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Innovation in Threat Reduction: A Timeline

To understand the future of innovation in the nuclear threat field, it helps to look to the past and the present. Innovation is not a moment but a dynamic process with a long tail. This is especially true for to the range of advances and inventions that have emerged and continue to emerge to keep nuclear weapons in check.

Over the last several years N Square has launched a series of research projects focused on helping uncover how nuclear threat experts view and define innovation. What does innovation look like to the scientists, policymakers, advocates, and philanthropists who work in the field, and how has that shifted over time? As part of this work we asked them to share examples of field-changing innovations that are just now emerging—but also to point to past innovations that laid critical groundwork for what was to come. 

This timeline of innovation is not exhaustive. If anything, it’s provocative, designed to spark discussion and highlight where we’ve been so we can better understand where we’re going. Each innovation is emblematic of its decade—the unique point in time when it emerged—but they are connected, and cumulative, as well. You’ll notice, for example, how technology innovation and policy innovation, once separate spheres, have come together in recent years, with monitoring, detection, and verification technologies now helping to support and inform more political work. 

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1960s
1960s

The 1960s saw rapid build up of both American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Nuclear-armed submarines and more robust satellite technology came online, and nuclear weapons themselves grew in number and in sophistication. In this decade, innovation was focused on boosting their deadliness and reliability. But public awareness of the threats posed by testing these weapons (from radiation sickness to environmental contamination) was also growing. By the end of the decade, after the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis and accidents from fallout, new rules—and the tools to enforce them—emerged.

1963: US-SOVIET HOTLINE

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev established an emergency hotline enabling faster direct communication between Washington and Moscow.

1963: LIMITED TEST BAN TREATY

After several nuclear tests led to unexpected levels of radioactive fallout, international nuclear test ban discussions began, faltered, then began again.

1968: THE NPT

By the mid-1960s there were nearly 70,000 nuclear bombs. Global concerns about the worsening nuclear arms race sparked international talks about stopping its spread.

1970s
1970s

Throughout the ‘70s the Cold War rivalry between the US and Soviet Union continued. But a rise in non-nuclear conflicts and tensions around the world—from the Vietnam War and the energy crisis to Middle East conflicts and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—led to new arrangements designed to keep the nuclear “balance of terror” in check. While weapons innovation continued, so too did innovation in risk reduction and the building of political will.

1972: ANTI-BALLISTIC MISSILE TREATY

Early efforts by the US and Soviet Union to design and build missile defense systems were stymied by the realization that such systems would likely compel both sides to build more weapons in order to overwhelm the other’s defenses.

1976: THRESHOLD TEST BAN TREATY

The US and Soviet Union negotiated and signed an agreement that limited nuclear tests to no more than 150 kilotons of explosive power—roughly 10 times the size of the Hiroshima blast.

1980s
1980s

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan set a hawkish tone, adding fuel to the national security establishment’s Cold War rhetoric. Nuclear weapons were viewed as a practical tool to deter and, if necessary, use in a conflict with the Soviets—and the US was set to embark on a massive arms buildup. But in 1982 the political mood shifted dramatically. Widespread public sentiment against nuclear weapons in Europe, followed by a massive US “nuclear freeze movement,” altered the political and philosophical calculus. President Reagan even suggested a “zero option” where nuclear weapons would be completely eliminated first from Europe and ultimately worldwide.

1987: INTERMEDIATE RANGE NUCLEAR FORCES TREATY (INF)

Proposed at the 1986 Reykjavik summit, finalized in 1987, and implemented from 1988 to 1991, the INF Treaty eliminated nearly 2,700 nuclear-armed missiles from the planet.

1986: ZERO OPTION – REYKJAVIK SUMMIT

In 1981, President Reagan supported the removal of all US and Russian nuclear weapons from Europe.

1990s
1990s

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union by the end of 1991, the fundamental underpinning of the Cold War nuclear standoff was upended. The resulting confusion and unpredictability regarding the status of Soviet nuclear forces became a major global concern. What had been a delicate dance of nuclear stability and “rules of the game” suddenly vanished. With the Soviet collapse, four nations from the former Soviet Union now possessed nuclear weapons: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

1994: PROJECT SAPPHIRE

Project Sapphire was a creative, rapid response to dealing with former Soviet nuclear material that “fell through the cracks” of the CTR program.

1993: MEGATONS TO MEGAWATTS

Launched in 1993, this program aimed to reduce the risks of proliferation from former Soviet nuclear weapons by enabling the United States to purchase bomb-grade uranium from Russia and down-blend it into lower-level reactor-grade fuel.

