Global Risk

FAS Symposium Provides Recommendations to Next Administration on Catastrophic Threats

03.21.13 | 8 min read | Text by FAS

On November 9, 2012, FAS hosted the Symposium on Preventing Catastrophic Threats at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. The symposium consisted of three panels that explored catastrophic threats to national and international security, including those posed by nuclear and radiological weapons;  biological, chemical, cyber, and advanced conventional weapons; and threats to energy supply and infrastructure.

Distinguished panelists at the symposium offered recommendations to the Obama administration on dealing with these challenges. The following summary offers a glimpse of the issues raised and points made throughout the day. A more detailed account that includes each speaker’s memo to the president is also available in FAS’s symposium reportRecommendations to Prevent Catastrophic Threats.

Nukes, Nukes, and More Nukes

The first panel of the symposium addressed a complex set of problems regarding nuclear weapons.  Mr. David Hoffman of the Washington Post served as moderator of the panel.

Dr. Sidney Drell, Deputy Director Emeritus of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, began by arguing for a reduction in the nuclear stockpiles leftover from the Cold War, renewed talks for data exchange, and increased transparency. Drell proposed reducing nuclear weapons to 1,000 or fewer. Also, he recommended that the United States and Russia create a Joint Data Exchange Center, which would foster cooperation between the two nuclear powers and provide added protection against conflict resulting from misinterpreted data. In the end, he questioned if the United States could escape the “nuclear deterrence trap.”

Dr. Richard L. Garwin, IBM Fellow Emeritus of the Thomas J. Watson Research Center, commented that nuclear weapons are a threat more than a tool, since just one nuclear explosion would cause massive destruction and death. Among the known concerns of bloated stockpiles and Pakistan’s nuclear program, Garwin addressed the possibility of improvised nuclear explosives of a “yield comparable with that of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bombs.” He said the administration should discuss several topics together, including the role of nuclear weaponry in U.S. military forces and the managing the risks and rewards of technology built around nuclear fission. Garwin recommended that the United States remove B-61 bombs from Europe and spoke against the tendency to focus on only those issues deemed to have the highest priority, arguing the United States had enough resources to work on all of these issues at once.

Mr. Charles P. Blair, Senior Fellow on State and Non-State Threats at FAS, described a new paradigm for countering the threat of radiological and nuclear terrorism. He cautioned against presupposing that all violent non-state actor groups represent a potential nuclear threat.  The counter-nuclear terrorism paradigm predicated on this assumption is costly, inefficient, and, ultimately, cannot be sustained. Blair explained that ideology indicates whether a terrorist organization would seek out and use nuclear weapons. Some terrorists might be more likely to seek a nuclear weapon given their unlimited objectives and belief in divine orders. Others will have different aims.  He recommended more robust efforts to understand terrorist ideology and also their behavior after acquiring a nuclear weapon, including their likely  command and control structure.

Dr. Robert S. Norris, Senior Fellow for Nuclear Policy at FAS, recommended that the Obama administration eliminate all but one mission for nuclear weapons: deterrence, narrowly defined as preserving the means for retaliation if anyone uses nuclear weapons against the United States or certain allies. Norris questioned whether the changes to U.S. nuclear policy were real or illusory, and noted the ability of bureaucracies to maintain the status quo. However, changes are necessary, Norris argued, especially with U.S. nuclear war planning – only this will allow for reductions of nuclear stockpiles.

Mr. Hans Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, concluded the panel by analyzing the current world nuclear force structure. He argued that Russia has already moved below the New START upper limits, and they will go lower. A similar response by the U.S. would indicate our cooperation. Obama said that the U.S. needed to move away from “Cold War thinking.” Kristensen recommended reductions in the nuclear arsenal and delivery systems. One recommendation included reducing the ICBM force from 450 to 300 missiles.

The panelists addressed the nuances of nuclear weapons. All called for greater comprehension of the complexity of the problem by Obama’s administration rather than restrictive labels that indicate maintaining the status quo.

Biological, Chemical, Conventional and Cyber Threats

The second panel at the symposium discussed the threats posed by biological, chemical, conventional, and cyber weapons. Ms. Siobhan Gorman, Intelligence Reporter at the Wall Street Journal, moderated the discussion.

Mr. Matt Schroeder, Director of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project at FAS, began by describing the complexity of conventional threats, choosing to focus on the subcategory of small arms and light weapons (SALW). He explained that SALW posed the “most immediate, multi-faceted threat to U.S. interests abroad.” Mr. Schroeder argued that the United States needed to include parts, accessories, and ammunition in its definition of SALW when discussing arms control. “Without ammunition,” he said, “small arms and light weapons are useless.” Mr. Schroeder explained how SALW pose a threat because they are the “weapons of choice” for transnational forces. In particular, transnational forces favor MANPADs (man-portable air-defense systems); they are easily transportable and can do significant damage to aircraft. He recommended that the United States expand the stockpile security and destruction aid programs, targeting surplus arsenals of MANPADs that can easily be sold on the black market.

