Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app.
Now we have more countries with nuclear weapons, we have major potential flashpoints. We also, even though we are not in the Cold War … you do have the possibility of some sort of miscalculation or accident…
Rogue elements within a state’s security forces enrich dozens of kilograms of uranium. It’s then assembled into a crude nuclear bomb. The bomb is transported on a civilian aircraft to Washington D.C, and loaded onto a delivery truck. The truck is driven by an American citizen midway between the White House and the Capitol Building. The driver casually steps out of the vehicle, and detonates the weapon. There are more than 80,000 instant deaths. There are also at least 100,000 seriously wounded, with nowhere left to treat them.
It’s likely that one of those immediately killed would be Samantha Pitts-Kiefer, who works only one block away from the White House.
Samantha serves as Senior Director of The Global Nuclear Policy Program at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, and warns that the chances of a nuclear terrorist attack are alarmingly high. Terrorist groups have expressed a desire for nuclear weapons, and the material required to build those weapons is scattered throughout the world at a diverse range of sites – some of which lack the necessary security.
When you combine the massive death toll with the accompanying social panic and economic disruption – a nuclear 9/11 would be unthinkably bad. And yet, Samantha reminds us, we must confront the possibility.
Clearly, this is far from the only nuclear nightmare. We also discuss:
- In the case of nuclear war, what fraction of the world’s population would die?
- What is the biggest nuclear threat?
- How concerned should we be about North Korea?
- How often has the world experienced nuclear near misses?
- How might a conflict between India and Pakistan escalate to the nuclear level?
- How quickly must a president make a decision in the result of a suspected first strike?
- Are global sources of nuclear material safely secured?
- What role does cyber security have in preventing nuclear disasters?
- How can we improve relations between nuclear armed states?
- What do you think about the campaign for complete nuclear disarmament?
- If you could tell the US government to do three things, what are the key priorities today?
- Is it practical to get members of congress to pay attention to nuclear risks?
- Could modernisation of nuclear weapons actually make the world safer?
Keiran Harris helped produce today’s episode.
If you subscribe to The 80,000 Hours Podcast, you can listen at leisure on your phone, speed up the conversation if you like, and get notified about future episodes. You can do so by searching ‘80,000 Hours’ wherever you get your podcasts (include the comma).
Below you’ll find the full interview, along with a coaching application form, brief summary and extra resources to learn more.
Table of Contents
Three key points
“Really there’s two types of material that we should worry about, one is nuclear material, so that’s material that could be used in a nuclear device. So think Hiroshima — that was a nuclear bomb — think about that kind of device being used by a terrorist. And that material is actually widely available. 22 countries around the world have nuclear material, it’s in hundreds of sites, some of it’s not secure. So you have that type of material, nuclear material, that could be used in a nuclear bomb.
You also have what are called radioactive sources. So these are things like caesium and cobalt, these sources that can be used for let’s say, medical uses. So blood irradiators use the radiation to irradiate the blood, and there are other research purposes for which you would use radioactive sources. Those are in many many more countries around the world, well over 100 countries and in thousands and thousands of sites including in the US and including in areas of the world where there’s conflict and also active terrorist groups.”
“When it comes to North Korea, we know they have developed nuclear weapons. We are unsure of their ability to actually launch a nuclear missile, say, deep into the US territories. But we know they have developed capabilities and those capabilities are increasing. But what you have is you have two leaders who are playing a game of verbal chicken over their nuclear programs. You have dangerous rhetoric, you have escalating threats.
At some point, one of the sides is going to have to stop this escalation. And talk of some sort of military action against North Korea, I think, is extremely dangerous in terms of the North Korean leader perceiving a threat that might have to be preemptive — in terms of a US potential military attack on North Korea to prevent their program from progressing that could lead then to some sort of retaliation. Really what you have there is a ticking time bomb, and it has to be walked back. There has to be an adult in the room to walk that back and not lead us into some accidental crisis that precipitates a nuclear exchange.”
“If you think about some sort of group or another country spoofing an attack that would cause a response — that’s a real threat. And the fact is that the US and Russia have over a thousand nuclear weapons together that are just ready to launch within minutes. And if the US were to believe it was under attack from Russian nuclear weapons, there would only be 10 or so minutes for a US president to make a decision to respond before being hit.
And so you have this intense time pressure on a US leader to respond with a nuclear strike. So you combine all those pieces together, the crisis, the tension, the lack of dialogue, the lack of cooperation, the increased rhetoric with the potential for a false warning and the cyber threat. I don’t have to tell the listeners but that just hopefully sounds to them like a very scary scenario that we should be trying to avoid and walk back.”
Articles, books and blog posts discussed in the show
- The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner by Daniel Ellsberg
- Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
- Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety
- Command and Control PBS documentary
- Accidental Nuclear War: A Timeline of Close Calls
- Discussion of the science behind a nuclear winter
- NUKEMAP: Simulate nuclear weapon explosions and see if you’d survive
- Wheel of Misfortune – Union of Concerned Scientists
- “On The Brink”—Really? Revisiting Nuclear Close Calls Since 1945
- Anthropic Shadow: Observation Selection Effects and Human Extinction Risks
Organisations and roles mentioned in the show
- The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) Graduate Fellowship Program
- Nuclear Threat Initiative
- International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons
- RAND Corporation
- Booz Allen Hamilton
- Brookings Institution
- Ploughshares Fund
- Arms Control Association
- Why the long-term future of humanity matters more than anything else, and what we should do about it
- Dr Cameron fought Ebola for the White House. Now she works to stop something even worse.
- Podcast: You want to do as much good as possible and have billions of dollars. What do you do?
Robert Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, the show about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. I’m Rob Wiblin, Director of Research at 80,000 Hours.
Today is the first of what I hope will be an ongoing series of interviews about the risks posed by nuclear weapons. The risk of nuclear war or terrorism is a concrete problem that is well understood on a technical level. The hard questions are what policies countries would be willing to adopt that lower those risks.
And for individuals, how can they place themselves to influence policies that are often made at the top of government or the military.
In future I hope to delve into how people thought about to keep the world safe through the invention of nuclear weapons in the 40s and 50s. There were a number of people who saw the invention of nuclear weapons, and the nuclear standoff between the US and Soviet Union well before they happened. They made active efforts to influence US policy to ensure they didn’t lead to a disastrous outcome. I think we can learn a lot from those experiences about how we might be able to keep the world safe when we create future equivalents of nuclear weapons.
Just after we recorded this interview, the book The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg came out, which is a cracking history of US nuclear policy and close calls with armageddon. I’m listening to the audiobook version right now and can certainly recommend it, though I don’t agree with all of the solutions Ellsberg puts forward.
Finally, if you’re looking other podcasts to listen to in addition to this one, can I suggest Conversations with Tyler. Like this show, it’s a series of long-form interviews with really smart people on topics they know a lot about, hosted by polymath economist Tyler Cowen. I particularly enjoyed the recent episode with Sujatha Gidla about the treatment of untouchables in modern day india, among other things.
