Enhancing the Resilience of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Regime

Arian L. Pregenzer

[Dr. Pregenzer, recently retired from Sandia National Laboratories, was the recipient of the 2012 Joseph A. Burton Forum Award "for her intellectual and managerial leadership in creating centers that allow international technical and policy experts to explore confidence building measures and other arms control regimes." We are pleased to present here an article based on Dr. Pregenzer’s remarks made at an FPS-sponsored session at the APS April meeting held in Atlanta earlier this year – Ed.]


The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons, generally known as the NPT, is the heart of the international nuclear nonproliferation regime. The NPT is intended to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. Parties to the NPT are categorized either as nuclear weapon states (those countries that already had nuclear weapons when the treaty entered into force in 1968 – the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France, and China) or as non-nuclear weapon states (all other states party). Nuclear weapon states (NWS) commit not to assist other states to acquire or develop nuclear weapons, and non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) commit not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons and to implement International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards for all civilian nuclear material and facilities. In addition, all states party agree not to export nuclear equipment or material to NNWS except under IAEA safeguards, but to facilitate the exchange of peaceful nuclear technology and to work towards future nuclear (and total) disarmament. Over the longer term, Article VI of the treaty requires that all parties undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament.

In addition to the NPT, the nuclear nonproliferation regime includes a broad range of multilateral and bilateral measures, most of which are voluntary. Examples include international export control, border security to detect illicit transfers, physical security for nuclear material and weapons, detection and interdiction measures, sanctions on countries in violation of treaty requirements, and nuclear arms control.

The regime is considered to have played an important role in limiting nuclear proliferation, even though India, Pakistan and Israel never joined the treaty, and North Korea withdrew from it in 1993 and again in 2003. A few states, such as Iran, Libya, and Iraq, joined the NPT but violated some of its provisions. Now, given the interest in nuclear energy worldwide and the increased availability of sensitive nuclear technology, i.e., uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing technology needed for making nuclear weapons material, there are concerns about the future of  the regime. Figure 1 depicts trends in acquisition of nuclear technology and weapons in the past and raises questions about possible futures.

Number of states with nuclear weapons

Figure 1. Number of states with nuclear weapons (squares, red), uranium enrichment technology (circles, green), and nuclear energy (diamonds, blue).

The purpose of this article is to introduce the concept of systems resilience as a new framework for thinking about the future of the nonproliferation regime. First, I introduce key concepts from the literature on systems resilience as developed for other disciplines. Then I review  the evolution of nonproliferation efforts and analyze them from the perspective of systems resilience. Finally, I suggest some strategies for enhancing the resilience of the nonproliferation system in the future.

Systems Resilience

The study of "systems resilience" seeks to understand how complex systems respond to major disturbances. It has been the subject of significant research in the last thirty years for systems as diverse as electrical grids, transportation infrastructure, and social-ecological systems [1]. In the context of nonproliferation I suggest that the set of actors, instruments, and strategies focused on preventing the spread and use of nuclear weapons can be thought of as a complex system. Actors include states party to the NPT, states outside the NPT, and non-state actors such as terrorist groups. Nonproliferation instruments would include treaties, export control regimes, United Nations Security Council resolutions, and other less formalized efforts, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. Nonproliferation strategies fall into three broad categories: controlling supply of nuclear weapons relevant technology, material, and expertise; reducing motivation for acquiring nuclear weapons; and responding to proliferation events as they occur. I also suggest that the most important function of the nonproliferation system is to maintain strong international norms against the spread and use of nuclear weapons.

Several themes from the discipline of systems resilience are particularly relevant to the nonproliferation system:
  • The difference between resilience and stability,
  • The need for evolution to maintain function (by which is meant maintaining an international norm against the spread and use of nuclear weapons) in a changing environment, and
  • The importance of functional and demographic diversity.

