Bomb School

Bomb School

During his luncheon remarks at U.S. President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Security Summit last week, Yukiya Amano, the new head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is said to have emphasized the important educational dimension of his agency’s work. This emphasis might be expected given his past service as Japan’s leading Foreign Ministry expert on disarmament and nonproliferation education.

More surprising was the degree to which the summit communiqué (and work plan for its implementation) also highlighted the role of education, training, and capacity-building as tools to forestall nuclear terrorism and foster a nuclear security culture. Although this issue is not a headline-grabber (it was ignored by the media and largely overlooked by summit critics and supporters alike), it represents the most novel and potentially significant long-term product of last week’s meeting. As the summit leaders appear to recognize, absent greater attention to the "human factor," more guards, guns, and gates will have little effect in securing and safeguarding the enormous stocks of fissile material scattered around the world.

One reason why education has remained an underutilized tool for promoting nuclear security and nonproliferation is that national governments and international organizations have tended to fixate on quick solutions to immediate crises rather than invest in longer-term educational programs. Consequently, one is hard-pressed to find high schools in the United States or elsewhere that provide any courses (or even components of courses) on nuclear security and nonproliferation topics. Regrettably, the situation is not much better at the undergraduate or graduate university level, and remarkably few colleges and universities offer courses that enable students to study the subject about which Obama, America’s professor in chief, lectured his fellow heads of state last week.

In short, at a time when the leaders of the world appear to recognize the need for new thinking about nuclear dangers, there are few venues for training the next generation of specialists or even introducing our future leaders to the subject. The Nuclear Security Summit provided a much-needed clarion call to action, but was imprecise about what needs to be done.

Using education and training as a tool to promote nuclear security entails a combination of traditional and innovative teaching techniques to convey information and enhance analytical thinking. So-called active learning pedagogical approaches, such as simulations and role-playing exercises, have proved themselves as particularly effective means to encourage "thinking with the eyes of others" and to convey and hone practical skills to future nuclear analysts and policymakers. In fact, current U.S. national security officials also would profit from the opportunity periodically to switch roles in a simulation context and, at least for a short time, view the problems of international peace and security from the vantage point of an adversary or reluctant ally. Given the lack of current activity at the long-stalled Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, ostensibly the principal negotiating forum for multilateral arms-control negotiations, it might be an ideal venue for such a simulation.

A very important educational supplement to formal classroom training is on-the-job training, which may be undertaken at research centers, national nuclear laboratories, government agencies, international organizations, and NGOs with responsibilities and expertise in the nuclear sector. Such training, under the mentorship of experienced professionals, will vary widely depending on the organization in question and might include such tasks as research, data collection and analysis, development of course materials, reporting on conferences and interagency meetings, and performance of routine office work. What all meaningful on-the-job training programs have in common is provision of opportunities for trainees to apply their classroom knowledge to practical problems they are apt to encounter in their subsequent careers.

Today, there is a tremendous opportunity to exploit new information and communication technologies for nuclear security and nonproliferation training. These technologies facilitate the development and dissemination globally of interactive and multilingual courses and resource materials, and make it possible to bring experts anywhere in the world into the classroom in real time or be viewed by students on their laptops at their convenience.

However, a great gap currently separates national and international statements about the dangers of nuclear terrorism and the paucity of funds allocated to train the next generation of specialists on nonproliferation, including nuclear security. One useful step that could be taken to remedy this situation in the United States would be enactment of legislation that creates a National Nuclear Security and Nonproliferation Education Act. A one-time appropriation of around $50 million would provide up to 50 fellowships per year to graduate students to pursue advanced multidisciplinary training in nuclear security and nonproliferation at universities of their choice. Legislation of this sort would have the dual positive effect of attracting bright young talent to the field and encouraging more universities to offer courses on nonproliferation in order to secure tuition-paying students.

Development of a global nuclear security culture such as that envisaged by last week’s summit cannot be accomplished easily or quickly. Nor will an influx of money alone solve the problem. What is required is a sustained educational effort as part of a broader strategy to build a global community of informed and dedicated specialists. This strategy has governmental, international organizational, academic, and nongovernmental components and requires for its success a partnership among representatives from each of these communities.

This partnership received a much-needed boost during the Nuclear Security Summit and the parallel meeting of representatives from the NGO and academic community, and the White House is to be congratulated for encouraging meaningful input from the nongovernmental sector. The real test, however, lies ahead. The next security summit is planned for 2012 in Seoul and will provide a benchmark against which to judge how well the Class of 2010 performed its assignments. We know Obama is an inspirational teacher. Let’s hope he is also a tough grader.