While working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, AAAS member Page Stoutland became inspired to use his Ph.D. in chemistry to influence science policy. His work with national security and nuclear materials security, including ten years at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, eventually lead him to the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) in Washington, D.C.
Stoutland recently spoke with MemberCentral on the importance of nuclear security, and discusses how his scientific training influences his work.
AAAS MC: Dr. Stoutland, you are the Vice President of Nuclear Materials Security at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Please tell me what NTI's mission is and what you do for them.
Page Stoutland, Vice President, Nuclear Materials Security, NTI: The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization with a mission to strengthen global security by reducing the risk of use and preventing the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and to work to build the trust, transparency, and security that are preconditions to the ultimate fulfillment of the Non-Proliferation Treaty's goals and ambitions. I lead NTI's programs to secure nuclear materials around the world and catalyze the work of others, particularly governments, to do the same.
AAAS MC: You received your Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, how does this scientific training influence your work?
Stoutland: While I'm not actively performing research, my scientific training and experience continue to underpin everything I do. Many of the current policy issues have scientific and technical elements, and being trained in the sciences provides me with a somewhat different perspective. For example, the Nuclear Materials Security Index that we recently released is a new approach to assessing materials security, but its structure and technical approach will be familiar to many scientists.
AAAS MC: What led you to a career in science policy? Have you always been interested in nuclear security?
Stoutland: I first became interested in applying my scientific expertise to national priorities while at Los Alamos National Laboratory. My observation at the time was that a gap existed between those addressing challenging policy issues and those with current, relevant scientific and technical knowledge. This led me to apply my technical expertise to reducing the threats posed by nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
AAAS MC: One of your big projects is to create a Nuclear Materials Security Index. What does this index contain and what problems does it aim to fix?
Stoutland: The Nuclear Materials Security Index assesses the security of weapons-usable nuclear materials around the world. We found that while governments are more aware of the threat, there is currently no global consensus on priorities and that a deliberate lack of transparency makes it impossible to hold states accountable for their security responsibilities. In addition, there are a number of country-specific findings. To address this, we have put forward a range of recommendations, starting with the establishment of a global dialogue on priorities, benchmarking progress and building appropriate transparency to increase international confidence.
AAASMC: You also have been involved in a number of scenarios between the U.S. and Russia to highlight current weaknesses and strengths in containing nuclear materials. Tell us about some of the things these discussions highlighted about nuclear security, where can we improve as an international community and how are we already doing well?
Stoutland: Last year NTI sponsored a tabletop exercise between senior former officials from the U.S. and Russia. The exercise was designed to highlight the opportunities and challenges to U.S.-Russian cooperation following a fictional seizure of a significant amount of highly-enriched uranium. Through the exercise, we found that there are significant, but removable barriers to U.S.-Russian cooperation that unless addressed could undermine response to a crisis. Key recommendations include the need to develop operational plans, to address information sharing challenges and to strengthen technical capabilities and build trust among scientists.
AAAS MC: As you may know, the Doomsday Clock recently clicked one minute closer to midnight according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, indicating their frustration over a lack of progress in combating climate change and reducing nuclear armaments. (Read our recent blog post for more info) What do you say in response? Should we be concerned?
Stoutland: Although the risk of all-out nuclear war between superpowers has declined, new and dynamic threats, such as the risk of a terrorist attack with a nuclear device, have emerged. We need to continue to address the full range of nuclear threats, including the intended or accidental use of nuclear weapons, the proliferation of nuclear technologies and the potential for terrorist use of such weapons. Despite these concerns, there are positive signs—the U.S. and Russia last year signed the New START arms control treaty and on March 26-27, world leaders will convene in Seoul, Korea to reinforce their commitment to global nuclear materials security.
AAAS MC: How does your work influence nuclear scientists, who often work in internationally collaborative teams? Is there anything scientists can do to improve our nuclear security?
Stoutland: International collaboration and cooperation amongst scientists is critical. For example, the recent NTI exercise on nuclear smuggling highlighted the importance of international cooperation in the analysis that would be done following a seizure of nuclear materials. In these situations, trust among scientists will be critical and can only be built by ongoing interactions and collaboration.
AAAS MC: In the news, there is a lot of talk about Iran seeking atomic weapons, and North Korea has been testing weapons for a number of years and only recently is allowing UN observers into their facilities. How would a new nuclear power change nuclear security around the world?
Stoutland: We are very concerned about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and a number of our efforts are designed to discourage the proliferation of nuclear weapons and related technologies. The greater the number of countries with nuclear weapons, the less safe the world will be. This is one of the reasons that NTI Co-Chairman and former Senator Sam Nunn, has joined with former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and George Shultz and NTI Board member and former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry, to promote the vision of a world without nuclear weapons and the urgent steps that can be taken immediately to reduce nuclear dangers.