And now I bring you, Samantha Pitts-Kiefer.
Robert Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Samantha Pitts-Kiefer. Samantha joined the Nuclear Threat Initiative in 2012 and serves as Senior Director of The Global Nuclear Policy Program. At NTI, she’s led two major projects, The Nuclear Security Index and the Global Dialogue on Nuclear Security Priorities.
She focuses on Cyber Security, US-Russia Relations and Nuclear Weapons Policy. Samantha completed an MPA Degree at the Harvard Kennedy School focused on foreign Policy and National Security. And is also term member of the Council on Foreign Relations. So thanks so much for coming on the podcast Samantha.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Hi. Yeah, I know it’s great to be here and I think it’s really great that you’re doing this series of podcast to really bring some awareness to some of the major global threats that we’re facing. And so I thank you for the opportunity.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah. So recently we’ve had episodes about risks from artificial intelligence and cyber security and pandemics. So it’s good to finally get to perhaps the oldest and most obvious risk to the continuation of human civilization. North Korea’s nuclear program has been all over news lately, so it’s a pretty timely discussion. I just kind of hope that we’ll all still be alive to actually release the podcast in a couple of weeks.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Exactly. It’s been an interesting time, it’s an understatement.
Robert Wiblin: So I think we’ve only got an hour or two with you ’cause you got so much to do but I’m sure this won’t be the last interview. But first tell us a bit about your work at The Nuclear Threat Initiative, what do you actually do?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So the Nuclear Threat Initiative is a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. It was founded in 2001 by former senator Sam Nunn and Ted Turner of CNN. And what they wanted to do was figure out how a nonprofit organization could have an impact on reducing various threats, WMD threats, weapons of mass distraction. So the organizational mission is to reduce those threats. I’ve been working on a couple of those.
The first is the threat of a terrorist acquiring some of weapon of mass distraction such as the nuclear weapon or dirty bomb. I worked on that for the first four years I was at NTI. And then the other type of threat is of course the state threat. So the threat of a country with a nuclear weapon potentially using that weapon, and that’s what I focused on for the last year and a half or so. So I’ve done a mix of looking at non-state actors terrorist, use of nuclear weapons as well as the possibility of a country’s of nuclear weapons.
Robert Wiblin: I imagine most listeners believe that they are real risks from nuclear weapons but it’s probably not something that they worry about too much. Now how did you decide that this was so important that you wanted to dedicate your career to it?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So when I went back to grad school … after practicing Law for few years, I really wanted to go into public services and I was interested in National Security and Foreign Policy. So when I went to grad school, I took some classes. And I took a class where they had a week-long focus on Nuclear Terrorism. And we looked at the possibility of a terrorist group acquiring a nuclear weapon. You can imagine sort of a nuclear 9/11, right? So a major terrorist event like 9/11, but using some sort of nuclear device and how catastrophic that would be. So in the class we looked at this problem and I had never heard about this threat before.
And it was so shocking to me that this was a possibility that I became just very interested in how to work on this issue and I knew it was an issue where they really need young and talented people, dedicated people working on this issue both in government and outside of government. And so I really became interested in it and looked into the possibility of a career and found NTI and ended up in NTI after I graduated.
Robert Wiblin: Tell me more about this dirty bomb scenario, should we be surprised that that hasn’t happened already?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Frankly I am surprised and the reason is and I’ll just give a little background. Really there’s two types of material that we should worry about, one is nuclear material, so that’s material that could be used in a nuclear device. So think Hiroshima was a nuclear bomb — think about that kind of device being used by a terrorist. And that material is actually widely available. 22 countries around the world have nuclear material, it’s in hundreds of sites, some of it’s not secure. So you have that type of material, nuclear material, that could be used in a nuclear bomb.
You also have what are called radioactive sources. So these are things like caesium and cobalt, these sources that can be used for let’s say, medical uses. So blood irradiators use the radiation to irradiate the blood, it’s used for medical and there’s other research purposes for which you would use radioactive sources. Those are in many many more countries around the world, well over 100 countries and in thousands and thousands of sites including in the US and including in areas of the world where there’s conflict and also active terrorist groups.
And that material, if you think about a hospital for instance, you’re not gonna see a large security presence at a hospital where they have this equipment. Whereas if you go to a nuclear power plant for instance or a place where there’s nuclear weapons, they’ll be more of a heavy security presence.
So you think about the fact that these radioactive materials are not only widely dispersed around the world, they’re also in these facilities that have very little or no security. And the amount of material that you would get from a radioactive source it’s … I mean I can’t show you ’cause we’re not on video, but if you take your little finger, that’s the material that you would get from that equipment, you could steal that, wrap some explosives around it and then that explosion would spread radioactive material and in some cases that radioactive material would bond to concrete.
So if you have let’s say downtown New York, Wall Street, or Capital here in Washington. That radioactive material would bond to the walls, and you can’t just decontaminate it or clean it. You have to rip down those structures. So imagine having to rip down several city blocks in downtown New York and the kind of economic impact that I could have.
But not only that, there’s the sort of panic that you might get from people experiencing that kind of event. So that material widely available, not secured potentially has a devastating economic and societal effect. It’s really actually frankly hard to see how that hasn’t happened already, I think that is one of the high possibility threats we should be worried about.
The fact that a nuclear device might be not as probable as a dirty bomb doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on that threat because obviously with a nuclear device you have a far greater consequences in terms of human life, loss of life and injury.
Robert Wiblin: So there’s a lot of different scenarios that you might worry about. You might worry about this dirty bomb case. I guess you’ve got like small or medium scale or nuclear exchanges, the kind of thing you might get with North Korea, or between India and Pakistan. And then you’ve got that just all out nuclear exchange between China and America or America and Russia.
And suppose I’m not entire sure, which one is best to focus on. In the past, I thought it’s definitely the all out nuclear exchange between Russia and America, that kind of scenario because just the consequences would be so much worse. But then what someone pointed out, it might be much more likely for someone to use this kind of dirty bomb.
And even though it would only kill a fairly limited number of people directly, you can imagine just the social consequences being quite catastrophic that countries will become very unwilling to trade with one another because they would worry that a bomb would be imported in shipping container.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well, I think you have to focus on all these threats. There’s no reason to focus on one and not the others. But you’re absolutely right, we have the threat of dirty bomb and this radioactive sources. You have the threat of nuclear material that’s used in nuclear power, research reactors, also in military programs you have those materials that could be stolen.
But then you have this risk of some sort of nuclear exchange. I think it’s really important to understand that in the Cold War we were dealing with basically two countries that had the ability to destroy one another. And so you had the concept of mutually assured destruction, and a relatively stable kind of environment because you had just that bilateral dynamic.
