The Nuclear Threat Initiative is not only nuclear—notes from a call with NTI
The below sets out call notes between Sanjay Joshi from SoGive and Joan Rohlfing, President and COO of Nuclear Threat Initiative and Peggy Knudson, Chief Development Officer at Nuclear Threat Initiative. We choose to publish those call notes which we believe are likely to be of most interest. In this case, the notes give a particularly good introduction to the work of NTI, and organisation of interest to anyone wanting to reduce the risk of existential catastrophe. This call occurred on Tues 23rd June 2020.
History and name
NTI was founded in 2001 by CNN founder Ted Turner and former Senator Sam Nunn. The organisation has worked on existential risks other than nuclear risks right from the outset, so the name Nuclear Threat Initiative has always been something of a misnomer.
What do they do?
NTI is a nonprofit global security organisation focused on reducing catastrophic threats imperiling humanity:
While much of NTI’s work looks like think tank work, NTI would not describe themselves as a think tank.
NTI would argue that think tanks often focus just on the top right corner of the above impact model, with relatively little effort on the other elements.
SoGive opinion: in SoGive’s experience, it seems quite common for think tanks to make this claim, with several think tanks arguing that they are “think-and-do tanks”. We did not spend enough time on this topic to establish a firm opinion on this, however in NTI’s defence, it did appear that NTI has an unusual capacity to stimulate global engagement with governments and actually implement projects, and was therefore perhaps relatively well-placed to defend their claim that they are “not just a think tank”.
How NTI allocates its resources
● Roughly 20% of the budget goes to reducing biological risks
● The remaining budget covers different aspects of nuclear, including nuclear weapons threats, radiological threats, the threat of nuclear terrorism and cyber threats to nuclear systems.
The below comments give a flavour of what is meant by bio risk work and nuclear work, without necessarily being entirely comprehensive.
Bio risks: NTI’s work to reduce biological risks includes the following strategic objectives:
• Countering global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs). NTI catalyzes international security leaders to prioritize GCBRs and reduce the risk of high consequence, deliberate biological events, including those from powerful actors. This work includes senior leaders’ tabletop exercises, support for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention, and the development of new approaches to reduce the potential for a population-scale biological event.
• Preventing biotechnology disasters. NTI is driving concrete global actions and institutions to identify and reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology, including gene editing and synthesis.
• Accelerating governmental action to reduce deliberate and accidental biological events. NTI convenes decision-makers, globally and regionally, to build and spur accountability for biosecurity and biosafety practices, hosts Track 1.5 biosecurity dialogues with key partner countries, and performs targeted advocacy to increase national resources for biosecurity and biosafety.
• Publishing the 195-country Global Health Security (GHS) Index to measure pandemic preparedness gaps and spark political will for filling and financing those gaps.
• In addition, NTI | bio provides support for COVID-19 preparedness and response by supporting frontline decision-makers through an online tool called “COVID Local.” The tool helps local decision makers around the world (and including in low income areas) assess how to best deploy resources (human and financial) to reduce infection rates and provides a framework for informing decisions about reopening. COVID local also bolsters U.S. decision-maker support for assisting global partners with pandemic preparedness.
Nuclear: Within nuclear they have programmes, among others, focused on preventing nuclear terrorism, advancing a safer, more secure fuel cycle for nuclear power, and designing a system to replace the outdated game-theory-based nuclear deterrence system and modes of thinking.
With regard to nuclear, NTI is ultimately working toward creating the systems, technologies and institutions needed to support a world where nuclear weapons are prohibited.
How much does NTI spend each year
NTI spends about $25m-$26m per year.
This makes it larger than many other x-risk-related organisations that we at SoGive are familiar with (i.e. a larger budget than Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, CISAC at Stanford, and CSER; we haven’t checked how this compares to FHI, who are also in double-digit millions per annum)
In the course of the conversation, we touched on a number of specific topics. These topics came up often because of the flow of the conversation. Their being mentioned here does not necessarily mean that NTI feels that it’s the most important topic to represent their work.
Cyber and nuclear:
Cyber is a new area that they are focused on, particularly with regard to the intersection between cyber and nuclear. Having looked into this, they believe the bottom line is that there is no technical solution to the cyber vulnerabilities of the nuclear weapon system. There’s no way you’re ever going to have complete confidence that the nuclear system is not vulnerable in some way given the large number of digital components. So you really need to think about policy solutions. For example, if you’re worried that a country like Russia is going to get into your command and control systems (through a backdoor) and maybe confuse you to make it look like you’re under attack, one solution is to remove warheads from delivery systems in both countries to increase leadership decision time. We have missiles with multiple warheads on them ready to launch at a moment’s notice. As an alternative, you could put the warheads in a secure facility somewhere, and buy yourself time, so that you could test the info you’re receiving from command and control systems.
