Rob’s intro [00:00:00]
Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is The 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and counting on soldiers to disobey orders for our survival. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.
When I booked Joan Rohlfing, president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, back in January, one might have questioned how relevant or urgent the threat from nuclear weapons was.
In the two months since, they have really come back onto the scene and I expect our revived nuclear sword of Damocles to make this episode more gripping than it otherwise would be.
As the popular tweet goes: “i feel bad for our country. but this is tremendous content”
We start this episode with a 25-minute presentation Joan gave introducing the concept of global catastrophic nuclear events at Effective Altruism Global London last October. The interview will still make sense if you skip it using the chapters feature, but I suggest listening as it’ll serve up a lot of useful information.
A recent piece of news that’s very relevant to this episode is that Longview Philanthropy is launching a new nuclear security grantmaking program. I’ll say a little more about that program, an important position in that team that Longview is currently hiring for, and two other nuclear-related funding opportunities, in the outro to this episode.
We also list a range of roles related to nuclear security on our job board. As of recording, there are 985 jobs listed on the job board in total, 43 of which are related to risks from nuclear weapons.
You can find all of those and filter them for country, skill type, experience level, and problem area by visiting 80000hours.org/jobs.
OK, without further ado, here’s a condensed version of Joan Rohlfing’s October 2021 presentation at Effective Altruism Global London, titled Beyond the precipice: a new nuclear paradigm for surviving the Anthropocene.
That’s followed by my interview with Joan, recorded February 24, 2022.
Joan’s EAG presentation [00:01:40]
Beyond the precipice: a new nuclear paradigm for surviving the Anthropocene
Joan Rohlfing: I appreciate the opportunity to share my perspective with you. And I hope that you’ll join me in thinking how we can move beyond the precipice toward a new nuclear paradigm for surviving the Anthropocene. I want to share that my thinking on this topic has been shaped by 35 years working in this field. And I’ve worked on this from every conceivable angle, from a military, a diplomatic, a political perspective, a technical, and an academic perspective.
And the primary takeaway I want to leave you with this evening is that we are at a moment of great peril. We are at a point where the risk of a catastrophic nuclear event is as high as it has ever been and it’s growing. And the consequences of such a catastrophic event could disrupt the long-term trajectory of civilization and could even threaten our survival. So, we’re at a tipping point, some would say, a precipice. And we have a choice to make between whether we continue to adhere to status quo thinking and double down on a risky strategy that threatens annihilation and everything we value, or whether we can think beyond this moment and build a better paradigm.
This is about whether or not we take seriously our generational stewardship and can create a security system that is not premised on the mass annihilation of humanity, but one that embraces providing for a long-term future, one that gives us a chance to survive and gives humanity the opportunity to flourish and reach its full potential.
So, I hope to persuade you this evening that preventing a global nuclear catastrophe is important, that this is a field that has been entirely neglected for several decades, that the challenge is eminently tractable. And I want to leave you with some ideas for what we can do to greatly diminish the risks. Let me start with why preventing a global nuclear catastrophe is important. And I want to propose a definition and maybe we can come back to this in the Q&A.
A significant nuclear exchange with severe, lasting global consequences which has the potential to disrupt the trajectory of human civilization and threaten its long-term survival. I believe that we are at this moment where the potential of a global catastrophic nuclear event (GCNE) is real. By the way, throughout this brief, you’re going to see this term come up a couple of times and even the acronym.
So, why is the risk of use high and growing? There’s one principal reason. Our dominant strategy for preventing nuclear war, nuclear deterrence, is inherently risky — risky by design. It has risk baked into its DNA. And it’s an outdated strategy. I’m going to say a little bit more about this because I think this provides important foundational context.
The strategy of nuclear deterrence was developed in, roughly, 1950, give or take a couple of years. So, the first thing you should know is this is a strategy that was designed by my grandparents’ generation, or for most of you here, your great grandparents’ generation. And yet, it underpins the entire global nuclear architecture for preventing nuclear use. It’s based on a big bet and the experts at that time who developed this theory, did it out of a recognition that there was no technical solution. There was no technical defense against nuclear weapons.
The thinking was, well, the best we can do is to raise the price of contemplation of use of a nuclear weapon to an unacceptable level. And the way to do that was to threaten mass retaliation of any nuclear attack with a nuclear counterattack. That is kind of the premise of the theory which we’ve built up our forces around, and we have maintained this concept now for some 70 years. But here’s the problem, this is an inherently risky strategy.
Why? Because it was premised on some conditions that no longer pertain, that we can’t have confidence in—first and foremost, that there would be rational actors at the helm of this system and that they would be operating with perfect information, highly reliable, accurate information, and that the components in this system, the system of systems, thousands of weapons, on hundreds of missiles, with a very complex command and control system wrapped around it, would never fail. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world are part of this enterprise. It is an extremely complex system.
And it can never fail. It has to work perfectly in perpetuity to prevent a disaster. It also operates on the threat of annihilation as just described, which means that if the system fails, it’s not a low consequence failure, right? It fails deadly for humanity. And we can debate exactly how deadly, but it fails deadly for humanity. And the last problem here is that this was designed for a completely different era, right? The 1950s world was a completely different world. This was designed to be able to provide some stability between two powers at that time, two nuclear powers, the United States and the Soviet Union.
This was designed for a different world in terms of the technology that pertained. We had slow flying bombers instead of hypersonic missile capabilities. And the system, the strategy has not adapted to the complexity of today’s world.
So, I think there are four principal failure modes, and we’ve already talked about a couple of them. You can imagine an accident, a failure, a human error or a failure of a component. There are dozens of accidents that have happened with our nuclear forces over the many decades that we’ve had them. We’ve just been extremely lucky that it has not yet produced a mushroom cloud. I don’t think we can assume that that’s going to hold.
Nuclear terrorism, in and of itself, I think is unlikely to cause a civilization ending or even disrupting event. The problem with a nuclear terrorist event is that it could be a catalyst for a much larger nuclear exchange. And we can come back to the risks of nuclear terrorism separately.
Irrational leaders, when you think about the leaders or the recent leaders of the nuclear weapons states, you know, we have to worry about rush action.
Finally, and this is what I want to spend a moment talking about, I think the biggest risk of a catastrophic nuclear event will come from a very unfortunate, tragic miscalculation. It’ll come because leaders have bought into this idea that we can maintain this complex system and that it will operate in a way that prevents an accidental or a misuse or a misperceived use.
Let me just give you one example—and I could stand here for half an hour and spin up different scenarios, but we don’t have time for that—and that is the cyber vulnerability of our existing system. We have, as mentioned earlier, our system of systems, many digital components and an increasing number of digital components. We cannot have confidence that all of those components will operate the way they were intended to, nor can we have confidence that we’re secure. And when I say we, I mean the global we, I don’t just mean the United States.
Any country that has these weapons has digital components. And we know that cyber vulnerability is very real. I’ll give you just one data point on that. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Defense conducted a study to better understand the vulnerabilities of all of its systems to cyberattacks. And the basic conclusion of the study was, for me, a quite chilling and frightening one, and that is that we cannot count on these systems working, that there was no comprehensive technical approach that would protect U.S. military systems to include nuclear.
So, let’s talk about consequences, what happens if there’s a failure and there is a massive exchange of nuclear weapons. I think the key takeaway here, contrary to popular understanding, is that we actually have no comprehensive understanding of the societal effects of a nuclear catastrophe. Now, you may be wondering, how can that be, right? We’ve had these weapons for a long time, we’ve studied them, we’ve studied their effects.
Let me explain. We do know, in fact, a lot about the prompt effects of nuclear weapons. And we know that because they’ve been used both in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there is also a long test history before atmospheric testing was stopped. Mostly, it was the U.S. and the Soviet Union that conducted more than 500 atmospheric tests. And they tested these weapons against a lot of different target sets, so we have a pretty good understanding of the effects of blast, radiation, fallout, EMP (electromagnetic pulse), et cetera. And we know that tens of millions, perhaps even hundreds of millions could die in a major exchange within a period of minutes to hours to days.
We have some good analysis that informs our understanding that there would be likely climatic consequences. And there are debates about, okay, how much soot really would be lifted into the atmosphere from the ensuing fires after a nuclear attack? We can debate whether it’s seven-to-eight degrees centigrade, which is what some studies tell us, or whether it’s less than that, and we can debate how bad the impact will be on agriculture.
One study looking just at a regional exchange between India and Pakistan where 100 weapons were used, projected more than 2 billion people would be threatened from famine. This is, you know, a very serious event. But here’s what we don’t know, which is an awful lot. There has never been any serious, comprehensive attempt to look at the cascade effects of the prompt effects of nuclear weapons.
So, for example, what happens when critical infrastructure is not just taken offline for some limited period of time but physically destroyed? What happens when we can’t generate power and water? What happens to the economy? What happens to trade? Are people even going to continue going to their jobs? I mean, this is inconceivable to me in the midst of a mass catastrophe. We’ve seen how the pandemic has impacted our economy.
As our systems are collapsing, what does it do to our ability to govern? In the midst of chaos, what happens to democratic governance? And how does this disrupt the long-term trajectory of human civilization? By the way, there would be a lasting impact on public health. There’s no time to go into all of it, but the bottom line, our leaders have their hands on the controls of a system that they don’t understand. We are flying blind in terms of the potential consequences of use.
Martin Hellman from Stanford asked, I think, the fundamental question: “Can we responsibly bet humanity’s existence on a strategy for which the risk of failure is totally unknown?”
There’s a lot of work to do. This is an I-chart, and you’re not going to be able to read it. But I’ll explain, and what I hope you see is the trajectory of the curve on this graph. This is an excellent chart that was produced by Luke Muehlhauser, trying to illustrate the gains in human wellbeing as a result of the Industrial Revolution. We see, exponentially, rising life expectancy, exponentially rising number of calories ingested as a measure of health, people coming out of poverty, democratic governance, all of this exponentially increases. If we have a catastrophic nuclear event that pushes us back to the pre-era of the Industrial Revolution, there are no guarantees that we get back on this trajectory easily or in any time at all.
Let me conclude this section with my own personal judgment about the nature of the risk we face. I know everyone has kind of their own calculation; we’ve seen people throw different numbers out. This is my considered judgment, and I think it’s a very conservative one. I assign about a half percent risk per year to the potential for a global catastrophic nuclear event. And if one thinks about the cumulative risk over time, that means over the balance of this century, the remaining 79 years, there is a 40 percent chance that we suffer a catastrophic nuclear event.
That’s not good news for my son. It’s not good news for those of you who have children. It is not good news for the future. So, this might sound like a moment of despair in this talk, but not all is lost. I want to talk about why this is not inevitable, and we don’t need to accept this. But first, let me just say a few words about how this field has become extremely neglected over time. It wasn’t always true, but it is now.
There are two principal reasons. One is inadequate funding for preventing a catastrophe, and the second is, we see this dearth of innovation. There is an absence of intellectual capital invested in solving this problem. So, let me tackle these very quickly. You might be thinking, well, wait a minute, governments spend billions of dollars on this. How is it possible that this is an underinvested area? Well, because government spending is largely misplaced, almost entirely misplaced. Instead of spending money to reduce the catastrophic risks, we are doubling down.
I’m offering a U.S. number here because we have the best data and the most transparency into U.S. spending. But we know that the United States, Russia, China, pretty much every nuclear state is in the process of recapitalizing their nuclear forces. They’re in the process of reinvesting in this old, antiquated, inherently risky strategy. There is a small amount. I don’t want to make it sound like our governments aren’t spending any money on risk reduction.
In the U.S., about 3 billion, annually, is spent on risk reduction. The balance of this goes to important things, some of it material security, some of it supporting important institutional infrastructure like the International Atomic Energy Agency. But it’s not nearly enough relative to the threat we face. And here’s the real punch line: there’s almost no investment in building a better system. We have an opportunity to design a better strategy, one that is not inherently risky and one that can’t threaten the long-term future of humanity, but we’re doubling down on this obsolete, maladaptive strategy.
