I salute the Arms Control Association … for its keen vision of the goals ahead and for its many efforts to identify and to promote practical measures that are so vitally needed to achieve them. -

– Amb. Nobuyasu Abe
Former UN Undersecretary General for Disarmament Affairs
January 28, 2004
October 2006
Edition Date: 
Sunday, October 1, 2006
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IAEA Says Illicit Nuclear Material Trade Down

Sonia Luthra

Illicit trafficking of nuclear materials decreased slightly last year from 2004 levels, according to an Aug. 21 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report. A broader category of activity involving unlawful or unauthorized nuclear, radioactive, and radioactively contaminated materials also decreased last year for the first time since 2002.

The Illicit Trafficking Database (ITDB) details the possession, acquisition, transfer, and disposal of nuclear and other types of radioactive materials, including material that can be used to make nuclear weapons such as highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium. Ninety-one states gave voluntary information to the IAEA, 10 more than participated in 2004.

Incidents involving nuclear materials—substances containing uranium, plutonium, or thorium—have decreased slightly to 18 incidents per year from 20 incidents reported in 2004. This is still much higher, however, than the seven incidents reported in 2003 and nine in 2002. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Two cases involving HEU occurred last year in Japan and the United States. Both instances involved such small quantities of HEU that they were considered of “little concern” as a potential terrorism threat, according to the report. They did, however, show security vulnerabilities at facilities handling HEU. Since 1993, 16 reported incidents have involved either HEU or plutonium.

Since 1993, the IAEA has documented 827 confirmed incidents of illicit trafficking and other unauthorized activity involving nuclear, radioactive, and radioactively contaminated materials. Of these, 103 incidents were reported in 2005, a decrease from the 128 incidents reported in 2004 but still significantly higher than the average of less than 50 incidents in the 1990s. The majority of dangerous incidents involving these materials involved illegal disposal.


Who Did It? Using International Forensics to Detect and Deter Nuclear Terrorism

William Dunlop and Harold Smith

On February 2, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon has formed a nuclear forensics team tasked with identifying the attackers should the United States be hit with a nuclear bomb.[1] Adapting nuclear technology to the forensics of exploded nuclear weapons is an old but rapidly evolving field.

It dates back to at least 1949, when analysis of airborne debris, retrieved at high altitude off the coast of China, convinced President Harry Truman that the Soviet Union had exploded a nuclear device on the steppes of central Asia. The technology is neither new nor has it been particularly secret, but the formation of a national nuclear forensics team is newsworthy and a useful development. An international team, however, would be even better.

Although Washington has naturally focused on preventing a nuclear terrorism attack in the United States, a U.S. city is not necessarily the most likely target for nuclear terrorists. It is doubtful that a terrorist organization would be able to acquire a U.S. nuclear device and even more doubtful that it would acquire one on U.S. soil. Accordingly, if a terrorist organization does get its hands on a fission device, it is likely that it will do so on foreign territory. At that point, the terrorists will have an enormously valuable political weapon in their hands and will be loath to risk losing that asset. Given the risks associated with getting the device into the United States, the rational choice would be to deploy the device abroad against much softer targets. For Islamist terrorists, a major “Christian” capital such as London, Rome, or Moscow might offer a more suitable target.

Among these, Moscow perhaps presents the most compelling case for international cooperation on post-detonation nuclear forensics. Russia has the largest stockpile of poorly secured nuclear devices in the world. It also has porous borders and poor internal security, and it continues to be a potential source of contraband nuclear material and weapons, despite the best efforts of the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program. If terrorists obtained the nuclear material in Russia and set Moscow as their target, they would not have to risk transporting the weapon, stolen or makeshift, across international borders. Attacks by Chechen terrorists in Beslan and at the Dubrovka Theater in Moscow offer ample proof that a willingness to commit mass murder for fanatical reasons rests within Russian borders, and a foreign source of operatives, particularly from the neighboring Islamic states to the south, is by no means inconceivable.[2] Moscow is also a predominately Christian city where local authorities routinely discriminate against Muslim minorities.

Furthermore, extremists might conclude that a nuclear blast in Moscow could inflict damage well beyond that directly stemming from the attack. The Soviet generation that came to power during the Cold War retained a memory of the United States as an ally in the Great Patriotic War. The present Russian generation has no such remembrance but seems to have retained the animosities and suspicions that were a part of the nuclear standoff. Hence, nuclear terrorists may well believe that they could cause another East-West cold war or even encourage Russia to retaliate against the United States. After all, the sinking of the Kursk was believed by some influential Russians to be the result of U.S. action.[3] How much more likely would be such a view if the Kremlin were destroyed? As long as the world is filled with suspicion and conflict, such reactions are to be expected and, more importantly, anticipated.[4] One has only to remember the early reactions and suspicions in the United States following the 1996 TWA Flight 800 airline disaster.[5]

Because the United States is the technological leader in nuclear forensics, its capability will certainly be offered and probably demanded no matter what foreign city is subjected to the devastation of a nuclear explosion. The entire world, not just Americans, will live in fear of a second or third nuclear explosion, and forensics could play a vital role in removing or at least narrowing that fear. Because of such worldwide dread, there will be an international aspect to nuclear forensics regardless of where the explosion takes place. It would be better to be prepared in advance for such contingencies than to delve into the arcane world of nuclear weapons and radiochemistry on the fly.

Nuclear Forensics

The force of a 10-kiloton nuclear explosion on the streets of Moscow and the radioactive debris that would be deposited locally and ejected into the atmosphere could provide, over a period of time extending from hours to weeks, insight into various aspects of the weapon employed. For example, the international seismic community, assuming a surface burst, would have estimates of the yield of the weaponwithin hours. That measurement could be confirmed by examining the resultant crater using airborne or space-borne photography or by knowing the distance at which windows withstood the force of the shock wave. Both would also be known within hours, and there would be little doubt that the explosion was nuclear: the mushroom cloud is the symbol of the age.

The radioactive debris can provide far deeper insight. Over a period of several weeks, laboratories throughout the world with access to the debris and the equipment and expertise to conduct the necessary measurements could address questions that would potentially shed light on the identity of the perpetrators. Among these would be whether the weapon was based on highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium. Other questions that could be answered include:

  1. If the weapon used HEU, scientists could determine the enrichment or share of the uranium-235 that it contained.

  2. If the weapon used plutonium, scientists could determine how much time the fuel had spent in a nuclear reactor to create the appropriate plutonium isotopes, the length of time since this isotope was separated from spent nuclear fuel, and various isotopic signatures that might provide other indications of the production and separation processes.

  3. The sophistication, or lack thereof, of the weapon. Scientists could make this judgment based on the efficiency of the plutonium or HEU fission and whether fusion reactions might have been employed to enhance the yield.

If the isotopic data obtained from the debris could be compared with similar data from plutonium or HEU stockpiles or weapons, it might be possible, under some conditions, to conclude that some of the fissile material did or did not come from a specific arsenal. It might even be possible, given enough time and access to actual weapons designs, to conclude whether a particular type of weapon had been employed.

