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:

● Nuclear

● Cyber

● Radiological

● Biological

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)

Spe­cific topics

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.