Now we have more countries with nuclear weapons, we have major potential flashpoints. We also, even though we are not in the Cold War, we don’t have maybe as high a potential of an all out nuclear war between US and Russia, you do have the possibility of some sort of miscalculation or an accident. And I’ll talk actually a little bit about these different flashpoints and the possible risks.
When it comes to North Korea, we know they have developed nuclear weapons. We are unsure of their ability to actually launch a nuclear missile, say, deep into the US territories. But we know they have developed capabilities and those capabilities are increasing. But what you have is you have two leaders who are playing a game of verbal chicken over their nuclear programs. You have dangerous rhetoric, you have escalating threats.
At some point, one of the sides is gonna have to stop this escalation and talk of some sort of military action against North Korea, I think is extremely dangerous in terms of the North Korean leader perceiving a threat that might have to be preemptive, in terms of a US potential military attack on North Korea to prevent their program from progressing that could lead then to some sort of retaliation. Really what you have there is a ticking time bomb and it has to be walked back. There has to be an adult in the room to walk that back and not lead us into some accidental crisis that precipitates a nuclear exchange. So that’s North Korea.
Then you have India and Pakistan who have a decades-long conflict, flashpoints along the border. You have potential for a terrorist group to do another terrorist attack in India to which India might feel the necessity to respond militarily to Pakistan. And then you have a potential conventional war turning nuclear if Pakistan believes that it is facing an existential threat, it can use its nuclear weapons. So you have just there in that region the potential for escalation of a conventional war to a nuclear war.
And then when it comes to US and Russia, you have right now a really tense situation. You have limited dialogue, you have limited military-to-military contacts, you have potential for accidents in the air. We’re engaging in different regions, in close quarters and there’s a potential if there’s a some sort of accident for that to escalate especially when we have the tension between the two countries.
And maybe the greatest risk is a scenario of some sort of false warning where you have US early warning systems detecting an incoming attack from Russia. And then in a crisis where there’s tension and lack of dialogue, the potential for the US to believe it’s under threat and respond with a nuclear force. And actually there’s been several cases in history in the last couple of decades where there were these false warnings because of different computer bugs or human error where luckily that did not result in a nuclear exchange because someone was able to figure out that it was a false warning.
But that’s still a potential issue especially when you bring into the mix the cyber vulnerabilities of some of the systems, some of the nuclear weapon systems or with the communication systems, again the satellites, radar, the early warning systems.
If you think about some sort of group or another country spoofing an attack that would cause a response that’s a really real … a real threat. And the fact is that the US and Russia have over a thousand nuclear weapons together that are just ready to launch within minutes. And if the US were to believe it was under attack from Russian nuclear weapons, there would only be 10 or so minutes for a US president to make a decision to respond before being hit.
And so you have this intense time pressure on a US leader to respond with a nuclear strike. So you combine all those pieces together, the crisis, the tension, the lack of dialogue, the lack of cooperation, the increased rhetoric with the potential for a false warning and the cyber threat. I don’t have to tell the listeners but that just hopefully sounds to them like a very scary scenario that we should be trying to avoid and walk back.
Robert Wiblin: That all sounds pretty terrifying. Earlier you said NTI wants to focus on all of these problems. But are there any risks that you know worry you the most that they really stand out as perhaps the most likely way that a nuclear war could start within the next 20 years?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I do think that we think the issue of the nuclear weapons ready to launch on a quick basis and there’s potential cyber element to that as well as the US-Russia tensions that really is maybe the most likely use of a nuclear weapon we might see. We’re also again worried about terrorism. Terrorists have in the past stated their interest in acquiring a nuclear weapon whether it be stealing the material and making it themselves.
And we have to remember that terrorist groups are well financed, they have potential access to technology and scientific capabilities of building a nuclear weapon. So, that is a threat that we have to worry about too. We can’t become complacent because the news is all about North Korea or Russia, we still have to worry about the terrorist threat.
Robert Wiblin: Has NTI ever tried to estimate the annual probability of any of these things happening or is that just viewed as not practical?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Yeah, we certainly haven’t but part of the issue is there has never been a nuclear terrorist attack. So some would say well the history shows that it’s unlikely. Well you can’t predict the future from history. And because the consequences of a nuclear device being detonated are so grave, so catastrophic, would be society changing.
We cannot be complacent about that threat and we have to continuously work to ensure that all nuclear materials, nuclear weapons are locked down to the greatest extent or reduced and eliminated where possible. If a nuclear device were to go off, the next day people would be wondering, “What could we have done to prevent that act?” And the answer of, “Well, we didn’t think it was likely, so we didn’t focus our attention on it,” is not going to fly with the public if that happens.
Robert Wiblin: Just given how grave the consequences are?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Oh absolutely. I mean again imagine at 9/11 using a nuclear device instead of a few thousand deaths, imagine hundreds of thousands.
Robert Wiblin: So I spoke to a researcher at Oxford in another interview who had tried to estimate the likelihood of a nuclear war each year, and concluded that it was somewhere between 1 and 100 and I and 1000 each year, which sounds fairly low, but then if you add that up over a century the chances of a person dying becomes quite significant. So I’ll put up a link to that episode and the paper where they tried to do that calculation and the students can take a look. Tell me a bit more about the cyber security issues ’cause that’s something that you’re particularly knowledgeable about, right?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Right, so NTI in the past few years has become more concerned about cyber threats to not only civilian nuclear facilities, so power plants or research reactors, places where there’s a nuclear material, but also to cyber threats to nuclear weapons and command and control. So we’re working on both of those issues.
On the civilian side, the worry is that a cyber attack could be used to disable security systems allowing some terrorist or somebody to enter a facility, enter a secure area and steal material, sell on the black market maybe, it gets into the hands of a terrorist group and then they can use it to build a nuclear device.
So the using of the cyber to facilitate some sort of physical breach of a nuclear facility. You can also think about … for instance think about Fukushima, right? So in Fukushima, you had the cutting of the generator and the electricity and so there was no cooling. And so you led to catastrophic radioactive release. Think about something like that happening because of a cyber attack where a group cuts off the electric supply to the facility and then leading to a radioactive release.
So you have the terrorist element of using cyber perhaps in combination with the physical attack to either sabotage a facility, cause radiation to release or to steal material for a nuclear device. When you think about the nuclear weapon’s side and the potential cyber threats there, one of the things that we worry about, I already mentioned a little bit is again, the use of the cyber attack to somehow disrupt or disable or modify early warning systems. Again the example is a spoofed attack.
So your early warning systems show an incoming nuclear attack, which isn’t the case. And because of the time pressure, the accidental or miscalculated response that you would have. And then once you consider potential cyber vulnerabilities in communication system, what happens if there’s a crisis and the leadership can’t communicate with the military or those who are in charge of nuclear weapons?
If you can’t assure that you can use your nuclear weapons when desired or that you can’t assure the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, what does that do in terms of stability with other countries? If there’s a belief that we might not have confidence in our ability to either use or prevent the use of our nuclear weapons, how does that undo all the decades-long assumption about how you maintain stability globally and nuclear deterrence.
