The overarching question imparting urgency to this exploration is: Can U.S.-Russian contention in cyberspace cause the two nuclear superpowers to stumble into war? In considering this question we were constantly reminded of recent comments by a prominent U.S. arms control expert: At least as dangerous as the risk of an actual cyberattack, he observed, is cyber operations’ “blurring of the line between peace and war.” Or, as Nye wrote, “in the cyber realm, the difference between a weapon and a non-weapon may come down to a single line of code, or simply the intent of a computer program’s user.”
The United States and Russia have removed thousands of nuclear warheads from deployment, yet their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium remain undiminished. Recent bilateral efforts to irradiate plutonium in nuclear reactors, thus converting it to a less-weaponizable material, were stymied by the inability of the United States to overcome the associated technical, economic, and organizational challenges. The US decision to instead bury plutonium in a geologic repository prompted Russian suspension of the reciprocal reduction scheme, based on fears that this material would later be recovered and reincorporated in the US arsenal. Is the burial of plutonium comparable to other means of elimination, or does it leave this material vulnerable to recovery? Prior work assumes that conventional quarrying or tunneling would be necessary for recovery, rendering it easily observable by even superficial monitoring. But advanced mining methods, entailing minimal surface disturbance and infrastructure, are increasingly used in the geologic extraction of related nuclear materials like uranium. Reassessment of the feasibility of plutonium recovery from a geologic repository, accounting for the role of advanced mining methods, reveals a strong technical basis for Russia’s opposition to burial. It further suggests interactions of plutonium stockpile reductions with prospects for nuclear disarmament and with societal attitudes regarding the role and utility of this dual-use material.