Secret Science

/ by Michael Levi /

Hoarding nuclear secrets - even from enemies - can be downright dangerous.

1963, Red Explosion by Andy Warhol ©Andy Warhol Foundation / ©Corbis

For over 70 years, scientists, by dint of their unique ability to inform policymakers, have occupied a special position in driving the ways governments treat nuclear secrets. Enrico Fermi went so far as to write, “secrecy was not started by generals, was not started by security officers, but was started by physicists.” He was undoubtedly thinking of Leo Szilard, who, having conceived of the chain reaction in late 1933 and later reported it in a 1934 patent application, promptly assigned it to the British government to be kept secret. In many ways, Fermi did not exaggerate: Szilard’s first attempt to assign the patent was rejected by the War Department, which saw no harm in disclosing his insight.

In the early days, when no one was sure how widely known the basic principles of the bomb were, blanket secrecy was a sensible approach. Indeed there are still prohibitive risks involved in releasing many nuclear secrets. Today, though, the balance is different. Scientists and military experts, through more than half a century of experience, are now far more capable of distinguishing between dangerous and benign releases of information. At the same time, an increase in global exchange and international cooperation has raised the value of shared information, not only within the nuclear sphere, but with respect to national security measures more generally. Moreover, Cold War experience has taught us that sharing some information with enemies can help shape their behavior in useful ways. Physicists, and those they advise, are losing opportunities to promote and use openness strategically in ways that would yield big dividends for security. It’s high time more of them realized that reflexively hoarding nuclear secrets, even from enemies, has become downright dangerous.

Too many scientists today wrongly assume that a lack of information is the biggest barrier facing terrorists or countries that might build nuclear bombs, and they overstate the risks involved in sharing information as a result. Indeed the greatest challenges are likely to come from the less glamorous work done, not by scientists and engineers, but by technicians and machinists. For example, it is much easier to describe the most effective shapes of uranium for use in a nuclear weapon than it is to machine uranium to those specifications. Similarly, it is relatively easy to calculate the shapes of explosives that might be used in a plutonium bomb, but shaping those explosives without degrading them is much more difficult. Considerations such as these suggest a useful starting point in separating information that can be safely shared from skills that should not be. While some theoretical ideas can make the dirty work easier—a judgment that cautions against haphazardly releasing information—many would not contribute materially to anyone’s effort to build a bomb.

All this might be mere academic debate if it did not perversely shape strategy. In the United States examples of missed opportunities for responsible and advantageous transparency abound. The most frustrating, perhaps, are those wherein valuable sharing of information within the US government itself is stymied. Take one example: If a nuclear weapon slips unnoticed into the United States, police officers, border security, and others on the front lines have the potential to be the most effective nuclear “detectors.” For that to be realized, however, they must be properly trained to spot telltale signs of nuclear plots—something that US secrecy policy makes difficult, if not impossible. Such hoarding of nuclear information by the federal government makes cooperation between the United States and its allies similarly difficult. It prohibits sharing certain intelligence that might be used to thwart nuclear plots; it also thwarts attempts to share technology that could be used to detect nuclear arms.

Other states—not enemies, but also not friends—pose different problems. For example, American access to Russian nuclear storage sites would enable more effective cooperation in securing nuclear weapons and materials against terrorist theft or from diversion to rogue states. Russia, not surprisingly, finds this sort of babysitting arrangement humiliating. The United States might be able to rise above Russian stubbornness and cut the knot by offering reciprocal access to its own facilities, but overblown worries about losing nuclear secrets get in the way. A sensible strategy would require admitting that, with careful management of Russian access to US sites, Moscow would have no meaningful way to hurt the United States. More significantly, Moscow has no incentive to nuke the United States, and knowing a bit more about the technical details of the US nuclear complex would not change such a fundamental strategic equation.

Nor is the International Atomic Energy Agency exempt from the hurdles that secrecy creates. Its inspectors are trained to spot the slightest signs of weapons developments in countries like Iran, but Peter Zimmerman, formerly Chief Scientist with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, notes that “the vast majority of IAEA inspectors have never seen the insides of a real nuclear weapon, nor have they seen accurate drawings.” Nuclear states shouldn’t be handing out guidebooks to building bombs, but they ought to carefully think through ways to better empower the inspectors on the front lines of the fight against proliferation.

Perhaps the most uncomfortable tradeoffs involve sharing information with enemies. The United States, for example, is spending billions of dollars on radiation detection equipment, believing that even a mediocre defense could dissuade terrorists from mounting nuclear attacks. While more information has been released than many policymakers would like substantially more could be made public without compromising national security. A similar balancing act hampers US efforts to discourage states from transferring nuclear materials to terrorists. The United States wants to appear fully capable of tracing materials to their source. But to be persuasive they need to be able to advertise those capabilities convincingly, without simultaneously helping rogues spoof the system.

Policymakers will never shift tracks by themselves—they can set broad goals for strategy, but without a thorough understanding of the science and technology of nuclear arms, they are fundamentally limited in carefully balancing risk and reward. The result is an instinctive, but too often counterproductive, tilt against openness. Scientists don’t—and shouldn’t—make policy, nor should they take the task of spreading secrets into their own hands. But considering their significant influence in this particular sphere, they have a responsibility for more constructive and creative involvement. If the United States is to adopt a more pragmatic strategy, scientists will need to play a critical role, just as they have in shaping how secrets are treated today.

Originally published February 18, 2008

Tags information intelligence privacy security technology

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