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START welcomes researcher on nuclear secrecy and control

START welcomes researcher on nuclear secrecy and control

Alex Wellerstein approaches proliferation from a unique perspective

July 17, 2012Emily Bonta
This month, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) welcomed Alex Wellerstein to speak on "Control of Dangerous Weapons and Technology." as part of its Summer Internship Enrichment Program. Wellerstein, an associate historian at the American Institute of Physics, discussed nuclear security and additional emerging security threats. Wellerstein seeks to use epistemology (the study of knowledge, including how knowledge is transferred and acquired) to develop an accessible framework for analysts and policymakers to think about technology proliferation and nonproliferation regimes.
His epistemological framework includes four categories for consideration:
  • Explicit knowledge, which includes any knowledge that can be written down and considered as data;
  • Tacit knowledge, which is experiential knowledge and includes judgment techniques and methods;
  • Raw materials, which are the physical materials required, required, without which a given technology could not be reproduced; and
  • Instruments, which refers to the essential and rare tools without which a technology could not be reproduced.

Wellerstein examined three historical nuclear security scenarios, taking these four factors into consideration. He rated each factor as of low, medium or high importance in the scenario for illustrative purposes.

"The system is temporally based," Wellerstein said. "It is rooted in time and will not hold true for all of eternity."

In one scenario, Wellerstein examined the possibility of nuclear terrorism today taking these factors into consideration. Tacit knowledge and raw materials were of highest importance in this situation. Though he described it as a broad analytical framework, Wellerstein said it will "help inform what questions to ask" in terms of nuclear proliferation. He said he hopes this framework will be a "useful simplification" for policymakers and help extend the discourse on weapons of mass destruction beyond just secrecy or control, which address aspects of explicit knowledge transfer and material and instrumentation transfer, but not tacit knowledge transfer.

Wellerstein also said he hopes the model will serve useful in producing control and policy schemes for the present and future in areas other than nuclear security, such as cyber security or biological weapons production. The 20 START interns in attendance also found the system to be a useful and unique approach.

"The different categories made it easier to understand," said Amber Barno, a Global Terrorism Database (GTD) intern. "I don't have any background in the subject, but I thought his approach to recent issues like the Stuxnet computer virus was also interesting."

For more information on Wellerstein's work with nuclear secrecy and control click here.