Princeton and Games for Change to Partner on Virtual Reality

We are happy to announce that our team was recently awarded a sizeable grant to expand its virtual reality work together with Games for Change (G4C), a nonprofit corporation that supports the creation and distribution of digital media games for humanitarian and educational purposes. The project will build on engagement at G4C’s annual festivals, including the upcoming VR for Change Summit on August 2, which will bring together developers, storytellers, educators, and researchers using VR, AR and other immersive technologies in new ways. The grant is one of a number of projects recently awarded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

The two-component project will employ virtual reality (VR) to support innovation, collaboration, and public awareness in nuclear arms control, with overlapping benefits to nuclear security. The first component, led by Princeton and geared toward experts, will develop full-motion VR to design and simulate new arms-control treaty verification approaches, with outputs relevant to reducing and securing weapons and fissile materials. With stalled progress toward further reductions of nuclear weapons and countries embarking on wide scale upgrades to their arsenals, building new mechanisms for cooperation in this area is essential. The VR project seeks to establish a new way for technical experts to collaborate that goes beyond the traditional exchange of ideas at conferences and workshops. It aims to offer, in particular, a way to overcome some of the confidence-building challenges that may hinder direct cooperation between countries on how to approach nuclear-weapon and fissile-material monitoring. Cooperative design and simulation exercises will seek to showcase new opportunities for state-to-state cooperation in arms control and nuclear security offered by VR. The project team aims to disseminate the findings to audiences like the Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) on Verification in Geneva through live demonstrations.

Mobilizing the public to engage with nuclear policy issues also remains a critical task for future progress. The second component, led by Games for Change, will therefore develop VR material for the public on the dangers from nuclear weapons and fissile materials. The U.S. presidential election campaign in 2016 and its aftermath has brought to the surface latent public concerns about the risks of deliberate nuclear-weapon use and even nuclear war. The aim of the VR experience will therefore be to show the risks associated with fissile-material stockpiles and large arsenals on high alert as a means to encourage greater engagement by the public in nuclear policy and decision-making. The project aims to build on the already high level of public interest in VR applications, not only for entertainment, but also for news and education applications. Established organizations are beginning to embrace the medium, resulting in more widespread public consumption of information using VR platforms. Results will be featured at the Games for Change Festivals, with the goal of engaging direct industry support for development and widespread distribution through VR app stores.

Zero-Knowledge Object-Comparison System Demonstrated in Nature Communications


Future arms control agreements may require trusted verification mechanisms aimed at confirming the authenticity of items presented as nuclear warheads. In the last five years, our team has been pioneering a warhead verification approach based on the cryptographic concept of zero-knowledge proofs. This approach could allow the authentication of nuclear warheads without sharing any design information.

The original idea was published in Nature in June 2014. Since then, we have been working on the development of a zero-knowledge object-comparison system and the procedures for its use in nuclear warhead inspections. The demonstration of such a system is now outlined in a Nature Communications article published on September 20, 2016.

For more information, you can check our zero-knowledge warhead verification project page. The Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory has made a video about the experiments (see the press release here).

Alex Wellerstein has written a nice story about our work and experiments in the New Yorker.

First Experimental Zero-knowledge

Already back in July, at the 2015 INMM Annual Conference, we reported initial results from the first zero-knowledge differential neutron radiographic measurements. To our knowledge, this was the first demonstration of a physical zero-knowledge proof of physical properties. This proof-of-concept constitutes a small but important first step toward an efficient zero-knowledge protocol for nuclear warhead authentication where sensitive information is never measured.

For this first demonstration, we tried to implemented all key steps of a zero-knowledge inspection using 14-MeV DT neutron radiography with test items represented by patterns of steel and aluminum cubes. We were able to preload the bubble detectors with the complement of the radiograph of a reference item and, by subsequent irradiation, verify whether items presented for inspection were identical to the reference item or not. We confirmed that the results yielded “zero information” when valid items were tested and successfully identified tampered items for four different diversion scenarios.

Watch this space for updates as we evaluate new measurements and write up the journal version of the paper.

Unmaking the Bomb. The Book.

ceip-launchOur book is finally out, and we had the opportunity to present it yesterday at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. Our argument is based on a very simple premise: Banning nuclear weapons will not end the threat of nuclear war and nuclear explosions if countries continue to make, stockpile, and use the fissile materials that make nuclear weapons possible. International efforts to abolish nuclear weapons and to prevent proliferation and nuclear terrorism so far have been acting largely in parallel with no comprehensive underlying strategy. With now enough fissile material around for about 200,000 nuclear weapons, we propose a new framework that puts these materials front and center. We propose a set of policies to drastically reduce fissile material inventories worldwide with a view to their total elimination as irreversibly as possible. Put simply, no material, no problem.

The slides of the briefing are available here.