And so we think that country’s governments especially in the US and Russia really need to think about how cyber security and cyber threats impact just even the role of nuclear weapons and whether we can have a continued confidence in them.
Robert Wiblin: How good is the cyber security for China and Russia and then US and their nuclear weapons? Is this something that they’ve invested heavily in?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well, you know it’s hard to tell because so much is classified. But we believe that there’s a need to do more.
Robert Wiblin: Is there the possibility of anyone breaching the cyber security of these weapons and then actually being able to launch them or is at least that protected against?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So the experts that we’ve talked to believe that it’s unlikely but it’s not a zero possibility. And you have to think about the fact that we are in a situation where terrorist groups get more sophisticated. Technology is changing so quickly that keeping up with potential threats is extremely difficult and perhaps impossible.
And as countries are modernizing their nuclear weapons systems whether it’s … and you have to remember, it’s not just the nuclear weapon but all the systems that are linked to that, the communications, how the launch codes are transmitted, there’s all these different systems.
As systems are modernized, increasing digitization of them would potentially lead to more vulnerability. So it maybe that currently it would be difficult for a terrorist group, a non-state actor to take control of a nuclear weapon and launch it through a cyber attack. It’s not impossible and we can’t rule out the possibility that that threat could actually increase as technology and capabilities evolve.
Robert Wiblin: So about cyber security is one of the potential factors that could make the risk of nuclear weapons greater. Are there any others that we should be particularly focused on just like bad general relationships between America and China or bad equipment and training among the staff working in the facilities?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So when it comes to relationships between countries, I think the key is the necessity of having dialogue and cooperation. It doesn’t help to walk away from those that we would see as adversaries. So I just take US and Russia for example. In the Cold War, the two countries were adversaries, no doubt about it but they continued to talk, they put in place arms control agreements, they regulated their relationship and their weapons.
Now, we are in a situation where we are not in a Cold War but dialogue is almost nil between the US and Russia on these major issues. And yes, we do have differences between the US and Russia on Ukraine, Syria. There’s a long list of issues we have differences on but those shouldn’t mean that we stop cooperating on these really existential threats that we both face.
US and Russia have over 90% of the world’s nuclear materials, nuclear weapons. There is a special responsibility that they do what is necessary to reduce not only terrorist threats, nuclear radiological terrorist threats, but also the risks of a nuclear war, a nuclear exchange.
When you don’t have that dialogue and not working on these threats and you’re not taking action to reduce risks and instead actually going in the wrong direction and escalating threats, that is extremely dangerous. So yes, having poor relations and a lack of dialogue between countries with nuclear weapons is extremely dangerous. We need to get back to a place where setting aside our differences, we’re able to work on these common threats.
Robert Wiblin: Do you know what the strategy is on for each party there for not talking to one another about this ’cause it seems even though the US and Russia might disagree about Ukraine, neither of them wants to be annihilated in a nuclear war, so you think that would keep the communication channels open about this kind of thing?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: You know I can’t speak for the governments but yeah, I mean I think nobody wants to have a nuclear exchange, nobody wants that. But I think that in the US for instance there’s a lot of politics around Russia. We have the issue with Russian interference in the elections. We have issues with Ukraine, we have issues with Syria and the political atmosphere right now is so charged that makes it very difficult even among people who believe there should be cooperation, makes it extremely difficult to actually take any steps. And you know I believe that politics should be set aside when we’re thinking about these catastrophic threats, but the reality is politics. So we need to get back to a place where we can actually start working together again.
Robert Wiblin: If there were a nuclear war, do we have a sense of what fraction of the world’s population would die? I know there’s been a lot of controversy about how bad the nuclear winter effect would be and the scientists seem to have gone back and forth over the last few decades.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Yeah, I mean there’s different … when you think about the different types of nuclear use, you have anything from a small nuclear device used by a terrorist group that could kill you know maybe in the hundred tens of thousands or hundred of thousands depending where it is. All the way to a massive US-Russia exchange where you could potentially have millions and then you have something in between.
And I think the case of the Nuclear Winter Research is really a good example of how … you know no matter where you are in the world, we have to worry about these issues. So take India and Pakistan, so some might think, “Well, even if they have a small limited nuclear exchange, they’re over there and it will affect them but we over here, we don’t have to worry about it as much.”
But the fact is the recent research has shown that if India and Pakistan were to have a nuclear exchange and I think the modeling they used 50 nuclear weapons each and each nuclear weapon about the size of the bomb used in Hiroshima. Just the use of that limited use would have a massive effect on the climate. You would have the smoke that blocks out the sun, causes global cooling and then that leads to crops dying and lower food production and again this global famine that could last decades. So you know you think of this limited war between India and Pakistan actually that would have catastrophic global effects.
Robert Wiblin: More people could die indirectly than are killed directly basically.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Oh exactly. So again this is not something where we can say, “Oh well this is not our problem, let’s not worry about it. This is a problem for someone else.” That’s not the case. I mean it’s the same with nuclear terrorism. You could have a country that doesn’t have any nuclear material or any nuclear facility say, “Well, I don’t have any material, I don’t have any facilities, so I don’t have to worry about terrorist. I don’t have to worry about nuclear terrorism, that’s somebody else’s problem.” No, that’s not the case.
If there’s a nuclear device used anywhere in the world that affects everyone. Not only the physical effects potentially depending on where you are but economic effects, societal effects. We’re all affected if there is some nuclear device used whether it’s a small terrorist device or a state nuclear weapon.
Robert Wiblin: I’ll try to find some recent research papers on the Nuclear Winter effect. I’m obviously not a climate scientist but my understanding is that the main controversy has been about how high the particulates would go after the nuclear weapons were used, ’cause if they go high enough then they tend to stay in the atmosphere blocking out the sun for many many years, but if they don’t get so high then they tend to get rained out of the atmosphere and it would only last months or years. So I think that’s something that scientists … I mean it’s just extremely hard to model ’cause we fortunately don’t have any experience of a nuclear war to calibrate the climate models.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Yeah, and there’s lots of different websites that do modeling of attacks. So you can type in where you live and the type of device and it will show you where the types of injuries or deaths would occur. So if you wanna really scare yourself, you can type in where you live. For instance if you were to put in downtown Washington, D.C in one of these models. You know I work about a block away from The White House and all of the rings where you have 100% fatalities. Well, I’m sitting in one of those rings, so it’s really not pretty to think about. But if you really wanna scare yourself, I highly recommend going to those websites.
Robert Wiblin: Suppose if you ever need motivation to keep on working, you could just go and checkout that website. So we’ve talked a bit about the nature of the threat. Let’s talk a bit about what is actually being done to deal with it. Who in the US and other governments is responsible for minimizing the risk of nuclear weapons being used, are there people who clearly know that this is their job?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So the responsibilities really differs based on the country. In the US, it’s the military that controls the actual use of a nuclear weapon, the Department of Energy runs the Nuclear Weapons Complex that … actually the NNSA, which is part of the Department of Energy runs the maintenance and security etc of nuclear weapons. Then you also have the regulator that regulates the use of nuclear materials and technology and how we interact with other countries on nuclear issues, licenses, etc and put in place the security and safety standards.
