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The Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge
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Authored by Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, Philip Reiner, Suzanne Saunders Shaw, Peter Carpenter, Mike McNerney, and Ariel Ratner (Technology for Global Security) on June 24, 2016

Technology for Global Security is announcing the Global Nuclear Security Grand Challenge to answer the question: “What is the best system design for countries, companies, and other organizations to confidentially and securely verify in real time that 100 percent of their nuclear weapons and weapons-usable fissile material remains in their control and to aid in the recovery of any loss if it occurs?”

A great deal of progress has been made since the launch of the Nuclear Security Summits initiated by President Obama in 2010. The equivalent of 130 nuclear weapons' worth of highly enriched uranium (HEU) have been removed, and 14 countries have eliminated nuclear materials entirely. The summits have resulted in stronger cooperation and improved security practices around the world, and the legal basis for prevention of nuclear terrorism has been strengthened.

Airmen secure an ACM cruise missile to a B-52 Stratofortress pylon during an alert generation exercise at Minot Air Force Base (Photo: Wikipedia)Nonetheless, stockpiles of material and weapons—and the consequent threat of nuclear terrorism—remains with us in 2016. The consumer internet services we use every day also empower terrorists to finance and organize themselves at an unprecedented global scale. The growth of nonstate actors and risk of divided loyalties among officials responsible for the security of nuclear material lingers. It remains unclear today how quickly or reliably the theft of such materials would be detected or recovered.

An act of nuclear terrorism resulting from such a theft could trigger war or an act of retribution, even if questions remain as to the origin of the stolen weapons or materials. Benjamin Rhodes, U.S. deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, noted the U.S. position at the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit: “We embrace the notion that those nations that do pass nuclear materials to terrorists will be held accountable for that action through our nuclear deterrent.”

In addition to the political obstacles noted during the summits, important technical challenges remain unresolved to the satisfaction of risk-averse security officials and nonproliferation advocates around the world.

Key among these challenges is that no country has been able to create a real-time system to track and verify possession of 100 percent of its fissile materials and nuclear weapons – a "fire alarm" for the theft of nuclear weapons and fissile materials does not exist to this day in every nation. For instance, U.S. nuclear materials are tracked through the Local Area Nuclear Material Accountability System (LANMAS). All material must be accounted for every two months, but personnel at 18 sites across the United States record weapons and material balances in the LANMAS database once a day. Nonetheless, this may yet be insufficient in terms of security. In August 2007, the U.S. Air Force took corrective action after discovering the misplacement of six thermonuclear weapons for 36 hours. As this incident illustrates, nuclear weapons systems handled entirely with human verification can be lost even when independent verifications by multiple personnel are required by procedure. Elsewhere in the world, it could be weeks or months before a loss is detected anywhere, providing thieves or terrorists sufficient opportunity to get away and potentially carry out a nuclear terrorism act.

However, real-time accounting and tracking has been resisted in part by countries due to concerns that such systems could become the source of leaks. To maintain extreme secrecy, shippers of fissile materials have routinely provided acknowledgement of their delivery of transported materials and weapon systems to officials only days after the delivery has taken place, and information relating to routes for such shipments is maintained “off the grid.” What is needed is a system for countries to confidentially and securely verify that their nuclear weapons and materials remain secure at all times. Such a tracking system would need to keep the location of each item secret except when an inventoried item is moved to an unexpected location and then only alert the right officials to the new location so the item can be recovered and properly secured.

The presence and use of real-time tracking would reduce, if not prevent, the threat of nuclear terrorism. Even in a worst-case scenario, where a terrorist was able to detonate a nuclear weapon in a populated area, their threat to use additional weapons could be refuted by the immediate verification that no other weapons or fissile material were in their hands.

Precautions that remove these risks need not emerge solely from political leaders meeting every few years. The power of the global technology community to create and openly verify solutions to hard security challenges cannot be matched by any one nation on their own. Citizen scientists and engineers collaborating around the world can offer cross-disciplinary solutions that scientists in compartmentalized programs or government officials may not be able to in risk-averse environments. Examples of this include the recent competitions for the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge that focused on driverless cars. Such initiatives have shown their ability to devise innovative solutions and eliminate risk from countermeasures and loopholes through open global peer review.

A working solution that eliminates the risk of theft or displacement of nuclear materials or technology would vastly improve nuclear security around the world. The Nuclear Security Grand Challenge proposes a competition on this goal. The Challenge will be conducted in three phases:

  1. Request for Comment on the Problem Statement
  2. Development period for submissions by contestants
  3. Open peer-review of submissions

At the conclusion of each of the three phases, a panel of experts in defense, science and technology, nuclear policy, and investment will select participants to advance to the next phase.

Details and updates on the competition will be posted online at http://www.nukechallenge.org. A short 3-minute video on the Challenge is also available.

The first phase has launched and comments on the problem statement are being gathered and discussed in an open forum among contributors. We invite additional comments by email to challenge@tech4gs.org. In addition to comments on the challenge, nominations for panel members and relevant technical resources would be welcomed.

Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, Philip Reiner, Suzanne Saunders Shaw, Peter Carpenter, Mike McNerney, and Ariel Ratner (Technology for Global Security)