The story with civil society is really not any better. And this is a big problem because a lot of the transformation in this field in the past has come out of civil society. Unfortunately, philanthropic investment in this area for civil society is in free fall at the moment. There is a sense of crisis with this field. Since the end of the Cold War, we’ve seen kind of a steady exit of funders as they’ve turned their attention to issues that they consider to be more pressing, more current. And just in the last year, one major foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, has decided to exit funding from the field. By their own analysis, it’s reducing the roughly $85 million a year invested in civil society by 45 percent.
This is a really low point for those of us in civil society. Most disturbingly, we’ve seen a big fall off of recapitalization from an intellectual standpoint, a dearth of innovation and ideas. Young people are leaving the field. They don’t see a career ladder. But let me focus on this dramatic decline in nuclear scholarship post-war, and I’m going to illustrate this with a graph. This is from a Google Ngram.
Looking at the words nuclear war, and how those two words show up in the literature over a multi-decadal period dating back to the beginning of the advent of nuclear weapons. And the main point on this chart, you see these two peaks, right? The first peak begins, roughly, 1950s. That first peak represents when we were figuring out nuclear deterrence, right? Big, intellectual investment, government money, private sector money, and trying to figure out a strategy for managing this technology. And then it begins to level off.
Then there’s another big peak, and the innovation for that second peak is, we begin to realize this is dangerous. More nuclear weapon states are entering, we need to find ways to increase stability and to reduce risks, and we invest in arms control. Then you see a massive fall off and a flat lining, and that is, roughly, coincident with the end of the Cold War. So, the Cold War ends, and there’s a big sigh of relief. and so many people around the world say, “Oh my God, we survived it. Thank God. You know, we can move on.” And that’s what happened. But the threat hasn’t gone away, and it’s become increasingly complex. So we’re at this moment of disinvestment but the risk is going up like that.
Here’s the good news. The threat is tractable. There’s a lot we can do. And I think there are two potential investment areas. This is why I have a sense of hope about this issue area. First of all, from a policy change standpoint, and policy change is vital, it’s a small number of states we need to work with to incent a different kind of behavior.
There are nine nuclear weapon states today, and a few more states with the capacity to make nuclear weapons who haven’t. This is not, frankly, the same level of challenge as climate change, where every state in the world needs to make changes in terms of their approach. But the real money is in the second category, game-changing disruption.
I am really encouraged when I look around and I see this moment that we’re at in terms of the technologies that have matured over the 70 years since nuclear deterrence was created. Just in the last decade alone, there is tremendous potential inherent in big data, ML (machine learning), AI (artificial intelligence), in terms of its application to help us build a control system around nuclear technology that gives us confidence that we understand whether states are engaged in illicit behavior building nuclear weapons.
We can build a detection, a monitoring, a verification system that would never have been possible in the 1950s. Secondly, there is widespread public support for disarmament. That’s true around the world, and the vast majority of states believe that we should have a world without nuclear weapons and have already signed onto treaties that commit them to that.
And the third, and this is where you all come in, this is really important, we’re beginning to see an essential and much-needed shift in mental models. We’re beginning to see a rising understanding that the long-term of humanity is threatened unless we begin operating differently.
We’re beginning to see the long-term future prioritized over short-term economic incentives and the short-term thinking of individual states. I also want to just note, and we don’t have time to go into these examples, but civil society also has a phenomenal track record of innovation in this space.
The first of these represents an investment made by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and some game-changing scholarship at Harvard at the end of the Cold War that created this concept of Cooperative Threat Reduction, which led to the dismantlement of 13,000 plus warheads, almost 1500 missiles, et cetera.
And just to put that in context, today in both the U.S. and Russia, our deployed arsenals are capped at 1,550 weapons. You see how big this is in relationship to where we’ve come. So, what can we do to avoid a nuclear catastrophe? Two principal things. The most important thing we need to do is move away from a business-as-usual approach. We need to build a better system, and we should aspire to build a system that doesn’t have a catastrophic failure mode. We need to design an innovative system that feels safe and not one that threatens the annihilation of the planet.
We need to invest in transformative application of technology to build this better system, and we need to expand beyond policymakers alone. Our nuclear community has mostly been pursuing a strategy of talking to policymakers. That’s important but insufficient. In parallel, we have got to work to de-risk the existing system while we build the new system. These are near-term steps. They’re within our grasp. We have to build the political will to do this.
What can you contribute? Expertise? This is a game that requires this challenge, that requires a lot of different kinds of expertise. It requires outside the box thinking. It requires pushing open further the Overton window, and it requires resources to enable all of this to happen.
I’m going to end where I started, which is that we are at a turning point. We’re at a moment in time where we can continue with a business-as-usual approach and watch the risk increase or we can choose to build a world that extends the long-term potential for humanity and enables us to flourish. I invite you to join me on that journey.
The interview begins [00:27:06]
Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Joan Rohlfing. Joan has been President and Chief Operating Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative for 12 years, and before that, she spent nine years as NTI’s Senior Vice President for Programs and Operations. Before joining NTI, she was Senior Advisor for National Security to the US Secretary of Energy, a Director of the Office of Nonproliferation and National Security, a staffer at the US House Armed Services Committee, and was awarded the Department of Defense Civilian Service Medal. Thanks for coming on the podcast, Joan.
Joan Rohlfing: Thank you. Pleasure to be here. Honored to be here, and appreciate the opportunity.
Rob Wiblin: Fantastic. I hope to talk about the case for and against making reducing nuclear risks a high priority, and what can actually be done to reduce the risk of nuclear war. But first, as always, what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Rob Wiblin: I perhaps should say that today is February 24, and we booked this interview quite some time ago, but it is the day that the tanks are rolling in from Russia to Ukraine. Just this morning, I woke up, and the first thing I saw was someone on WhatsApp had messaged me, who’d been telling me that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine — and they were apologizing to me for their bad prediction.
Rob Wiblin: Sorry, sorry. Carry on, Joan. What are you working at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?
Joan Rohlfing: Yeah. Well, it’s hard not to start with that. This is really huge news. It’s deeply disturbing to see tanks rolling in Europe. Many of us thought we were beyond that, and that we would never see this day. So I hope we can come back to that through the course of our discussion.
Joan Rohlfing: But what am I working on? A lot. As president of the organization, I’ve got my fingers in a lot of things. Let me just talk about, at the strategic level, what I’m interested in and what we’re focused on right now. We’re really pushing ourselves at NTI to look at our strategy for nuclear risk reduction and rethink whether we have the right strategy in place, given what’s happening in the world today. And we’re thinking hard about how to expand partnerships in the context of a field that is shrinking and under a lot of pressure. So I would say, at a strategic level, a lot of my time and energy is going into those questions.
Joan Rohlfing: Institutionally, we’ve got a huge amount of activity going on that spans the gamut related to understanding and trying to ameliorate great power competition, and looking at near-term risk reduction steps that we can put in place. We’re really deeply invested right now in a systemic evaluation of the risks of the nuclear system — I think understanding what the drivers are systemically will help us be smarter about the interventions we can take to leverage change.
Joan Rohlfing: So lots going on in nuclear. And by the way, I’m just focusing on the nuclear space for this discussion. As I think many of your audience knows, NTI has a very vibrant biosecurity program as well that takes up about half of our bandwidth.
Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah. Many listeners will be familiar with NTI, because we had Jaime Yassif on about six months ago, talking about your anti-biological weapons work. But for those who aren’t familiar, could you just briefly explain what NTI is in a nutshell?
Joan Rohlfing: Sure. So the Nuclear Threat Initiative was co-founded 21 years ago by Ted Turner and former senator Sam Nunn to transform global security by developing systemic solutions to these global threats — in particular, nuclear and biological threats imperiling humanity. What I love about NTI, and what differentiates us from many other organizations in the field, is that we do more than just analysis and thinking and publication of good ideas: we actually try to take the best of the ideas that we generate for reducing risks and then implement them in the real world. And we’ve got a history of this, on a pilot scale and then scaling up solutions in the real world. So it’s been fascinating, challenging, and fun to work for an organization that is privileged to be able to make real-world impacts.
Nuclear security funding situation [00:31:09]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. One reason to have this conversation right now is that the funding situation for the nuclear security space has been shaken up a little bit lately. And there’s questions about how large is it going to be going forward, and how large should it be going forward? Yeah, what is the funding situation in the nuclear security space these days, in brief?
Joan Rohlfing: Thanks so much for raising that, Rob. It’s not good, in short. I’d love to explain just a couple of significant events that have happened over the course of the last year that are really rocking the field, which is already small and under very significant stress. So a couple of major funders have decided, over the course of the last year and a half, to leave the field. One of them is the MacArthur Foundation. I think many of your audience are already familiar with that. MacArthur was investing very substantial resources — on the order of $18 to $20 million a year over the last five years — and that’s against a backdrop of a field that averaged about $60 million a year of philanthropic funding. So you can see that’s roughly a third of the —
Rob Wiblin: It’s a big chunk of change.
Joan Rohlfing: It is a really big chunk of change. And $60 million sounds like a lot, but it’s minuscule: for the philanthropic investment in the field, it’s minuscule compared to the size and scope of the problem.
Joan Rohlfing: There’s a second donor that has left the field that is not generally known, and it’s not somebody I can name. This is an anonymous donor of NTI’s in particular, who’s been donating at roughly the $15-million-a-year level. As you can imagine, that’s a pretty substantial impact on our operating budget. And if you add those two together, it looks more like a 45% to 50% reduction in available funding for the field. And so this hits a field that already is small, stressed, and shrinking.
Rob Wiblin: Surprisingly small.
Joan Rohlfing: Yeah. So it’s a period of high stress.
Rob Wiblin: So the MacArthur Foundation, when I heard that they were withdrawing, my first question was, “Why are they doing that?” I took a quick look at their website and their reports in preparing for this, and it seems like they entered the field a while ago hoping to make radical change. Their thing was that it was kind of a moonshot project, where they’re hoping to lead to a radically different and safer outcome.
Rob Wiblin: And they’ve realized that it doesn’t seem like that is going to be forthcoming in the next five to 10 years, so it doesn’t fit with their broader strategy to be funding a field where it’s not obvious that immediate progress is going to be made. To some extent, what we might be doing now is trying to avoid things getting worse and maybe building background preparation, so that in the future, things can get better. But that’s not as much how the MacArthur Foundation is organizing its programs. Is that broadly right?
Joan Rohlfing: Well, I guess I’d reframe it just a little bit, Rob — first to say that actually, MacArthur had nuclear threat reduction baked into their DNA: from their inception in the ’70s, they have been funding nuclear threat reduction. So then the question is, “Well, what changed that after all of these years?” They’ve decided to walk away from what has been a core issue for them, a signature issue for the foundation.
Joan Rohlfing: One is there was a leadership change. So a new president took the helm, did the usual and appropriate review of the foundation’s strategy, brought his own different set of priorities to the foundation. And they concluded, at the end of that, that they would rather reinvest their money in some other priorities at that time.
Joan Rohlfing: Now, there’s another piece of the backdrop that ties to what you just said, which is that about six years ago, the MacArthur Foundation decided to shift their strategy for how they were making the nuclear investments. They had been doing full-scope investments in and across the field over a multi-decadal period. But under the previous president’s leadership, they decided they were going to reframe how they did all of their investments across their main program areas: they adopted a so-called “big bet investment strategy,” which is to really neck down in each of their issue areas and try to throw a lot of money at a big stretch goal.
Joan Rohlfing: And what they did was they downselected in nuclear to a really hard, big stretch goal in the last year of the Obama administration: over a five-year period, they were hoping to end the production of all fissile materials globally. That’s a massively large goal. And then there was a major political change in the United States that completely upended the window for change with the advent of the Trump administration.
Joan Rohlfing: So when the new [MacArthur] president came in and did this study, they quickly concluded that that big bet was not going to work — that they weren’t going to meet their mark. I get that. And I agree with that. The question in my mind though, is, “Why didn’t you then choose a different set of nuclear investments? Why was the answer to exit from the field altogether?”