Such determinations, if credibly obtained and distributed, could prove vital. If it were made clear, a priori, that the supplier of the nuclear material and/or weapon would be held responsible, nuclear forensics might deter potential suppliers. After an attack, nuclear forensics could be combined with other forensics methodologies and information tying involved individuals to places and events. Together this data could help establish the route from the supplier to the user and perhaps facilitate elimination of the supply chain. Furthermore, because the samples that might be collected are very small and have a mixture of isotopes with short, medium and long half-lives,[6] a significant amount of time, measured in days, is needed before the presence of some isotopes with longer half-lives can be measured with certainty. Hence, the time required to make some of these key determinations imposes a temporary moratorium on potentially catastrophic reactions by political leaders, who can legitimately inform their constituencies that appropriate action must wait until the evidence is clear.

Although the technical challenge to fielding an international nuclear forensics team is considerable and the benefits to the international community seem incontrovertible in an era of nuclear terrorism, the political and diplomatic obstacles are enormous, perhaps overwhelming. The world community may for the moment have to be satisfied with a few seemingly small steps that could be vital in setting the stage for an international undertaking of critical importance.

Access to Debris

Unlike the reactor accident in Chernobyl, where the debris drifted northward, the narrow plume of measurable, radioactive debris emanating from an explosion in Moscow would probably drift slowly to the east and would not cross the Russian border until it reached Kazakhstan approximately 24 hours later. Conceivably, the Russian government, if it chose, could deny access to the debris for that period of time, during which it could make its own measurements and determinations and could withhold the information. In all likelihood, such a policy would fail for several reasons:

  1. Russian scientific capability is widespread and sophisticated, particularly in Moscow and its environs. Unauthorized measurements by knowledgeable scientists in Russian laboratories would be eagerly sought and propagated by a hungry press.

  2. If the explosion were near the Kremlin, the U.S. embassy in Moscow would be damaged, perhaps severely, but there would be survivors who would be evacuated to the United States, possibly carrying samples of debris with them.

  3. Foreign experts might have access to the debris as it crossed into Kazakhstan approximately a day or so after the event. Certainly, the government of Kazakhstan would have access, and given the degree of nuclear testing that has been conducted in that country, one would have to presume that forensics expertise and equipment would be available.

  4. It might be possible for the United States or another country to fly over Russian soil to obtain airborne samples of the debris. It is uncertain whether the United States or any other country would mount such a politically risky operation.

  5. The Russian government would also have to worry that foreign governments might conduct clandestine operations on its soil.

Given these considerations, it would be foolish for Russia or any other targeted nation to deny foreign access to the debris. The interests of an attacked country would be better served by inviting international expertise to participate in a forensic examination.

Access to Stockpile Data

Foreign access to the debris is one thing; access to stockpile data for purposes of comparison is quite another. Even if Russia or another country were attacked, current diplomatic realities make it unlikely that a government would grant foreign experts access to relevant stockpile data. In the Russian case, one suspects that the Kremlin would choose to treat the problem as a Russian problem at least until the source were known to them, a period of time ranging from a week to an indefinite future. In the interim, if they so chose, Russia would be free to inform the international community of their suspicions.

Ideally, the nuclear powers, operating under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), would form an international team of nuclear forensics experts. The IAEA seems to be the better choice for a variety of reasons, including its sponsorship of an existing international working group dealing with the pre-detonation identification of nuclear materials.[7] Admittedly, on paper the CTBTO has the advantage of an established mission and an operational charter in some aspects of post-detonation nuclear forensics. It cannot perform many of these missions, however, until the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty enters into force, which will not happen in the foreseeable future.[8]

In either case, the forensics team would be similar to the UN Special Commission inspectors in Iraq following the 1991 Persian Gulf War or the IAEA inspection teams that verified the dismantlement of the South African weapons program using weapons experts from a number of nuclear-weapon states. In theory, they would have immediate access, a posteriori, to the debris and access, a priori, to nuclear-weapon data. However, until the threat of nuclear terrorism is perceived far more starkly than it is today, the ideal case is not credible. Nuclear powers surround their databases with heavy secrecy and would be unlikely to share such data with an international team no matter what controls were placed on its members.

Nor is the secrecy unjustified. The United States and Russia know a great deal about nuclear weapons that could be of benefit to terrorists, particularly if the terrorists attempted to build a nuclear weapon from stolen material of unknown purity or from reactor-grade plutonium. The possibility that the weapons data provided to an international organization for an international forensics team might be leaked or otherwise compromised makes the sharing of data of this type unlikely. In short, the gap is still too wide to cross, and it will remain so until the threat of nuclear terrorism becomes much more feared than it is today.

Interim Steps

Nevertheless, smaller steps toward building a credible forensics team are possible and could proceed on two fronts. The first is to replace the international concept with a series of bilateral arrangements, beginning with one between the United States and Russia. The second is for each partner, individually and then jointly, to examine what data could be provided to a carefully chosen and controlled bilateral team. Much of the secrecy shrouding the nuclear arsenals of the two superpowers is based on the fears of the Cold War. Such secrecy may have been important then but is not nearly so now in the face of the new nuclear age involving use of nuclear weapons by terrorists.

In this struggle, the two superpowers are close allies. Russia is deemed by many to be a likely source of fissile material. The United States, meanwhile, is judged to be a likely target, with Russia not too far behind. Such conditions can make allies of even the worst of antagonists. Furthermore, if the United States and Russia agreed to cooperate in this manner, it seems likely that the other recognized nuclear powers— France, the United Kingdom, and perhaps China—would follow. The threat of nuclear terrorism is, after all, international; the response should be the same.

For now, unfortunately, even a tightly controlled, Russian-U.S. bilateral forensics team may be a step too far. The experience of the CTR program, by which the United States assists Russia in dismantling many aspects of its nuclear arsenal, suggests that U.S. access to Russian nuclear weapons data will be extremely difficult to acquire. There are also many U.S. experts who would argue that Washington should be no more forthcoming in providing its data to such a forensics team for similar reasons. Given the potential difficulties, an even smaller step is possible and should be considered.

Building on the Experience of Cooperative Threat Reduction

The CTR experience has demonstrated that progress has only been made after the legal aspects of an endeavor have been resolved to the satisfaction of each country. This suggests that there is a necessary first step that could be taken now. This would not involve exchange of data, but it would put in place all the agreements, including characterization of the data, required to implement a joint forensics team at any point in time, including immediately after a nuclear explosion in any Russian or U.S. city or even anywhere in the world. In short, both governments could agree on the procedures, techniques, equipment, and even personnel that would be used should an attack occur.

The agreements could further ensure that the necessary arrangements are made for rapid transport of specialized technicians and equipment to the scene of the explosion to gather samples or other data. If a precisely defined team were formed, a three-fold advantage would ensue. First, a bilateral team whose capability was made known to all potential suppliers of contraband fissile material would have a deterrent effect as there would be a signature. The signature would admittedly not be as clear as that from a missile launch from an established country, but it would be a signature nonetheless. The deterrent effect would be further strengthened if there were a joint U.S.-Russian statement to the effect that the supplier would be held responsible.

Second, of all the successes the CTR program has achieved during the past decade, one of the most profound and unanticipated has been the close working relationship between a long-standing and unchanging team of experts from the Department of Energy laboratories and the Russian navy. As with most human relationships, a bond of trust has been formed over the years based on professionalism and sense of purpose. The same could be true of the suggested bilateral forensics team. Access to data is also likely to increase as the specter of nuclear terrorism continues to gain credibility. This would naturally cause suppliers to be less willing to arm terrorists.