Difference between Resilience and Stability

Strategies to promote system resilience will be fundamentally different than strategies to promote stability. Strategies for stability are directed at avoiding danger and controlling both system elements and the external environment. They focus on development of detailed plans to prevent a broad range of hypothetical threats. On the other hand, strategies for resilience acknowledge the inevitability of change and focus on establishing general capabilities to respond to unknown hazards as they occur. Rather than seeking to control the environment, strategies for resilience use an experimental approach to probe the environment, continuously seeking to test strategies against new scenarios.

Successful systems management will require a mix of strategies for both stability and resilience. However, because stability measures are easier to quantify, they are often over-emphasized. Strategies to develop the energy, endurance, and skills that are essential to recover from major disasters may seem unfocused and therefore be harder to justify. The willingness to invest in activities that provide more general benefits is a sign of a management strategy that incorporates resilience.

The Need for Evolution to Maintain Function

Systems must continuously evolve to maintain their function in a changing environment, much less to improve. Evolution includes two types of change: strengthening existing capabilities, and developing new ones. Continued strengthening of existing capabilities without adding new ones is likely to be insufficient over the long run.

The Importance of Diversity

Diversity is essential for resilience. For example, the resilience of ecological systems is enhanced if different organisms performing the same ecological function respond differently to environmental perturbations, thereby enhancing the likelihood that the service will be maintained throughout a wide range of conditions. Loss of diversity increases the chances for ecosystem collapse. In the business world, diversity in workplace skills, personalities, and perspectives is believed to enhance creativity and innovation and to improve decision-making and problem-solving, leading to better products. A demographically diverse workforce also may have a better understanding of the demographics of the marketplace, enhancing its competitive edge.

Evolution of Nonproliferation Strategies

The nonproliferation system has evolved over several decades in response to a changing international environment, as depicted in Figure 2. After the failure of the Baruch Plan to win international support for control of nuclear weapons in 1946, the primary U.S. nonproliferation strategy was classification of information related to the nuclear fuel cycle and nuclear weapons. When Soviet and British nuclear weapons tests in the late 1940s and early 1950s demonstrated the weakness of this approach, classification guidelines were modified, but not abandoned. The IAEA was created to promote nuclear power for peaceful purposes and to safeguard civilian nuclear material. IAEA safeguards coupled with diplomacy (mostly bilateral) were the prevailing nonproliferation strategies until the Indian nuclear test in 1974, which triggered much more intensive efforts on international export control and the formation of the Nuclear Suppliers Group.

Evolution of nonproliferation strategies.

Figure 2: Evolution of nonproliferation strategies. Those strategies aimed at limiting capability to make nuclear weapons are color coded yellow. Those aimed at reducing motivation to develop nuclear weapons are color coded blue.

The breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, which resulted in fears of unsecured nuclear weapons and material, was a significant shock to the nonproliferation system, and resulted in creation of a broad range of cooperative threat reduction efforts to improve nuclear security. Cooperation with the Russian Federation to protect nuclear weapons and weapons-useable material was unprecedented and involved a high degree of innovation. It also set the stage for a broad range of cooperative nonproliferation efforts with other countries, such as the states of the former Soviet Union, Iraq after the second Gulf War, and Libya after it gave up its nuclear weapons program. In the same time frame, the failure of the IAEA to detect the Iraqi nuclear program eventually led to the IAEA Additional Protocol, which provides mechanisms for detecting nuclear activities at undeclared locations.

The shock of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, together with revelations about the A.Q. Khan black-market, raised the specter of nuclear terrorism and stimulated the development of a number of new approaches. These range from building capacity to implement nonproliferation and nuclear security commitments to the Proliferation Security Initiative aimed at interdicting illicit shipments, to limited ballistic missile defense, to preemptive war in Iraq. The Obama administration has embraced yet another strategy: reducing the salience (and numbers) of nuclear weapons. The idea is to demonstrate U.S. commitment to NPT Article VI, and thereby increase support by nonnuclear weapon states for implementation of stronger nonproliferation measures [2].