Joan Rohlfing: And I think there, you have to look a little bit deeper. They had a new president who didn’t know a lot about nuclear and was not invested in it personally. They had a board that had lost whatever expertise they used to have in the nuclear area. And they lost their key senior program officer for nuclear — she departed around the same time that the new president took the helm. So there were no advocates on the board or in the leadership. And the combination of those was just bad for the field.
Policy solutions for addressing a one-person or one-state risk factor [00:36:46]
Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah. Coming back to this issue of Russia and Ukraine. We got a bunch of audience questions a little while ago, but one of them is very pertinent today: “Does Joan think that Putin, or any other state as a solitary actor, is disproportionately increasing the risk of nuclear war? And if yes, are there any policy solutions for addressing a one-person or one-state risk factor, or does our approach have to be much more actor-neutral?”
Joan Rohlfing: I really welcome that question, because it raises a persistent, I think, weakness of the system, and one that puts us in a much more dangerous position. And that is investing the use authority for nuclear weapons, in virtually all of the states who have them, in a single individual. When you think about that historically — the concentration of devastating inhuman power, military power, destructive power in the hands of a single person — that’s a really risky proposition for the planet and for humanity’s long-term future. Because we can’t bank on having wise or rational leaders in those positions, especially as the number of nuclear weapon states increase. And we have seen, in the last several years, numerous leaders with their fingers on the proverbial button whose stability we would question. So I think this is a systems problem.
Rob Wiblin: Rather than about any individual person. Or I guess we have to build a system around there being some individual who is a bit unstable or very risk-loving.
Joan Rohlfing: Absolutely. I do want to come back to the question of, “Do we need nuclear weapons at all?” That would be one way of solving that problem. Another way of solving that problem would be to say, “As long as they exist, we’re going to come up with a better set of norms for ensuring that they’re not used in a way that’s completely inconsistent with international humanitarian law, and with ethical, moral, and military norms.”
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So we’ll have already played an excerpt from your EA Global 2021 London talk, which should explain what global catastrophic nuclear events are, and the basic case in favor of working to prevent them. Before we dive into discussing the strengths and weaknesses of that case, is there a point or two you would like to highlight from that talk?
Joan Rohlfing: Yes, the key points I want to highlight is that we’re at a moment of extremely high risk. The pathways to use are different than they were in the roughly 1950s timeframe. The risk of use is very high. We have a system for managing those risks that is very outdated and needs to be updated. So that’s the first point: the risk is high. And my God, as we’re watching Russian forces move into Ukraine this morning — if that’s not a statement about the risks being high, what is?
Joan Rohlfing: But the second is that it’s equally important to say this is a solvable problem. There are things we can do. There are things we know how to do that can greatly reduce the odds of use. And we can talk more about that as we go.
Rob Wiblin: My impression is that compared to, say, five or 10 years ago, NTI is more focused now on the risk of a major nuclear exchange between states, and perhaps relatively a bit less focused on the use of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups. Is that impression broadly right?
Joan Rohlfing: Well, it’s interesting to hear you say that. I guess that’s a perception of how we’re perceived externally. We’re working on both, and we have programs that work on both, and we have always had programs that work on both. But maybe given today’s external environment and changes in the world — where we are seeing a resurgence in great power competition between US–China, US–Russia, the West and Russia, the West and China — the context around these issues has changed, and so we’ve had more opportunities to be vocal on this. We still are focused on preventing nuclear terrorism, and that was a more salient issue in the early 2000s, in the wake of the September 11 attacks.
Key differences in the nuclear security field [00:40:44]
Rob Wiblin: Something I’m curious to understand a bit more at the outset is the mindset of the folks who, I guess, disagree with your views on nuclear policy and NTI’s agenda on nuclear policy. More than many other areas of existential risk, such as pandemic control, it feels like this is a topic where people actually sincerely disagree about what policies will minimize the risk that we’re talking about.
Rob Wiblin: I don’t know these folks, but I imagine that there are really nice people — who love their families, and give to charity, and don’t want war at all — who go to work in the Pentagon five or six days a week with an agenda that’s quite contrary to yours. Including advocating for expanding the US nuclear arsenal, withdrawing from weapons control treaties, potentially. I imagine you must have spoken to these people over the years. When you speak with them, or if you spoke with them, what decent arguments would they try to field in favor of their agenda?
Joan Rohlfing: Yes, I’ve not only spoken to these people, but I’ve worked with these people. Many of them are friends of mine. And you are absolutely right: these are really good people who we share a lot of values with, but fundamentally, we have different perspectives regarding the system and how it operates and where the risks lie.
Joan Rohlfing: Let me unpack that a little bit. The key arguments that you often hear from advocates for the current system is that we have a 70-plus-year track record of nuclear deterrence working. And therefore, since it hasn’t failed yet, it will continue to work. In particular, this is actually one way of explaining it that I think is really interesting: organizational theorists often posit two different models for thinking about why systems work or fail — why do organizations work or fail?
Joan Rohlfing: Scott Sagan, who is a brilliant academic at Stanford University, did a seminal book on the limits of nuclear safety. This is back in the early ’90s. He looked at the incidence of accidents around nuclear weapons over the years and basically said there are two different ways of viewing this.
Joan Rohlfing: You have the optimists, who believe that we have very high-reliability organizations for managing the risks of nuclear weapons and inadvertent, accidental use of nuclear weapons. The people who believe in this so-called high-reliability organization, they believe that it’s designed smartly — that the redundancies and the training of the individuals in the system are going to prevent an inadvertent disaster from happening.
Joan Rohlfing: On the other hand, you have people who are more on the pessimistic side of the equation, and they believe in the “normal accident” model. The organizational theorists say a normal accident model posits that really complex systems — which the nuclear weapon system is — are greatly influenced by chance, accident, and luck. And complex organizations are likely to experience some kind of unexpected, even baffling interactions among components. I mean, when you think about how major accidents happen — industrial accidents, plane crashes, et cetera — it’s often a series of failures within the system.
Joan Rohlfing: So myself, based on my own years in the field and what I’ve observed, I would say I subscribe more to that normal accident model — the “shit happens” model — and we can’t bank on the system working perfectly for millennia. But many people in this field believe more in, “It’s a high-reliability organization. We train for this. Everything’s going to be OK. It’s been OK so far.” I would say, by the way, there are extremely smart senior people within the military, and even the civilian side of the nuclear establishment, on both sides of that equation. There is not a monolithic view about this.
Joan Rohlfing: The other point I want to make on this is particularly important: we have different perspectives about the possible pathways to nuclear use. We have, I would say, advocates for the current system and for maintaining nuclear deterrence strategy as it is today. And it drives a lot in terms of what we say about how we’re going to use them, our plans, the way we posture our forces. When I say nuclear deterrence strategy, I mean all of those things. The people who believe that nuclear deterrence strategy is stable and sustainable over a long period of time are principally focused narrowly on whether or not we can deter deliberate use by an adversary, and do that in a way that we have high confidence they won’t use them.
Joan Rohlfing: What worries me is, I think the potential for deliberate use of a nuclear weapon is actually pretty low, because I think it is not a rational thing for any leader to do. I think the much more likely pathway to nuclear use is some kind of blunder, in a moment like we’re in right now: with Russia moving west into Ukraine. Tensions are very high. Everybody is poised to react. Might we see some kind of unexpected incident, and misinterpret what’s happening — on either side of the equation — that would precipitate some kind of nuclear use, which could then escalate to an all-out exchange.
Joan Rohlfing: So when you look at the things you do to strengthen deterrence — to try and prevent deliberate use of a nuclear weapon — nuclear deterrence strategy does not address accidents. It does not address misinformation or bad intelligence. It was never designed to comprehend all of the pathways of use that lie outside of deterrence theory. So this is where some of the key differences are in the field. And some of us are just really worried that we’re so deeply entrenched in a very narrow way of thinking about nuclear use, that we’ve been unable to back up and see the forest for the trees.
Scary scenarios [00:47:02]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. That question of “How could you get a blunder that causes the use of nuclear weapons?” has been very salient this week. I’m located in London, which, if there was a war between NATO and Russia, would be hit with nuclear weapons potentially very quickly. And so I’ve been talking with my friends about what is the risk? Are we talking a 1-in-100, 1-in-1,000, 1-in-10,000 risk that Russia’s actions in Ukraine could lead to a conflict with NATO?
Rob Wiblin: And some people respond with incredulity to that question even, because they’ll say something like, “Wouldn’t it be an outrageous error on the part of either side to allow things to escalate to a nuclear war?” I think the answer is absolutely yes, but the problem is, what happens if there’s a complete miscalculation or a complete misunderstanding between the parties?
Rob Wiblin: So at a moment like this, when tensions are very heightened, what if someone — as has happened in the past — puts in the test tape where they simulate a full on nuclear attack? Normally in a quiet time, they might look at that and be like, “Well obviously, an error has been made here. We’re going to hold tight, sit tight, and check things.” And then they’ll realize they’ve stuck in the training tape, rather than they’re actually watching what’s going on. But at a time like this, they might feel like they have to respond really immediately, because it’s much more plausible than it normally would be that someone is engaging in a first strike, or that something has gone horribly wrong elsewhere.
Rob Wiblin: And so that’s the way that you can get to a 1-in-1,000 risk that everyone and everything gets destroyed across NATO and Russia, even though no one would possibly want that outcome.
Joan Rohlfing: I like your scenario. Yes, that is precisely the accident or blunder scenario that I was describing earlier, where the training tape is a brilliant example. I know people were roused out of bed in the middle of the night when that training tape episode happened. That escalated all the way up to the National Security Advisor of the United States, who was told, “We have several hundred incoming missiles.” I mean, that gets your attention. And they eventually figured it out, thank God, but we can’t count on that happening in the context of the current moment. So let me say, I’ll give you a scenario that I find very chilling about how this current conflict could evolve into something much more dangerous.
Joan Rohlfing: You asked about a probability assessment though, and I will note that in the London talk, I said let’s just posit that it’s half of one percent in any given year between now and the end of the century. And the odds are not good for getting through the century: we have a 40% chance of a major nuclear event happening if it’s just 0.5% per year, but that number is not going to be static. In any given year, there are greater or lesser odds. And I would say, at a minimum, I would double those odds now, given what’s happening.
Joan Rohlfing: And just parenthetically, I would observe that a core group of our NTI staff, over the last couple of weeks, we asked each other blindly to write down on a piece of paper, “What do you think is the probability of a major nuclear event by the end of the century?” And my estimate was by far the lowest among my peers — most of my peers think there is a near-100% chance of a catastrophic nuclear event by the end of the century. Obviously, I think it’s somewhat lower.
Rob Wiblin: You’re an optimist.
Joan Rohlfing: Yeah. I am inherently an optimist.
Rob Wiblin: I’m curious to know what the percentage is for you, if you’re willing to share.
Joan Rohlfing: So many were like 90% to 95% probability of use over the course of [the century]. So this is not on a per-year basis, but just, “Do we make it through the century?” Most of us are pretty pessimistic that we make it through the century, given the trends we see with complexity, technology, great power competition, et cetera.
Joan Rohlfing: But let’s set that aside for just a moment, because I do want to talk about the current moment and how things could evolve. So here’s one scenario. We don’t know what Putin’s ultimate objective is. But if you look at a map of Europe, there is, from my perspective, a possibility that he doesn’t stop with Donetsk and Luhansk. And I think not only a possibility, perhaps — at this point, it looks like a likelihood.
Joan Rohlfing: If you look north on that map of Europe and you look at the Baltic states, and in particular, you look at this little piece of Russia, Kaliningrad — that sits just below Lithuania, and is wedged between Poland and Lithuania, and it’s separated from the rest of Russia. Is it possible that he works with Belarus to create a corridor that connects Kaliningrad with Russia? The only way you do that is you’d have to take territory either from Poland or from Lithuania, both of whom are NATO countries. So even if NATO says, “We’re a defensive [alliance]” — which it is: NATO is a defensive alliance — once a NATO member is attacked (which is, I think, not implausible), then NATO is at war. And to be honest, I think it’s difficult — if not impossible — to defend the Baltic states conventionally.