Third, the unique nature and prestige of such a forensics team would hopefully impress more than suppliers. Political leaders and perhaps even the press would become aware of the existence of an authoritative source of accurate information on nuclear detonations. Public leaders would be more likely to forestall inflammatory pronouncements as the world waited the necessary time for accurate information from a unique and respected source, just as the United States did in the case of the bombing of TWA Flight 800.[9] Surely it would be to the benefit of all to wait a few days or a few weeks before taking extreme measures.


Although the arguments presented here have focused on the advantages and challenges of a U.S.-Russian nuclear forensics team in the face of an attack on Moscow, the symmetry of the situation is readily apparent. If a U.S. city were attacked, Washington would immediately seek to determine the origin of the weapon and its fissile material. The possibility of a Russian source would be high on the list, and there would be no better way to investigate this possibility than through the use of a highly credible bilateral team. Unlike most of the CTR program, where the asymmetry between the U.S. and Russian situations has been apparent and sometimes painful, nuclear forensics in the age of nuclear terrorism could be truly symmetric. The United States and Russia would be clearly seen as equal partners embarked on a project of immense importance, not just to the two countries but to the entire international community.

Although it is conceivable that a U.S.-Russian forensics team could be formed, even that it could be extended to the established nuclear powers of the United Kingdom, France, and China, it is unlikely that other nuclear-weapon states or, more importantly, aspiring nuclear states such as Iran and North Korea would allow access to their nuclear data. Such states might even provide fissile material or weapons to terrorists.

Of what value, then, is multilateral forensics? First, there is the simple process of elimination: there is value in knowing where the weapon did not originate. Second, an urban nuclear detonation would be so horrendous that concerted and cooperative action by the established nuclear-weapon states with regard to finding the source might open the seemingly closed doors of any nation to its nuclear secrets. Finally, the ancient Chinese proverb seems to apply: “the longest journey begins with a single step.”

All hope that the efforts to preclude a terrorist nuclear detonation are successful, but if such an event did occur, timely and credible data is needed on the likely source or sources of the fissile material or the nuclear device. A determination would help in restoring confidence to populations fearful of additional detonations and provide governments with evidence to pursue and find the perpetrators and eliminate further threats. The credibility of the nuclear forensic information would be significantly enhanced if provided or corroborated through a multinational or at least bilateral nuclear forensic team. Such cooperative activities could be fostered by approaches similar to the joint U.S.-Russian CTR programs of the past decade.

Post-Detonation Nuclear Forensics

As responsible governments want to locate nuclear weapons in the hands of terrorists before they are detonated, they have tended to focus on improving methods to detect fissile material (pre-detonation) more than using forensic techniques to determine the products generated by fission (post-detonation). Pre-detonation technology includes x-ray machines that may show the presence of a nuclear device and gamma-ray detectors that indicate the presence of fissile material. In post-detonation forensics, the arcane field of radiochemistry plays the major role.

In the event of a nuclear explosion, radiochemists would seek to obtain minute quantities of debris from the nuclear device near ground zero and/or in the atmosphere. They would first separate the atoms into groups of chemically similar elements and then measure the radioactivity of each group. To do so, scientists often employ gamma-ray spectroscopy to measure the time of emission and the energy of each detectable gamma ray, electromagnetic radiation produced by radioactive decay.

The energy of the detected gamma ray is unique to each isotope of a specific element, thereby indicating its presence in the debris. Furthermore, the rate at which that isotope emits its signature gamma ray decays in time according to its unique half-life, thereby providing a second identifier of the isotope. By knowing the chemistry of elements that have been separated, the energy of the gamma rays of any radioactive atoms in that chemical group, and the rate at which the emission of the gamma rays at each particular energy level decays over time, scientists can obtain an accurate measurement of many of the isotopes of the chemical elements in the debris. Because there is always experimental uncertainty, particularly with small samples, all three processes (separation, energy measurement, and time dependence) may be used.

Three types of atoms are of particular interest in a forensic analysis:

  • Atoms of fissile material that did not undergo fission. Examining them allows scientists to identify the material used to make the device and, when compared to the number of fission fragments, to measure the efficiency or sophistication of the weapon.

  • New atoms created by fission and by other nuclear reactions within the fissile material. When scientists compare these, they can obtain considerable insight into the nuclear processes that were involved during the actual explosion.

  • Atoms of material near the fissioning core that were subjected to an intense bombardment of neutrons during the explosion and became radioactive as a consequence. These atoms provide insight into the components of the weapon and the energy of the neutrons that activated the components.

Post-detonation forensics are by no means limited to the steps noted above, nor does the description of even these steps do justice to the creativity and sophistication of instrumentation and techniques that have evolved since the beginning of the nuclear age and which continue to evolve and improve in the face of nuclear terrorism. The Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy have substantial and continuing research and operational programs in the field.

—William Dunlop and Harold Smith


William Dunlop is a semi-retired senior scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL). He formally led LLNL’s Arms Control and International Non-Proliferation programs and during the 1990s was a scientific adviser to the U.S. delegation involved in negotiations on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Harold Smith is a distinguished visiting scholar and professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley. He served as assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs during the Clinton administration. The views reflected here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies of LLNL or the University of California.


1. William J. Broad, “New Team Plans to Identify Nuclear Attackers,” The New York Times, February 2, 2006.

2. See John B. Dunlop, The 2002 Dubrovka and 2004 Beslan Hostage Crises: A Critique of Russian Counter-Terrorism ( Stuttgart: Verlag, 2004).

3. See Mark Kramer, “The Sinking of the Kursk,” PONARS Policy Memo No. 145, September 2000.

4. Dr. Edward Walker of the University of California at Berkeley contributed greatly to these concepts.

5. TWA Flight 800 exploded at low altitude during takeoff from John F. Kennedy International Airport on July 17, 1996. Initial suspicions were that it was attacked by a ground-to-air missile.

6. The half-life is the time required for half of the atoms in any given quantity of a radioactive isotope to decay, emitting some form of nuclear radiation.

7. Nuclear Forensics Support: International Atomic Energy Agency Nuclear Security Series No. 2, 2006.

8. To monitor and verify compliance with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), a global network of radionuclide monitoring stations is nearing completion. The network is already delivering data to a Vienna-based International Data Center, which is making the information available to signatories. Data derived from the stations could potentially provide information relevant for attributing the source of the material used in a nuclear detonation. The on-site inspection functions called for under the CTBT, however, will not be available for use until such time as the CTBT enters into force. Such inspections are primarily designed to determine whether a nuclear detonation has taken place.

9. Conclusive evidence that the explosion was caused by an internal malfunction rather than a ground-to-air missile was not available for many months, but the prestige of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) was such that the United States decided not to take action until the NTSB had made its determination. By then, of course, retribution was moot.


Central Asian States Renounce Nuclear Weapons

Sonia Luthra

Five former Soviet Central Asian states agreed Sept. 8 to forswear nuclear weapons within their territories permanently. However, breaking from typical practice, the treaty lacks the endorsement of three of the five official nuclear-weapon states. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have refused to lend their support, citing concerns that Russia might be able to deploy nuclear weapons in the zone.

In a Sept. 8 statement, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the event as a disarmament achievement but urged the Central Asian states to “engage with the nuclear-weapon states with a view to bridging the differences and ensuring the treaty’s effective implementation.” The treaty will enter into force after each of the Central Asian states ratifies it.

