Tackling nuclear threat through knowledge

19 October 2022

Silhuetttes if missiles against the sky. Sunset.

In a short time, a lot has changed. We have gone from a fairly stable situation with a strong taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, to today's more unpredictable situation.

Since the war in Ukraine broke out, nuclear weapons have once again become a genuine threat to humanity. To promote nuclear disarmament, expertise is needed in both peace and conflict research and nuclear physics. All this expertise is brought together in the new Alva Myrdal Centre at Uppsala University.

When Russian president Vladimir Putin made his nuclear threat in conjunction with the invasion of Ukraine, it signified an entirely new global security situation.
“Deployment of nuclear weapons is now seen as a genuine threat,” says Erik Melander, professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research and director of the new Alva Myrdal Centre for Disarmament at Uppsala University.
As director, he leads a group of researchers who are located across Uppsala University and the world. His own office at Gamla Torget has a view of the Fyris River, while the researchers in nuclear physics are based at the Ångström Laboratory. The centre also includes researchers from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and from the University of Oslo, as well as other research groups around the world.

It is a broad initiative and there is no doubt that more knowledge is needed in this area. In a short time, a lot has changed in the discussions around nuclear weapons, says Melander. We have gone from a fairly stable situation with a strong taboo against the use of nuclear weapons, to today's more unpredictable situation.

Erik Melander, professor at the Department of
Peace and Conflict Research.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“A year ago, there seemed to be no urgency around the nuclear issue and nuclear disarmament. Now, it is difficult to comprehend that there is serious talk of Russia potentially using nuclear weapons in a conflict.”
There is a Russian military doctrine that states that nuclear weapons could be used if a situation were to threaten the very existence of the state.
“The policy is that if the use of conventional forces does not work, nuclear weapons could be used to ‘shock and awe’ the opponent and impose such suffering that the opponent gives up and backs off,” says Melander.

It is called ‘nuclear de-escalation’ of a conflict and can be carried out at various levels. The lowest level would be to detonate a small, tactical nuclear weapon over a desert or other unpopulated area.
The next level would be something that strikes conventional forces, for example an air base or a communication hub, but would not target civilians.
“However, what would be much worse is if an attack were to target a city. That would really shock and create stress. And then you can imagine worse and worse scenarios.”
The idea is to use one or more nuclear weapons, so-called tactical nuclear weapons. The aim is for your opponent to give up or back off, but in reality, several reactions are possible.
“Nobody knows which way it could go. There is fear it could escalate all the way to total nuclear war. Nobody knows how the US would respond to Russian use of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction,” says Melander.

While President Obama was in power two documented nuclear exercises or simulations were carried out in relation to nuclear weapons. In one of the exercises, there was a scenario in which the US responded to a nuclear attack using conventional weapons.
“They argued they could show firmness and still inflict high levels of damage on their opponent, since NATO and the United States are stronger in that respect.”
However, in another simulation, the Americans responded with nuclear weapons, more nuclear weapons than the Russians, to demonstrate that they ‘would not back down’. So it is uncertain what it could lead to.
“The mere fact that there is talk of using nuclear weapons in this way is noteworthy. Previously, there was a kind of taboo against the use of nuclear weapons – they were seen as inhumane and horrific. This sort of discussion and reasoning lowers the threshold and normalises the idea that nuclear weapons could be used. This is very worrying,” says Melander.

At the same time, there is an increase in public awareness which increases the resistance in various ways. One example is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
“These efforts help to reinforce this taboo and emphasise how horrendous these weapons are. Although it seems unlikely that nuclear powers would abolish their nuclear weapons, it is important to work on strengthening the taboo and raising the threshold for use of nuclear weapons.”

“Both sides share an interest in stabilising the situation. In addition, both sides would gain from having fewer nuclear weapons, from some kind of balance, though at a lower level,” Melander says.

Whatever happens in the future, there is a risk that some form of arms race will take place after the war in Ukraine, which may also include nuclear weapons.
“On the other hand, negotiations will also be needed and some of these issues will be regulated. There is positive work to be done,” says Melander.

In the negotiations prior to the invasion of Ukraine, both Russia and NATO showed some interest in discussing nuclear weapons, certain types of confidence-building measures and inspections.
“Such measures existed at the end of the Cold War, but have since petered out or been abandoned. Whatever the outcome of the present situation, these will be back on the agenda. New arrangements will be put in place and agreements negotiated.”
The idea behind this is that it is in the interests of both parties that the conflict does not escalate due to mistakes or an unnecessary degree of tension between the parties. For example, neither side should have to worry about surprise attacks.
“Both sides share an interest in stabilising the situation. In addition, both sides would gain from having fewer nuclear weapons, from some kind of balance, though at a lower level. This is what happened during the Cold War as well, so it is possible to reach agreements and make improvements, even between enemies,” Melander says.