Joan Rohlfing: And there has been a lot of talk about either Russia or the US deciding to use a low-yield nuclear weapon as a warning shot to back off the other side. So what if either Russia or the US used a low-yield nuclear weapon, thinking, “This is just a small nuclear weapon”? Are we confident that that won’t escalate to a more significant nuclear use? How would the other side even know, when they see a missile launch, that you have a low-yield weapon on top? There’s no way to discriminate at the point of launch what the yield of the warhead is going to be.
Joan Rohlfing: So I think there’s a lot of uncertainty. And that’s just one scenario — I think there are probably a half a dozen other scenarios we could come up with. So this is a moment of really great danger that we’re in.
Why the US shouldn’t expand its nuclear arsenal [00:52:56]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s just set aside the current circumstances for a minute and maybe think about the broader context, because there are going to be future threats even if this one passes over. I read this article in prepping for this interview that I thought was interesting, because it was a bunch of defense folks basically arguing in favor of the US modernizing and expanding its nuclear arsenal. I thought the reasoning had some serious problems with it, but they were at least trying to use language that I’m familiar with, and they were arguing that this would lower the risk of nuclear war.
Rob Wiblin: The article’s called “The Math Is Bad For MAD” — for mutually assured destruction — by Norman Haller and Peter Pry. Basically their argument is that they disagree with nuclear deterrence as a model — like you do, though from quite a different angle. They say with the current nuclear arsenal that the US has, Russia and China might have the ability to destroy most US nuclear missiles in a first strike, as the majority of them are in these fixed silos where their location is known, and they could be bombed quite quickly.
Rob Wiblin: Knowing that they could do that, they could then leave Washington, DC standing, phone up the president, and say, “Do you really want to retaliate with your now-much-reduced nuclear arsenal? Because then we would bomb your cities — so we wouldn’t just destroy the nuclear silos, but we would also destroy LA and New York and so on — and we’ve easily got the capacity to do that.” Because that’s a possibility, they might actually decide to take that path if they were ever, I guess, worried about tensions with the US more generally. How confident are you that that reasoning is bad? And if so, why?
Joan Rohlfing: I’m 100% confident that that reasoning is terrible. I think there are so many holes in that reasoning — let me try and go after them. So, the title of the article, they basically talk about “do the math,” and they reduce nuclear deterrence to, I think, an incorrect assumption that it’s just a numbers game — and that if you have sufficient weapons, you can dissuade the other side from ever considering an attack.
Joan Rohlfing: Now, they do begin to factor in the potential survivability, or lack thereof, of nuclear forces. It’s not that the math is irrelevant, but there are a lot of other factors that contribute to the stability of nuclear deterrence. One is the survivability of our submarine-based force. What I don’t understand — and they don’t really go into any detail in that article — is they seem to suggest that at the same time that this attack is happening to wipe out the land-based forces, that some kind of technological breakthrough has occurred in Russia and China, and the oceans become transparent and they can effectively target all of our mobile, hidden submarine forces. So I don’t get that.
Joan Rohlfing: They also assume that Washington is not attacked, and that somehow the adversary has purposefully left itself exposed to a possible counterattack, which I don’t understand. They also assume that despite the fact that there have been hundreds of weapons, perhaps even thousands, dropped on the heartland, that the population survives pretty much intact — which I think is an absolutely fanciful interpretation of the likely prompt impacts of nuclear use at that scale.
Joan Rohlfing: So there are all sorts of assumptions you have to buy into for that scenario to be viable. My own view is that deterrence is actually very robust, that we have an extremely robust deterrent. And it is an aged deterrent — there is probably some amount of modernization that makes sense, as long as we continue to have these forces — but I don’t think that drives us into an argument for more, and more being better. And they completely leave out any discussion about the instability that is created by an unbridled arms race, which is what I read them as advocating for.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, there’s a lot of adjusting our thoughts on this. I suppose that the scenario does become more interesting if there is, at some future time, a big advance that does allow you to knock out all of the nuclear submarines reliably. But as far as I know, we’re not really anywhere near that. So maybe this is something that we could come back to, if that ever seems imminent.
Joan Rohlfing: Rob, just one other thing on that too.
Rob Wiblin: Go for it, yeah.
Joan Rohlfing: I just remembered that they also assumed that we had viable missile defenses — that both sides somehow had viable missile defenses — which there’s absolutely no evidence to demonstrate that we have yet reached that point.
Rob Wiblin: That did surprise me.
Joan Rohlfing: So there are all sorts of assumptions that drive their argument that are easy to refute.
Rob Wiblin: Right, right. Yeah. The other thing that I thought — and this probably isn’t going to get you to 99.99% confidence — but they were talking about a scenario where Xi Jinping or Putin, they’re evaluating the situation and deciding that a first strike is their best option. You could imagine that they could get very lucky and actually pull off this first strike, and avoid the US retaliating — but how confident would you have to be in order to be willing to take that chance, and risk the destruction of the entirety of Russia or the entirety of China (or most of the value in it) because you want to remove the US’s nuclear weapons?
Rob Wiblin: I guess you might think about it in terms of risk-reward tradeoff: you’d think that the reward would have to be enormous to run what would surely be a very significant chance that this would not go as you planned. Maybe there’s a one-in-three, one-in-two chance that your country is wiped off the map, basically. I could only see someone making such an incredibly reckless move if they felt like a nuclear war was imminent anyway, for other reasons — that they’d be like, “Well, this is our least bad option because we suspect that they’re about to launch a first strike.” Do you share that sentiment?
Joan Rohlfing: I agree with that. This scenario that they portray really does beg the question of, “What objective could possibly lead them to take that enormous risk?” Because you would have to have such high confidence that you’ve wiped out all of your adversary’s retaliatory capability. I don’t know any leader that would feel like they have complete confidence that some number of weapons wouldn’t remain that could wreak havoc. But we’re talking about a massive violation of norms of international law, so they would also have to really not comprehend or understand that an attack at that scale is going to impact much more than just the adversary, but large parts of the Northern Hemisphere. So it’s completely illogical.
Rob Wiblin: So they made a whole bunch of technical suggestions. One that actually all of us might be on board with is that they suggested that the US electricity grid should be hardened against electromagnetic pulse attacks, which probably would also harden it against solar flares and things like that, which seems like probably just a good idea in general.
Rob Wiblin: Another one that possibly we could get on board with is, presently the US has a lot of its nuclear warheads basically in these silos that are in a fixed location. One thing that you could do is put them on mobile missile carriers, such that they’re harder to locate and it’s harder to plan to decapitate them. Now, you’re looking a little bit skeptical. But from our point of view, the worst case is to have a bunch of weapons that are potentially destroyed in a first strike — because in a worst-case scenario, the weapons would get used [in an escalation scenario] and they’ll make a nuclear winter even worse.
Rob Wiblin: But you also don’t trust it, so you have to have redundancy on it as well. So I think inasmuch as you’re going to have a warhead, I guess you would probably want it to be in a nuclear sub, or in the least-destroyable circumstances possible, so that you actually do trust that it’s there — and then you don’t feel like you have to have quite so many. What do you think?
Joan Rohlfing: Well, you’re pointing out the obvious flaws of having a force that is completely vulnerable to nuclear attack, which is the land-based ICBM forces in the US and Russia and China. Wherever they exist, these are sitting ducks: they’re completely vulnerable to nuclear attack. Some in the US defense community have argued that this is a good thing, because it raises the price of attack and forces an adversary to attack the homeland at large scale. I think if you’re living in Montana or Wyoming, you might not feel that way.
Rob Wiblin: You might feel differently.
Joan Rohlfing: And so a question in my mind is, if we have hundreds — and the potential for thousands — of weapons deployed at sea, why do we need a vulnerable land-based leg? The argument that says it’s good because it raises the price of attack and it forces the adversary to attack the homeland — we label that the “nuclear sponge” argument, that the homeland becomes a sponge, absorbing an enemy missile strike. For me, it just points out one of the flaws of the current structure of our nuclear forces. And there are many people who are advocating for eliminating that particular leg of the triad.
Joan Rohlfing: Just one other part of that too: the idea that we should be making them less vulnerable by putting them on mobile systems. I cannot imagine an American public being willing to accept intercontinental ballistic missiles driving around our highways. I just can’t. Not to mention, again, if we already have a robust deterrent that’s based on submarine forces, why would we want to invest in a new class of mobile ICBMs that are redundant with that capability? You’d need to make both a political investment and a financial investment to build that mobile ICBM infrastructure. I think it’s a complete non-starter politically and budgetarily.
Rob Wiblin: Right, yeah. So inasmuch as the nuclear submarines are the most difficult to deactivate for an adversary, I don’t understand why we don’t basically put all of our nuclear weapons on those. The only reason I can see is that then it exposes you to some systematic risk that in the future, some technology could enable an adversary to disable the subs — and then you have no backup system, because you’ve put all your eggs in that basket. I suppose in that case, you could have some backup system. Like the missiles in the silos, you completely deactivate and basically just don’t have online at all — but at some future time, hypothetically you could reactivate them, if you decide that the subs are not sufficient by themselves. Am I thinking this through broadly soundly?
Joan Rohlfing: So, I want to remind you that we do also have weapons that fly on bombers, and bombers are mobile. Bombers are also recallable. They’re not obsolete. You would need to find a way to enable bombers to be able to survive and fly pretty quickly. If we ever reached the point where the oceans became transparent and we had to worry about targeting of our subs, I think the easiest way to generate survivable forces would be to redeploy weapons on strip alert on bombers.
The evolution of nuclear risk over the last 10 years [01:03:41]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. OK, let’s move on and talk a bit about the nature of the threat that we face right now. To avoid repetition, I’m going to assume that most listeners will have listened to our previous episodes with, say, Carl Shulman, or Luisa Rodriguez, or David Denkenberger. So they probably have a bit of assumed knowledge, though I don’t think we’re going to confuse anyone here anyway.
Rob Wiblin: One audience member had this question for you: “I’ve been a bit confused about the changes that were done in the various treaties over the years. Can Joan summarize her view on the evolution of nuclear risk over, say, the last 10 years?”
Joan Rohlfing: I hear two different questions embedded in that question: one is, “What’s going on with the nuclear treaties?” and the other is, “What’s going on with risk?” And there is a linkage between the two things. The bottom line up front is that the legal architecture that we’ve wrapped around nuclear weapons — that we’ve carefully built up over a multi-decadal period — has basically been falling apart over the last two decades. This is one of the reasons why we’re at a moment of increased danger.
Joan Rohlfing: So I’m not going to go through every single treaty, but there are a couple of really important ones that are either under assault or have disappeared over the last two decades. One of the most fundamental and universal treaties that sets norms for nuclear behavior is a so-called Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is a seminal treaty from 1970, where virtually all powers of the world got together and decided that the proliferation of nuclear states was not a good thing, and so they struck a bargain.
Joan Rohlfing: The vast majority of states that did not have nuclear weapons agreed that they would not acquire nuclear weapons. In exchange, they extracted a commitment from the nuclear weapon states that they would disarm over time, and disarm all of their nuclear weapons, as well as work toward disarmament of weapons generally. And secondly, they extracted the concession from the nuclear weapon states that nuclear weapon states would share peaceful nuclear technology with the rest of the world, so that they could have the benefits of the technology.
Joan Rohlfing: So this has worked pretty well — not perfectly, but pretty well. At the time, there were five nuclear weapon states. They happen to be the same who are the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. And a few nuclear weapon states have come along since that time: India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel have joined the ranks since that time and remain outside of this treaty. But for the most part, the treaty has endured.
Joan Rohlfing: That having been said, it’s under tremendous pressure because the non–nuclear weapon states are basically accusing the nuclear weapon states — rightly so — that we’re 50 years into that treaty, and the nuclear weapon states have not disarmed. And they’re making extremely, excruciatingly slow progress on that agenda. So that’s a seminal treaty.