The Central Asian Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (CANWFZ) will encompass Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. It will join four other such treaties that encompass Latin America, parts of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the South Pacific. These pacts make it illegal for member states to manufacture, acquire, test, or possess nuclear weapons. Protocols to the treaty restrict the transport or use of nuclear weapons within the zone.

The treaty breaks new ground, however, in that each of the Central Asian states has also agreed to adhere to an additional protocol to their International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreements. Based on the 1997 Model Additional Protocol, such agreements give the agency greater ability to verify that non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) only use nuclear materials and facilities for peaceful purposes.

In another new step, the CANWFZ also requires member-states to meet international standards for the physical protection of nuclear materials.

The Central Asian states have been seeking to construct the nuclear-weapon-free zone, the first in the Northern Hemisphere, for nearly 10 years. Talks began soon after Kazakhstan renounced nuclear weapons. Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, newly independent Kazakhstan inherited more than 1,400 nuclear warheads, a larger arsenal than any of the NPT nuclear-weapon states except for Russia and the United States. In 1992, Kazakhstan voluntarily agreed to transfer these warheads to Russia and acceded to the NPT two years later. Another impetus for the CANWFZ was the health and environmental damage caused by nuclear test explosions in Kazakhstan during the Soviet era. None of the other Central Asian states has possessed nuclear weapons.

The Central Asian states agreed on a draft text of the treaty in September 2002 and a revised version in February 2005. But they held off on signing the pact in an attempt to gain support for relevant protocols from all of the NPT nuclear-weapon states. The most important of these are so-called negative security assurances. In an effort to buttress the nuclear-weapon-free zones, the nuclear-weapon states have often agreed that they will not use or threaten to use nuclear arms against states in the zones.

However, the five nuclear-weapon states have been inconsistent in their support for the Central Asian zone. China supported the zone from the beginning of negotiations. But France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States have wavered in their support as they tussled for influence in the five Central Asian nations, all of which formerly belonged to the Soviet Union.

The United States, as well as the United Kingdom and France, were worried about a provision in the treaty providing for the possible expansion of the nuclear-weapon-free zone to neighboring states. This would mean, for instance, that Iran could apply to join the zone, perhaps complicating efforts to constrain the country’s nuclear program. The provision was removed from the treaty, thereby limiting the zone to the five signatories.

One sticking point was the transit of nuclear weapons within the zone. These concerns were allayed after the 2002 draft text included language allowing CANWFZ states to decide whether they would allow such transit.

The Central Asian states were not able to meet one final concern of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. These states objected to a provision in the zone treaty that would grant precedence to existing international treaties. In particular, they were concerned that if the Tashkent Collective Security Treaty signed with Russia took precedence, then Russia would retain the right to deploy nuclear weapons in the zone.

A Sept. 21 statement from the U.S. embassy in Kazakhstan expressed Washington’s concern that “provisions of other international treaties could take precedence over the provisions of this treaty, and thus obviate the central objective of creating a zone free of nuclear weapons.”

Russia and China praised the pact and sent official representatives to the treaty signing. But France, the United Kingdom, and the United States did not. A statement by the Russian Foreign Ministry Sept. 8 said the treaty would aid efforts to counter nuclear terrorism, saying that the nuclear-weapon-free zone would make a “substantial contribution” to the “prevention of nuclear materials and technology falling into the hands of non-state actors.”

The treaty’s signing at Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan, also marked the 15th anniversary of the closing of the nuclear testing site at Semipalatinsk. The Soviet Union conducted more than 450 underground and atmospheric nuclear tests at the site in a 40-year period before it was closed permanently in 1991 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev.


Biotechnology and the Challenge to Arms Control

Christopher F. Chyba

Advances in biotechnology pose grave challenges to arms control for the coming decades. The increasing capabilities of the biological sciences and the global spread of the underlying technologies raise the prospect of misuse of these technologies by small groups or individuals with the necessary technical competence. The challenges lie both in the mismatch between the rapid pace of technological change and the comparative sluggishness of multilateral negotiation and ratification, as well as the questionable suitability of monitoring and inspections to a widely available, small-scale technology.

But this is not a counsel for despair. Rather, this international and human-security dilemma should serve as a spur to construct an appropriate web of prevention and response that allows the world to benefit from this technology while minimizing its dangers.

There is now a well-known list of recent experiments conducted by legitimate researchers that illustrate the dangers inherent in modern biological research and development.[1] One such experiment was the synthesis of the polio virus at the State University of New York (SUNY) using readily purchased chemical supplies.[2] Therefore, even if the World Health Organization succeeds in its important task of eradicating polio worldwide, the virus could still be reconstituted in laboratories throughout the world. Another experimental signpost was work at the Australian National University involving genetic modifications of the mousepox virus, a smallpox-analog virus that infects rodents. The researchers spliced into the mousepox DNA a gene for making a signaling protein that inhibits the mouse immune response to viruses. The unanticipated effect was to make the virus deadly both to mice that had previously been naturally immune and to those that had been vaccinated against mousepox.[3] The experiment inadvertently pointed the way for attempts to make other viruses far more lethal.

These experiments illustrate the potential for misuse of work in molecular biology, immunology, and other forefront areas of research. Techniques developed, systems investigated, and manipulations performed for legitimate medical, food security, commercial, or other reasons may also show the way for extremely dangerous modifications that could cause harm to humans, animals, crops, or species in the natural world.[4] Of course, a dual-use hazard has accompanied technology development since the invention of fire and the domestication of the horse. In the last century, the development of nuclear technology likewise married enormous power with enormous dual-use implications. What is different about biotechnology is its exponential growth, the speed of its spread around the globe, its potential for the creation of agents that could reproduce in the natural world, and its increasing availability and utility to small groups or even individuals.

Exponential Growth

The capabilities of biotechnology have increased at exponential rates in recent years, in some ways akin to the evolution of computer power. The capabilities of computers have exploded over the past several decades because the number of transistors per computer chip—a measure of how much computation can be done in a volume of a given size—has doubled every 18 months or so. This is the famous Moore’s Law, after the co-founder of Intel Corp. who first called attention to the phenomenon in 1965.[5] Moore’s law is the reason that a single laptop today contains more computer power than was once found in entire halls of mainframe computers.

Although biotechnology’s growth began decades later than that of computers, what is striking is that the rate of increase, as measured, say, by the time required to synthesize a DNA sequence of a certain length, is as fast or even faster than Moore’s law.[6] Just as Moore’s law led to a transition in computing from extremely expensive industrial-scale machines to laptops, iPods, and microprocessors in toys, cars, and home appliances, so is biotechnological innovation moving us to a world where manipulations or synthesis of DNA will be increasingly available to small groups of the technically competent or even individual users, should they choose to make use of it.

There are ever more anecdotes illustrating the power and pace of the biotechnology explosion. The synthesis of the polio virus, completed in 2002, took the SUNY team three years of work. A year later, a research group at the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives in Maryland manufactured a virus of comparable genomic length in just two weeks.[7] In 2005 a group at the U.S. Armed Forces Institute of Pathology completed and published the determination of the genetic sequence of the 1918 human influenza virus that had killed tens of millions of people.[8] Using this sequence, a research team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and three other institutions recreated the complete 1918 virus and used it to infect mice in order to better understand what made the virus so deadly.[9]

Other technologies have appeared almost out of nowhere, moving rapidly from fundamental research to applications. These include RNA interference, which allows researchers to turn off certain genes in humans or other organisms, and synthetic biology, a fledgling field recognized only since about 2002, intended to allow engineers to fabricate small “biological devices” and ultimately new types of microbes.

