Zero-Knowledge Nuclear Warhead Verification

Over the past eight months, we have been working on a new approach to nuclear warhead verification, generously funded by Global Zero. As part of this effort, we are seeking to develop and demonstrate the proof-of-concept for an inspection system that, by design, cannot divulge any classified information … because it is never measured. In cryptography, this is called a a zero-knowledge proof. In such a proof, Person A (the host) proves to Person B (the inspector) that a proposition is true without revealing why the proposition is true, i.e., in this case, that a genuine warhead is presented for verification or dismantlement without revealing any design information about it. One of our collaborators is Boaz Barak, a cryptography expert and Senior Researcher with Microsoft Research, New England. Earlier this year, Boaz has given talks focused on some of the conceptual ideas at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (announcement and video) and at the Newton Institute in Cambridge, UK (video). The project will involve experiments and measurements that are currently being set up at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. We will regularly report on the progress.

In July, Alex Glaser, Boaz Barak, and Rob Goldston presented first results of this research at the 2012 INMM Meeting held in Orlando, Florida (paper and slides).

Here are also the slides from an earlier but longer talk given at PPPL.

2012 International Energy Workshop

Alex Glaser was one of the keynote speakers at the 2012 International Energy Workshop held at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. His talk reviewed the international responses to the Fukushima Accidents and assessed the potential impact on deployment trajectories for nuclear power, noting that many energy scenarios still envision an early and large expansion of nuclear power on a global scale. Partly as a result of the Fukushima accidents from March 2011, many of these growth projections have become increasingly unrealistic.

The talk also examined the prospects of small modular reactors, which have begun to attract significant attention as an alternative to standard gigawatt-scale plants. Taken together, these recent developments suggest that nuclear power may play a more limited role in a future low-carbon energy system than previously anticipated. The slides of the talk are available here.

Proliferation Risks of Magnetic Fusion Energy

Nuclear proliferation risks from magnetic fusion energy associated with access to weapon-usable materials can be divided into three main categories: (1) clandestine production of weapon-usable material in an undeclared facility, (2) covert production of such material in a declared facility and (3) use of a declared facility in a breakout scenario, in which a state begins production of fissile material without concealing the effort.

In a recent paper published in Nuclear Fusion, A. Glaser and R. J. Goldston address each of these categories of risks from fusion. For each case, they find that the proliferation risk from fusion systems can be much lower than the equivalent risk from fission systems, if (and only if) fusion systems are designed to accommodate appropriate safeguards. At the next INMM Meeting in July 2012, Goldston and Glaser will have a follow-on paper that focuses more explicitly on some of the safeguards requirements for fusion reactors.

Facilitating Nuclear Disarmament: Verified Declarations of Fissile Material Stocks and Production

On March 20, 2012, the Monterey Institute of International Studies hosted a briefing in Washington, DC, featuring a presentation by Alex Glaser on “Verified Declarations of Fissile Materials” based on an article published in the Nonproliferation Review.

Video and Slides of the event are available here. From the abstract of the article: National declarations of fissile material holdings—highly enriched uranium and plutonium—could play an important role in supporting growing interest in nuclear disarmament, facilitating not only transparency but also the irreversibility of the process. This briefing discusses what kind of content such declarations could have in order to be meaningful and effective, the sequence of data on fissile material holdings that states might release, and some of the challenges to be expected in reconstructing historic fissile material production.

Re-Engineering the Nuclear Future

We are pleased to announce that Princeton’s Carbon Mitigation Initiative will support NFL’s “Re-Engineering the Nuclear Future” project directed by Alexander Glaser and M. V. Ramana. The project will explore the shapes of alternative nuclear futures looking in particular at emerging technologies, many still in the R&D stage, that may be potential game changers. Research will also focus on the broader energy context and examine how nuclear power would fit into a modern low-carbon energy system that may be more decentralized than today’s system and emphasize flexibility, energy efficiency, and small-scale solutions. The project will bring together a unique set of skills in computing, engineering, energy technologies, and policy analysis available in Princeton’s School of Engineering and the Woodrow Wilson School. This first phase of this project will focus on Small Modular Reactors (SMR), a new type of reactor designs currently under development in the United States, Russia, China, France, Japan, and South Korea. Having power levels that are a fraction of those of existing power reactors and featuring new design approaches (including, for example, underground construction), SMR may be the most serious candidate technology in the nuclear area today. There have been few independent reviews of these systems so far. This project seeks to fill this gap and help establish the basis for a more informed debate on the possible role of SMR.