When it comes to nuclear disarmament, there is an overlap between the technical and political aspects. Sometimes there are technical possibilities, such as a measurement method, which politicians do not want to use due to its being sensitive.
“Something that is, to all appearances, technical may also be very political, so it is important for those studying negotiations to also be aware of the technical aspects. It is quite an important ambition to try to bridge this gap, so it becomes multidisciplinary.”
To delve deeper into the technology, we head a few kilometres away to the Ångström Laboratory, where Sophie Grape has her office. Grape is an associate professor of physics and leader of one of the working groups at the Alva Myrdal Centre, specialising in techniques to prevent the proliferation of nuclear substances and promote disarmament.

Sophie Grape carries out research on nuclear material control, which is used to ensure that material in nuclear power plants is not diverted for use in manufacturing nuclear weapons. The path from nuclear reactors to nuclear weapons is very long, she emphasises.

Sophie Grape,  associate professor of physics.
Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

“Fuel for a nuclear power plant is designed to work in a specific situation and for a specific purpose. However, there is always a risk that materials are used for other purposes.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) promotes the safe and peaceful use of nuclear energy. In exchange for being signatories of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty and a commitment to not acquire nuclear weapons, the IAEA assists countries with nuclear energy expertise, knowledge and cooperation while monitoring compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Through nuclear safeguards, the IAEA is then able to ensure that different countries operate their facilities with civilian, not military, ambitions.
“All nuclear facilities around the world must have a regularly updated register of their nuclear material. Nuclear safeguards are used to verify the accuracy and completeness of this information, for example through inspections and measurements at the facilities.”

The measuring instruments detect radiation emitted by nuclear fuel, such as gamma radiation, neutrons, and Cherenkov light. The radiation is related to the material’s properties and reveals how the fuel has been used in a reactor.
“Operating a reactor for civil power generation is different to operating it to create plutonium for nuclear weapons. Therefore, by measuring the radiation it is possible to draw conclusions about how the facility has been operated and what the nuclear fuel has been used for,” explains Grape.
The same measurement techniques may be useful in the verification of nuclear disarmament. Materials used in nuclear power have similar properties and transmit the same type of radiation as materials used for nuclear weapons.
However, the conditions for measurements are wildly different in civilian and military settings.
“With nuclear safeguards, we find out as much as possible about spent nuclear fuel, while verification of nuclear weapons and their disarmament is something quite different. Almost all information is classified and therefore secret. At the same time, measurements are needed for the world to trust that disarmament is actually taking place.”

Until now, disarmament has only happened when countries with nuclear weapons have felt an individual need for disarmament. There are a number of agreements in which different types of nuclear weapons are regulated or restricted, but it is ultimately up to the countries with nuclear weapons themselves to decide whether to comply with what has been agreed upon.
“At the Alva Myrdal Centre we aim to contribute to technical solutions that can support negotiations for new disarmament agreements but also to ensure that existing agreements can be complied with,” says Grape.

More recently, there has been a lack of ambition to disarm, and developments have moved in precisely the opposite direction,” says Grape. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

The UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons has so far been signed by approximately 60 countries, although it is yet to be signed by any of the nuclear-weapon states. In addition to convincing nuclear-weapon states to sign the treaty, an important issue is how to verify compliance with the agreement.
“This is something we could contribute to. How is an organisation to check that states are doing what they have promised? What options are there to ensure that countries comply with what they have committed to do or not to do?”

Disarmament and the disposal of nuclear weapons can be done in different ways, for example, by completely or partially dismantling them. The most far-reaching disarmament involves the destruction of the material that has been part of the nuclear weapon.
This was successfully carried out in the Megatons to Megawatts Program, in cooperation between the United States and Russia. Both countries committed to contributing to the destruction of nuclear materials by using materials found in Soviet warheads as fuel in civil nuclear power stations.
“Aside from this project, not much has happened. More recently, there has been a lack of ambition to disarm, and developments have moved in precisely the opposite direction,” says Grape.
Researchers at the Alva Myrdal Centre continue to work to improve the technical expertise so that technology and policy can go hand in hand. Courses will start to be offered this autumn, from undergraduate level to doctoral courses, which will increase knowledge about non-proliferation and disarmament.

At a time when the tide has turned and there is talk of rearmament rather than disarmament, they wish to increase knowledge of the technical tools that are nevertheless available.
“It does not matter which technologies we develop if the agreements do not allow them to be used. Or if those who negotiate the agreements do not know that they exist. So, there needs to be dialogue and a bridging of the gap that usually exists between technology and non-technology,” says Grape.

Alva Myrdal Centre

  • The Alva Myrdal Centre for Nuclear Disarmament (AMC) was established in 2021 at Uppsala University, Sweden, to provide teaching, research, and policy support on nuclear disarmament.
  • The Alva Myrdal Centre studies the whole process in which nuclear disarmament occurs and combines insights from different disciplines such as peace and conflict research, applied nuclear physics, and international law.
  • The task to establish the national knowledge centre on nuclear disarmament was given by the Government of Sweden to Uppsala University after an evaluation by the Swedish Research Council, assisted by the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority and the Swedish Defence Research Agency. 
  • The centre is supported by funds from the Swedish national budget and Uppsala University.

Last modified: 2021-02-14