Between 1990 and 2000, the speed of DNA synthesis increased more than 500 times. Moreover, laboratory processes have become more automated and black-boxed so that less and less tacit knowledge is needed to employ the technologies. By contrast, multilateral arms control treaties can take a decade to negotiate and ratify; a proposed protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) took most of the 1990s to develop, reach the stage of a bracketed text, and have a chairman’s text proposed for final discussion. In the end, no agreement was reached. The BWC protocol was not intended to deal with the biotechnology revolution; the comparison is simply to illustrate that the pace of technological change in some fields is outstripping that of the global political tools available for addressing the resulting implications.

The dilemma is being recognized internationally. Earlier this year, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called the use of biological weapons “the most important under-addressed threat relating to terrorism” and warned of the potential development of “designer diseases and pathogens.”[10] He asserted that an approach is needed as ambitious as the one developed at the dawn of the nuclear age for harnessing nuclear power while minimizing the spread of nuclear weapons. Finding such an approach that makes sense and that does more good than harm is the biotechnological challenge to arms control for the coming decades.

Framing the Issue

Any effort to find solutions to the security dilemma posed by biotechnology should be informed by key features of the biological challenge. The problem requires urgent attention, but those urging action must avoid apocalyptic dramatization, which will attract interest initially but will risk undermining the credibility of the issue in the long term. Gregg Easterbrook has published a sarcastic and garishly illustrated piece titled “We’re All Gonna Die!” as a reminder that scientists can readily make long lists of possible disasters for civilization.[11] The examples of dual-use biological research just mentioned, as well as a comprehensive recent U.S. National Academies of Sciences study of the issue,[12] demonstrate that the problem is real, not hype, but care is required to maintain perspective and avoid stirring opposition to possible solutions when cooperation is badly needed. Besides biotechnology’s exponential growth, there are at least four key aspects of the issue.

Contrast With Infectious Disease

About 14 million people die annually from infectious diseases.[13] Most of these deaths are in the developing world where infectious disease is the leading killer; in the developed world infectious disease typically ranks much lower, well behind heart disease and cancer. Five people died in the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. Any approach to the dual-use challenge that significantly curtails the use of biotechnology to counter disease runs the risk of being seen by much of the world as sacrificing actual Third World lives in the service of heading off hypothetical risks. An African meeting on these issues in October 2005 issued the Kampala Compact, which declared that although “the potential devastation caused by biological weapons would be catastrophic for Africa,” it is “illegitimate” to address biological weapons threats without addressing infectious disease and other key public health issues.[14]

Few Actual Biological Attacks

For all the attention paid to bioterrorism, there have been very few actual biological attacks by nonstate groups. Apart from the still mysterious 2001 anthrax attacks, there were the nonlethal food poisonings by followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh in 1984 and the unsuccessful efforts by Aum Shinrikyo to attack Tokyo with anthrax in 1993. Beyond these, there is evidence that al Qaeda made use of one doctoral-level microbiologist and perhaps several with undergraduate degrees in a quest for biological weapons. It is difficult from the open literature to determine the level of sophistication of their program, but what is currently available suggests it may have been more aspirational than effective at the time al Qaeda was expelled from Afghanistan.[15]

The rarity of modern bioterrorist attacks emphasizes the importance of understanding why there have been so few, the extent to which this has been due to capabilities or motivations, and how we might work to preserve whatever inhibitions have been at play.[16] It is certainly true that modern travel will mean that a biological attack with a contagious agent could rapidly spread the resulting disease globally. Under what conditions this globalization of an epidemic would prove a deterrent to the use of contagious agents is unclear; an apocalyptic group such as Aum Shinrikyo might view global catastrophe as an incentive, whereas others might be reluctant to loose a plague that would boomerang against their own populations. The greatest damage might well be done in the developing world, regardless of where the initial target of the attack was located, because of the weak disease surveillance and response capacity of many developing countries.

It is striking to compare the focus on capabilities in many threat assessments with the tenor of one of the most successful threat assessments in U.S. history, that of George Kennan’s famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947.[17] Kennan’s analysis was a keystone to the establishment of the successful decades-long Cold War policy of containment of the Soviet Union, yet in re-reading that piece today, one is struck by how little of it addresses Soviet capabilities. Instead, nearly all of it concerns Soviet motives and intentions, informed by a deep knowledge of Russian and Soviet history and culture.[18] Similar sophistication must be brought to the biological threat posed by modern terrorist groups.

The WMD Continuum

In 1948 the Commission for Conventional Armaments of the UN Security Council defined “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) to mean “atomic explosive weapons, radio-active material weapons, lethal chemical and biological weapons, and any weapons developed in the future which have characteristics comparable in destructive effect to those of the atomic bomb.”[19] This definition has the great virtue of specificity, in contrast to the loose way in which “weapons of mass destruction” and “WMD” are often used today. However, few now would want to include radiological weapons under the WMD label, and lumping biological weapons together with nuclear weapons is greatly misleading.

The strengthened monitoring and inspection regime implemented by the International Atomic Energy Agency in the nuclear realm can be reasonably effective because of the significant industrial bottlenecks (barring nuclear theft) through which any would-be nuclear weapons program has to pass: uranium conversion and enrichment or plutonium production and reprocessing. The weaponization of biological agents presents far less severe bottlenecks. The trajectory of advances in biotechnology will only reinforce these differences.

There is an argument among some nuclear experts that tacit knowledge, the real-world engineering experience of actually having worked with nuclear weapons design and explosive materials, is a tremendous asset that mere blueprints or articles cannot convey.[20] However true this claim might be for nuclear weapons technology, the thrust of biotechnological development is to make powerful applications increasingly black-boxed so that key procedures are available to be used by a broad audience. Undergraduates at a ten-week Synthetic Biology Jamboree in 2004 made use of “BioBricks” from an MIT database for students[21] and, in the words of one senior observer, “did world-class work, yet their level of training was embryonic.”[22]

This is not to say that weaponizing biological agents—going from the laboratory organism to a treatment ready to be sprayed or otherwise spread—is not challenging. In fact, Aum Shinrikyo, despite substantial financial resources, ran into trouble in this step, among others. Yet, if the terrorist group’s approach were to create a contagious agent such as smallpox or influenza, sophisticated spray preparations might not be necessary.

Globalization Requires Global Response

The biotechnology explosion is being driven by academic, private, and government research. The allure of biotechnology for public health, food security, and commercial applications is so great that its globalization is unstoppable. Singapore is establishing biotechnology as the “fourth pillar” of its economy; China’s Office of Genetic Engineering Safety Administration approved more than 250 genetically modified plants, animals, and microorganisms for field trials between 1996 and 2000; India claims 96 biotechnology companies; Mexico has established a new Institute of Genomic Medicine; the Pakistani Atomic Energy Commission has committed itself to training scientists from Muslim countries in biotechnology; South Africa is working to develop a national biotechnology sector; Nigeria is considering a $5 billion endowment for science and technology, with agricultural biotechnology a major focus; and the list goes on.[23]

To be effective, any attempt to address the dual-use biotechnology challenge must be global in scope and therefore must find common ground among the developed and developing world on the issue. There is simply no way to duck a global approach to this problem, and the fact that many contagious organisms have incubation times longer than international flight times means that isolation is an insufficient strategy.

The nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty establishes a bargain between the nuclear-weapon states and the non-nuclear-weapon states. Under Article IV, the non-nuclear-weapon states have an “inalienable right” to nuclear energy in exchange for living up to their obligation not to pursue nuclear weapons. The dual-use biology dilemma should not be understood as requiring an analogous bargain. Although the BWC’s Article X calls for the sharing of biological science, the convention is an arms control treaty, not a nonproliferation treaty: all signatories are banned from the acquisition of biological weapons. Similarly, all countries have a stake in preventing and fighting pandemic diseases, whether due to natural emergence or laboratory creation. The developing world may have the most to gain from these technologies and therefore the most to lose if misuse or inadvertence leads to biological accidents that then curtail their use worldwide.

Five Categories of Risk

One reason that solutions to the biotechnology misuse dilemma are so difficult is that any proposed response must be attentive to at least five categories of risk. These are naturally occurring diseases; illicit state weapons programs; nonstate actors; hackers; and laboratory accidents or other inadvertent release of disease agents. Particular measures may well address only one or two of these concerns, but they must be judged according to their impact, positive and negative, across the board. This kind of overall strategic assessment is largely missing.

Nor should a measure’s failure to address all aspects of the biological challenge necessarily be held against it. For example, the BWC is primarily an instrument for addressing state programs. The likelihood that inspections will not be a successful strategy against small-scale laboratory genetic engineering does not negate the value of transparency and inspections for the “high end” of large-scale production programs. Attention to preventing the misuse of biotechnology should not compromise the continuing need to avoid a state-based biological arms race. Similarly, so-called science-based threat assessment that explores novel pathogens to determine potential terrorist or state threats must be assessed strategically to weigh defense advantages against dangers of feeding a perception among other governments that something resembling an offensive program is underway, thereby risking fueling the state-program threat even while preparing for other levels of threat.

Within these risk categories, there are important further distinctions. The nonstate actor category, for example, should really be divided into substate actors and nonstate actors. The latter, such as Aum Shinrikyo, receive no state support, in contrast with the former. “Hackers” is used by analogy to computer hackers that launch cyberattacks, for example, by releasing “worms” or viruses over the internet. Bio-hackers could be included in nonstate actors but are separated here to emphasize the possibility that, were dangerous biological manipulations to become sufficiently black-boxed, then careless, mischievous, or hateful individuals might individually pose a substantial risk.

We may not yet have entered a realm where the ability of individuals to do highly consequential biological hacking is widespread. Biological hackers at this point would still need to be sophisticated scientists. In coming years, however, we must worry not only about the rare “evil genius” but also about the intellectual hangers-on. The analogy here is to “script kiddies” in the cyber realm, those who are insufficiently knowledgeable or motivated to create their own sophisticated computer viruses but who make use of online postings of virus computer scripts and then unleash these derivative creations.[24] In the biological case, as the technologies permit increasing ease of use, hackers or nonstate groups will not need to conduct their own sophisticated biological research programs. They will simply have to follow, perhaps with modifications, the steps published by legitimate researchers.

Addressing the Threat

Is it possible to fashion an effective international control regime in the face of exponentially expanding biotechnology? The answer to this question carries important implications for our biological future and also for how the world will cope with other technologies, such as nanotechnology, that may pose similar dilemmas further down the road.

The good news is that there is tremendous ferment now with respect to this question. Scientists, lawyers, policy analysts, scientific societies, international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the UN secretary-general have all weighed in with thoughts on the issue. It would be impossible to survey comprehensively this entire landscape of remarks and proposals, but it will be useful to highlight some of the main threads of the discussion, their weaknesses, and possible paths forward.

An Endless Arms Race?

If an effective global system for security in the face of biotechnology cannot be put in place, the world could enter a kind of endless offensive-defensive arms race, where bad actors, not just state programs, endeavor to engineer around new antibiotics, antivirals, vaccines, or other defenses against disease-causing agents. The arms race metaphor should be used with caution because, unlike the Cold War arms race, the primary driver for the biological arms race is the ongoing advance of biological research. The hope would be that the defenses arrayed against the rare bad actor by the vastly larger biomedical community would prove sufficient. Nevertheless, although the resource advantage will lie overwhelmingly with the defense, defensive measures also require a series of steps—for example, drug development and distribution—that the offense need not master. The words of the Irish Republican Army after it just missed assassinating the British cabinet in the 1984 Brighton bombing should be recalled: “Today we were unlucky, but remember we have only to be lucky once—you will have to be lucky always.”[25] Rather than concede that this grim and disheartening view of the human future is what biotechnology holds for us, the scientific and arms control communities should try to do better.

Formal Treaties

The cornerstones of efforts to control the misuse of biology are the 1925 Geneva Protocol prohibiting the use of “bacteriological methods” of warfare, and the 1972 BWC, which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, or other acquisition of biological agents for nonpeaceful purposes. The BWC also calls on states to prohibit such acquisition anywhere within territory under their control so that signatories have an obligation to prevent the offensive misuse of biology. Perhaps a major contribution of the BWC besides setting a global norm against biological weapons is its potential for increasing international transparency and decreasing the mistrust that could drive new state-sponsored weapons programs.

Although a verification protocol even for the largest production facilities is not now a realistic possibility, other mechanisms based on the BWC, in particular, mutual declarations and other confidence-building measures (CBMs), would further transparency and should be strengthened.[26] Efforts to maintain transparency between states will be increasingly important if biodefense research continues to expand with an eye to the terrorist threat.

Other Current Multilateral Approaches

There are multilateral approaches outside the BWC process. Most striking among these is UN Security Council Resolution 1540, by which the Security Council required all UN member states to develop and maintain controls over biological weapons materials and their export. It is too soon to be sure of the outcome of this extraordinary experiment in Security Council lawmaking, but it is important that Resolution 1540 not come to be seen as just a hollow set of aspirations. The Australia Group suppliers’ regime and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are further, more specialized examples of multilateral (but far from global) approaches to biological security. To interdict illicit biological shipments, however, PSI members would need precise intelligence.

Disease Surveillance and Response

Over the past several decades, the world has faced annually a newly emerging disease. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) spread around the world in 2003 but was nevertheless contained despite its novelty and an absence of vaccines or antiviral drugs targeted against it. This emphasizes the great importance of the early recognition of and response to disease outbreaks, whether natural or human engineered. The World Health Organization (WHO) recognizes that its global disease surveillance systems, including its Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, will be at the forefront of detection and response either to human-caused or natural disease outbreaks.[27]

Despite WHO efforts within its limited budget, there remains great scope for improving international disease surveillance and response. Because flight travel times to the United States are shorter than many disease incubation times, it is strongly in the self interest of the United States to buttress disease surveillance overseas, even apart from humanitarian reasons for doing so.

Yet, the United States has failed repeatedly to act. The Global Pathogen Surveillance Act has been introduced in Congress in 2002, 2003, and 2005, with similar language in the Foreign Assistance Authorization Act in 2004, 2005, and 2006. The current bill authorizes $35 million to be spent to improve capacity for disease surveillance and response in developing countries, through training, improvements in communications and public health laboratory equipment, and the deployment of U.S. health professionals. It is sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and supported by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Despite some success in the Senate, the bill has never passed the House.

