- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

Q&A: Matthew Bunn

Spring 2015

Matthew Bunn is a professor of practice at Harvard Kennedy School and co-principal investigator for the Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom. Bunn’s research focus is on nuclear theft terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and innovation in energy technology. During the Clinton administration, Bunn served as an advisor to the White House Office of Science Technology Policy, where he played a major role in U.S. policies related to the control and disposition of weapons-usable nuclear materials in the United States and the former Soviet Union. We asked Bunn about the current crisis in U.S.-Russian relations and its impact on nuclear security.

QRussia recently announced it would no longer cooperate with the United States on most of the nuclear security projects that had been underway, nearly ending a 20-year partnership to secure weapons material. How significant is this development?

It’s a dramatic development. At least for now, more than 20 years of U.S.-Russian cooperation to dismantle and control the dangerous legacies of the Cold War has come to an end – except for a few modest remaining projects.

Practically, cutting off the bulk of this work will mean Russia’s nuclear materials will be at more risk of being stolen. The biggest planned security and accounting upgrades in Russia have been done, and nuclear security in Russia today is dramatically better than it was in the 1990s. But nuclear security is never really finished – you have to focus on continual improvement in the face of an evolving threat, particularly given the widespread corruption and insider theft in Russia today.

QWhat can be done to turn the situation around?

Probably the most important step would be progress in resolving the crisis in Ukraine. But even without that, we should try to find ways to allow technical experts from both sides to discuss common nuclear security issues and work on ways to fix them. Track II, backchannel dialogues to lay out potential paths forward, may be important in the months to come. We need approaches that are based on an equal partnership, with ideas and resources coming from both sides, rather than a donor-recipient relationship.

QYou and Scott Sagan from Stanford University recently published a “worst practices” guide about protecting against insider threats. What did you learn from that project, and how worried should the rest of us be?

Insiders pose the most serious dangers that high-security organizations face. They know the security systems and their weaknesses, and the other employees know and trust them and tend to write off odd behavior rather than noticing it. Sagan and I are finishing an edited book on coping with insider threats, with cases ranging from the 2001 anthrax attacks to green-on-blue attacks in Afghanistan. The thing I learned in this project that surprised and worries me most is just how many red flags organizations are capable of overlooking—including insiders complaining about their own violent paranoia.

QHow do you see political calculations influencing the policy debate over protecting nuclear stockpiles?

Fortunately, keeping nuclear bombs and their essential ingredients out of terrorist hands has been a bipartisan issue for two decades, with real heroes on both sides of the aisle.

Currently, though, I’m concerned that the deep freeze in U.S.-Russian relations is making it politically unacceptable in either capital to push for sensible steps on nuclear cooperation. That’s too bad, as discussions among technical people have often been a crucial backchannel that helped keep dialogue alive and helped the governments overcome obstacles.

QWhat was your journey line into the world of nuclear nonproliferation?

It was the peak of the Cold War when I went to college, and people genuinely worried we might all be incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. I took a course on nuclear weapons and arms control. I got a summer job with that professor that ended up taking me three years – and by that time I was hooked. After finishing my master’s thesis, I went off to Washington and worked at the Arms Control Association, at the National Academy of Sciences, and at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Eventually John Holdren–now President Obama’s science advisor–lured me up to the Kennedy School, where I’ve been ever since.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Q&A: Matthew Bunn.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Spring 2015).