Most of the nonproliferation strategies discussed above are focused on prevention, and therefore could be categorized as strategies for "stability" rather than strategies for "resilience." As strategies have evolved in response to system shocks, most change has strengthened capabilities to control supply of nuclear material, technology and expertise. Few qualitatively new strategies have evolved. The Proliferation Security Initiative is one example of a new approach. As a "coalition of the willing" it lies outside the bounds of the traditional international nonproliferation instruments and has no formal secretariat. Although nominally focused on preventing proliferation, its emphasis on international interdiction exercises builds capacity that could also contribute to general response capabilities [3].

In addition to a lack of diversity in nonproliferation strategies, the diversity of nonproliferation "champions" is also low. Western states and their allies are the most vocal champions of nonproliferation, with the United States the most prominent. Other states, such as China, Russia, and Brazil are supporters of nonproliferation, but may not prioritize it as highly as does the United States. In fact, some may see nonproliferation as a proxy for U.S. interests.

Enhancing the resilience of the nonproliferation regime

I previously suggested that the vital function of the nonproliferation system is maintaining strong international norms against the spread and use of nuclear weapons. If this is the case, the system would be considered resilient as long as this norm is maintained, even if one or two additional states acquire nuclear weapons. Such events would be considered "point failures" within the nonproliferation system, rather than system failures.

Therefore, strategies aimed at enhancing the resilience of the nonproliferation system should focus on sustaining this norm, rather than focusing solely on preventing additional states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Suggestions below are organized into four categories: increase international participation in setting the nonproliferation agenda; develop general international response capabilities, focus on non-coercive approaches to decreasing demand, and apply systems thinking more rigorously to nonproliferation.

Increase International Participation

Despite the success of U.S. and western leadership of nonproliferation efforts in the past, more international participation in setting the nonproliferation agenda will be required in the future. The global economy has contracted substantially, and the West has many fewer resources to invest. Future success will depend on genuine international commitment and capabilities to manage risks that are both ubiquitous and diffuse in an increasingly "dual-use" world. This, in turn, will require that challenges are defined from a local and regional perspective. Regional approaches should be encouraged in addition to the current bilateral approach. Regional efforts will add credibility to the process, increase available resources, and help to ensure broad support. As more and more countries benefit from nuclear technology, they must also assume greater responsibility for establishing and maintaining the culture required to assure the safety and security for all.

In January 2011, a Memorandum of Understanding between the United States and China to establish a Center of Excellence (COE) on Nuclear Security in Beijing was signed. This agreement represents a substantial investment by both countries and is an example of a new approach to international engagement. The COE will have extensive training facilities, analytical laboratories, and facilities to test and evaluate a wide spectrum of nuclear security technologies. The scope of cooperation will include: nuclear safeguards, nuclear material physical protection, control, and accounting; nuclear detection technology; nuclear measurement; and nuclear emergency preparedness and response. It is intended as a forum for exchange of best practices, development of training courses, technical collaboration, technology demonstrations and field testing of physical security and related technology. It will serve as a focal point to promote multilateral nuclear security throughout the Asia/Pacific region as well as the broader international community.

Develop General International Response Capabilities

The Proliferation Security Initiative offers features that would be valuable in a general response capability. The mission of the PSI is to stop shipments of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons and associated delivery and production capabilities to terrorists and potential state proliferators. Participating countries aim to interdict cargo at sea, in the air and on land. The PSI is designed to make it more costly and risky for proliferators to acquire the weapons or materials they seek, thereby (hopefully) dissuading them from pursuing weapons in the first place or at least significantly delaying in their acquisition efforts. Only 11 countries signed up to the PSI in 2003, and many others expressed concerns about its legality. Since then, however, an additional 73 countries, including Russia, have committed to it. PSI participants have conducted nearly 30 interdiction exercises, which include mock ship boardings. The exercises are intended to increase the participants’ capabilities to cooperate with one another. They are also intended to put a public face on the initiative and act as a deterrent to potential proliferators.

