Matthew Bunn on Nuclear Proliferation

Interviewed by Doug Gavel October 28, 2010

Keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of hostile governments and terrorists is a high priority for governments and international organizations around the world. It is also the focus of analysis and research by Associate Professor Matthew Bunn, co-principal investigator of the Managing the Atom Project at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Q: Much of your work examines the risks posed by the insecurity of nuclear materials at sites around the world. Where are these risks most evident, and how do you assess ongoing efforts to enhance security measures?

Bunn: What we’ve come to understand over the last decade is that insecure nuclear material isn’t just a problem associated with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It’s really a global problem. There are countries all over the world that need to improve the security for their highly enriched uranium or plutonium – materials terrorists could use to make a crude nuclear bomb. I would argue that pretty much every country needs to take further action to improve security for their nuclear materials, and that’s why President Obama brought leaders from 47 countries together in Washington for the first ever Nuclear Security Summit in April of 2010.

But if you look at the combination of the quantity and quality of material – that is, how easy it is to make a nuclear bomb from it – and then at how secure the material is and the kinds of threats those security systems have to protect the material against, I would say that the places I worry about most fall into three categories:

1) Russia -- still. They have dramatically improved nuclear security compared to what it was a decade ago, but they still hold the world’s largest stockpiles of both nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them, in the world’s largest number of buildings and bunkers, and some significant security weaknesses still remain.

2) Pakistan: Much smaller stockpile. Pretty high security measures, but huge threats. This is, after all, the al Qaeda world headquarters. They have some nuclear insiders with a demonstrated willingness to sell nuclear technology to other countries at least, and we worry about the possibility of both insiders and outsiders getting access to those nuclear assets.

3) Research reactors that use highly enriched uranium as their fuel: This is a material that could be used to make a nuclear bomb, and these are often civilian facilities; often they’re on university campuses; many of them have much less security than you would imagine for the kind of material you can use to make a nuclear bomb.

Q: You have found compelling evidence to demonstrate how terrorists continue to attempt to procure loose nuclear materials in the marketplace. What is some of the most tangible evidence that you’ve come across? What steps are being taken by governments and others to counter those efforts? What additional steps should be taken?

Bunn: Many people don’t realize that al-Qaeda had a focused nuclear weapons program with a particular identified leader of that program who reported directly to al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s number two, while they were in Afghanistan. The program progressed as far as actually carrying out explosive tests in the desert in Afghanistan, not nuclear explosive tests, but tests with conventional explosives as part of the nuclear weapons program.

They repeatedly tried to recruit nuclear expertise, including bin Laden and al-Zawahiri themselves sitting down with two very senior Pakistani nuclear scientists in the weeks before 9/11. They repeatedly tried to get stolen nuclear weapons or materials. In 2003, after their sanctuary in Afghanistan had been taken away and some of their top leadership had been disrupted, they were negotiating to buy three of what they believed were Russian nuclear weapons. The al-Qaeda faction in Saudi Arabia was working on that. And at that time they also sought and received a fatwa or religious ruling authorizing the use of nuclear weapons against American civilians. So this wasn’t some idle idea that they had.

And what’s more, we know that before then, the Japanese terror cult Aum Shinrikyo had actively sought nuclear weapons, including going to Russia looking for nuclear weapons or materials that they might be able to get their hands on. So given that we’ve had two major terrorist groups over the last 15 years trying to pursue this road, we shouldn’t believe that they’re going to be the last. This is a problem that we’re going to have to deal with for a long time to come, and for that reason we really need to have ironclad security for all of the nuclear weapons, all of the highly enriched uranium, all of the plutonium, wherever it is in the world.

Q: You teach a module at the Kennedy School on governing science and technology risks and challenges. What are the primary lessons that students come away with?

Bunn: The reality is that in today‘s 21st century world, every policymaker is frequently confronted with new challenges that have major science and technology drivers that they don’t know very much about, and they have to figure out “how do I get credible science and technology advice? How do I avoid being snowed by a self-professed expert that has a financial interest, perhaps, in the outcome of a particular debate about a policy? How do I balance risks and benefits that may not be expressed in dollars originally? How do I say it is worth such and such an amount of money in expected value based on saving a certain number of lives through a stricter regulation?”

These are the kinds of things we’re addressing in this course, and we take on some of the bigger science and technology challenges that are out there now. Climate disruption is always a major focus of the course. We always use nuclear technology as one of our cases. But also things that people may not know as much about, for example – fine particulates. It turns out that the tiny particles emitted by coal plants and vehicles are the dominant type of killer from air pollution around the world, and not only from urban air pollution outside, but even more people die from the smoke indoors in huts in the developing world. People are using crop waste, dung and wood in fires in poorly ventilated huts and that kills millions of people around the world. So the control of some of these kinds of hazards is quite important.

Q: How does the work/research/teaching at the Kennedy School impact the direction of policy on these issues?

Bunn: This has been one of the key focuses of my work for a couple of decades now: trying to influence the policy on nuclear matters – in particular in Washington and in other capitals – in order to make the world a safer place. You can look at a wide range of things in which our work at the Kennedy School has had a big impact. One of the key things that leaders agreed to at the Nuclear Security Summit was a goal of trying to secure all of the vulnerable nuclear material worldwide within four years, and I was the first one who suggested that goal and convinced the Obama team that that was the appropriate goal that we should try to put forward.

Years ago I outlined an approach to removing vulnerable nuclear material entirely from sites around the world and that was eventually adopted in the Bush administration and the U.S. is now spending approximately $400 million a year in that program, removing highly enriched uranium and in some cases plutonium from sites all over the world. There are dozens of places around the world where there just isn’t any potential bomb material available to be stolen any more as a result. 

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