In other countries, it will be a slightly different arrangement but one thing that’s really important is to ensure that you do have a strong regulator that’s independent putting in place the best standards of regulations possible on both security and safety. But also providing oversight on facilities and really the level of independence varies across countries and also the level of resources varies across countries.
But no matter how small or large a program, like I said terrorists can find material in all these different places and they’re gonna go where it’s least secure, so every country with those materials and facilities needs to make sure that they’re doing what is necessary to secure them. So again regulations, regulators, also private entities. So in a lot of countries, civilian nuclear facilities like power plants, they are run by private countries and so ensuring that these companies from the top management CEO, the Board of Directors, all the way down to the person who’s next to the secure areas or in the secure areas are responsible for security. That there is a strong culture of security in those organizations, that there’s no complacency. We’ve seen actually some examples of pretty bad security culture including in the US.
Few years ago one of the facilities in the US that had highly enriched uranium of really dangerous nuclear materials in a facility that was supposedly the Fort Knox of nuclear facilities code Y12. There was a situation where a nun, a peace activist an 80+ year-old nun broke into this facility, broke through several layers of fences and they painted blood on the walls and the security guards ignored it for quite a bit of time. I recommend that you put some material on this on your website because it’s quite alarming to think about in the US, in a military government facility that you would have such a lapse of security culture and such complacency that you would have a break in of a facility.
So I mean that just goes to show that the issue of security is something that all countries have to worry about in making sure that there’s strong standards and also strong culture in recognition that the responsibility of securing material is in placed throughout an organization.
Robert Wiblin: It must be extraordinarily difficult for the organizations that are handling nuclear weapons to maintain a really strong security culture. ‘Cause basically we want them to do hopefully nothing for hundreds of years, never use these weapons but to remain absolutely vigilant every minute of the day for those centuries where they’re hopefully not using the weapons at all. It seems almost inevitable that the staff would become complacent ’cause just nothing is going on ’cause 99.99% of the time that there are no threats.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well I think that you’ve hit a good point because you’re right. The purpose of our nuclear weapons is to prevent their use that’s the theory at least that having nuclear weapons is our insurance that we won’t have to use them. So, yes the people who are responsible for actually implementing their use, maintaining them etc. There has been a loss of morale that we’ve seen some incidents where for instance guards left the door open or were sleeping on the job or cheating on test. There’s actually some examples in recent years of this sort of loss of morale among those who were charged with using and keeping these nuclear weapons.
Robert Wiblin: If somehow you just got a lot of influence over the US government and you could tell them to do three things that would be really useful for reducing the risk, what three things would those be?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well, I would put on top of the list, taking these nuclear weapons off of their quick launch status. As I said previously they’re ready to be used within minutes and the time pressure that creates some dangers in terms of escalation and miscalculation. So increasing the time that a decision maker would have to use a nuclear weapons, taking these missiles off of prompt launch would be top of the list because again you reduce the risk of some accident or miscalculation.
Second I would say get back into a dialogue with Russia. We are reaching a point where we have a treaty that we have with Russia that limits the number of nuclear weapons that both of us can have. We are reaching a point where that treaty is set to expire in a few years and there’s currently no discussions or dialogue about what to do next and if that treaty expires without any replacement or extension, we’re getting into a situation where we haven’t been for decades, where we have this unregulated environment where you could potentially have a new arms race. So I would tell the government you need to get back on track with arms control and dialogue setting aside the tensions that we have. Deal with the tensions we have with Russia on a separate track but get back to dialogue on risk reduction, we don’t need to get into another arms race.
And then third I would say the US has commitment under the Non Proliferation Treaty to eventually work towards getting rid of nuclear weapons and previous governments have moved towards that by decreasing the role of nuclear weapons in our security. Reducing numbers, taking them off high-alert in a trajectory that includes steps that reduce ricks. Now we are in a situation where we have a US government with plans to refurbish and modernize and potentially have new nuclear weapons.
And also the rhetoric around nuclear weapons and activities that seem to step away from where we want to be going, we need to take steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. We need to take steps towards that even recognizing that that’s not an easy task and it will take a long time to get there but we need to be looking at all that we’re looking in our nuclear policies through the lens of, “Are we reducing risks and moving towards that vision of a world without nuclear weapons or are we doing something that actually potentially increases risks and moves us away from that vision.”
And we have to remember that everything that we do when it comes to nuclear policy, other countries are looking at what we’re doing. So if you have countries without nuclear weapons seeing the US increasing the role of nuclear weapons, creating new nuclear weapons, that sends the wrong message to other countries who we’re telling that they should not get nuclear weapons. So we really have to think about how what we’re doing not only affects the risks that we face but also the message it sends in terms of our international objectives for preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons.
Robert Wiblin: The campaign for full on nuclear disarmament has a bit of momentum highly at the moment, what do you think of that? I certainly worry that too much disarmament could make the relationship between nuclear powers too unstable ’cause you wouldn’t have this mutual destruction effect anymore.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well, I think that it’s hard to prove a negative. I won’t get into who’s right on whether having nuclear weapons has prevented major conflict, I think that it’s really hard to get evidence for. But we do know that nuclear weapons create risks and today we’re in a completely different environment than we were decades ago. Again, now we have nine countries with nuclear weapons, now we have non-state actors interested in nuclear weapons. Now we have cyber threats that potentially undermine confidence in nuclear weapons, so I wouldn’t call that a stable environment where we can be confident that there’s not gonna be a use of a nuclear weapon. I don’t think that’s true. That said, while we should emphasize that a world without nuclear weapons is where we need to go, I don’t think that we can be naive that it’s going to happen over night.
So if you look at the recent movement toward banning nuclear weapons, it’s a political statement that countries are saying this is what we believe, this is the vision that we should move towards nuclear weapons are immoral and should not be used. But that alone is not going to get us where we need. There has to be a path and there has to be a path that includes steps to get there. So we can’t wish away nuclear weapons overnight as much as many of us would want to, we have to put in place conditions.
One of the things that NTI has been working on is a process that’s … we work on with the US governments but many other countries are involved thinking about what technology and what tools are needed eventually if when we get to a place where we can completely reduce and dismantle nuclear weapons and lead to disarmament. What are the tools we actually need to verify that countries are doing that? Because once we get to that point, we can’t just trust that countries are doing that. We need to trust and verify.
So we need the tools to be able to verify that so that there’s confidence that all countries will be living up to those disarmament obligations. That’s hard tough work and there’s lots of work that needs to be done to get to a place where we could have disarmament and so yes, it’s really good to have the vision and the commitment and countries stating that they believe that that’s the goals, but we also have to do the hard work necessary to get there.