Another type of international response capability would be nuclear incident response teams. International capabilities could be based on domestic programs, such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nuclear Emergency Support Team (NEST), which provides technical assistance to coordinate search and recovery operations for nuclear materials, weapons, or devices; and assistance in identifying and deactivating radiological devices [4]. An international nuclear incident response capability which includes regular exercises to test procedures and technologies could be valuable not only for proliferation or terrorism incidents, but could also provide a framework for responding to civilian nuclear disasters. The recent experience with the Fukushima reactor in Japan demonstrates the need for more effective international coordination and response in the civilian sector. Although the IAEA provides training in emergency response, it does not include international exercises that allow full-scale simulation of response operations [5].

Multilateral missile defense would be another example. However, to contribute to the resilience of the international nonproliferation system, it would need to contribute to the security of more than a small subset of countries. Understanding potential unintended consequences of missile defense (such as alienating China and Russia) and taking steps to reduce them would be essential to its making a positive contribution to the international nonproliferation system. Recent discussions between NATO and Russia on cooperative missile defense are a positive development [6]. In addition to nuclear threats, missile defense could be used against conventional threats.

Focus on Reducing Demand for Nuclear Weapons

Motivation to pursue a nuclear weapons program is generally thought to stem from a combination of several causes: national security concerns, domestic politics, and prestige derived from the symbolic value of nuclear weapons [7]. However, few nonproliferation strategies are intended to impact these factors. In fact, some nonproliferation strategies may inadvertently contribute to the sense that nuclear weapons convey both security and status.

To the extent that security concerns are the primary motivators behind a nuclear weapons program, reducing regional tensions and increasing the number of states that are covered by security assurances could be considered [8]. Positive security assurances, a feature of many security alliances, are widely believed to have been instrumental in preventing proliferation in Europe and Asia. However, if positive security assurances are understood to carry the promise of a nuclear response, they might inadvertently increase the perceived value of nuclear weapons as the ultimate security guarantor. In addition, unless countries such as Russia and China were included in development of new security arrangements, it could exacerbate their own security concerns.

Reducing the salience of nuclear weapons in national security strategies could reduce both their perceived security value as well as their symbolic importance. In the final analysis, however, as long as the most powerful states in the world (including all permanent members of the U.N. Security Council) continue to view nuclear weapons as indispensable to their security, it will be hard to convince all others that such weapons are not worth pursuing. This is why many argue that the two-tiered approach that is inherent in the existing nonproliferation system must end.

Apply Systems Thinking more to Nonproliferation

Because of the complexity of the nonproliferation system, it is difficult to predict (or even understand) the ultimate impact of nonproliferation strategies. However, analysis tools and methodologies have been developed to understand the behavior of complex adaptive systems in other disciplines and could be applied to nonproliferation. This first step would be to develop a graphical conceptual model of the process of proliferation and strategies that are intended to influence it. The graphical model could include a representation of states’ motivations for seeking nuclear weapons and the methods for acquiring them. It would also include a graphical representation of nonproliferation strategies, along with their intended and unintended impacts on the process of proliferation [9].

Such a model would allow practitioners to clarify their thinking about system processes and explicitly account for feedbacks among strategies and unintended consequences. This in itself could be highly beneficial. Going beyond a simple graphical model might be possible but would require caution. Not only are the interactions in the nonproliferation system difficult to quantify, many interactions remain unknown. The results of a mathematical model of the nonproliferation system might be significantly less valuable than the simple graphical model.

Final Thoughts

Although developing a better understanding of feedbacks among nonproliferation strategies will be needed to enhance the resilience of the nonproliferation system, it is important to keep in mind that the nonproliferation system interacts constantly with other systems on larger and smaller scales. In the United States, nonproliferation traditionally has been an element of broader security policy, not necessarily the highest priority. Larger international security issues have sometimes driven policies that seem inconsistent with the strict goals of nonproliferation. The so-called U.S. / India nuclear deal that implicitly places a higher priority on a strategic partnership with India than on India’s acceding to the NPT is an example.

