Jump to search Jump to main navigation Jump to main content Jump to footer navigation

Global Security Newswire

Daily News on Nuclear, Biological & Chemical Weapons, Terrorism and Related Issues

Produced by
NationalJournal logo

Mathematic Formula May Offer Insight to States’ Nuclear Intentions

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

(Oct. 14) -A technician performs work on a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. A U.S.-based research team has developed a quantitative formula for predicting the likelihood of various countries seeking nuclear weapons (U.S. National Nuclear Security administration photo). (Oct. 14) -A technician performs work on a U.S. W-76 nuclear warhead. A U.S.-based research team has developed a quantitative formula for predicting the likelihood of various countries seeking nuclear weapons (U.S. National Nuclear Security administration photo).

WASHINGTON -- A mathematical model that addresses factors such as a nation’s technological capabilities, economic resources and geopolitical standing could eventually help determine whether that state would pursue a nuclear weapons capability, according to one U.S. academic (see GSN, June 3).

Man-Sung Yim, an associate nuclear engineering professor at North Carolina State University, briefed a Washington audience last week on the progress he and colleagues have made in devising a mathematical formula that could one day aid negotiations on atomic trade agreements or international monitoring of nations’ nuclear programs.

The North Carolina research team is the latest group in recent years to use quantitative formulas in hopes of forecasting the likelihood of nuclear proliferation, according to an overview paper by Yim and his colleagues. The system prepared in Raleigh employs 46 variables grouped within five datasets, all of which the model uses to issue a number indicating the likelihood of proliferation within a specific time frame.

After four years of work, the formula remains a work in progress, Yim said at an event sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“I don’t claim that this model has reached a level of robustness that is ready for policy-making. I would be very careful of that,” he said.

Researchers devised a common scenario in which a country would weigh producing nuclear weapons through the covert application of some civilian atomic sites to military purposes.

The model has been applied to more than 114 nations including Egypt, Libya, Turkey and Syria. Its ability to predict a nation’s propensity for nuclear proliferation had varying levels of accuracy when compared to that state’s actual atomic track record, according to Yim.

Due to diplomatic sensitivities and concerns the model was not yet strong enough to make definitive assertions, Yim declined to say whether the formula indicated that particular nations were disposed toward seeking a strategic weapons capability.

Five open-source sets of data on nations were used in developing the formula: economic development; security environment and international standing; political development; nuclear technological capacity; and compliance with international nuclear nonproliferation norms.

Economic development, technological capacity and security environment were all relatively equal in importance under the model in determining a state’s propensity to seek nuclear weapons. Compliance with the nonproliferation regime and political development respectively fell a distant second and third.

Yim and his colleagues developed four classification categories for nations. Zeros were given to countries that showed “no noticeable interest in nuclear weapons”; governments that were found likely to “explore” building a strategic capacity were placed on Level 1; states that were disposed to actively “pursue” nuclear arms were classified under Level 2; and nations determined likely to take the final step of “acquiring” a strategic arsenal were listed under Level 3.

Each dataset contained a number of variables -- from four for adherence to nuclear nonproliferation guidelines to 24 for nuclear capabilities -- that further helped determine which proliferation level the nation landed in and its propensity to move up or down on the spectrum.

Strong promoters of nuclear proliferation at the “pursue” and “acquire” levels included the number of historic rivalries a country had with other nations and the frequency with which foreign states were called on to intervene and resolve disputes. However, enduring rivalries acted as a notable inhibitor against a nation entering the “explore” phase -- possibly because a government would not want to introduce such a high-voltage development into an already tense situation.

Membership in the International Atomic Energy Agency acted as a promoter of a state’s decision to seek nuclear weapons at all three of the development stages -- presumably due to the access to advanced nuclear technology that IAEA members receive. Ratification of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, on the other hand, acted as a very slight inhibitor of proliferation at all levels.

The presence of uranium deposits in a nation acted as a very heavy promoter of nuclear proliferation at all levels. Possession of heavy-water research reactors also acted as a strong encourager.

Some factors that tended to discourage nuclear proliferation in the “explore” stage switched to promoters when a country reached the later phases of “pursue” or “acquire.” An economic policy that was open to foreign trade tended to inhibit nations from researching and developing nuclear weapons but then encouraged countries to go the last step of acquiring a deterrent.

Gross Domestic Product “is an inhibitor at the beginning but as the size of the economy grows it could provide a promoting effect,” Yim told Global Security Newswire. Likewise, “economic openness is an inhibitor [initially] as a society aspires to be a good citizen that wants access to the global economy.”

A very low national GDP was determined to generally discourage governments from entering Level 1. As they experienced some economic development, though, an increase in industrial capacity contributed to the newfound ability to “explore” nuclear weapons. Rising individual GDP, however, tended to more powerfully counteract proliferation at Levels 2 and 3 than a nation’s overall GDP -- seemingly because as a population becomes more economically empowered, they are more prone to look askance on practices that could imperil their wealth.

“As the people become wealthy and become accustomed to a certain quality of life, you don’t want nuclear weapons,” Yim explained.

He noted that the current formula does not yet include potentially important variables such as export controls established on a country, its access to dual-use technology or foreign assistance on sensitive technology. Those factors could be added later, Yim said.

Failures of the model to accurately predict whether a country would pursue nuclear weapons were attributed to the absence of key variables, such as political psychology -- the study of how a populace’s unique psychology influences its political decisions, Yim said.

For example, under the model Turkey at one time displayed many of the indicators of a country inclined toward nuclear weapons development. However, the nation’s internal politics and aspirations to European Union membership -- among other factors -- lead Ankara to make the strategic decision not to pursue nuclear arms, according to Yim.

To strengthen the formula, Yim said he and his colleagues are seeking help from political scientists who could help them appropriately factor in such variants as corruption, political psychology and human resources.

The lack of up-to-date data on some nations also undermined the formula’s accuracy. Outdated information for both Syria and Myanmar contributed to inaccurate readings on the two countries which failed to predict recent reported proliferation events in both countries.

In 2007, an Israeli airstrike destroyed a suspected partially completed military nuclear reactor in Syria and this year a dissident Burmese group released a report that used smuggled documents and photographs to assert the Southeast Asian state was building a nuclear weapons program.

Yim speculated that when the model is sufficiently robust it could be used as a tool by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog in identifying nations that might require heightened monitoring to ensure civilian atomic programs are not turned toward military purposes,

The formula could also aid governments in deciding whether to permit the export of advanced fuel enrichment and reprocessing technologies to certain foreign nations (see GSN, Oct. 8). He emphasized that the formula is seen as a potential aid for decision-makers but not something to be used as the explicit basis for foreign policy.

Yim did not say when the formula might be ready for use by policy-makers.

U.S. State Department spokesman Andy Laine said by e-mail that quantitative models do not play a role in the diplomatic branch’s decisions on civilian atomic trade pacts.

Note to our Readers

GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

NTI Analysis

  • Ukraine Must Not Become a New Berlin Wall

    March 13, 2014

    On Friday, March 14, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet to discuss the crisis in Ukraine. Five statesmen from Germany, Poland, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States call for the urgent formation of a Contact Group of Foreign Ministers to address the crisis and more broadly, create a new approach to building mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region.