New Report: Managing Spent Nuclear Fuel

The International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM) has released a new report, Managing Spent Fuel from Nuclear Power Reactors: Experience and Lessons from Around the World. The report provides an overview of the policy and technical challenges faced internationally and learning over the past five decades in efforts at long-term storage and disposal of spent fuel from nuclear power reactors.

The spent fuel from nuclear power reactors, and the high-level wastes produced in the few countries where spent fuel is reprocessed to separate plutonium, must be stored in a manner that will minimize releases of the contained radioactivity into the environment for up to a million years. Safeguards also will be required to ensure that any contained plutonium is not diverted to nuclear-weapon use. This report analyzes the efforts to manage and dispose of spent fuel by ten countries that account for more than 80 percent of the world’s nuclear power capacity: Canada, Finland, France, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. It also provides an overview of the technical issues relating to interim storage and transport of spent fuel, geological repositories, and the challenge of the associated international safeguards. Highly recommended reading.

WANTED: PhD Students

The Nuclearfutures Laboratory has openings for graduate students interested in studying interdisciplinary problems related to nuclear energy, nuclear nonproliferation, and nuclear disarmament verification. Students interested in pursuing a doctoral degree through the Nuclearfutures Laboratory can either apply for a PhD program in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) or for a PhD program in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (WWS).

See the PROJECTS section on this site for more details about ongoing research at the Laboratory. Please write to Alexander Glaser if you have questions about admission procedures, the Laboratory’s activities and possible topics for a thesis.

Some helpful links:

Applying to Princeton: Graduate School and and CollegeNET.

About a PhD in MAE: Admission and MAE Graduate Handbook (awaiting update).

About a PhD in the WWS: Overview, Curriculum, and Requirements. There are five principal fields (or clusters) in the Woodrow Wilson School’s PhD program; note, in particular, the PhD in Public and International Affairs with a focus in Science, Technology, Environment and Policy (STEP).

Special Issue of the Electricity Journal on Nuclear Power after Fukushima

The July 2011 Issue of the Electricity Journal features several articles that discuss the broader impact of the Fukushima accidents. NFL’s Alexander Glaser provided one perspective (After Fukushima: Preparing for a More Uncertain Future of Nuclear Power) arguing that “one particularly important lesson for responsible energy policy can be learned from Germany: one may agree or disagree with its decision to respond so radically to the Fukushima accidents, but the experience has shown that it is critically important to have alternative energy strategies available in case a technology has to be taken off the table.”

Fissile Materials: Balancing the Books

The International Panel on Fissile Materials has just released the Global Fissile Material Report 2010: Balancing the Books. The report reviews the official declarations of fissile material production and stocks by the United States and the United Kingdom and provides revised estimates of the past production and current holdings of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium for six nuclear weapon states that have not declared their holdings. This is the first comprehensive public update of this information since the groundbreaking work done by Albright, Berkhout, and Walker in the 1990s.

The report also identifies windows of opportunity for progress towards verified nuclear disarmament. Today, fissile material production facilities are being shut down and prepared for decommissioning and dismantlement in a number of weapon states. The report finds that countries should not dismantle key components of their production reactors until international bilateral and multilateral nuclear-archaeology initiatives can be set up, under IAEA supervision, and with participation from non-weapon states, to develop and implement on-site sampling methods and benchmark computer simulations that can be used to verify the fissile material production history at each facility. The weapon states might begin by each identifying one production reactor as a potential test bed for international studies to clarify the capabilities and limits of nuclear archaeology.

David Turnbull Receives PEI-STEP Fellowship

David is a PhD student in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering working on Raman-amplified ultra-intense lasers, one application of which is for fast ignition inertial confinement fusion. As part of this 2-year PEI-STEP environmental policy fellowship, he will examine nuclear weapons proliferation risks associated with fusion-fission hybrid power plant schemes. Computer simulations of the proposed reactors will help to quantify some of the proliferation-relevant parameters and how they vary with the specific details of a given design. The LIFE proposal involving a laser fusion driver, as well as proposals to use hybrid “burners” to incinerate nuclear waste from existing and future fission power plants, are of particular interest. The project will also include an economic analysis of the hybrid plants as compared to other nuclear fusion and fission reactors.

Multilateral Approaches in a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World

Alex Glaser authored a chapter on multilateral approaches in a nuclear-weapon-free world in a recently released book by the Stimson Center on the Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty.

The prospects for, and viability of, possible multilateral arrangements for the nuclear fuel cycle are typically discussed in the context of preventing the further spread of sensitive nuclear technologies and, ultimately, of nuclear weapons, while enabling a possible global expansion of nuclear energy. In the context of nuclear disarmament, another dimension is at least equally important: What is a better or necessary structure of the nuclear fuel cycle in a world free of nuclear weapons?