Facing a world where novel microorganisms can emerge or be invented, there should be a strong incentive to budget tens of millions of dollars to improve and sustain international disease surveillance and response. Yet, over and over, it seems imagination stops at the border. Although atmospheric sampling within our cities and buildings may prove a powerful tool, recognizing and shutting down disease outbreaks overseas must be a high priority. The failure to pass, then adequately fund the Global Pathogen Surveillance Act is an extraordinary ongoing failure of U.S. national security policy.

Formal International Oversight of Research

The National Research Council has recommended a variety of oversight mechanisms for research conducted with federal research grants.[28] John Steinbruner and his colleagues at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) have proposed a global system of internationally agreed rules for the oversight of potentially high-consequence pathogens research.[29] Of course, devoted terrorists would not likely be captured by such a system. Most nonstate groups are unlikely to conduct forefront research, but they might attempt to implement discoveries and techniques reported in the scientific literature. By overseeing certain high-consequence research and its publication, we might therefore head off some of the worst misuse. The WHO’s international advisory committee that oversees smallpox research provides a limited model of what oversight of the highest consequence biological research might look like. It is important that that committee demonstrate that such bodies are capable of real oversight.

The CISSM oversight system would require an International Pathogens Research Authority with an appropriate administrative structure and legal foundation to set requirements for its states-parties. It is unlikely that such a system could be negotiated and ratified at the present time, although perceptions of what is possible could change rapidly subsequent to a first human-engineered major pandemic.

Yet, careful thinking is better done before an attack. Other international approaches to provide some level of oversight have also been envisioned, including the creation of additional UN bodies or the establishment of an International Biotechnology Agency (IBTA). An IBTA could be established in a modular way, with modest initial goals, such as helping BWC states-parties meet their CBM requirements and fostering best practices in laboratory safety. However, even establishing such a limited body might look too much like an effort to revive some of the BWC protocol and may not be politically achievable at this time.

“Soft” Oversight

At the other end of the spectrum from the CISSM oversight scheme are efforts at what might be called “soft” oversight of potentially hazardous research. Perhaps most common among these are efforts to promulgate codes of ethics, or the more demanding codes of conduct or codes of practice, for scientists working in the relevant fields. Many national and international groups have made efforts in this direction.[30] The issue was also the focus of the 2005 BWC intercessional meeting. Such codes, coupled with education about the prospects for the misuse of scientific research and the national and international legal framework, would help give the scientific community a better capacity to police itself, a kind of “societal verification.” A National Academy panel has gone further, recommending establishing a global internet-linked network of informed scientists “who have the capacity to recognize when knowledge or technology is being used inappropriately.”[31] The scientific community would conduct its own self-surveillance and initial intervention to prevent malevolent behavior within its ranks.

A more specific kind of community surveillance has been proposed by the participants in the Second International Meeting on Synthetic Biology held in Berkeley, California, in May 2006. They note that DNA synthesis is one obvious pathway toward the creation of hazardous biological systems, but most DNA synthesis companies do not systematically check their orders to ensure that they are not synthesizing DNA for human disease organisms or other hazards. Those that do such screening use existing software tools that are unable to identify novel hazards and that have a high false-alarm rate. The participants called for all companies to screen their synthesis orders, including customer validation, and created a working group to create better software screening tools.[32]

Governance Without Treaties

There is a growing body of international relations literature concerned with the mismatch between the importance of global problems and the absence of international mechanisms to address them in a timely and effective way.[33] The World Bank’s J. F. Rischard advocates the creation of “global issues networks” that bring together representatives of governments, NGOs, and business for “rapid norm production and rapid activation of reputational effects.” The networks would quickly reach a rough consensus and then pressure states, through rating systems and naming and shaming, into performing better on the issue in question. The objective is to effect change within years rather than the longer multilateral treaty and ratification process.

How such an approach might work in the biotechnology realm might be seen by analogy to concrete examples from an altogether different field, that of human rights and transnational corporations.[34] The UN Global Compact is the world’s largest corporate social-responsibility initiative, with more than 2,300 participating companies. These companies publicly advocate the compact and its 10 principles in the areas of human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption and share best practices.[35] There are other, overlapping initiatives including the Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights.[36]

In the absence of an international organization established by treaty to regulate biotechnology research, an initiative analogous to these efforts might begin to fill the gap. As one concrete example, Harvard biologist George Church suggested that all new DNA synthesis machines manufactured be licensed, tagged with electronic locators, and programmed to forbid the synthesis of dangerous DNA sequences.[37] An initiative analogous to the UN Global Compact could, with the support of governments and civil society, put strong pressure on the still-small number of companies manufacturing DNA synthesis machines to adhere to such principles on the grounds of global security. Broader principles to which all member companies would adhere could be explored, as could expansion to academic, governmental, and other biological research entities. The International Council for the Life Sciences is one newly formed membership-based organization that is beginning to assume this role.

Reasons for Optimism

The biological challenge differs greatly from the nuclear challenge and is unprecedented with respect to the power it will place in the hands of small groups of the technically competent. The pace of technological advance is daunting and risks outstripping the pace of political response, but there are reasons for optimism. The biological science community has a strong tradition of recognizing the potential for misuse of their work and calling for self-regulation.

Whereas the atomic scientists led by Leo Szilard failed in the 1930s to impose self-censorship in the publication of research in nuclear fission, the biologists succeeded in the early 1970s to restrict their own research in recombinant DNA, the predecessor of today’s far more powerful genetic engineering techniques. One reason for the biologists’ comparative success was that from the outset they enlisted support from prestigious scientific academies. This continues to provide a powerful tool.

The greater challenge is for the policy world. Neither Cold War arms control nor nonproliferation treaties provide good models for how to cope with the nonstate aspects of the biotechnology dilemma. It is unclear whether the international system will be nimble enough to respond effectively. If it cannot, we will simply have to cope with, rather than shape, our biological future. Before we accept that outcome, it is time for the creative exploration of rapid and effective international means for addressing the worst dangers.


Christopher F. Chyba is a professor of astrophysics and international affairs at Princeton University, where he directs the Program on Science and Global Security at the Woodrow Wilson School. He served on the staffs of the National Security Council and the Office of Science and Technology Policy in the first Clinton administration and is editor, with George Bunn, of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Confronting Today’s Threats (2006). He has recently been appointed to an advisory group to the United Nations for an upcoming biotechnology initiative.


1. For one such list, inevitably already outdated, see Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology, Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2004), pp. 24-29.

2. Jeronimo Cello et al., “Chemical Synthesis of Poliovirus cDNA: Generation of Infectious Virus in the Absence of Natural Template,” Science, August 9, 2002, pp. 1,016-1,018. See Steven M. Block, “A Not-So-Cheap Stunt,” Science, August 2, 2002, pp. 769-770.

3. Ronald J. Jackson et al., “Expression of a Mouse Interleukin-4 by a Recombinant Ectromelia Virus Suppresses Cytolytic Lymphocyte Responses and Overcomes Genetic Resistance to Mousepox,” Journal of Virology, February 2001, pp. 1,205-1,210.