Joan Rohlfing: The other set of treaties important to know about have been between the United States and Russia: first capping each other’s arsenals, then reducing each other’s arsenals. In addition to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, the one that is presently in effect is the so-called New START Treaty, which caps the US and Russia and deployments of nuclear weapons at 1,550 weapons per side.
Joan Rohlfing: In addition to that, there were a couple of other important treaties that occurred along the way that basically we’ve walked away from. One is the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (dates back to 1972), and both US and Russia agreed not to deploy national-level ballistic missile defenses, because they understood that for deterrence to work and to be stable, each side had to be able to hold each other vulnerable. And that the deployment of ballistic missiles with the technology then and now, defensive anti-ballistic missiles would just spur an arms race, because the ballistic missile defenses are not yet sufficiently effective. What they do is spawn additional offensive systems to overcome them, to penetrate them — so that propels an arms race.
Rob Wiblin: So basically, if you have a missile defense system that can shoot half of the nuclear missiles out of the sky, then the other side just doubles the number of warheads that they have in order to offset it, and then you just get that escalation.
Joan Rohlfing: That’s exactly right. In fact, sadly, that’s what we’re seeing. So the US abandoned the ABM Treaty in 2002, early in the Bush administration. At the time, Russia said, “You’re going to force us into an arms race.” And so we’ve seen them developing new technologies, hypersonic missiles that fly low and can evade missile defenses, that have created an increasingly unstable and destabilizing balance between the two powers.
Joan Rohlfing: So we withdrew from the ABM Treaty. Russia violated another treaty: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987, which prohibited mid-range nuclear missiles deployed in Europe. The US walked away from that treaty during the Trump administration.
Joan Rohlfing: So we’ve lost the ABM treaty, we’ve lost the INF treaty. We very nearly lost the New START Treaty — that was extended a year ago: it was extended for a five-year period. The treaty allowed for a one-time, five-year extension, but the clock is winding down. That treaty will exist for another four years, and we’ve got to come up with some kind of a successor arrangement to that — that’s really the principal piece of architecture in place constraining US and Russian nuclear deployments and stockpiles.
Joan Rohlfing: So against this backdrop right now of increasing tensions, of a war in Europe, we’re losing the architecture that has protected us — that took a lot of investment to build up over decades. It’s one of the reasons why many of us in this field are worried. We’re moving in the wrong direction. We’re not increasing more constraints — we’re peeling them off; we’re losing them.
The interaction between nuclear weapons and cybersecurity [01:10:18]
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’m interested to talk for a second about the interaction between nuclear weapons and cybersecurity. I just started reading this book called Hacking the Bomb — which from the title sounds a little bit sensationalist, but actually I can recommend it, because it’s quite a serious and sober, more academic look at the issues of play here.
Joan Rohlfing: Is this Andrew Futter’s book?
Rob Wiblin: I think that’s right, yeah. What do you think people who are somewhat informed about this area don’t know or don’t recognize about the interaction between nuclear weapons and cybersecurity?
Joan Rohlfing: Thanks for raising that. Andrew Futter is doing some really important work in this space. For me, a cyber hack of our nuclear weapons is one of the most likely pathways to nuclear use. I worry a lot about it. NTI has done some work on this space. In 2018, we convened a study group with senior former military officials, civilian government officials, and experts in the field to look at this issue of implications of cyber vulnerabilities of nuclear weapons.
Joan Rohlfing: In part, we were motivated to do that because we had been watching this space closely, and were very concerned about a report that was published by the Defense Department itself. The Defense Department has an advisory board called the Defense Science Board that undertook a study in the 2013 timeframe, and published a report that basically says — and I’m paraphrasing the top-level recommendation — that all of our military operational systems are vulnerable to cyber attacks.
Joan Rohlfing: If you think about it, this is logical. All of our military forces have thousands of digital components — not all of those digital components come out of secure foundries, so we may be baking into our military systems faulty, compromised components. Then we also know that even if you have systems that aren’t directly connected to the internet air gap, there are a lot of ways they can be compromised by an adversary. We saw how that might work with the cyberattack on Iranian centrifuges — which were not connected to the internet and nevertheless had a massive failure because of the introduction of a cyberattack.
Joan Rohlfing: The upshot of the report is that we have to assume that our nuclear forces may already be compromised, and that there is no technical solution. That’s the other chilling part of that story: this is not something you can just patch and be done, and you’re fine. It forces us to rethink: if this is true and we can’t have confidence in the system that it’s going to work as designed — that it’s not compromised — then what kind of policy changes do we need to be thinking about to counter what we can’t manage and that there’s no technical fix to? So this is a very real problem.
Joan Rohlfing: By the way, Andrew Futter, whose book you just referred to, was one of the participants in the 2018 NTI study on cybervulnerabilities of nuclear systems, which also included a former Head of US Strategic Command, and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. There is consensus that this is a very significant problem.
Rob Wiblin: I guess not everyone’s going to have time to read Futter’s book, so maybe we’ll try to find something brief that we can link to in the blog post associated with the episode.
The chances of humanity bouncing back after nuclear war [01:13:52]
Rob Wiblin: The mass use of nuclear weapons would be the greatest atrocity in human history and the greatest setback that humanity arguably has probably ever suffered — so by any normal definition, the scale is enormous. But people I know who are particularly concerned with extinction and existential risk have always been very interested to understand what would be the flow-through consequences from that, in order to see what would be humanity’s chances of bouncing back over a period of decades or centuries after the use of nuclear weapons.
Rob Wiblin: They’re very interested in questions like, “How bad would the nuclear winter be? How long would it last? How many people would die?” and things like that. You maybe think that people who aren’t familiar with the reading on this are slightly prioritizing the wrong questions here, or perhaps misconstruing the issues, so I’m very interested to hear what you have to say about that.
Joan Rohlfing: When I think about the long-term impacts of nuclear use, what I would really urge the audience to think about is not just an extinction event, but what happens when we have a major event to the resilience and ability of civilization to flourish? So I would reframe it slightly to say that in addition to civilization being extinguished, we have to worry about the disruption of the long-term potential of civilization.
Joan Rohlfing: I’m reminded of the excellent graph that Luke Muehlhauser put together — that I featured in the London talk — that shows so vividly the massive post–Industrial Revolution gains across the variety of metrics, like life expectancy, GDP per capita, percentage of people not in poverty, energy capture, et cetera. It just takes off with the Industrial Revolution.
Joan Rohlfing: I can imagine a major nuclear event pushing us back to a point where we’ve lost all those gains — and it’s not clear whether we recover them on the same trajectory. We just don’t know. We don’t know how we recover, how quickly we recover, whether we can recover. So it’s not just an extinction event that I would argue we need to worry about.
Joan Rohlfing: I would also say one of the things I’ve noticed is that many in the EA community, are I think overly focused on nuclear winter as the only trigger of a possible extinction event. What’s clear to me is that we need to worry about a lot more than just nuclear winter. Not to minimize it — nuclear winter would be a horrible thing if it happened.
Joan Rohlfing: But NTI has been doing a landscape analysis to better understand the gaps in our knowledge of nuclear effects of a major nuclear exchange. What has become clear is that while we have a pretty good grip on the prompt effects of nuclear weapons, and some excellent research done on the likelihood of nuclear winter being triggered — I know there are uncertainties there, but some really excellent work informs our understanding of that — there is almost no work that has been done on the dynamic cascading effects of a series of impacts from the loss of critical civilizational systems, critical infrastructure. What happens when you’re losing power grids, banking systems, the ability to produce water?
Rob Wiblin: Trade. To move goods, yeah.
Joan Rohlfing: Yeah. And so imagine these things happening all together, and people can’t get food. I mean, it’s inconceivable to me that our governments function the way we would hope and expect them to show up with services, when people are just fending for themselves, to provide for their basic daily needs. So I think there is a lot of interesting work that needs to happen to understand the knock-on effects: in a highly interdependent world, when you start losing key systems, how do things fall apart over time?
What we should actually do [01:17:57]
Rob Wiblin: OK, let’s push on from talking about the magnitude and nature of the problem to thinking about what is to be done — which is surely maybe the most challenging and interesting part. Broadly speaking, what changes in behavior is NTI advocating for?
Joan Rohlfing: So we have an arm’s-length list of things that we think represent important interventions, but let me bundle it into three different buckets of activity that I think are important to reduce risks of nuclear use. By the way, I wouldn’t say these are prioritized. I think all three of these — there are maybe even four or five — different areas of investment that are important, and they need to happen simultaneously.
Joan Rohlfing: But near-term risk reduction is the first bucket: what can we do for as long as we are living with this (I think) increasingly risky strategy of nuclear deterrence, to reduce the risk that it fails? And to reduce the consequences if and when — I think it’s more likely when — it does fail? There are things we can do to dramatically reduce both the risk of use and the potential consequences if it does fail. So that’s bucket number one.
Joan Rohlfing: Bucket number two is how do we build a better system so that if it fails, if there’s a catastrophic failure, we aren’t looking at civilizational collapse? And that’s a longer-term challenge, but I think the contours of that system are pretty clear. We need to first decide that we want to build a better system that does not hold humanity at risk. And then we need to get to work.
Joan Rohlfing: And that leads to bucket number three. To do either bucket one (near-term risk reduction) or bucket two (design a better system), we really need to do a lot to open the Overton window. We need to do a lot to build a greater public awareness of this risk, to create the political space for change, to build some energy behind a vision of a better future — one that enables our species to sustain itself. We need to be better ancestors. At the moment, we’re not — we’re running off the cliff like lemmings.
Rob Wiblin: Let’s talk about that third one for a minute. The way that I conceptualize this is that NTI wants to encourage people to keep alive the hope that we can find a longer-term, lower-risk equilibrium than the current nuclear deterrence approach, mutually assured destruction. Of course, a lot of thought has gone into that game theory and that question over the last 75 years that we’ve been dealing with nuclear weapons. I think maybe one reason that people are willing to accept the status quo is that they’re just pessimistic that there is a better option — that something new is going to come along that can improve on what we have now, as imperfect as it is. Why should they feel differently about that?
Joan Rohlfing: Well, I think we suffer from a massive failure of imagination if we say we can’t do better than a system that fails deadly for humanity. Why should we accept a system that potentially threatens the survival of the species? I just think that on the face of it, it’s absurd that we would think this is the best we can do. I will even concede that this was probably the best we could do in 1950. But my God, we’re almost 75 years out from that — we have a whole new technology toolkit that we can put to use to build a system that is not based on game theory.
Joan Rohlfing: Game theory principles require rational actors. Game theory principles require systems that work flawlessly. Game theory principles are not based on the possibility of accidents or behaviors that you can’t predict. It’s an inherently rational system. And what we see, and all of the near-misses we’ve had — the near-accidents and the accidents that we’ve had — show us that there are limits to what game theory can protect us from. Game theory was never a nuclear deterrence strategy specifically — it was never designed to address a whole series of the pathways to nuclear use, the potential failure points of the system.
Joan Rohlfing: I think we can design a better system that addresses those failure points and dramatically derisks the system. And no system is perfect — I personally believe if we’re talking about timeframes at the scale of millennia, any system will eventually fail. Let’s design one that can’t fail catastrophically for humanity.
Could sensors be a game-changer? [01:22:39]
Rob Wiblin: So one approach that I’ve heard you flag in another interview is that today, compared to 1950, we have much more ability to have a lot of very cheap sensors and to inspect what one another are doing. That’s actually one of the perverse benefits, perhaps, of weaknesses in cybersecurity: that you can potentially have somewhat more transparency into what countries are doing than was possible in 1950, when people were dreaming up the current nuclear deterrence system.
Rob Wiblin: I don’t know that you’ve fully spelled out a full approach here, but you’re thinking maybe this is the kind of change that allows us to imagine a different approach — where you could have fewer nuclear weapons available, and have confidence between all of the different major powers that they can keep tabs on what the other countries are doing, and thereby feel somewhat reassured that they’re not exposing themselves to too much risk.
Joan Rohlfing: Absolutely, precisely. So let me talk about what we know how to do today, and then let me talk about what I think is within our grasp, given new technologies that are already present — they’re not even future technologies; they’re current technologies.
