From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare

Science and Global Security: From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare
Princeton University, Spring 2013

Course listing on Princeton’s Office of the Registrar site

Course Blog


Advances in science and technology over the past century have created many unprecedented and still unresolved global security challenges for policy makers and the public. The invention of nuclear weapons during World War II led Einstein to conclude that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking.” Security concerns and government-sponsored research programs later combined to shape the Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Many military and technical innovations resulted; these include precision-guided intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy satellites, and the global positioning system (GPS), but also the modern electronic computer and computer networks, which became the basis for the internet. Recent developments in biotechnology and digital communication and control raise the prospect of possible new kinds of warfare.

This course will provide students with a basic technical understanding of some of the critical technologies that are relevant to national and global security and will equip students with the skills to better assess the challenge of developing effective policies to manage such technologies. Case studies will inter alia include nuclear weapons and their proliferation, nuclear and radiological terrorism, space weapons, biosecurity and cyberwarfare.

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
1 History, Design, and Effects of Nuclear Weapons
2 Delivery Systems, Nuclear Arsenals, and Nuclear Strategy
3 Intelligence, Arms Control, and Verification
4 Nuclear Energy
5 Nuclear Proliferation
6 Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism
7 Biotechnology, Biosecurity, and Bioterrorism
8 Cyberwarfare
Future Challenges

While the emphasis of this course will be on the security challenges posed by many of these technologies, it will also explore the application of science to arms control and disarmament. Examples covered in class will include the capability to detect clandestine nuclear tests for treaty verification, technologies that can help detect illicit shipments of nuclear materials, open-source satellite imagery, which has been effectively used for crowd-sourcing purposes, and internet-enabled approaches to encouraging anonymous reporting.


Weekly readings, short pre-class assignments including blog posts and comments; seven (7) problem sets including essay questions; midterm paper/project; and final exam. The midterm projects will be handed out on March 7 (or March 12) and are due on April 2; these projects involve group work (before Spring Break) and individual contributions.


No prerequisites; MAT 103 recommended


30% : 7 Problem sets (including essay questions)
20% : Paper in lieu of midterm exam
15% : Class/precept participation
35% : Final exam (closed book)


We will not work with dedicated textbook; most readings and media required for this course are available online, either directly (with open-access) or through Princeton University. All other readings are or will be available on Blackboard; these are marked with (BB) below.

One useful manuscript is: David Hafemeister, Physics of Societal Issues: Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy, Springer, Berlin, 2007; as the title suggests, the book covers topics that go beyond the scope of this course. The text is available online via Princeton University at and can also be purchased at a highly discounted price from that website.

Weekly Schedule and Readings

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
Feb 5 and Feb 7, 2013

Advances in science and technology have always played an important role in shaping the nature of warfare, but a fundamentally new dimension emerged with the invention of nuclear weapons in the 1940s and, as the nuclear arsenals expanded, the respective capability for nearly-instant global devastation. Since the end of Cold War, many global security challenges have evolved, but –as President Obama pointed out in 2009– “in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” New technologies are now emerging that could again transform the conditions of global security. These developments can be disruptive (as with the invention of nuclear weapons) or gradual as with the increasing significance of cyberwarfare. The dual-use nature of many relevant technologies further highlights the complexity of sound policy-making. To set the stage for the topics and issues covered this semester, we will explore the different types of security threats today, the perception and prioritization of relevant risks, and the resulting challenges for effective policy making.



More to explore:

Unit 1: History, Design, and Effects of Nuclear Weapons
Feb 12, Feb 14, and Feb 19, 2013

Shortly after the discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s, it became clear that the process could, in principle, unfold in an explosive chain reaction and release large amounts of energy. At the time, it was unknown, however, just how hard it would be to make the fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) needed for a nuclear weapon. During World War II, the U.S. Manhattan project demonstrated the technical basis of large-scale fissile material production (including the feasibility of operating nuclear reactors) and led to the development and use of the first nuclear weapons in 1945. The Soviet Union demonstrated its nuclear capability in 1949, and military planners on both sides began to integrate these weapons into their war-fighting arsenals. The emerging arms race between the superpowers further escalated in scale with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, which would increase the yield of nuclear weapons several-hundred fold. The destructive effects of nuclear weapons remain unparalleled; they involve air blast, heat, and nuclear radiation. Since the 1980s, independent experts began to emphasize the potential climatic consequences of nuclear war (“nuclear winter”); more recently, it was shown that the impact on climate of nuclear explosions can be relevant even for nuclear war on a regional scale. This week, we will develop the tools to qualitatively and quantitatively describe and assess the distinct effects of nuclear explosions and the consequences of regional and global nuclear war.


  • Isao Hashimoto, 1945–1998, Multimedia Artwork, 14 minutes, 2003.
  • David Hafemeister, Physics of Societal Issues: Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy, Springer, Berlin, 2007, Chapter 1 (“Nuclear Weapons”).
  • Leo Sartori, “Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” Physics Today, March 1983. (BB)
  • Sydney Drell and Frank von Hippel, “Limited Nuclear War,” Scientific American, 235 (5), November 1976, pp. 27–37. (BB)


Nuclear Winter: Guest Lecture by Alan Robock
Feb 19, 2013

Alan Robock is Professor at the Department of Environmental Sciences, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, Rutgers University.


