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Royal Society, AAAS: How the Scientific Community Can Contribute to Nuclear Disarmament

The scientific community can help lay the foundation for future nuclear arms control, including the use of proposed disarmament laboratories to spur global cooperation on some of the technical and policy issues involved, says a briefing paper prepared jointly by AAAS and the United Kingdom’s Royal Society.

The document was released at a 16 March panel discussion in London led by Lord Martin Rees, the eminent cosmologist and president of the Royal Society. While noting that it would take many years to accomplish complete nuclear disarmament, the briefing paper says scientists can cooperate now to set the scientific requirements for a monitoring and verification system that supports future multilateral negotiations on arms control.

“Given the growing political momentum for nuclear arms control and disarmament, science diplomacy is as important as ever,” Rees said in a prepared statement. “Policymakers require independent advice about the research to support these efforts and the international cooperation needed to carry it out.”

“Collaboration is particularly important because future treaties are likely to be multilateral, and as scientists from different countries work together, they can build a common understanding that can help their countries come to agreement,” said Gerald Epstein, director of the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.

“Science doesn’t tell us what to do, but rather how to do it,” added Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director at the AAAS Center. “The work we propose in this report highlights the role that science and technology can support whatever steps are taken for future arms control agreements.”

The briefing paper, published in advance of the upcoming Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in May, says that despite many political challenges, progress can still be made on scientific aspects of nuclear disarmament. Investing in this research can have substantial diplomatic benefits by providing concrete evidence that nuclear weapon states take seriously their obligations to pursue disarmament under the NPT, the paper says.

Scientific cooperation also is essential “to ensure that new instabilities are not introduced that could undermine nuclear disarmament,” the paper says. The cooperation should include research on managing the civilian nuclear fuel cycle, it says, particularly the disposition of plutonium and spent nuclear fuel at the “back end” of the cycle. The Royal Society recently embarked on a new project to investigate many of the technical issues involved with the fuel cycle.

The paper also calls for scientific cooperation to improve the physical security of nuclear facilities and materials; to verify any future negotiated halt in production of weapons-grade nuclear materials; and to detect clandestine enrichment and reprocessing facilities.

It cites the successful example of international scientific cooperation in the development and deployment of more than 320 monitoring stations and 16 laboratories in nearly 90 countries to detect any clandestine nuclear explosions. The monitoring system is based, in part, on the activities of the Group of Scientific Experts (GSE) that developed and tested approaches to the seismic monitoring of nuclear test explosions from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.

The establishment of international disarmament laboratories could help bring a truly global approach to the design and testing of arms control technologies, the paper suggests. Such labs could draw on existing expertise at nuclear weapons laboratories (such as Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) while also encouraging partnerships among governmental and non-governmental organizations to develop arms control technologies.

The paper cites precedents for such international facilities, including the Cooperative Monitoring Center at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. It also notes that the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre at Ispra in Italy has expressed interest in creating an international center for disarmament research under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

“The scientific community often works beyond national boundaries on problems of common interest and so its well-established international networks can improve cooperation between countries,” Rees said. “This makes it ideally placed to facilitate the widening of discussions beyond the U.S. and Russia to prepare the ground for future multilateral negotiations, which will include China, France, and the U.K.”


Read the briefing paper, “Scientific Cooperation to Support Nuclear Arms Control and Disarmament.”

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.