Joan Rohlfing: First, I think it’s important for the audience to understand that through the several decades of negotiations with Russia and things like the Iran agreement, we have put in place pretty complex verification systems — some of the safeguards that we wrap around nuclear fuel facilities around the world that produce highly enriched uranium or enriched uranium and plutonium. There is a lot that we already know how to do that is in place — that gives us a lot of transparency and confidence in the nuclear behaviors of other states. We know how to count deployed weapons on bombers. We know how to observe when nuclear delivery systems are being dismantled.
Joan Rohlfing: One of the things that was brilliant about the Iran agreement — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — is that it basically kept track of the production of enriched uranium in Iran from the very beginning of that process: tracking what was being mined coming out of the ground, uranium all the way through the production cycle. We know how to do those things already. What we have not yet done — for lack of political will — is say that we want to work on a much stronger, more comprehensive system, so that we have transparency into all aspects of nuclear weapons, birth-to-death cycle. And I think that’s technologically within our grasp.
Joan Rohlfing: So yes, cyber is one way — maybe not the best way — of getting into the back door of people’s systems to better understand what’s going on. A real game changer potentially, in my mind, is big data and machine learning. There is almost no activity that we as humans are undertaking that doesn’t leave some kind of a digital fingerprint, and that includes activities related to nuclear weapons production — whether it’s the production of the fissile material that’s needed for a weapon, or the research enterprise that’s supporting the development of warheads and the construction of warheads. How might we harness big data and machine learning to establish a new set of digital signatures that gives us high confidence that we would know with pretty good advanced warning when a state is violating a nonproduction agreement?
Joan Rohlfing: NTI did an interesting project a couple of years ago with a partner called the Center for Advanced Defense Studies. They had some pretty large datasets on trade of items that were nuclear dual-use items that could be used for peaceful nuclear programs or illicitly for nuclear weapons programs. We applied some machine learning algorithms to see if we could identify entities that were illicitly trading items for nuclear weapons programs, and we were delighted that we identified a range of entities that in fact were illicitly trading nuclear dual-use items. The US Commerce Department ended up adding these entities to its so-called Entity List or sanctions.
Joan Rohlfing: So why not scale that up, and why not expand that to include other signatures beyond just looking at trade data? That’s just one example of the way we could apply new technology. There are a lot of other ideas that are related to more traditional sensors for sensing different kinds of behaviors. But there’s not been any serious discussion about how we might develop this suite of tools to apply it to a prohibition regime, because the nuclear weapon states are deeply invested in continuing this strategy of nuclear deterrence.
Biden Nuclear Posture Review [01:27:50]
Rob Wiblin: Turning to one of the other streams of work, which is trying to make the world safer right now, the Biden Nuclear Posture Review is currently underway. What one or two outcomes or changes to the Trump Nuclear Posture Review would NTI advocate for?
Joan Rohlfing: We’re advocating for a suite of changes, and I’m optimistic about some of them, but not others. At a top level, we really hope that this Nuclear Posture Review is going to show that the US is serious about reducing nuclear risks and stepping back into a leadership role in the nonproliferation space. One way that would be important for the US to do that is to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in its security strategy. We saw during the Trump administration that nuclear weapons were elevated, and that there were more scenarios for use that were defined by the Trump Nuclear Posture Review.
Joan Rohlfing: So one way in which we could demonstrate a reduced role for nuclear weapons is by changing our “declaratory policy” — what we say about how we might use them. In particular, there has been a push within many in the nuclear security community to move toward a so-called “sole purpose” declaration, which would be to say that the sole purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter their use by an adversary. And that’s significant, because at the moment we retain the ability to be able to use them first — which is not just a deterrence role. Based on what we hear coming out of the administration, it’s highly unlikely that the administration believes it’s in a position politically to move in that direction.
Joan Rohlfing: We also would recommend a review of the modernization program. The administration is in the midst of a massive modernization of all of our nuclear forces over more than decadal period, expected to be an investment north of $1 trillion over that period of time. We think all of that is probably not necessary — that some elements of that modernization program could be shrunk — so I think that deserves further examination. Particularly, by the way, I think we need to reassess whether we need the land-based leg of the triad, as we were discussing earlier.
Joan Rohlfing: And then we’re also really, really concerned about the potential of blundering into nuclear war. We think there ought to be something that we’re calling a fail-safe review. This is something that we hope the administration will undertake, and it’s looking very good that there is congressional support for a fail-safe review that would examine possible ways in which we might — through misinformation, through bad intelligence — blunder into nuclear war. What do those pathways look like, and how can we close those off? So we hope there is a fail-safe review.
Joan Rohlfing: And last thing — this is not exhaustive, but I’ll stop — is we really think we need to reexamine sole authority, by which I mean investing the sole authority for nuclear use in a single person, namely the president of the United States. Shouldn’t that be something that is done in consultation with other senior authorities? This would be one of the most consequential decisions any human is ever asked to make. I think we could set an example by establishing a different set of procedures that ensures there are more people in the loop to try and prevent an irrational president from taking a rash action that could never be recalled and that would alter the history of civilization.
Rob Wiblin: I understand why you might want the president to have sole authority to launch weapons if it’s in retaliation to incoming missiles, where you only have a very short period of time to decide. But couldn’t Congress say that the president can’t launch a first strike without consulting with someone else? Without getting at least the secretary of defense or something on board? Because in that case, it doesn’t seem like urgency is quite as necessary — you don’t have to make that decision within five minutes or whatever.
Joan Rohlfing: So Congress could say that, and Congress does have some members who are advocating for such a system — saying at a minimum, using nuclear weapons should invoke the War Powers Act, and the Congress needs to declare war before a president should be allowed to use these weapons. You raise an issue that has become a sticking point in this debate, which is, “Wait a minute. How is it constitutional to tell the commander-in-chief that he cannot use a particular tool in his toolkit?”
Rob Wiblin: Right.
Joan Rohlfing: And we get hung up on that as a basis for not proceeding. Now you mentioned, “What about when the president’s under attack and there’s no time?” If we’re lucky, a president will have maximum 10 minutes — most likely less than that — to make this really consequential decision. And that’s simply insufficient. It’s certainly not enough time for him to track down the secretary of defense, or the speaker of the House, or whoever — fill in the blank.
Joan Rohlfing: And yet it’s precisely in that most stressing of scenarios where you would worry that a president might act either irrationally, or be acting on imperfect, incorrect, faulty information: maybe the system’s been spoofed, maybe it’s the training tape, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe — you can come up with a bunch of scenarios. And that is the time at which you would most want someone to say, “Wait a minute, let’s figure out whether this is real or not.” So that then raises a whole other set of questions for me about the structure of the system. What the heck kind of a crazy system is this, that is forcing a leader to make this potentially civilization-ending decision in five to seven minutes?
Rob Wiblin: Under unimaginable duress.
Joan Rohlfing: It’s insane.
Influence of lobbying firms [01:33:58]
Rob Wiblin: You mentioned the $1 trillion modernization program for US nuclear weapons. When I spoke to Daniel Ellsberg, he said that he thought a major impediment to reform in this whole area was lobbying by the companies that produce and maintain the nuclear deterrence system, who don’t want to see their contracts go back, basically. Qualitatively that makes sense, but do we have any good evidence on how large that effect actually is?
Joan Rohlfing: I would agree with Ellsberg that that is a factor to be sure. It’s not the only factor, but let’s talk about that factor for a moment. There is evidence. I think we could do an interesting analytic piece to try and better quantify it. The only evidence I’m aware of is a study done last fall by some colleagues trying to quantify. And this is really incomplete — so this is an exceptionally conservative estimate — but looking just at the top 10 defense contractors, they spend about $60 million a year and have nearly 400 lobbyists working on this issue. And that $60 million is an interesting number, because recall, we talked about the total philanthropic investment in the field being roughly the same amount.
Rob Wiblin: Right.
Joan Rohlfing: The reason I think that’s such a conservative estimate is that it’s only the top 10 defense industries — there are a lot of other industries, subcontractors, and on down the food chain that have equities and that lobby on this. So there is this whole ecosystem that is deeply invested in the existing system and keeps propping it up. And when you step back and look at the whole nuclear system from a systemic standpoint, one of the questions is, “What’s holding this system in place?” And there are winners and losers. There are people who profit — literally profit financially — but there are other ways that people are invested in this system as well, from a belief and philosophical standpoint.
Joan Rohlfing: Let me just say again: I’ve said it before, but nuclear deterrence strategy is a deeply entrenched belief system. It is a deeply entrenched way of thinking about the world. And it has captured generations of us into thinking that that’s the only way we can ever reduce nuclear risks — even though we recognize that it is holding us all hostage; it’s holding the future hostage. So I really want to push us, challenge us to rethink this deeply held belief system, and challenge ourselves to see if we can come up with a better paradigm.
What NTI might do with an additional $20 million [01:36:38]
Rob Wiblin: We’re talking about this in the context of these funding issues that the entire nuclear safety space is dealing with. What one, two, or three things might NTI do with, say, an additional $20 million in grants per year?
Joan Rohlfing: In thinking about this question, I go back to the three or four or even five buckets of work that we’re invested in, and I would probably distribute it pretty evenly across those three to five buckets. We talked about near-term risk reduction. Redesigning the system to derisk it so that we can’t have a civilization-ending catastrophe — that’s the long-term bucket. We talked about opening the Overton window through public education, awareness, getting people reinvested in this issue after a long fallow period.
Joan Rohlfing: There’s another bucket, which is investing in the field. The field is on life support. We really need to invest in the next generation. This is not an issue that’s going away. Those of us who are my age — pushing toward the end of our careers — there’s a fairly significant gap after my generation. We’ve got a generation that’s missing, so we really need to invest in the field. And I would say there’s more room for regional engagement. Regional engagement is important, both for near-term risk reduction and the redesign of the system.
Joan Rohlfing: So I’m just giving you buckets as opposed to concrete projects — and I could unpack each of these buckets into concrete projects — but roughly, I think there are these major thrust areas that all need additional investment.
Rob Wiblin: I think quite a lot of people have this perception that nuclear weapons policy is a pretty conservative or immovable beast. And you’ve been alluding to that by saying that people have this very fixed mindset that’s very focused on deterrence, and they find it hard to think otherwise. To what extent is that perception correct, that it’s just very hard to change things?
Joan Rohlfing: It’s hard, but it’s not impossible. I fundamentally believe change is possible. We have seen change occur in other fields — really substantial cultural shifts in terms of how we understand and think about issues — and I think that’s possible in the nuclear space as well. I think it’s pretty astonishing when you look at the shift in global perspectives around marriage equality. Over roughly a decadal period, we saw a really substantial shift that led to a cascade of changing laws around the world. The reason I think some of the public education and awareness work and opening the political window for change is so important on the nuclear side is that it’s going to take a demand pull to bring about the concrete near-term threat reduction changes that make us safer.
Joan Rohlfing: And just a word on that. I’ve had members of Congress tell me that, “Look, I’m with you guys. I agree with you — I want to see us take these near-term threat reduction steps. But my constituents don’t care about this issue. It’s not on their radar screen. I’m not hearing from them. And I’m just one guy on a committee. I can’t make this change all by myself. You have to help us make this issue relevant for people again.”
Joan Rohlfing: So in the nuclear space, we have examples of really positive changes, and we have examples of backsliding. And recently I would say we’ve been more, unfortunately, in the backsliding mode. Each time we reach a new arms control agreement, we’ve seen really amazing things happen when we develop the suite of agreements between the US and Russia — that capped and then dramatically limited the number of nuclear weapons we had.
Joan Rohlfing: And just a point on that: at the peak, the number of nuclear weapons in the world was around 70,000 — the vast majority of them, more than 90% of them, being held by the US and Russia. As a result of arms control agreements, the number of weapons in the world today is roughly 14,000. So that is a massive reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, and that’s a very positive thing. Now, if we lose the constraining treaties that are keeping us at those levels, and we continue to see growing competition and a new arms race, those numbers could go back up again. I worry a lot about that.