Robert Wiblin: So when we’ve looked at how much influence someone might hope to have over nuclear security issues, it looked to us like inside of governments, there are quite a lot of people who think about these issues and so it could potentially be quite crowded. Quite a crowded area could be hard for one person to really make a big difference. But outside of government, there’s really not many groups at all working on this issue. So there’s NTI but I can’t think of almost any other nonprofits that are focused on nuclear security issues and certainly not for-profits either. Is that correct?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I think there’s a lot of organizations that are working on this issue. In Washington, several organizations focus on this. We have organizations around the world focus on this, academics. If you think about the Nuclear Ban Treaty that was recently approved in the UN process, the driving force behind that was a consortium of nonprofits. ICAN, which was recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts, was an example of non governmental groups pushing and leading to governments actually taking action. I think that despite what you think about The Ban Treaty itself and those differing opinions, I think you have to give credit to ICAN and the group and the organizations that were part of that effort for really getting something done and getting it on the agenda. I think that’s shows the impact that non-government groups can have.
Robert Wiblin: So if you had a talented young person who wanted to work on nuclear policy, do you think that’d make a bigger difference trying to join the military or in a civilian agencies that regulate the military or working outside the government perhaps NTI or ICAN or something like that?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I think there’s different ways to have impact and I wouldn’t really say one is better than the other or more likely to lead to change. The way government works is different from … outside the government, there’s bureaucracy etc but I think you can have a sense of purpose working inside government on issues. You have to remember that even if we have a government where potentially, we believe that maybe they’re going in the wrong direction when it comes to the role of nuclear weapons. You have to remember that inside the government you have people who work there regardless of who is the president and who is in power, who are tackling risk reduction issues every single day. They’re working on helping to secure materials around the world, they’re working on programs to reduce materials around the world, they’re working on threat reduction issues in a tangible way.
I think that the people who I know who’ve worked on those issues believe they’ve made an impact and I also believe that they have too. If you think about the people in government who negotiate arms control treaties, the people who negotiated the Iran deal. These are real achievements that make the world safer every day and so you can have an impact in government. On the outside, I believe we can have an impact too. If you’re outside government, you’re not dealing with this sort of every day exigencies of governing. There’s time and space to really think creatively, come up with new ideas and then also to push from the outside for more ambitious action by governments. So it’s really two different ways of having an impact but I think both are really fulfilling and have a high sense of purpose.
Robert Wiblin: What are NTI’s priorities at the moment?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So we’re working on several priorities and I think I’ve mentioned a few of them already. One is the dirty bomb threat and part of that is … I mentioned that there’s these radioactive sources in different devices in hospitals and research centers etc and in these Blood Irradiators used in hospitals, you can actually replace that equipment with equipment that doesn’t have the dangerous material in it. Actually it’s not expensive. It’s not difficult so there really needs to be a push for hospitals to replace that equipment so that the material won’t be stolen.
So we’re working on some initiatives on that. I think that’s definitely an area that’s ripe for some potential some Congressional action on making sure that we’re using equipment that can’t be used for a terrorist purpose.
We also have a new program on biosecurity and you had spoken to a colleague of mine, a previous episode will go into depth on this but if you think about potential existential threats, think about pandemics and the potential use of some sort of bio-threat or disease that is spread intentionally by terrorist groups, so there is a existential threat there that needs to be addressed, and now NTI is really working to increase work in that area.
We also of course are looking at nuclear security and nuclear terrorist threat and then finally also the nuclear weapons threat. So again looking at cyber vulnerabilities and nuclear weapons. A big focus on US-Russia and what can be done to get them back on track to dialogue and then also general nuclear weapon risk reduction. So thinking about how we can bring countries back to that common vision of a world without nuclear weapons. And take some common steps that would get us back on track to lead there. I mean with the US-Russia tensions, North Korea, there’s a whole lot of problems that sort of get us off track and we need to get back on track working together in the international community having the US and Russia work together to move us towards a safer more secure world and again back to that pathway towards a world without nuclear weapons.
Robert Wiblin: With members of Congress and people in The White House facing so many pressing political issues every day, is it practical to get them to pay much attention to nuclear security issues when that’s probably not something their constituents are mostly worried about?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well this is exactly the problem. So there are many members of Congress who believe that nuclear security and reducing nuclear risks is of vital importance. Many of them have nuclear facilities in their districts so they are keenly aware Of the risks but you hit the nail on the head. Many of these offices have small staffs, they have limited resources and then of course you’re using your political time on issues that your constituents are worried about.
So I’ve heard from one Congressman that nuclear issues, nuclear security, they’re not even on the top 10 list. People are worried about jobs, they’re worried about healthcare, they’re worried about educating their kids, they’re worried about the issues that affect their day-to-day life. Something like the possibility of a nuclear device, a nuclear terrorist event or even a nuclear exchange with North Korea or Russia, those are not on people’s minds on a daily basis or perhaps even ever.
So when your constituents are not asking you to take action on those issue, it’s really hard to devote resources in time to those issues. So there really needs to be more done to raise awareness and interest on these risks among the public. The public needs to demand that their governments are being responsible actors when it comes to addressing these risks. They need to demand that their governments are doing as much as possible to prevent a terrorist from stealing nuclear material. Whether it is here or somewhere else in the world, they need to demand that their government is not expending resources on bolstering its nuclear weapons capability and potentially increasing risks. So there needs to be a public education and awareness about these risks and what the governments are doing about them and the call for action from leaders.
Robert Wiblin: I think one of the reasons that we suspect that there are some pretty good opportunities here is that it’s a pretty neglected issue. It’s hard to get politicians or I imagine even the military to really set their minds to this issue in a consistent way ’cause there’s just too many other things in the news every day that they have to worry about. So when it comes to modernization of America’s nuclear weapons, isn’t it possible that could make things safer ’cause you would have better security protocols or at least they wouldn’t be very old nuclear weapons lying around that could break or have accidents?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well I think there’s multiple issue. One is of course the weapons that we do have must be safe and secure and reliable and that means maintaining them and refurbishing them as necessary. But there’s a difference between that and expending massive resources on weapons that we don’t need or should be thinking about phasing out. So we shouldn’t be designing new weapons systems and putting billions of dollars into those systems when we don’t need them. I mean think about how many nuclear weapons we have just the ones that are active and deployed somewhere around 1,800 and then many many more in reserve and storage. Do we really need that many?
And so when you think about refurbishing and maintaining and building replacement weapons or new weapons, you have to wonder why are we doing that when we could be reducing. I’ll I just say that in the Obama Administration at least that the Pentagon made a determination that we could in fact reduce our deployed arsenal by a third. And even if it’s done on a unilateral basis and still be able to respond to threats around the world including against our allies.