Nature Article on Nuclear Warhead Verification

We have put together a webpage summarizing the main challenges of nuclear disarmament verification and the concept of the template approach for warhead authentication, which is the basis for the Nature article from June 2014. The page also provides a brief overview of other verification projects currently underway and includes a list of useful readings.

Note also the story on the article in Science.

Nuclear Transparency Scorecard

Zia Mian and Alex Glaser presented at the 2014 NPT Prepcom in New York on behalf of the International Panel on Fissile Materials on next steps the nuclear weapons states can take to increase transparency of their nuclear weapon and fissile material stockpiles as part of meeting their obligations under the NPT 2010 “Action Plan on Nuclear Disarmament.”

The presentation (PDF) was co-sponsored by the Missions of the Netherlands and of Japan, represented by Ambassador Henk Cor van der Kwast of the Netherlands and Ambassador Toshio Sano of Japan.

It’s Official: $3.5M for Nuclear Disarmament Research at Princeton

CVT We are happy to announce that we are part of the consortium that has been awarded the $25 million five-year grant to improve nuclear arms control verification technology (see NNSA press release from March 31, 2014). The consortium will be led by the University of Michigan, and also involves MIT, Columbia, North Carolina State, University of Hawaii, Pennsylvania State, Duke, University of Wisconsin, University of Florida, Oregon State, Yale, and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.

Princeton leads a key research thrust of the consortium focused on the relevant policy dimensions: “Treaty Verification: Characterizing Existing Gaps and Emerging Challenges.” Together with PPPL, we will also be able to expand our technical work on zero-knowledge approach to nuclear warhead verification and will be developing a virtual environment to support development, testing, and demonstration of verification approaches for these treaties. We will report regularly at on the progress of this exciting opportunity. Watch this space.

Nuclear Archaeology for Gaseous Diffusion Plants

k25-2 The field of nuclear archaeology aims to develop the methods and tools to verify past production of fissile materials for military purposes, which may become necessary to support the verification of future arms control agreements that envision deeper cuts in the nuclear arsenals. So far, techniques have been successfully demonstrated for reconstructing historic plutonium production, especially in graphite-moderated reactors, but nuclear archaeology for uranium enrichment has proven much more challenging.

During the 2013 Annual INMM meeting, Sebastien Philippe and Alex Glaser presented a paper on nuclear archaeology for gaseous diffusion enrichment plant (GDEP). Gaseous diffusion was historically the most widely used technology for military production of highly enriched uranium. We propose a new approach to verify the production history of GDEP based on a mathematical model of a reference plant cascade and a nuclear forensic analysis of solid uranium particles deposited over time in the tubular separation membranes of the stage diffusers. Have a look (paper, slides).

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Dismantle the Bomb

ggg Princeton University (and PPPL) recently ran a story about our nuclear warhead verification project, which has been picked up by some news media, including Gizmodo.

As a quick follow up: We will have a new paper with our most recent results, so far all based on MCNP computer calculations, at the INMM Annual Meeting this July in Palm Desert. In the meantime, here is a set of slides from a recent talk at Yale summarizing additional details of the proposed protocol and some initial simulated results.

An Open Letter to President Obama: The Time on the Doomsday Clock is Five Minutes to Midnight

By Robert Socolow, Thomas Rosenbaum, Lawrence J. Korb, Lynn Eden, Rod Ewing, Alexander Glaser, James E. Hansen, Sivan Kartha, Edward “Rocky” Kolb, Lawrence M. Krauss, Leon Lederman, Ramamurti Rajaraman, M. V. Ramana, Robert Rosner, Jennifer Sims, Richard C. J. Somerville, and Elizabeth J. Wilson

The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board announces its 2013 decision to keep in place the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock: It will remain at five minutes to midnight. In this open letter to US President Barack Obama, the Board presents its views on the key issues that affected its decision and provides the president with recommendations to consider in 2013 and throughout his second term.

Read the letter here.

FMCT Scientific Experts Meetings

The governments of the Netherlands and Germany organized two Scientific Experts Meetings at the Conference on Disarmament in May and August 2012 on “Technical Issues Related to a Treaty banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices” — otherwise known as the FMCT. A couple of us had the honor to participate as panelists in these meetings: Zia Mian assessed the future of military fissile material production facilities in South Asia; Frank von Hippel talked about the challenges of military nuclear sites and naval fuel cycles under an FMCT; and Alex Glaser spoke about verifying the non-production of highly enriched uranium. Other panelists included Bart Dal, Ben Dekker, Jacques Ebrardt, Joachim Lausch, Ramamurti Rajaraman, Therese Renis, Peter Schwalbach, and Neil Tuley. The reports of these meetings are now available as UN Reports CD/1935 and CD/1943. There was a broad consensus among the participants that it would be useful for interested governments to support research on technical issues relating to the verification of a FMCT now, even before negotiations begin.

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.

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.

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.

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.