1991: NUNN-LUGAR COOPERATIVE THREAT REDUCTION (CTR) PROGRAM

In late 1991, the US Congress created a program and funding to ensure that former Soviet nuclear infrastructure and materials would be accounted for and secured.

1991: PRESIDENTIAL INITIATIVES TO STABILIZE NUCLEAR RELATIONSHIPS

In September 1991, President George H. W. Bush announced that the United States would remove almost all US tactical nuclear forces from deployment so that Russia could undertake similar actions, reducing the risk of nuclear proliferation as the Soviet Union dissolved.

2000s
2000s

The US hadn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, and there were no plans to do so—or to produce more bombs. But the attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the foundations of that stability. By 2002, President George W. Bush had labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil” both for their support of terrorism and their nuclear ambitions. Inertia and stasis in nuclear weapons policy were met head on with new questions about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. In 2009, President Barack Obama attempted to turn global conversation toward nonproliferation when, in one of his first speeches, he called for “a world without nuclear weapons.”

2010: NUCLEAR SECURITY LIMITS

Initiated by President Obama in response to the continued threat of nuclear terrorism, these biennial summits comprised heads of state from some 50 nations—all of whom made commitments to help identify, secure, and even dispose of potentially weapons-usable materials.

2013: NUKEMAP

In a demonstration of the power of open source technology and transparency to shine new light on the nuclear threat landscape, a researcher of nuclear history designed an online tool that allows anyone to find out what would happen if a nuclear bomb detonated at any spot on Earth.

2014: INTERNATIONAL PARTNERSHIP FOR NUCLEAR DISARMAMENT VERIFICATION

A collaboration between the US State Department and Nuclear Threat Initiative, the International Partnership for Nuclear Disarmament Verification is a major effort to further understand the complex technical challenges involved in nuclear disarmament verification.

2013: HUMANITARIAN IMPACT

While international humanitarian law was not a new concept, by 2010 some had begun to reexamine the applicability of humanitarian law to the consequences of nuclear use.

2017: NUCLEAR WEAPONS BAN TREATY

In 2017, the UN passed the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, also known as the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty—the first binding international agreement to prohibit nuclear weapons.

2020+
2020+

WHAT ABOUT THE 2020s?

Innovations in data science, mobility, media and finance will reshape how we live, work, communicate and learn over the next decade. How will similar innovations transform our options for mitigating—or even eliminating —threats associated with nuclear weapons? Join us to find out.

1960s

The 1960s saw rapid build up of both American and Soviet nuclear arsenals. Nuclear-armed submarines and more robust satellite technology came online, and nuclear weapons themselves grew in number and in sophistication. In this decade, innovation was focused on boosting their deadliness and reliability. But public awareness of the threats posed by testing these weapons (from radiation sickness to environmental contamination) was also growing. By the end of the decade, after the near-miss of the Cuban Missile Crisis and accidents from fallout, new rules—and the tools to enforce them—emerged.

1970s

Throughout the ‘70s the Cold War rivalry between the US and Soviet Union continued. But a rise in non-nuclear conflicts and tensions around the world—from the Vietnam War and the energy crisis to Middle East conflicts and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—led to new arrangements designed to keep the nuclear “balance of terror” in check. While weapons innovation continued, so too did innovation in risk reduction and the building of political will.

1980s

The 1980 election of Ronald Reagan set a hawkish tone, adding fuel to the national security establishment’s Cold War rhetoric. Nuclear weapons were viewed as a practical tool to deter and, if necessary, use in a conflict with the Soviets—and the US was set to embark on a massive arms buildup. But in 1982 the political mood shifted dramatically. Widespread public sentiment against nuclear weapons in Europe, followed by a massive US “nuclear freeze movement,” altered the political and philosophical calculus. President Reagan even suggested a “zero option” where nuclear weapons would be completely eliminated first from Europe and ultimately worldwide.

1990s

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union by the end of 1991, the fundamental underpinning of the Cold War nuclear standoff was upended. The resulting confusion and unpredictability regarding the status of Soviet nuclear forces became a major global concern. What had been a delicate dance of nuclear stability and “rules of the game” suddenly vanished. With the Soviet collapse, four nations from the former Soviet Union now possessed nuclear weapons: Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan.

2000s

The US hadn’t tested a nuclear weapon since 1992, and there were no plans to do so—or to produce more bombs. But the attacks on September 11, 2001, shook the foundations of that stability. By 2002, President George W. Bush had labeled Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the “axis of evil” both for their support of terrorism and their nuclear ambitions. Inertia and stasis in nuclear weapons policy were met head on with new questions about nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists. In 2009, President Barack Obama attempted to turn global conversation toward nonproliferation when, in one of his first speeches, he called for “a world without nuclear weapons.”

2020+
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