As the distinction between nuclear weapon and non-nuclear weapon states gradually becomes less relevant in a disarming world, modified or new frameworks that inherently rely on a separation of supplier and consumer states are much less sustainable than they already are today. More appealing are proposals that envision multinational ownership and control of plants on a basis in which all partners have equal status. They have not received much traction because they challenge key aspects of the present international system of states’ rights and privileges, and may therefore be considered unrealistic in the short-term, but could serve as important precedents for a world preparing for nuclear disarmament. The priority of the debate should therefore be on joint ownership of nuclear fuel cycle plants; this article lays out a roadmap that could help making progress in that direction.

Postdoc Position Opening

A postdoctoral research or more senior research position is available with Princeton University’s Nuclear Futures Laboratory, an initiative of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Program on Science and Global Security of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Independent and collaborative research will support projects at the interfaces of nuclear-energy use, climate change, and nuclear nonproliferation. Additional responsibilities include work with undergraduate and graduate students in the group and project support of the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

Applicants should have a PhD in engineering or the physical sciences and have expertise in nuclear reactor and fuel cycle analysis. Preference will be given to candidates with interest in energy-systems modeling and policy issues related to one or more of these areas. The initial appointment will be for one year, with the possibility of extension. The salary will be determined on a case-by-case basis commensurate with experience. Applications should include a cover letter, resume, 2-3 sample publications, and names of three references. Application review begins April 19, 2010, and continues until position is filled.

Individuals with evidence of experience in scholarly research in the prescribed areas are encouraged to apply. You may apply online at; for general application information and how to self-identify, see here. We strongly recommend that all interested candidates use the online application process.

Princeton University is an equal opportunity employer and complies with applicable EEO and affirmative action regulations.

Balancing Risks: Nuclear Energy and Climate Change

by Robert H. Socolow and Alexander Glaser

Nuclear power could make a significant contribution to climate change mitigation. To do so, however, nuclear power must be deployed extensively, including in the developing world. A “one-tier” world will be required–that is, a world with an agreed set of rules to govern nuclear power that are the same in all countries.

In this article, we argue that the world is not now safe for a rapid global expansion of nuclear energy. Nuclear-energy use today relies on technologies and a system of national governance of the nuclear fuel cycle that carry substantial risks of nuclear weapons proliferation. The risks that a global expansion of nuclear power will facilitate nuclear proliferation and incidents of nuclear terrorism, or even lead to regional nuclear war, are significant. Nuclear war is a terrible trade for slowing the pace of climate change.

A Path to Nuclear Disarmament

On Wednesday, 28 October 2009, the International Panel on Fissile Materials (IPFM), presented Global Fissile Material Report 2009: A Path to Nuclear Disarmament at the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee, which is responsible for international peace and security.

Global Fissile Material Report 2009 charts some of the key technical and policy steps for securing verifiable world-wide nuclear disarmament and eliminating the world’s huge stockpiles of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the key materials for making nuclear weapons.

Nuclear disarmament has returned to the center of international debate following President Barack Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague, in which he pledged “to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” In September 2009, the United Nations Security Council, which includes the five major nuclear weapon states, unanimously agreed “to create the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Global Fissile Material Report 2009 discusses how nuclear-armed states could declare their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, plutonium and highly enriched uranium, and how these declarations might be verified using the methods and tools being developed for what is now called “nuclear archaeology.”

The report includes IPFM’s annual assessment of worldwide stocks, production, and disposition of highly enriched uranium and plutonium, and current efforts to eliminate these materials. There are nine nuclear-armed states and over 20,000 nuclear weapons today. The report includes for the first time an estimate of the number and locations of nuclear weapons sites worldwide, listed by country.

The IPFM estimates that the current global stockpile of highly enriched uranium is about 1600 metric tons. There are about 500 tons of separated plutonium, divided almost equally between weapon and civilian stocks, but it is all weapon-usable. The global stockpiles of plutonium and highly enriched uranium together are sufficient for over one hundred thousand nuclear weapons. The report lists the location, size and safeguards status of operating, under construction and planned fissile material production facilities around the world.

The report considers options for monitoring nuclear warhead dismantlement and the disposition of the fissile materials they contain as well as other stockpiles of fissile materials; verifiably ending the production of fissile materials for weapons, through a Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty (a topic treated in detail in Global Fissile Material Report 2008); the potential roles of nuclear fuel-cycle facilities in enabling nuclear breakout in a disarmed world; and the potential contributions of societal or citizen verification to making it impossible to conceal illicit nuclear-weapon-related activities.