Joan Rohlfing: This is why, again, the political will is just so paramount here. We have seen a global movement on the humanitarian side — a recognition of the humanitarian effects — and it led to a new treaty that entered into force last year, called the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. And that’s a nascent treaty, but it’s the first treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons outright: the production, possession, and use of nuclear weapons.
Joan Rohlfing: Now, all of the nuclear weapon states are outside that treaty — in fact, they boycotted the negotiation itself. But it shows you that the vast majority of the world are states that don’t have nuclear weapons. And most of them are in this camp of wanting to prohibit nuclear weapons, because they understand, correctly, that they are hostage to the small number of states that have nuclear weapons. It’s not just nuclear weapon states that will bear the consequences of a major nuclear catastrophe — it’s pretty much all of us in the world.
Joan Rohlfing: So those would be some highlights. We see some glimmers of hope. We also see significant challenges ahead. But I think if we can help reestablish with publics what our equities are in this issue, we can help open up the space for change.
Rob Wiblin: Another case might be the development of the idea of Cooperative Threat Reduction, which we’ve talked about on the show before with Andy Weber, who was actually involved in that project.
Rob Wiblin: That’s maybe a good example where I’m guessing that people had those ideas while the Cold War was still very much in play, and it might’ve seemed naive or a bit too optimistic at the time when people were first dreaming up this kind of cooperation between the US and USSR. The world being a volatile place has some downsides, but has the upside that things that might seem impossible today could be possible in 10 years’ time — and it’s worth maintaining a broad set of policy ideas or proposals in the desk drawer to maybe pull out at the moment when the system seems ripe for change.
Joan Rohlfing: Shame on me for not mentioning cooperative threat reduction. We’re very close to that at NTI. Our founder, Sam Nunn, was Sam Nunn of the Nunn–Lugar Program, which was the legislation that established Cooperative Threat Reduction. I was actually on the Hill on the House Armed Services Committee at the time, and part of the development of the legislation on the House side. Yes, who would’ve thought that as the Cold War was ending, that we would agree to work side by side with Russians on removing warheads and dismantling warheads. That was an absolutely fantastic program for dramatically derisking, by reducing weapons and delivery platforms.
Nuclear energy tradeoffs [01:43:55]
Rob Wiblin: When I asked for audience questions, a very common one was about nuclear energy. One someone sent in was: “People often endorse nuclear energy as being able to fill a gap while we transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. But given that climate change and nuclear war are both top existential risks, is this just trading one existential risk for another? And if so, is it a favorable trade? And more generally, what is the relationship between the nuclear energy industry and nuclear proliferation?”
Joan Rohlfing: There is a relationship — there’s a tight relationship. I will say at the outset that I think nuclear power is with us to stay, and the challenge for us is to manage the expansion of nuclear power, which plays an important role in climate change — to manage it more safely, more securely.
Joan Rohlfing: So let me step back just a moment. I don’t know how familiar your audience is. It’s not obvious that nuclear power has a relationship to nuclear weapons, but most reactors in the world today are fueled by enriched uranium. And the process of enriching uranium, if you continue to enrich it more cycles to a higher level of enrichment, you have material that can be used to power a bomb.
Joan Rohlfing: The fuel for nuclear weapons is either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Plutonium is a byproduct of the civilian nuclear fuel cycle as well. So to the extent that we have more reactors around the world generating power — consuming more of this material that is being produced in facilities that could also produce material for weapons — we need to make sure we have good safeguards around those activities in the civilian sector.
Joan Rohlfing: Now, there are a set of practices to give us confidence that material is not being diverted away from civilian purposes for weapons purposes. But if we want to get to a world where we have high confidence uniformly in the fuel cycle, there are things we can do to strengthen our confidence and to close off possible pathways to misuse of those materials. So I think it’s doable, but we need to roll up our sleeves and strengthen the protocols and the processes and the strategies for doing that.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess three or four billion people already live in countries that have nuclear weapons. So I suppose developing more uranium-enriching capacity in those countries probably doesn’t move the needle so much, at least not compared to enriching it in more countries and more places. This is perhaps outside of your wheelhouse, but do you know if there are plans for new reactor designs where there wouldn’t be as much of a connection in the infrastructure or the outputs to actual nuclear weapons?
Joan Rohlfing: Yes, we do have NTI experts on advanced reactors and some of the new reactor designs. There are technologies that are focused on reducing proliferation risks by making the reactors — and the whole cycle of how the fuel is managed and the type of fuel it uses — proliferation resistant. That work is important and should be continued. And to the extent we’re pushing new reactors out into the world, we need to be mindful and build this structure around it that minimizes proliferation risks.
Joan Rohlfing: The other thing we need to do, though, is get smarter about, globally, what kind of structures we put in place to provide reliable fuel supply for civilian nuclear reactor fleets. In any given country that’s worried about their energy needs, if they’re relying on a certain percentage of their power production coming from nuclear reactors, they’re only going to be confident if they know that they can continue to secure the fuel they need for those reactors: the low-enriched uranium fuel in most cases.
Joan Rohlfing: As a result, some countries have argued, “We must have our own uranium enrichment facilities in order to have that confidence.” Well, to the extent every country would make that decision — for example, Iran — we would say, “That makes the world less safe, because any country that has that capacity has inherent capability to build a nuclear weapon, the fuel for a nuclear weapon.”
Joan Rohlfing: So at NTI, one of the things we’re looking at is creating a set of incentives that enables states to have confidence that they don’t have to build their own fuel supply. One thing we did in this vein was work with the International Atomic Energy Agency to create an assured supply of low-enriched uranium for any country that was worried that they might get cut off by their fuel supplier. So we’ve created this low-enriched uranium fuel bank. It happens to be based in Kazakhstan. It’s an IAEA-owned and -managed facility.
Joan Rohlfing: NTI kind of put the model out there in the world — put $50 million down to attract match funding from governments two-to-one, and worked hard with governments to build support, which was not easy. It took us about a decadal period to get the political support of the IAEA, but this is now a live operating facility based in Kazakhstan. That’s one idea. Our vision is that we can expand and maybe come up with some kind of regional international guaranteed fuel supply based on international or regional hubs that de-incentivize individual states from claiming they need to produce this material indigenously.
Rob Wiblin: That’s really interesting. We’ll try to find a writeup of that program and link to it in the blog post with the episode.
Why we can’t rely on Stanislav Petrovs [01:49:49]
Rob Wiblin: Let’s push on to advice for listeners — both listeners who might want to donate to this area, and listeners who might want to work in this area in the future. An audience member wrote in with this question: “How valuable is it for people in the effective altruism community to try to get into positions to make calls like the one that Stanislav Petrov made?” Petrov, of course, being the Russian official who decided not to retaliate against what turned out to be a false alarm of a missile attack from the US.
Joan Rohlfing: I really appreciate this question, because on the face of it, it might seem like this is a good idea — we’ll just put Stanislav Petrovs all throughout the system. I think that’s a strategy that is very unlikely to succeed, because we can’t bank on having enough Stanislav Petrovs all over the world at the moment that we need them.
Joan Rohlfing: But what it really points out is this systemic problem that we have: that we have a system that requires people to literally throw their bodies on the train track at a dire moment to prevent a disaster from happening. And the reason why we can’t count on this is, frankly, the system scrubs resistors like Stanislav Petrov out of the system. And I think his actions were the right actions, and we’re all grateful, and it was heroic. By the way, there are examples of others; Stanislav Petrov is not the only person who played that role. Both in the US and in the Soviet Union, there were other officers like Stanislav Petrov who have made similar judgments.
Joan Rohlfing: What’s fascinating to me is, in a way, every single one of them was a resistor. They resisted their training. They let their human judgment override what they had been taught to do, the way they had been taught to respond. As you might imagine, any military system doesn’t like people who buck the system and defy their training, so it’s not sustainable over time that we’re going to have enough people in the system at the right time. So then we need to look at what else we can do systemically to never put ourselves in that risky position to begin with.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s obviously not a very sustainable solution, because if most of the people in charge of launching nuclear weapons were unwilling to do so, then obviously the system would have to be changed. For example, it would have to be automated or something like that in order to take people out of the system, so that they can’t make that decision. So it’s the kind of thing that you might be able to get away with very briefly, but it’s no systematic solution to the issue here.
Preventing war vs. building resilience for recovery [01:52:15]
Rob Wiblin: Another audience member wrote in: “How much of our effort should be spent on preventing a war, and how much should we spend on building resilience to mitigate the harm and speed recovery?” They might be thinking of the kind of project like ALLFED — the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters — which is trying to find ways of potentially producing enough food to sustain everyone through a nuclear winter.
Joan Rohlfing: So my own view is both are important, but I would put much more weight on prevention for a couple of reasons. One is I think that’s our highest leverage: if we can prevent the catastrophe from ever happening, then we don’t need to worry about the resilience. I also think, when I think about resilience on this scale — we’re talking about across the wide range of systems that would be required — it is a really, really hard problem. If we think reducing nuclear risks is hard, imagine fundamentally redesigning, decentralizing all of our critical civilizational systems: this is what would be required to build sufficient resilience to not worry about critical systems failures.
Joan Rohlfing: So I’d want to think about what that looks like for the power system, for the banking system, for international trade, for food production — there are just so many different layers of systems that would require massive rethinking of how those systems are structured, and massive reinvestment in rebuilding them, redesigning them, changing governance structures. I do think that’s important, and we should understand and give thought to those questions, but that feels lots more daunting and longer term and still with no guarantee of success.
Joan Rohlfing: By the way, I think it’s also the reason to go back to an earlier observation about us not really fully understanding nuclear effects on all of these systems. It’s why investment and research and better understanding nuclear effects is so important — because it would help point us to what we need to do to strengthen resilience. We wouldn’t even really have a clue how to go about resilience right now, because we don’t know where the biggest vulnerabilities are.
Places to donate other than NTI [01:54:25]
Rob Wiblin: If there was a listener out there who wanted to donate more than, say, $100,000 to help solve this problem, where would you suggest that they give? I guess other than NTI, which goes without saying.
Joan Rohlfing: This is a really hard question. I’m loath to recommend some and not others, and there are so many people doing really excellent work in the field. But let me try and tackle the question this way. I want to come back to the investment buckets that we talked about earlier: the near-term risk reduction, the longer-term paradigm shift. And actually, maybe I’ll unpack these a little bit differently — let me break it into maybe a half a dozen different investment areas, which attach to different organizations in the field.
Joan Rohlfing: I think there are a couple of organizations doing really interesting work, innovating new ideas in the nuclear space, really trying to press the envelope and challenge traditional thinking about what we understand about nuclear.
Joan Rohlfing: There are three I would in particular call out. There’s an organization called N Square based on the West Coast in the San Francisco Bay Area. They were created by a consortium of funders to do some innovation work across the entire field. There’s a project called Horizon 2045 that N Square is helping to lead, together with NTI and a third partner, Rhode Island School of Design. I really encourage your listeners to go to Horizon 2045. This project is looking at how to reimagine a future without nuclear weapons, and it’s independent of all three organizations — we’re all providing intellectual support and management for it, but it’s bigger than just the three organizations. And Global Zero, I think, is doing important work in the innovation space.
Joan Rohlfing: There are some excellent organizations doing scholarship and analysis. I would call out Chatham House, the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, and the Federation of American Scientists. There’s one organization I really want to single out for investing in the next generation and training the next generation, and that’s the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. They’re associated with Middlebury, even though they’re based in Monterey, California. They are uniquely training: they have a degree program and they do a lot of really, really excellent analytic work.
Joan Rohlfing: I would be remiss if I didn’t also note regional engagement, great power competition — really good work being done by the European Leadership Network and the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network. On advocacy, the Arms Control Association. On public education, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Joan Rohlfing: I’ll stop there. We all have slightly different niches, but there’s some really phenomenal work being done.
Joan Rohlfing: And let me make a broader point about the state of the field. In thinking about this interview today, I was thinking about how to describe the state of the field and the state of funding for the field, and just how small we are in this mentality of scarcity that we operate in. And it kind of drove me to think about how the nuclear field compares to, say, the climate field, as one example.