4. See Mark Wheelis, “Will the New Biology Lead to New Weapons,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2004, pp. 6-13.

5. Gordon Moore, “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” Electronics Magazine, April 19, 1965, pp. 114-117.

6. See Robert Carlson, “The Pace and Proliferation of Biological Technologies,” Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Biodefense Strategy, Practice, and Science, 2003, pp. 203-214.

7. Hamilton Smith et al., “Generating a Synthetic Genome by Whole Genome Assembly: Phi-X174 Bacteriophage from Synthetic Oligonucleotides,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, December 23, 2003, pp. 15,440-15,445.

8. Jeffrey K. Taubenberger et al., “Characterization of the 1918 Influenza Virus Polymerase Genes,” Nature, October 6, 2005, pp. 889-893.

9. Terrence M. Tumpey et al., “Characterization of the Reconstructed 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic Virus,” Science, October 7, 2005, pp. 77-80.

10. “Report of the UN Secretary-General: Uniting Against Terrorism: Recommendations for a Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy,” April 27, 2006, paras. 52-57.

11. Gregg Easterbrook, “We’re All Gonna Die!” Wired, July 2003.

12. See Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of their Application to Next Generation Biowarfare Threats, Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences ( Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006).

13. World Health Report 2004 , Statistical Annex, pp. 120-121.

14. International Council For Science-Africa, “ Kampala Compact: The Global Bargain for Biosecurity and Bioscience,” October 1, 2005.

15. Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, “Report to the President,” March 31, 2005, pp. 268-270 (painting a more sophisticated picture of al Qaeda’s biological activities than does “The 9/11 Commission Report,” but the conclusions of the former are based on classified documents so are difficult to assess independently).

16. For an argument that “threat inflation” of the biological threat occurred subsequent to the negotiation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, see Jean Pascal Zanders, “Book Review: Unmasking a Culture of Death,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2006. For a skeptical analysis of the bioterrorism threat, see Milton Leitenberg, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat ( Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2005).

17. X, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” Foreign Affairs, July 1947.

18. This point is made by the Princeton Project on National Security Working Group on Relative Threat Assessment.

19. See Committee on Advances in Technology Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences, p. 53.

20. Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi, “Tacit Knowledge, Weapons Design, and the Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons,” American Journal of Sociology, 1995.

21. Registry of Standard Biological Parts, MIT.

22. A. Malcolm Campbell, “Meeting Report: Synthetic Biology Jamboree for Undergraduates,” Cell Biology Education, Spring 2005, pp. 19-23.

23. See Committee on Advances in Technology Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences. See also “PAEC to Train Foreign Muslim Scientists,” Daily Times ( Lahore), January 17, 2004; Jim Giles, “Nigeria Ready for Huge Science Spend,” Nature, July 2006, p. 334.

24. Clive Thompson, “The Virus Underground,” New York Times Magazine, February 8, 2004.

25. Art MacEoin, “IRA Bombs British Cabinet in Brighton,” An Phoblacht/Republican News, October 11, 2001.

26. Nicholas Isla and Iris Hunger, “BWC 2006: Building Transparency Through Confidence Building Measures,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2006, pp. 19-22.

27. WHO, “Preparedness for Deliberate Epidemics,” May 2002.

28. Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism.

29. John Steinbruner et al., “Controlling Dangerous Pathogens: A Prototype Protective Oversight System,” December 2005.

30. See Roger Roffey, John Hart, and Frida Kuhlau, “Crucial Guidance: A Code of Conduct for Biodefense Scientists,” Arms Control Today, September 2006. See Committee on Advances in Technology, Globalization, Biosecurity and the Future of the Life Sciences, pp. 246-250.

31. Committee on Advances in Technology, Globalization, Biosecurity and the Future of the Life Sciences, pp. 251-256.

32. “Declaration of the Second International Meeting on Synthetic Biology,” Berkeley, California, May 29, 2006.

33. For key publications in this literature, see Wolfgang Reinicke, Global Public Policy: Governing Without Government? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1998); J. F. Rischard, High Noon: Twenty Global Problems, Twenty Years to Solve Them ( New York: Basic Books, 2002); Anne-Marie Slaughter, A New World Order (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2004).

34. For examples drawn from the interim report of the special representative of the secretary-general on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises, see “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights,” February 22, 2006, E/CN.4/2006/97.

35. UN Global Compact, found at http://www.unglobalcompact.org.

36. Business Leaders Initiative on Human Rights, May 2003.

37. George M. Church, “A Synthetic Biohazard Non-proliferation Proposal,” May 21, 2005, found at http://arep.med.harvard.edu/SBP/Church_Biohazard04c.htm.


Books of Note

Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions
By Shahram Chubin, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2006, 244 pp.

Security expert Chubin argues in this sociopolitical study that the roots of Iran’s drive for nuclear capabilities and potentially for nuclear weapons lie less in perceived international threats than domestic Iranian politics. In particular, he says that political hard-liners such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad view the nuclear issue as a means of entrenching themselves in power and legitimating the Islamic regime. They also see it as a means of competing with the West for influence in the Middle East. By contrast, he contends, more pragmatic members of the regime view the nuclear card as a means of leverage for normalized relations with the West in hopes of bolstering the Iranian economy. Nonetheless, he says, neither faction is likely to test a nuclear weapon. Even the hard-liners would likely stop just short of such a test in hopes of remaining within the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty regime, Chubin claims.

Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and Security
By Kerry G. Herron and Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, University of Pittsburgh Press, August 2006, 264 pp.

Texas A&M University professors Herron and Jenkins-Smith explore American attitudes on nuclear security and terrorism since the end of the Cold War. Based on more than 13,000 interviews conducted in the decade since 1993, the authors find that public views about nuclear weapons have remained surprisingly constant despite the changing landscape of threats. Indeed, changing perceptions of foreign threats were found to have little effect on nuclear policy preferences. Rather, Americans’ views on nuclear policy appear to be far more reflective of their ideological preferences and partisan leanings (such partisanship increased dramatically over the decade). Those with more conservative views perceive that increases in foreign threats imply the need for strengthening nuclear deterrence, while those with more liberal views believe that increased nuclear risks require dramatic reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Deterrence as a strategy, however, is declining in public appeal. Perception of what constitutes an appropriate level for U.S. nuclear forces has dropped since 1997.

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network
By Gordon Corera, Oxford University, September 2006, 304 pp.

BBC correspondent Corera offers a detailed account of the rise and downfall of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan and his nuclear proliferation network. Much of the book focuses on U.S. and British intelligence failures that allowed Khan both to procure items for Pakistan’s nuclear program and become a proliferator of nuclear equipment and technology to others. Corera details the West’s monitoring of Khan’s activities and argues that the United States did not take action in the late 1970s and early 1980s when it had information about Khan’s procurement activities because of Pakistan’s perceived role in fighting communism. But he also notes the eventual intelligence successes and the new willingness to act on those successes that eventually led to Khan’s downfall.

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Iran's Nuclear Ambitions. By Shahram Chubin, The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2006, 244 pp.

Opinion on Nuclear Weapons, Terrorism, and Security. By Kerry G. Herron and Hank C. Jenkins-Smith, University of Pittsburgh Press, August 2006, 264 pp.

Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity, and the Rise and Fall of the A.Q. Khan Network. By Gordon Corera, Oxford University, September 2006, 304 pp.


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