due to India’s
civil-military divide, insufficient military readiness, and questionable will to inflict massive retaliation
following a first strike. Furthermore, while India’s conventional military threat vis-à-vis China has changed
since 2003, its nuclear employment strategy has not. An examination into the direction that India’s threat
environment has developed demonstrates that their nuclear employment strategy lacks the flexibility to
ensure India is able to make up for its conventional military shortfalls. The possibility of India not being able
to adequately deter China not only poses an existential threat to India but also to U.S. interests in the region.
Zachary Hadfield | Considerations for Elimination Efforts on Nuclear Industry in Future Theaters of War
Orphaned radiological sources are widespread on the modern battlefield. This was evident in Operation
Iraqi Freedom, where specialized teams scoured the countryside to find, characterize, package, and
consolidate them. As troops struggled to manage over 1,400 sources amid ongoing hostilities, it became
clear that the problem was of a much larger magnitude than anticipated. By capturing the lessons learned
from that experience, this paper provides recommendations for future campaigns to manage the orphaned
radiological sources and special nuclear materials that are a part of modern society.
Future nuclear arms control agreements may rely heavily on technology designed to verify warheads,
such as radiation detection. To date, the only accepted radiation detection technologies in nuclear arms
control treaties have been simple neutron counting systems, which is in part because of concerns that more
intrusive measurement types would release sensitive information. This paper looks at how existing and
emerging detection technologies could be used as verification tools for advancing objectives in arms control
agreements. A hypothetical arms control agreement was created as a framework to examine this topic. The
agreement contained objectives such as verification of fissile material amounts, warhead counting, and
dismantlement verification. Radiation detection technologies that exist or are currently under development
were chosen as technical means to verify the treaty’s objectives. This exercise provided an opportunity to
analyze each technology and comment on its fitness for specific tasks. Recommendations were then given
for courses of action to improve or further develop these technologies for application to arms control.
Brandon W. Heimer | Standoff Over the LRSO: Assessing the Long-Range Stand-Off Missile’s Impact on Strategic Stability
While there is consensus in the executive branch and Congress regarding the need to recapitalize the U.S.
nuclear weapons enterprise, the delivery system and W80-4 warhead that are proposed to comprise the
long-range stand-off (LRSO) missile have generated considerable debate. Much of the public debate has
focused on its potential to affect strategic stability. This paper seeks to elucidate both Russian and Chinese
perspectives on strategic stability and apply them to a systematic analysis of how the LRSO might either
enhance or diminish strategic stability for the purpose of better informing the decision-making process
rather than advocate a particular position on this issue.
As the revolution in remote sensing, computing power, big data analytics, and the biosciences continues to
accelerate, it is possible that nuclear-armed submarines (SSBNs) will become vulnerable to detection and
tracking. If nuclear-armed states were to acquire submarine detection and tracking capabilities of sufficient
quality—or were believed to have acquired such capabilities—the implications for strategic stability could
be dire. This paper explores some of the technologies that might enable states to reliably detect and track
SSBNs and how the invention or deployment of such capabilities might impact strategic stability. Different
scenarios are considered, including possible U.S. superiority in submarine detection, possible adversary
superiority in submarine detection, and the effects of degraded SSBN survivability on extended deterrence.
As arms control fades as a tool for maintaining superpower stability, new forms of communication between
countries must be developed and expanded to manage the possibility that emerging technologies,
including submarine detection technologies, upend the strategic landscape in dangerous ways.
Marie C. Kirkegaard | Potential Areas for Renewed U.S.-Russian Collaboration to Advance Technical Nuclear Forensics
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, scientific collaboration between the United States and
Russia helped establish productive cooperation on nuclear threat reduction in the former Soviet states. In
recent years, however, these bilateral efforts have essentially ceased, and any form of cooperation between
U.S. and Russian nuclear scientists has become increasingly challenging. Nuclear forensics is a field where
scientific collaboration is both imperative in order to improve the response to a potential crisis and may
be feasible despite the challenging political climate due to a shared goal of preventing nuclear terrorism,
mutual scientific expertise in nuclear chemistry, and pre-existing connections through international
frameworks. Although formal scientific collaborations between U.S. and Russian national laboratories
are unlikely to proceed in the near future, more informal methods of collaboration to advance technical
nuclear forensics could be pursued, including coordinated basic research, bilateral student engagement,
and co-taught training courses in other countries.
With purported Russian and Chinese successes in developing and testing hypersonic glide vehicles
(HGV) and hypersonic cruise missile (HCM) technology and reported goals to arm those delivery
systems with nuclear warheads, the United States must consider what the deployment of those
systems will mean for its nuclear deterrent. Beyond missile defense options and arms control, the
United States will also face questions about whether it should develop and deploy nuclear armed
HGVs or HCMs. This paper identifies three major considerations that will shape U.S. deliberation on
nuclear armed hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) and hypersonic cruise missile (HCM) technology
The Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA), while less visible and contentious
than other U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear agreements, is an important case study in cooperation, failure,
and blame in international agreements. Although the agreement should have ended after Russia
suspended the treaty, the United States has remained committed to fulfilling its side of the agreement
despite decades of headaches and ballooning costs. While the nonproliferation efforts of the treaty are
important and could be a step towards better bilateral relations with Russia, the benefits of plutonium
disposition are outweighed by concerns over feasibility, cost, and national security. The United States has
an opportunity to pivot away from the PMDA and towards a plutonium strategy that is cost-effective and
beneficial to the security of the United States.