So we need to be thinking about instead of spending billions of dollars on something shiny and new or even maintaining something that we already have, whether in fact we should just be reducing those numbers. You know perfect example is, there’s different types of nuclear weapons and different deployments. Some are at sea, some are ready to be launched from planes and then others are ground based silos out in the corn fields. A lot of people think that we don’t need as many as we have but also that some of those ground based ones should be eliminated because they pose a risk and so instead of investing in wholesale and new set of those types of weapons, maybe we should thinking a little bit more carefully about whether that’s an investment that we should be making because it locks it in for decades.
Robert Wiblin: Other than getting the US and Russia talking again, are there any other reforms that NTI would really like to see at the international level?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So on the international level, just going back to the nuclear terrorism issue. I talked about the importance of having high standards of security in reducing and eliminating those materials. I think one thing that would be quite shocking to people listening is to know that despite the danger of those nuclear materials, there’s actually no international rules that regulate them. So if you think about things like aviation, there’s international bodies that regulate aviation safety and security and all the airlines that wanna be flying into other countries need to abide by those rules and there’s transparency about the security and whether there’s breaches, etc.
When it comes to nuclear, you have these materials that can be used to cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, there’s no rules of the road. Countries are able to do what they wanna do and in fact have no requirement to be transparent about what they’re doing even though the loss of theft of a nuclear material in one country could impact another country. And so there really needs to be a push to get to some sort of global system for all countries are following the same set of high standards and rules for securing material and sharing with one another that they’re in fact doing that and constantly improving their security.
I’d also note that when it comes to nuclear materials security, 85% of nuclear material around the world actually is completely unmanaged or unregulated and not subject to any international standards or oversight and that is the material that’s in military government programs. So the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which some people might have heard of, looks at preventing nuclear material moving from a peaceful use, a civilian use for instance in nuclear power to military use. And those who are familiar with the Iran deal know the IAEA has its role of making sure that material is not used for military purposes.
They have some role on civilian nuclear material security in terms of helping countries increase their capacity, training, etc. They have some guidelines and guidance and none of that applies to this other military material, which is 85%. So that’s globally not a great situation to be in with all this unregulated material and then the possible threat of a nuclear terrorist act.
When it comes to the risks of a nuclear exchange, a nuclear war, as I said before, there needs to be a way to get back to a common vision. Countries with nuclear weapons or without nuclear weapons working together moving towards a common set of steps and actions to decrease risks and move towards a world without nuclear weapons.
Robert Wiblin: Is there anything that you’d particularly suggest that people could read or watch if they want to inform themselves a lot more about the issue of nuclear security and then how it can be improved at either the domestic or international level?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So I would highly recommend going into the NTI website www.nti.org and there’s a lot of materials targeted at different audiences, some more suited to experts but many others suited to regular people who just really wanna learn more about the issue. Some tutorials about the nuclear terrorist threat, helping to understand nuclear weapons issues. There’s material that’s easy to understand on the modernization programs so you mentioned that previously, the money and resources being expended to modernize and refurbish nuclear weapons. There’s a lot of material that’s really easy to understand.
I also mentioned the issue of prompt launch and having nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice. There’s some really great materials on our website that really help you understand these timelines and the types of decision making that is involved in these processes. So lots of really good information and then other NGOs have also really good information, Union of Concerned Scientists has some great infographics about the issue of prompt launch and there’s many others. I would also recommend …I always like to recommend watching Dr. Strangelove. It’s a great movie, it’s a funny movie but also it’s not too far from the risks we face today, and so I highly recommend that movie.
Robert Wiblin: Yeah that’s one of my favorite movies of all time, if you haven’t seen it, you should go watch it tonight. I might also just suggest Command and Control by Eric Schlosser, is a book that I read recently, which covers a lot of the history of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, both the engineering side and the policy side. When I found it, it was just quite a page turner.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: That’s a great suggestion and in addition to the book, there’s a film that was recently released I believe on PBS and it’s a documentary film that takes you through these near misses, potential nuclear catastrophe and I highly recommend watching that film.
Robert Wiblin: So I’ll chase up some of the links that you suggested there and I also know another site that has a great list of all of the nuclear near misses during the Cold War then up to the present day, which is deeply disturbing. So listeners, if they’re not convinced already, they can go check those links out. Let’s move onto some more concrete suggestions of what listeners could do if they’re thinking that maybe this is something that that they’d like to dedicate their career to. If you’re interested in working on nuclear security in the way that you’ve done, what kind of things might people study early on?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So I think it depends on sort of where your interest lie, so there’s really two avenues. One is the more technical side, so Physics or Chemistry, Engineering. Even these days with the cyber issue, computer studies or cyber security studies. The other avenue is more of the policy avenue where you would study international relations or perhaps become an expert in a certain region. So maybe the Middle East is a region where nuclear power is potentially expanding or maybe you’re a North Korea or China Expert.
So there’s multiple ways to get in just depending on your affinities. I happen to get in through … I went through at the policy track because I’m not a technical person. I’m not a scientist. I went through the policy track and I went more into the sort of topical area of nuclear versus regional or sort of the language perspective just based on my background. But there’s really no one way to do it and I think that if you’re interested in the issue, go down the track that you’re inclined to do down, and then see how the nuclear issues intersect with what you’re studying and that they intersect with many many issues.
Robert Wiblin: And I guess people should decide whether to do the policy side or the technical side based on which one is the best personal fit for their interest and their skills?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Exactly, I wouldn’t go and do a Chemistry Ph.D ’cause that would be bad, I can tell you that. I’m definitely more on the policy side but there’s ways to combine these. People are majoring in the sciences and their undergraduate could then certainly go do a policy degree as a master’s degree or combine it in some sort of Ph.D. The people who know policy and the technical side of things are actually unique and provide a really good perspective, so if you’re technically inclined, that might be a way to do both parts of it but certainly you should not be deterred that you’re not a wiz on Chemistry and Physics, and sciences as I am exhibit A for that.
Robert Wiblin: Should most people who wanna go into this area pretty seriously do some kind of postgraduate study either a master’s or a PhD?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I don’t think it’s necessary. Many of the people who work on these issues outside of government happen to have graduate degrees. It’s not across the board but they do and it certainly enables you to go into depth into an issue. There’s also various programs that are designed for graduate students where you would graduate from your graduate program and then go into some sort of fellowship in the government. For instance there’s one at the NNSA, it’s a graduate fellowship program for people who are coming out of grad school and that gives them experience in the Department Of Energy’s Nuclear Complex working on these issues directly and I know many people who’ve done that and believe it to be a really valuable experience.
Again, these fellowships get you to have a foot in the government and get to experience what it’s like to work in the government, and then many people continue in government where they come out, work at an NGO but certainly some programs are designed for the graduate students.
