Nuclear weapons are tremendously destructive. Obvious, perhaps, but sitting behind a desk in Whitehall can sometimes provide a sense of detachment from the objects I think, read, and write about on a daily basis. It is not until you stare into a crater caused by a nuclear explosion that you are starkly reminded of this fact.
Last month, I was fortunate enough to participate in the CSIS PONI - UK PONI annual bilateral engagement, which this year took place across a number of sites in sunny California and Nevada.
These yearly exchanges aim to build the networks of early to mid-career professionals working across the spectrum of nuclear weapons issues, and increase our understanding of the areas we work on. Participants come from government, think tanks, universities and industry, also bridging gaps between technical, policy, or academic roles.
As a junior member of the nuclear community, these networks are hugely important. Being able to call upon colleagues and friends for advice, insights, and support counts for a lot in conducting research and in professional development. Learning from the professional experiences and career paths of others identifies the range of opportunities that exist for career progression. The nuclear community is tight-knit, and networks will likely remain central throughout my career. The sooner those relationships can be established, the better.
The PONI bilateral provides a unique opportunity in that respect, not only expanding networks in local UK or U.S. communities, but developing transatlantic contacts too.
Across the week-long bilateral, two site visits stood out as particularly valuable: a day spent at the U.S. ICBM test facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base and a day at the Nevada National Security Site (NNSS), the former nuclear weapons test site.
Speaking to operators at Vandenberg helps us remember that there are many people involved on a day-to-day basis and helps put the nuclear complex into perspective. It is somewhat reassuring that those who would be responsible for the release of a U.S. ICBM are well trained and can identify errors or malfunctions. It is also reassuring to learn about the strong safety and security cultures adhered to, again limiting the prospect of accidents or unauthorised use.
Yet, the rigid nature of the command and control structure, and unwavering commitment of the operators to carry out launch orders without question is something far removed from policy analysis. Not having the time or authority to assess a multitude of factors before launch is much less comforting.
Better understanding details like this is essential for me to identify areas where change might be possible, to reduce nuclear risks, and to produce options for step-by-step disarmament. Without knowledge of how things are currently, it’s difficult to understand what might be.
Visiting the NNSS was just as eye-opening. There are few things comparable to standing next to a crater caused by an underground nuclear test. Trying to visualise the blast was baffling, providing a stark reminder of why working toward nuclear disarmament and reducing nuclear risk remains so important.
These experiences bring nuclear issues back to reality, to a tangible problem. Day-to-day conversations don’t always stop to take stock of the weapons being discussed. Experiences like this ground some of the issues that are easily lost in an array of nuclear narratives.
It can also be easy for policy makers to get distracted from progress in nuclear risk reduction and disarmament. The field is slow moving and it is easy for other policy challenges to take up bureaucratic energy. Take, for example, the current focus in the UK on our exit from the European Union.
Engagements like these should remind us all that nuclear weapons are not abstract and do require sustained, proactive attention. They are not just political leverages, or tools to signal to allies and adversaries. Progress can and will be frustrating, but is more likely to be achieved if those working in the field have as broad an understanding about the nuclear weapons complex as possible and can work together. Initiatives like PONI and the bilateral activities are so important exactly for this reason.
Cristina Varriale is a Research Analyst with RUSI’s Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Team. Her research interests include extended nuclear deterrence, East Asia and disarmament diplomacy.
This article was first published on the CSIS PONI website and can be found here.
Banner image: Sedan Crater, Nevada Test Site, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sedan_Plowshare_Crater.jpg