How should the United States manage its military capabilities and diplomatic institutions to mitigate
South Korean and Japanese fears of being “decoupled” from the U.S. nuclear umbrella? The U.S. policy of
extended deterrence in Northeast Asia depends heavily on maintaining the credibility of the U.S. nuclear
umbrella over South Korea and Japan. Since the early 1950s, extended deterrence has provided the basis
for the security relationship between the United States, South Korea, and Japan. North Korea’s recent
advances in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technology have raised questions about the credibility
of the nuclear umbrella in South Korea and Japan. The components of American nuclear forces are also
beginning to age, which will place additional strain on the credibility of nuclear umbrella over time.
American nuclear modernization provides an opportunity to revitalize the military capabilities that provide
the foundation for extended deterrence. In a similar manner, sustaining high level dialogue on extended
deterrence between the United States, Japan and South Korea provides an opportunity to directly address
Japanese and South Korean fears of decoupling. Capitalizing on these opportunities is critical to sustaining
the credibility nuclear umbrella.
John Maslin | Why the United States Does Not Need Another Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) Facility
Currently, the only defense that the U.S. military employs to protect the continental United States, and
Hawaii, from an attack by an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is the Ground-based Midcourse
Defense (GMD) interceptor system. There are two active GMD sites along the West Coast of the United
States with 44 deployed Ground-based interceptors (GBIs) stored in silos and ready for launch at a
From 1957 until 1992 bombers maintained continuous readiness for nuclear war. This mission, known as
being on “alert”, consisted of different levels of readiness including aircraft loaded with weapons waiting
on the ground to continually flying nuclear armed bombers to survive a surprise attack. This alert posture
required vast resources of equipment and people and was the primary mission of Strategic Alert Command
(SAC). With the elimination of SAC and the vast reduction in available resources, the impact of even a small
percentage of bombers being kept on continuous alert would be keenly felt by the Air Force and divert
resources from other missions.
This paper proposes that any nuclear conflict will most likely begin in a limited nature. Rational actors will
seek to contest a given objective while still guarding against nuclear escalation because of the undesired
effects of retaliation. It is important that U.S. leaders consider the effect that any U.S. nuclear response will
have on an authoritarian adversary during the onset of a limited nuclear war. This paper argues that the
nature of authoritarian regimes has changed dramatically with globalization and that the regime’s security
interests will drive decision-making in a nuclear conflict. Using Robert Powell’s limited retaliation model
as a basis, this paper identifies three variables unique to authoritarians that will determine their response
after absorbing a U.S. nuclear attack. How well the United States applies these variables to a given
authoritarian regime may determine both how far U.S. leadership is willing to go in pursuit of a contested
objective and how likely nuclear escalation is.
The objective of this paper is to explore the viability of implementing an increased level of autonomy in
the ICBM leg of the United States’ Nuclear Triad. Greater autonomy will be explored primarily in the areas
of operations and maintenance. The proposed approaches will range from the introduction of minimally
disruptive technologies to the consideration of a concept for a singular, remote, ICBM launch control center
for the whole fleet. Increased personnel safety, increased materiel availability and improved crew morale
are all benefits that could be realized through the adoption of the ideas introduced in this paper. This
analysis focuses on the technologies that could be employed and leaves the navigation of the nuclear
surety and cybersecurity issues as a separate topic for exploration. The concepts in this paper are generally
framed within the context of the current weapon system; however, they are applicable—and some are
even more viable—for implementation in a future ICBM weapon system, which could include design
accommodations for greater autonomy integration.
Maggie Tennis | Russian Nuclear Ambiguity and its Implications for U.S. Deterrence and Bilateral Strategic Stability
This paper explores the ambiguities in Russia’s current nuclear weapons program, including policy,
doctrine, capabilities, and testing, all of which have contributed to the Western debate regarding the level
of Russia’s nuclear threshold. This paper explores the implications of this debate for bilateral strategic
deterrence and strategic stability, and concludes by proposing measures to increase transparency, improve
communication, and build confidence.
Chenee Tracey | Safeguarding Naval Nuclear Propulsion in Non-Nuclear Weapon States: Brazilian Case Study
This paper discusses the changing landscape of safeguards within the nuclear non-proliferation
community as non-nuclear weapon states make progress with nuclear technology that is outside of
the original scope of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Currently, non-nuclear weapon states such as
Brazil are pursuing nuclear-powered submarines, which provide a potential pathway to diverting nuclear
material and incognito enrichment due to international inspection loopholes. Through open-source
research, as well as interviews with former IAEA employees, current ABACC officials, and Brookhaven
scientists and safeguards experts, this paper provides recommendations to the international community
on how to best maintain comprehensive safeguards on emerging nuclear technology. It also provides
suggestions of changing established norms and setting a precedent through Brazil’s achievement of
nuclear-powered submarines to set the stage moving forward.
Due to recent technological advances and changing political and defense perceptions, directed energy
weapons (DEWs) are closer to a military reality than ever before. Political support for space-based, satellite,
missile defense programs is back after an over twenty-year hiatus. Basing this capability on satellites
would continue to press the stressed norms of not militarizing space. What will happen if the United
States or one of its near-peer adversaries actually fields this capability? This paper focuses on how these
systems could impact arms race stability. After reviewing the potential outcomes, this paper concludes
by discussing the most beneficial outcome for the United States, which is a superior technological hedge
capability to counter potential adversary weaponization of space.
PONI would like to express gratitude to our partners for their continued support, especially the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Department of Defense, and the National Nuclear Security Administration.