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A new ‘Manhattan Project’ for nuclear verification?

Atomic Energy Organization of Iran via AP
In this photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, technicians work on the Arak heavy water reactor’s secondary circuit, near Arak, 150 miles (250 kilometers) southwest of the capital Tehran, Iran, Dec. 23, 2019. France, Germany and Britain have urged Iran to agree to a proposed relaunch of the agreement limiting its nuclear program, saying final texts of a deal have been readied but Iran “has chosen not to seize this critical diplomatic opportunity.” The three European governments said Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022 Iran continues to escalate its nuclear program beyond any civilian justification.

Last Tuesday, Senator Angus King (I-Maine) wondered aloud whether a new Manhattan Project is needed to prevent terrorists from acquiring nuclear materials to produce technology that permits “detecting nuclear material from space or from a distance, as our best defense—because deterrence won’t work.” Do we, in fact, need a new Manhattan Project to prevent catastrophic nuclear terrorism?

The cultural significance of the term “Manhattan project” runs deep. It has become synonymous with galvanizing the country’s best and brightest while providing unconstrained funding in order to forge urgent work towards a technological milestone with security implications. As Kevin Poulson wrote in Wired Magazine, “The Manhattan Project is America’s go-to shorthand for our deep conviction that if we gather the smartest scientists together and give them billions of dollars and a sense of urgency, we can achieve what otherwise would be impossible.”

It is also possible the term is overused. Since 2008, lawmakers, for example, have called for a “Manhattan Project” to better curb emissions that threaten global warming and establish energy independence, while technologists have called for a “Manhattan Project” to shore up cyber security capabilities. Even the private sector has adopted the term: Decades ago, Apple was said to be working on its own “Manhattan Project” for a technologically advanced entertainment system.

The term is arguably more appropriate in the case of King’s proposal: a Manhattan Project for the purposes the senator describes would ostensibly see an untold increase in the financial support and mandate of the U.S. national labs (which are the originators of most arms control verification technology) to devise something new to improve detection of nuclear materials. Notably, a new Manhattan Project would create novel technologies to prevent the very technological leap that the first Manhattan Project achieved — the atomic bomb.

The original Manhattan Project was effectively a multi-national collaboration that engaged the best and brightest scientists and was conducted with the utmost urgency to deal with a time-sensitive problem. Similarly, a multi-national collaboration — led by U.S. labs — is necessary to harness the ingenuity and resources required to generate new breakthroughs in nuclear materials detection at a time of international instability and uncertainty. Unlike the original project, which was conducted under strict security, this work would be aimed at taking advantage of advancements in open-source intelligence, such as crowdsourced geolocation, to enhance lab-grown capabilities.

This would invert the current relationship between arms control and technology development. Historically, the development of verification technology has been driven by arms control treaty requirements. The negotiation of the first nuclear arms reduction treaty, The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I), from 1969 to 1972 occurred in a verification technology void. As no such tech had yet been invented, the verification of compliance with the treaty’s terms was left solely to “national technical means,” or clandestine satellite photography (spying). Later; however, the International Monitoring System (IMS), which uses seismological, radionuclide, hydroacoustic, and infrasound means to detect nuclear weapons-related testing, was developed by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty’s (CTBT) Provisional Technical Secretariat. The secretariat was created to support the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which was a multilateral treaty negotiated to curb the development of nuclear weapons by placing a ban on nuclear weapons test explosions and any other nuclear explosions. Further, as arms control has evolved, so too has verification technology.

Ultimately, Sen. King’s comments, which occurred at a Senate Armed Services Committee meeting in which expert testimony was given on U.S. nuclear strategy and policy, were seemingly and deliberately at odds with the day’s theme. The senator offered a subtle critique of the hearing’s exclusive focus on deterring nuclear adversaries at the expense of a concern about terrorists with nuclear weapons. The two concepts have historically been treated as separate problems — and with good reason. Classic deterrence theory and the related concept of an adequate nuclear arsenal are relevant to potential threats from nuclear-armed adversaries.

Terrorists with nuclear materials, by contrast, is a proliferation problem. Of course, it is de rigeur for lawmakers to trot out their pet projects and peeves during these kinds of hearings: non-sequiturs can be par for the course. Indeed, King’s pivot to hypersonic weapons, fractional orbital bombardment systems, and the decapitation of nuclear command and control, stood to water down what I am arguing is an important message: His concern about the decoupling of arms control from nonproliferation concerns finds legitimacy in their shared technological solution.

Critically, a nuclear materials detection-themed Manhattan Project could give new life to a currently zombified arms control process. By developing novel technical means to detect nuclear materials, it would enable progress to be achieved in technical domains absent legally-binding treaties that establish numerical limitations on arsenals. Specifically, one major stumbling block to meaningful arms control has been the inability to distinguish between nuclear- and conventionally-tipped warheads.

Warhead ambiguity heightens uncertainty and contributes to insecurity in two ways. First, in a conflict between two nuclear-armed states, the inability to distinguish between nuclear- and conventionally-armed missiles could contribute to escalation by assuming the worst or obfuscate signaling designed to get an adversary to back down.

Second, arms control negotiations are stymied when conventional and nuclear warheads can’t be disambiguated. It is for this reason that the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty focused on launch systems rather than warheads, because the technology did not yet exist to distinguish nuclear from conventional warheads that were mounted onto missiles. But by the time the New Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (New START) Treaty was negotiated, both the technological capacity and political will existed to do this: inspectors could physically examine each reentry vehicle during onsite inspections for New START, which would be opened but covered with a specially designed material so objects could be counted without revealing sensitive technical information.

Additionally, inspectors could use hand-held radiation detection devices to determine that any objects that exceed the allowed count are not nuclear. However, even better, safer, more efficient, automated, and remote technology is possible.

While prototypes exist today for the verification of sensitive nuclear materials and nuclear warheads, they need to be scaled up and updated to take advantage of emerging tech — technology that could be useful to both arms control and nonproliferation efforts.

Much like the bomb was developed and proved theoretically and scientifically feasible by nuclear physics before the original Manhattan Project was launched, we now have ample evidence that these verification technologies are feasible, even if they aren’t operationalized from space, as King suggested.

Additionally, they may help lay the groundwork for future negotiations that grow out of contemporary crises.

Just as many of the Manhattan Project scientists were fleeing from the advance of fascist forces in continental Europe, the recent outbreak of the first major conventional war in Europe since World War II has significantly raised the salience of efforts to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons. Such crises often precipitate surges in arms control as well as nonproliferation efforts. These efforts, however, require not only political will but also technological advancements. Working on developing such technologies now would help to facilitate future agreements.

Amy J. Nelson is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow in the foreign policy program and with the Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology at the Brookings Institution.

Tags Angus King Arms control international collaboration Manhattan Project Nuclear material terrorists

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