Joan Rohlfing: In looking at the climate field, what one finds online, there was a recent assessment done that suggests that as of 2019, there’s roughly $5 to $9 billion in philanthropic investment in climate. There are some recent really big donors that have shown up on the scene, like Laurene Powell Jobs, who’s committed $3.5 billion to climate; Hansjörg Wyss, $1 billion; Bloomberg, $500 million. These are really large-scale numbers. And you look at some of the biggest organizations doing work in that space — they’re really substantial. Conservation International, budget of $150 million a year. Nature Conservancy, north of $900 million a year budget. The Natural Resources Defense Council, $185 million per year.
Joan Rohlfing: These are admittedly some of the larger organizations in that space. But compare that to $60 million of philanthropic investment in the nuclear space. And when you look at each of those nuclear organizations that I just listed for you, they’re mostly operating at the $2 million or below level — at least the nuclear programs within some of those organizations. So we are a teeny tiny field, and I think our impact and effectiveness necessarily is impacted by our inability to work at a scale that’s more meaningful. I just wanted to leave that larger frame there: we need to be operating at a completely different scale as a field.
Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ll just make a general point that I think is often good for everyone to keep in mind, is that often people can have a perception that a sector or some movement hasn’t been accomplishing very much.
Rob Wiblin: Sometimes people are just mistaken empirically about whether that’s the case. But I think it always has to be put in the context of how much funding, how many people were working on it relative to other things: you need to calibrate your expectations relative to the inputs if you’re trying to assess what would be the incremental value of an extra million dollars within an area. Because as you’re pointing out, there are other areas that are funded to the tune of potentially 100 times as much. So you don’t want to calibrate your expectations against another project that’s just so massively larger in terms of inputs.
Career advice [02:00:15]
Rob Wiblin: If there’s someone in the audience who might want to pursue a career similar to yours, what concrete next steps might you suggest for them?
Joan Rohlfing: Two things I would say. Education is really important — whether it’s formal education of getting a degree in a related field, or whether it’s education through on-the-job training. I would say learn as much as you can about the field. I think on-the-job experience is terrific — internships are a great way of learning firsthand about the field. Now, we’ve already described what a small field we are, and that means by definition, there aren’t a huge number of internship opportunities. It’s one of the other reasons why I think we need to grow the field — to grow our impact, to grow our reach. But those I think would be two ways where people could directly contribute.
Joan Rohlfing: Of course, as the EA community knows well, there are ways to indirectly contribute. Many members of the EA community have gone into fields where they’re trying to maximize their earnings, so that they can invest philanthropically in being impactful within spaces that they care about. And that’s also really, really important and can make a big difference in this space.
Rob Wiblin: So you got your start working in Congress and in defense and other government roles. Do you think that’s a totally reasonable path for someone to take now as well?
Joan Rohlfing: I would say even before that, I studied these issues in college and graduate school. I got a degree, a master’s in public management. I did internships even before my first real job at the Pentagon. And so I positioned myself to get my first real job at the Pentagon. I was hired and spent the first five years of my career working in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and a series of adjacent assignments within the Pentagon that were absolutely fascinating. So I’ve really been inside the belly of the beast, so to speak. I even had a stint where I worked for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the nuclear division that did targeting and was responsible for developing doctrine.
Joan Rohlfing: So yeah, it’s not easy. In fact, I would say in the United States, it’s sadly really hard to get these government jobs. Mostly our government has hiring freezes across many agencies. So the way a lot of people get their foot in the door is through internships. And once they prove their value, they often are then considered when the rare position opens up. It’s one of the reasons why this is such a tough field. Even people who are really passionate about this issue have a lot of trouble breaking in.
Rob Wiblin: Right. That’s interesting. If there’s been this kind of break in the chain of training and passing information and expertise down the generations, do we need to have more people going into particular kinds of PhD programs in order to have the expertise in the next generation to hopefully go into the organizations that we hope will be there in future?
Joan Rohlfing: I’m not sure. PhDs are nice, but not necessary. The vast majority of people managing the nuclear enterprise do not have PhDs: they’re trained in government positions; they’re trained in the military. It’s only a small handful of experts in the field who have gone through the PhD route and mostly are living in think tanks, and occasionally come out of think tanks into government positions. I think there’s a lot that can be learned through on-the-job training.
Joan Rohlfing: What I think is really needed, Rob, is for our government and other governments — particularly governments that have nuclear weapons — to be more intentional about training the next generation: to recreate and to create processes for bringing people in for training. Let me give you a concrete example. At the time that I joined the Pentagon, I joined through a program called the Presidential Management Fellows Program. It was an Executive Branch–managed program to recruit people out of grad school into various Executive Branch agencies.
Joan Rohlfing: At the time, the Pentagon would hire three people each year from this Presidential Management Fellowship pool. And it was really a way in which the civilian side of the Pentagon — in particular, the Office of the Secretary of Defense — prioritized bringing fresh blood in, and over a two-year period, trained us in a series of different disciplines. And it was fabulous. The military services also each hired their own number of Presidential Management Fellows. So that was an important, and one of the only, entry routes.
Joan Rohlfing: A lot of that has dried up. It’s just been deprioritized for a variety of reasons. I think this is an area where we’ve lost: we’re living in constrained-budget environments, and it’s putting a lot of pressure on pathways for new creative people to enter governments. I think this is something that we need to look at on a class-action basis.
Joan Rohlfing: By the way, I think that civil society and the NGO sector can play an important role here. At the Nuclear Threat Initiative, we take very seriously our role in next-gen training. We have a very vibrant intern program. We have a staff of about 60 at NTI, but we try to cycle maybe 25 to 30 interns through our spaces in a year — eight to 10 per spring, summer, fall semesters.
Joan Rohlfing: We also try to create a growth path for each of our professionals, including encouraging them to go into government for a couple of years at a time. We do that by partnering with our government. There’s legislation that allows this kind of sharing of personnel back and forth between the private sector and the government — it’s a special legislative provision, and we have used that to send a number of our staff in on two- to three-year assignments at the Pentagon, at the Energy Department. So there are creative ways we can support professional development within the nuclear and biological risk areas, even though the field is constrained in terms of the number of open positions right now.
Joan Rohlfing: When I say we need to invest in field building, what I have in mind is precisely this: that we make a conscious effort — both the government and the private sector — to bolster the next gen.
Rob Wiblin: It is a bit funny that the government is spending on the order of $100 billion a year to modernize and maintain the nuclear deterrence system, but it sounds like it’s extremely hard to scrounge up $100 million to spend on people to think about whether things might be able to be done a better way. It seems slightly out of whack.
Rob Wiblin: What kinds of resources could people in the audience go to if they’re interested to learn more — perhaps because they want to fund this area, or perhaps because they want to potentially go into it in their career and they want to actually gain a deeper understanding?
Joan Rohlfing: Definitely check out some of the websites of the organizations that I listed earlier. There are people doing really good, interesting work in this space. I would also say, a couple of books that I might put on people’s radar screens — and these are books just to ground people in the system and the threat — there’s a book called The Button by William J. Perry and Tom Collina that came out last year — Bill Perry, former defense secretary and Tom Collina at the Ploughshares Fund — just about the system, and fascinatingly, Bill Perry’s experience operating within that system and the perils that he sees.
Joan Rohlfing: Horizon 2045 — I mentioned that project, that partnership — I would encourage people to look up the Theory of Change, which is a booklet that Horizon 2045 published online. It provides a completely different way of thinking about and framing the nuclear problem that we hope is really provocative and challenges the EA community to do one thing that it’s very good at, which is to challenge assumptions. So I’d recommend that.
Joan Rohlfing: And then a couple of other recent books. There’s a book by an investigative journalist called Fallout by Lesley Blume, a fascinating retelling of the history of John Hersey’s book Hiroshima and how that came to be. And finally, a really recent book — and this is a little bit ranging throughout this space here — by Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Walter Pincus called Blown to Hell, which is chronicling the testing in the Marshall Islands in the 1950s: the impact on the Marshall Islanders, but just the history of that era, how we were understanding nuclear weapons, trying to understand their effects, the power of those weapons, the dangers of the fallout, the invisibility of all of that now once testing moved underground. It’s fascinating. So those are just a smattering of some different ideas.
Why this problem is solvable [02:09:27]
Rob Wiblin: OK, we’ve reached the end of the conversation. You’ve got to go off. I’m sure you’ve got a very busy day ahead of you, unfortunately. I suppose on a day like today, I feel pretty down about the state of the world, and imagine a lot of other people might well be feeling the same, having listened to this conversation and the world being wherever it is in a couple of weeks when this comes out. What could you say to motivate us to really think this problem is solvable, that the world could be much better in five years’ time than it is right now?
Joan Rohlfing: Thanks for the question, Rob. I think it’s so important, and I’m an optimist by nature. What I would say is the current crisis forces us to confront the dangers of the situation that we are in, and hopefully it helps us redouble our effort and focus on solutions we can put in place.
Joan Rohlfing: And the hopeful note that I would want to leave the audience with is: I really deeply believe this is a completely tractable issue. This is a human-made system. This is a challenge that was created by humans. Humans can solve this problem. There are a lot of things we know how to do. There are a lot of technologies we can bring to bear. Really, this is about educating ourselves to enable people — to help people understand that there is a more hopeful future we can build. It’s within our grasp to do that. So I hope that people get engaged: they study up, they look at where we have leverage on this. And we would love to have company with more people putting their shoulder to the wheel.
Rob Wiblin: Watch this space. My guest today has been Joan Rohlfing. Thanks so much for coming on The 80,000 Hours Podcast, Joan.
Joan Rohlfing: Thanks so much for having me, Rob. Best of luck to all of us. Really appreciate the opportunity.
Rob’s outro [02:11:09]
Rob Wiblin: So since this interview was recorded, there’s been a few exciting developments.
First off, as I mentioned in the introduction, the longtermist grantmaking organisation Longview Philanthropy has announced a substantial new nuclear security grantmaking program.
They’re actually right now looking to hire a grantmaker to co-lead the program, alongside arms control veteran Carl Robichaud. They’re [also hiring a grantmaker who will work on making grants to tackle other existential risks.
We’ll put up links to those jobs and some relevant information in the blog post associated with this episode, or you can find them on our job board at 80000hours.org/jobs.
Carl already brings a lot of nuclear domain expertise and experience to the team, so Longview Philanthropy is open to hiring people whose strengths are elsewhere — say, cost-benefit analysis or general foreign policy or venture capital or launching a venture of their own.
If you could be right for one of those positions, you should absolutely check them out, and if you know someone who could be a great fit for such a role, letting them know about the vacancy might be the most good you ever do in three minutes’ work.
More generally, one thing we notice is that many people can be too fast to rule themselves out of positions that they actually could be qualified for, which can include taking job descriptions a bit too literally. The benefit of getting a job is so many times larger than the cost of applying — let alone at least checking out the job description — that it’s worth taking a look, even if you think it’s probably not right for you.
Another longtermist foundation called the FTX Future Fund has also recently launched and has programs focused on great power relations and recovery from global catastrophes, among others. One of their goals is to make it easy to apply for grants and offer a faster turnaround than most organizations do.
The FTX Future Fund is actually being led by Nick Beckstead, who was our guest for #10 – Dr Nick Beckstead on how to spend billions of dollars preventing human extinction.
We’ll stick up a link to their website, which is really well designed and nicely written. We’ll have an interview with a lot more information about the Future Fund before too long.
Finally, another previous guest, Tyler Cowen, is involved in a grant program called Emergent Ventures, and has expressed interest in funding creative projects in this area. Emergent Ventures is another attempt to do grantmaking in a way that’s relatively easy to apply to and gets back with decisions unusually swiftly. We’ll stick up a link to some of Tyler’s writing and the Emergent Ventures program, which has already issued grants to a number of regular listeners to this show.
All right, The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.
Audio mastering and technical editing by Ben Cordell.
Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.
Thanks for joining. Talk to you again soon.