On April 28, 2008, Dr. William J. Perry spoke in the HUB auditorium about the two things he believes are the most critical dangers in our world. Dr. Perry, the 19th Secretary of Defense, believes that the dangers include both Nuclear Terrorism and the Global Climate Change. More importantly, he detailed the connection between the two dangers and what the world can do to mitigate the problems.
After the Cold War, many nuclear weapons were left in former Soviet Bloc countries including Ukraine, Georgie, Belarus and Kazakhstan, among others. These new countries had possession of nuclear materials from the former Soviet bases and posed a serious security threat to the world. Instead of a handful of countries having access to nuclear armaments, now double the number of states had possession of such weapons. The prerogative of Dr. Perry and other top Clinton Administration Officials was to disarm these countries and slow down the nuclear proliferation that was the result of the Cold War. After the disarmament process was over, the world was 10,000 nuclear weapons safer.
Dr. Perry argues that the same situation is happening today with the buildup of nuclear materials in other realms. With new technologies in nuclear power being developed everyday to increase efficiency and safety, nuclear power is becoming an even better way to produce energy. As nuclear power plants start popping up in large numbers in countries around the world, the amount of fissile material increases with it. This new proliferation is running parallel to “catastrophic terrorism”. If a terrorist or terrorist organization were to get hold of fissionable material from one of these new nuclear power sites, it would be an enormous problem. Perhaps not as big of a problem as nuclear holocaust, but it would mean catastrophe for the target and target area. The terrorists will likely use a dirty bomb delivery system in which the actual explosion of the device is relatively small. The important factor of a dirty bomb is the radiation released by this relatively small explosion. It would cause radiation poisoning to the surrounding population not initially killed by the blast. This would prevent habitation in the target area for many years and would undoubtedly have an enormous human toll.
The question that is raised here is how to we mitigate the risk for this specific proliferation? Dr. Perry explained that there is no way of defending/deterring an attack like this. Instead, we must prevent fissile material from getting into the hands of terrorists. We can create new nuclear power plants that are not only designed to be efficient and safe, but secure so the fissionable material is constantly protected. New protocols need to be put in place by national, transnational and international agencies and organizations to protect the dangerous material from being lost or stolen. Stricter controls and protocols need to be enacted to govern the disposal of spent nuclear materials. This kind of nuclear material is a prime target for theft and use in terrorist acts.
The third point (which he touched on briefly) is that there is no political will to act on new protocols dealing with technology and legislature. Without political will, Dr. Perry explains, nothing changes. His new policy initiative is poised to build up political will to push legislature that advances technology. He is part of a non-partisan initiative that includes political and policy heroes like Henry Kissinger, Sam Nunn and George Schultz. This political dream team is focused on practical steps we can take today to have a safer future in regards to nuclear energy and climate change.
All in all, Dr. Perry’s lecture was an interesting insight into the world of nuclear and climate safety. I would never have thought that there were people exploring the connection between increasing nuclear power plants, terrorism and climate change. His talk was laced with an overall tone of stressing the importance of convergence of fields. Since the lecture was sponsored by the Engineering School, he told aspiring engineers to not only know the technical side of their work, but also what policy decisions must be made in order for their deliverables to be effective and useful. This is exactly what the College of IST is focusing on while educating its students. We are taught to understand the spectrum of what we work on, not just a small sliver of a project.