Robert Wiblin: That’s fantastic, are there any other graduate programs that you’d like to seeing a lot as being common or particularly successful pathways for people?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: One of the major programs is the Presidential Management Fellowship Program and that allows people to work in different departments and agencies, not just nuclear or even national security but throughout the government and those are really valuable programs to again, get experience in government to learn and figure out what type of work you would wanna do in government. And I know many people who started these program years ago and they’re still working government now 7, 8 years later, 10 years later. Many of my colleagues did those programs when they finished grad school. So I highly recommend looking into those programs if you’re interested in government work.
Robert Wiblin: Is this really something that people can only get into if they can get a US security clearance or perhaps a UK security clearance?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well I’ve been working in this area for five and a half years and I don’t have a security clearance, I haven’t worked for the government and I know many people who they’re from different countries or they’ve never worked in the government and they don’t have the security clearance. It’s a different way of working on the issue and as we talked about, you can have an impact on these issues from outside the government as well as inside the government. So again, I wouldn’t be deterred at all, that certainly having a security clearance, if you work for the government, is seen as a valuable asset but certainly not disqualifying if you don’t have it.
Robert Wiblin: So let’s take the government and non-government roles in turn, which are the best agencies to go and work for and how does the military roles compare to the non-military roles, do you have any idea about which of those is more promising?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I think if you are interested in nuclear issues or arms control issues, you’re going to either go to the Department of Energy where the NNSA, which is a agency within the Department of Energy or you’re going to go to the State Department or you’re going to the Defense Department, those are really the main three options and rally I would recommend people who are thinking about this, to just go and talk to people, talk to people who are working there and get a sense for what they do day to day. Each of those agencies has its own culture and its own set of issues. If you wanna negotiate arms control agreements, you might wanna go to the State Department. If you want to set nuclear weapons policy, you might go to the defense department, if you wanna work on nuclear security and threat reduction, you might wanna go to the Department Of Energy. So really it’s a matter of just talking to people and getting a feel for what people are doing and matching it to what your interests are.
Robert Wiblin: Do you know of any graduate programs or fellowship programs that they have for people who might be coming out of a master’s or PhD program for any of those agencies?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So I mentioned already the NNSA Graduate Fellowship Program which again is a valuable program. I think it’s a yearlong program to get people into the NNSA through the National Labs Complex and really interesting. I’m not aware of any others like that in those other departments again beyond the Presidential Management Fellowship.
Robert Wiblin: So earlier, it sounded like I was pretty wrong in thinking that there aren’t many NGOs working on this topic. So which are some of the best places that you can go to if you don’t wanna work in the government?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well there’s lots of different types of work out there from the academic type work to more research organizations like the the RAND Corporation to consulting firms like Booz Allen to think tanks where you really do academic style work such as the Brookings Institute for instance. There’s a long list of those types of organizations. We have organizations like NTI where we try to do more action oriented projects working with governments, you have the Ploughshares Fund, Arms Control Association. I mean I could list dozens of organizations.
And I’ll tell you a little bit about how I found NTI and when I became interested in nuclear issues, I simply did a Google search for nuclear organizations in Washington and I found NTI but there’s many many organizations. Do the research, do the search. Call people. People in Washington are more than happy to talk to young people who are interested in working, there’s internship opportunities, it’s just a matter of getting out there and talking to people.
Robert Wiblin: So it sounded like one of the bottlenecks for this kind of work is getting members of Congress to think that this is a priority. Is there anyway to do that through mass advocacy campaigns? I’ve heard about the future of Life Institute, which is I think is affiliated with MIT, has run a bunch of campaigns in nuclear security issues that have gone somewhat viral across the internet. Do you think there’s untapped opportunities there?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: So I’m aware of different organizations who take the more grassroots approach and I think the reality is when it comes to an issue like nuclear weapons or nuclear security, it’s really really hard to do a call to action where people feel that they’re making a difference. So it’s very easy to tell people about the threat and tell them they should be scared and terrify people with the prospects of a nuclear war, a nuclear attack but the key is enabling people to feel they have some agency over the problem and can make an impact.
And I think that’s an untapped area that needs to be thought through, it’s how you energize action from the public on these issues. So I do think that’s an untapped area and I think it’s really necessary to find ways to engage the public in a way that they can feel engaged. I think it’s really helpful to look at other issues where there’s been a groundswell of public engagement and support that have actually led to real government policy changes and I think that’s something that our community can look at more and try to find some lessons that can be drawn in order to do that.
Robert Wiblin: I could imagine some listeners are thinking, “Yeah, I’m worried about nuclear security issues and I’d love to have a career that help us solve them. But going to the State Department, going to Brookings, going to the Department of Defense, this all sounds very intense and potentially very competitive. Is it risky to set out to have a career in this area, may you worry that people would try and then just not be able to get into any of the relevant organizations?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Well I think anybody thinking about their careers will be anxious about getting jobs and I don’t think there’s a difference really in our area versus other areas. I think people should look at their interest, look at their passions, whatever that may be, and find a place where they can pursue those.
Robert Wiblin: Speaking of which, are there any kind of characteristics that you particularly look for that suggests that someone’s a really good fit to work on this kind of topic or at NTI or a similar organization?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: I think that we want people who are enthusiastic about solving these large threats, and tackling these difficult issues. One thing about these issues is these are really really hard challenging issues and you may not see a difference in a week or a month or a year, even years after you begin working on it. So you really have to I think really believe in the issue and believe in the importance of working on the issue. So having the passion and drive to keep working at it on a difficult challenge, I think would suit different people more than others.
Robert Wiblin: So it sounds like there’s quite a lot of paths that people can take into working on this problem and I think 80,000 hours has a lot more to learn and hopefully I’ll have a bunch more interviews over the coming year with people who’ve taken these various different paths. But would you like to say any last final thing to encourage people to venture for your security?
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Yeah I think there’s just so many pieces to this problem that can be tackled from the nuclear weapons issue to nuclear terrorism to cyber security to regional issues like North Korea and Russia and I think become educated about the issue and understand that these are really important threats. Unfortunately many many people don’t pay attention to them, but this is really a vital area and so I really encourage anybody who is interested in foreign policy, nuclear issues, Physics, Chemistry, look at this issue and think about how you can make an impact.
We really need young energetic enthusiastic people to take on this problem and be the future leaders in this area. We’re really looking to a younger generation to pick up the interest and mantle on this really important issue. So I hope everyone listening will take a look at the website www.nti.org, read about the issues, get engaged and think about ways that whether they do it as a career or they’re engaging with their members of Congress in any way possible to really focus on this threat.
Robert Wiblin: My guest today has been Samantha Pitts-Kiefer. Thanks for coming on the show Samantha.
Samantha Pitts-Kiefer: Thank you.
Robert Wiblin: One last thing before we go – I’m creating an advisory panel to help give me advice on who to interview and what to ask in these shows, in order to provide greatest benefit to people who want to do a lot of good with their career. If you’re keen to join that group, drop me an email at [email protected] I expect it will only take less than half an hour a month.
Keiran Harris helped produce today’s show.
Thanks for joining – talk to you next week, if North Korea doesn’t get us first.