Dr. Kennette Benedict, Executive Director of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, followed by reiterating the Obama administration’s principles for cyber security, emphasizing the need for adequate defenses for the private sector. She said that the administration currently does not outline rules for cyber-attacks on other countries’ infrastructure. Dr. Benedict pointed out that current U.S. policy views cyber-attacks by another government as an act of war, allowing the United States to respond with military means. However, if a non-state actor employs a cyber-attack, then it is a criminal act. Dr. Benedict noted the difficulty in finding the origin of a cyber-attack; in fact, an individual can assume the identity of a state for a cyber-attack. She recommended that a “good defense is a good offense,” yet it could have unintended effects. Moreover, she stressed the importance of pursuing a deeper level of understanding of the relationship between cybersecurity operations to protect infrastructure and other efforts to ensure the availability and usability of cyberspace for communication, commerce, and free speech.

Ms. Marina Voronova-Abrams, Program Associate at Global Green USA, began the discussion on chemical and biological threats. She reminded the panel that several states are not parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention, including Syria and North Korea among others such as Angola, Egypt, Israel, Myanmar, Somalia, and South Sudan. Ms. Abrams called for more inspections, yet calculated the enormous number needed given that there are 4,913 declared dual-use industrial facilities across the globe. She highlighted the importance of the United States completing the destruction of its chemical weapons stockpile and then turned to the issue of biosecurity threats in the former Soviet Union. Though the threat has decreased and there is little possibility of someone using a bioweapon inside the former USSR, Ms. Abrams explained how terrorists could use their contacts in the former Soviet Union to gain access to bioagents.

Dr. David Franz, Senior Advisor to the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs, quoted Dr. Joshua Lederberg who stated that “there is no technical solution to the problem of biological weapons […] but would an ethical solution appeal to a sociopath?” Excessive regulatory requirements can hinder productivity and creativity in the life sciences, but it is the risk that the United States has been willing to take to address the insider threat. However, looking abroad he emphasized the importance of the human dimension to biosecurity and the personal relationships among scientists, which allow not only for early warning of natural or accidental outbreaks of diseases but also for sustained, collaborative efforts that extend beyond the initial engagement phase of international outreach. Dr. Franz explained how the United States cannot lead with security in these relationships; rather, an emphasis on public health is more appropriate for tackling biosecurity challenges collaboratively. This is especially important for countries whose concern with their existing disease burdens greatly exceeds their concern for what the United States deems “especially dangerous pathogens.” Hence, Dr. Franz proposed policies that foster relationships between scientists.

Energy and Infrastructure

The symposium concluded with a panel on the issues surrounding energy and infrastructure. Mr. Miles O’Brien, Science Correspondent at PBS NewsHour, moderated the panel.

Dr. John Ahearne, former NRC Commissioner and the 2012 recipient of FAS’s Richard L. Garwin Award, began the discussion by analyzing the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident. He explained how risk analysis recommended a higher wall against tsunamis given events in the area one thousand years ago. Yet, decision makers chose a study using events in Chile in regards to earthquakes to use as the basis of their safety designs. Thus, the plant chose to build a 20-foot wall rather than the 50-foot wall proposed by the former study. He argued that this is not a lesson against nuclear power, but the problem of regulators and operators. Dr. Ahearne advised against the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assuming the role of global regulator; rather, regulation is a national duty. However, he also noted that regulation is not the only solution; states must ensure that operators take on ensuring safety as their duty.

Dr. Steven Koonin, Director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University, argued that energy policy “success” is achieved mostly through appropriate structures and processes. He called for the establishment of a Quadrennial Energy Review (QER) process to guide energy policy. He also asserted that, ultimately, changes to the energy structure are “in the hands of the private sector.” It requires a mix of business regulations and technology development with attention paid to private sector considerations. Dr. Koonin recommended that energy policy separate stationary from transport sectors, something that is done practically yet not in policy legislation. As a result, he argued that energy policy focuses too much on stationary research and development given the importance of transportation and oil.

FAS President Dr. Charles D. Ferguson,  concluded the panel by discussing international science partnerships and their role in national security.  For example, FAS’s pilot project in Yemen, the International Science Partnership, is a science diplomacy initiative that brings scientists and engineers from the United States together with their counterparts from countries of security concern to solve critical water and energy security issues. Dr. Ferguson recommended specifically that the Obama administration should ensure that there are a sufficient number of scientists and engineers in government, especially in agencies such as USAID and the Department of State to facilitate science diplomacy.

Meggaen Neely was an intern communications at the Federation for American Scientists during the Fall 2012 semester, and is currently interning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. She coordinated authors for the Up for Debate project, worked on the Did You Know Campaign and wrote accounts of events hosted by FAS. Neely is pursuing a Master of Arts in security policy studies at The Elliott School at George Washington University. She comes to Washington, DC with a Masters of Public Policy and Administration and a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Baylor University.

Photography by Monica Amarelo.