The nonproliferation system interacts with smaller-scale systems as well, such as domestic energy policy and nuclear weapons policy. Implications of the interaction between nuclear energy policy and nonproliferation have been recognized and analyzed since the 1950s, but the latter is much less understood. For example, the 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review Report states that the greatest threats to U.S. national security are nuclear proliferation and terrorism, and articulates the goals of reducing numbers of U.S. nuclear weapons and their salience to U.S. security strategy while maintaining a safe, secure nuclear deterrent as long as other states possess them [10]. It also establishes ambitious goals for both nonproliferation and modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex. However, modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex in a way that is consistent with possible future arms control and nonproliferation requirements will be a challenge [11]. During the implementation process, much care will be needed to avoid sending the wrong message and undercutting international nonproliferation commitments.

Finally, although many worry about the repercussions of a nuclear capable Iran or developments in the North Korean nuclear program, it is impossible to predict the nature or timing of the next major challenge to the nonproliferation regime. In the past, shocks have come from events directly related to proliferation, such as the Soviet and Indian nuclear tests. In more recent years,  shocks have tended to be associated with broader international developments, such as the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the September 11 terrorist attacks. Acknowledging both the inevitability and unpredictability of future shocks and relaxing the urge for control may be the most important steps to foster a climate for continued innovation that will underpin any ultimately resilient system.


[1] For a previous discussion of the application of systems resilience to nonproliferation, see A. Pregenzer, "Systems Resilience and Nonproliferation," Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, July 17 – 21, 2011, Palm Desert, California, www.inmm.org//AM/Template.cfm?Section=Meeting_Home.
[2] NPT Article VI requires that all treaty parties undertake to pursue negotiations in good faith on nuclear disarmament. See full text.
[3] For a description of the PSI, see http://www.state.gov/t/isn/c10390.htm, and http://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/PSI. For analysis of the PSI, see Mary Beth Nikitin, The Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), The Congressional Research Service, January 2010.
[4] See www.nv.doe.gov/library/FactSheets/NEST.pdf.
[5] www-ns.iaea.org/training/rw/e-training.asp?s=9&l=74.
[6] Alexi Anischuk and David Brunnstrom, "NATO, Russia to Cooperate on Missile Defense," Reuters, November 20, 2010, Saradzhyan, Simon, "Missile Defense: Game-Changer in NATO- Russia Relations," ISN Insights, January 25, 2011.
[7] Scott D. Sagan, "Why Do States Build Nuclear Weapons? Three Models in Search of a Bomb," International Security 21 (3) Winter (1996/1997), pp. 54 – 86.
[8] See, for example, C. Paul Robinson, "Developing a Realistic Strategy to Control the Spread of Nuclear Weapons." Nature 432 (November 25, 2004), pp. 441-442.
[9] For an initial effort to use systems dynamics to model nonproliferation strategies, see Arian Pregenzer, Adam Williams, Robert U. Glass, Arlo Ames, Walter E. Beyeler, and Sharon M. DeLand, "A Systems Approach to Assessing Nonproliferation Strategies," Proceedings of the 52nd Annual Meeting of the Institute of Nuclear Materials Management, July 17 – 21, 2011, Palm Desert, California, www.inmm.org//AM/Template.cfm?Section=Meeting_Home.
[10] The 2010 Nuclear Posture Review.
[11] For an exploration of ideas for accomplishing this, see Lani Miyoshi Sanders, Sharon M. DeLand, and Arian L. Pregenzer, "Integrating Nuclear Weapons Stockpile Management and Nuclear Arms Control Objectives to Enable Significant Stockpile Reductions," The Nonproliferation Review, November 2010, pp. 475 – 489.

 Arian L. Pregenzer

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.