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Fissile Materials Security in Civilian Facilities: A System Story

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This report presents the results of a preliminary study focused on the following question: What will it take at this point to encourage civilian facilities to adopt safer alternatives to fissile materials and, more broadly, to develop a culture of security enabling facilities to be more proactive in mitigating and adapting to risk as it emerges and evolves. 

Its purpose is not to provide a definitive answer but to map the factors affecting nuclear security so the next phase of research can prioritize attention to the dynamics most likely to influence the quality of nuclear security governance in the future. Perhaps more importantly, this report seeks to draw attention to underemphasized opportunities to experiment with different pathways to nuclear security. For this scoping study, the general problem of nuclear security governance needed to be bounded, so this report’s primary focus is on the security of fissile materials. But a number of our observations are likely to be applicable to radiological materials as well. Given the preliminary nature of this study, these observations should be taken as hypotheses that are worth testing, rather than as robust findings. Our recommendations are therefore geared toward future research rather than policy and governance. Our primary audience is the nuclear security NGO community and their funders rather than government or industry. Throughout this report we use the terms “advocates” or “experts” as a convenient shorthand for this audience, even though we recognize that different NGOs have different missions and take different approaches: some as scholars, some as conveners, some as advocates. Most, however, seem to focus their efforts on what it will take to improve nuclear security, however they individually define it. And most seem to recognize that their collective efforts and progress toward their collective goal have both stalled. The focus of this study, therefore, was on the factors that stand between their efforts and their goals, asking: Why isn’t nuclear security improving at the rate or scale advocates believe is necessary? What are the factors and dynamics preventing progress? And where are the most promising opportunities for kickstarting progress? The approach we took to answer these questions is a system mapping exercise. 

System mapping involves a set of well-developed methods and visualizations for making sense of situations involving many factors, many actors, and perplexing outcomes. By displaying how different factors affect each other, we are able to show the causal structure of the problem11 in a way that clearly identifies the likely dynamics preventing progress, plus potential paths to self-sustaining solutions. A system map also makes it easier for anyone working on any aspect of nuclear security see how their work fits in to the collective effort. (It can also serve, in future research, as a basis for simulating different strategies to aid in decision making.)

To identify relevant factors, determine their causal relationships, and identify key dynamics, we reviewed relevant published works and interviewed a number of experts who focus on nuclear security at the international, national, and facility levels. In the section that follows (Section 2, “Goals and Risks”), we offer some background and a system map showing current risks to nuclear security and a brief summary of the state of play on goals and efforts to improve nuclear governance, with an emphasis on efforts focused on industry. The key finding of this preliminary study is that the most promising alternative to a multilateral pathway to enhanced nuclear security seems to be an industry pathway. It is, after all, the owners or managers of the civilian facilities themselves whose practices will need to change if nuclear security is to be enhanced. This is not to downplay national and international efforts, which have been the primary focus of much of the nuclear security and arms control communities for half a century, with important (if mixed) results. Rather, the focus on industry is a response to the reality of rising sentiment worldwide against globalism and the concerns of some experts that multilateral pathways are increasingly blocked. The justification for this focus on an industry pathway is provided in Section 3 (“Four Stories about Fissile Materials”). We offer a concise system map showing how four feedback loops interact to produce today’s stagnation in efforts to enhance nuclear security.12 The complexity of these interactions can only be understood fully through computer simulation, which was beyond the scope of this study (but could be part of future work). But some of that complexity can still be explained by the system’s structure. Because system maps can be challenging to understand on their own—they are designed, after all, to portray a problem’s complexity—we convey our findings through simple “system stories.” Each system story focuses on a particular set of factors and their causal structure. Section 3 includes four interrelated stories—addressing issues of awareness, advocacy, pressure, and motivation—that together explain why progress on nuclear security has stalled. The system map in Figure 2 portrays not only the system structure and these stories but also several “subplots.” Subplots are factors that are not part of the main feedback loops the stories describe but that do influence factors within those stories. Subplots, as we treat them, point to potential opportunities for overcoming resistance to progress. 

Section 4 (“Pathways to Nuclear Security”) picks up where these stories leave off, shifting the focus to the owners and operators of facilities who are the ones making the practical decisions that affect security directly. A third system map (Figure 3) shows a set of factors at the international, national, industry, and individual levels that interact in ways that influence facility-level decisionmaking. Three system stories emerge from this chart, focused around the norms, narratives, and actions of facility managers.13 As in the previous section, these system stories have subplots that are suggestive of potential pathways to stronger nuclear security within facilities. In the final section (Section 5, “Recommendations for Future Research”), the stories and subplots are summarized and used as a springboard for recommending several specific lines of research to determine which of the potential opportunities to break through the stagnation have the most promise.

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