Unit 2: Ballistic Missiles, Missile Defense, and Nuclear Strategy
Feb 21, Feb 28, and Mar 5, 2013

The importance of a delivery system for nuclear weapons has been recognized from the very beginning. In his famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, Einstein assumed that nuclear weapons would be powerful but gigantic and speculated that bombs would therefore have to be “carried by boat” and “might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.” Nuclear warheads turned out much smaller, and delivery became possible not only by aircraft but also by ballistic missiles. The invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with guidance systems in the late 1950s and the development of de-facto invulnerable submarine-launched missiles critically shaped nuclear postures during the Cold War. The spread of missile technology continues to be a challenge for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This week, we will review the basic phenomena and constraints underlying the delivery of warheads over intercontinental distances and the implications for nuclear strategy.


More to explore:

  • Kosta Tsipis, Arsenal: Understanding Weapons in the Nuclear Age, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1983, Chapter 5 (“Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles”).

Cyberwarfare (Preview): A Conversation with David Sanger
Feb 26, 2013

David Sanger is the Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times; Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; and author of Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power.


  • David Sanger, Confront and Conceal, Crown Publishers, New York, 2012, Chapters 6, 7, and 8. (BB)

Unit 3: Intelligence, Arms Control, and Verification
Mar 7 and Mar 12, 2013


  • Hafemeister, op. cit., Chapter 4 (“Verification and Arms Control Treaties”).
  • Jerome Wiesner, “Inspection for Disarmament,” Chapter 4 in Arms Control: Issues for the Public, The American Assembly, Columbia University, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1961. (BB)

Unit 4: Nuclear Energy and Fissile Materials
Mar 14 and Mar 26, 2013

A basic understanding of nuclear reactor and fuel-cycle technologies will be important in allowing us to appreciate the differences between various technical and non-technical choices for civilian nuclear-energy use. To a large extent, these choices determine inter alia the proliferation-resistance, sustainability, and economics of nuclear power. Some of these factors will in turn determine the competitiveness of nuclear energy vis-à-vis renewable or other low-carbon energy technologies; and they will ultimately have important implications on the overall viability of proposals to expand nuclear power on a global scale, including in countries and regions that are considered politically unstable today. This week, we will explore the fundamentals of various nuclear technologies; we will also establish the scale of an infrastructure needed to support a worldwide nuclear expansion that could make a significant contribution to climate-change mitigation efforts.



  • A is for Atom, Television feature by Adam Curtis, BBC, 2011, 56 minutes.

Unit 5: Nuclear Proliferation
Mar 28 and Apr 2, 2013

In 1963, President John F. Kennedy admitted that he was “haunted by the feeling that by 1970 […] there may be 10 nuclear powers instead of 4, and by 1975, 15 or 20.” Overall, the history of nonproliferation has been favorable than Kennedy anticipated: many countries have abandoned nuclear weapon programs since the 1970s; but some others have emerged, and concerns about the nature of nuclear activities, sometimes part of civilian nuclear power program, persist. In this unit, we will examine the strategies that have been proposed or implemented to prevent the diversion of civilian nuclear power programs for military purposes. To complement this discussion, we will explore and assess some relevant case studies.


Readings on case studies:

These readings will be revised and updated in the week(s) before this session pending new developments relevant for these case studies.

Unit 6: Nuclear and Radiological Terrorism
Apr 4 and Apr 9, 2013

The concern that sub-state actors could acquire a nuclear weapon or make a crude nuclear device, and then use it against a city, goes back to the 1970s. At the time, experts began to challenge the assumption that making a simple nuclear device is beyond the capability of sub-state actors and point out that the security of nuclear weapon materials is often inadequate. After 9/11, the specter of nuclear terrorism became a central part of the political and public debates. This was complemented by a new concern: the possibility that highly radioactive material could be released to contaminate an urban environment and harm its citizens using a radiological dispersal device or “dirty bomb.” This week, we will examine the fundamental technical aspects of nuclear and radiological terrorism, determine their relative threats, and assess priorities for policymakers today.


Unit 7: Biotechnology, Biosecurity, and Bioterrorism
Apr 11 and Apr 16, 2013

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) bears a superficial similarity to the NPT, but in fact differs greatly in scope and monitoring. The traditional concern over biological weapons was with state programs; this has now been supplemented by both the threat of terrorist use and, perhaps most disturbingly, the extraordinary growth of biotechnology that places increasing potential power for dangerous biological modifications in the hands of the technically competent. Efforts to address this last problem remain largely inchoate.



More to explore:

Of Asteroids and H5N1, Guest lecture by Christopher Chyba
Apr 18, 2013

Christopher Chyba is Professor of Astrophysical Sciences and International Affairs at Princeton University and a member of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, PCAST.

Unit 8: Cyberwarfare
Apr 23 and Apr 25, 2013

The discovery in mid 2010 of “Stuxnet,” a sophisticated computer worm developed by the United States and Israel to destroy uranium enrichment equipment in Iran brought into international focus the emerging strategic capabilities of cyber attacks, including the possibility of “kinetic military action. In mid 2011, the Whitehouse released its own cyber-strategy, declaring that “when warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country.” Many other countries are actively expanding their cyber capabilities. This week we will explore the fundamental elements of cyberwarfare, as far as they can be identified and anticipated today; consider the similarities and differences between cyberwarfare and “physical” warfare; and examine if and how traditional security concepts (including crisis stability, attribution, escalatory control, and minimization of collateral damage) and strategies apply to cyberwarfare. Activities will include hands-on activities and a tabletop exercise (“cyber war game”), in which we break up the class into several teams to simulate a hypothetical geopolitical crisis.


Future Challenges
Apr 28 and May 2, 2013