Question: is it fair to say that everyone already wants this sort of protection against the risk that the enemy could take control of your systems?
Ans: Not necessarily. The military of course wants to reduce the risk that an adversary can spoof its command and control systems, but it is largely focused on developing technical solutions, and it remains unconvinced that policy solutions, such as taking vulnerable nuclear forces off “prompt launch,” are a good idea. The military is trained to be “ready” – i.e. ready to launch, even if the price of that readiness is a higher risk of blundering into nuclear war by firing a weapon erroneously, under severe time pressure, based on false warning information from a possible cyber event. False alarms do happen. One of the most serious occurred in 1980, when U.S. National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski received a call in the middle of the night to inform him, incorrectly, that the Soviets had launched 2200 missiles against the United States. Brzezinski was only moments away from recommending a retaliatory strike to President Carter when U.S. Strategic Air Command judged it to be a false warning. The false alarm was later discovered to be the result of a chip failure.
There’s a well-established “belief system” about how deterrence is supposed to work. Original thinking was designed in the 1950s, in a less complex world, a more bipolar world, and not a world with 9 nuclear states. This way of thinking persists despite the fact that we have new technologies now and the world is a very different place. NTI believes that current nuclear strategy and thinking is no longer fit for purpose, and that it now raises the risk of nuclear use, rather than reduces it.
Horizon 2045 project:
Relevant to the previous paragraph, NTI is planning to take a very different systems approach to thinking about nuclear risk reduction. They have set the goal of developing and bringing into effect by the year 2045 a new strategy for preventing nuclear use, one that doesn’t rely on threatening nuclear annihilation to prevent nuclear use by others. They are working with a collaborative innovation group based in California and Washington, D.C. called N Square and with the Rhode Island School of Design’s Center for Complexity, using systems thinking and design methodologies to invent new solutions for global challenges.
NTI believes that nuclear strategy has become ghettoised, and that the thinking and the assumptions underpinning nuclear deterrence as a long term strategy for preventing nuclear use have not been actively investigated in decades and need to be challenged. In the 1950s there was a huge amount of multidisciplinary thinking that went into the development and eventual acceptance of the game-theory-oriented thinking that we have today. Significant resources were devoted to generating the intellectual foundation of nuclear strategy. NTI argues that we need to go back to the drawing board and rethink nuclear again in light of the vastly different, more complex world we have today compared to the 1950s – we have new technologies, a totally changed geo-political landscape, and threats from terror groups who aren’t deterred. NTI is seeking, together with its partners N Square and RISD, to catalyze a new generation of intellectual investment, and to build the network, institutions, systems, technologies and political momentum needed to bring about a world that no longer relies on nuclear weapons for security.
Global health security index:
In 2019 NTI published the first-ever global health security index that surveyed 195 countries and assessed each one for its preparedness for a high-consequence biological event. Conclusion: no country is fully prepared; the average score was 40.2 out of 100. NTI collaborated with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Economist Intelligence Unit. NTI already had indices on nuclear risk management, and they were hoping to drive similar engagement by countries to reduce bio risk.
Question: did the findings of that index correlate with the outcomes for COVID19?
Ans: For some countries, the answer is a resounding “yes.” For example, South Korea and Thailand both scored in the top tier of the GHS Index, But others that had top marks, such as the UK and the U.S., did not fully leverage their capability to launch an effective COVID-19 response. Capacity alone isn’t sufficient if that capacity isn’t fully leveraged. Strong health systems must be in place to serve all populations, and effective political leadership that instills confidence in the government’s response is crucial. The report did indicate at the time that no country is fully prepared and every country has important gaps to address. Why did the U.S. do so poorly against coronavirus? NTI’s early conclusion on this question is that it’s not that they were wrong about the systems. While the U.S. had good systems, such systems can be undermined where political leadership and public confidence in government are not strong. (read more here)
LEU fuel bank in Kazakhstan:
NTI created an international fuel bank for Low Enriched Uranium (i.e. an input in the nuclear energy generation process). This was a 12-year process during which NTI conceived the project, raised funds ($150M) to implement the idea and built international political support for it. This eventually catalyzed the creation of the LEU bank in Kazakhstan by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
This isn’t a commercial entity selling fuel. NTI thinks the commercial market is operating just fine. It’s meant to be a backup or insurance policy for countries that worry that they might be cut off from trade with their standard sources of supply.
The existence of this bank means that countries no longer can use the subterfuge of claiming that they need their own indigenous production capacity to enrich uranium, a capability that gives a state inherent capacity to produce nuclear weapons. The creation of this bank is an important step in ensuring that nuclear power can be produced and safely expanded without risking the proliferation of nuclear weapons programs. NTI is exploring whether the concept of the bank can be expanded upon, perhaps on a regional basis, to further strengthen the safe and secure provision of nuclear fuel internationally.