The TPNW, Equity, and Transforming the Nuclear Community: An Interview with Nuclear Scholar Dr. Aditi Verma

, senior scientist | January 21, 2021, 9:09 am EDT
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In anticipation of the entry into force of the landmark Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) on Friday, I had the honor of corresponding with Dr. Aditi Verma, a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom and the International Security Program.  Dr. Verma, who holds undergraduate and doctoral degrees in Nuclear Science and Engineering from MIT, is broadly interested in how nuclear technologies can be designed in collaboration with publics such that traditionally excluded perspectives can be brought into these design processes. She’s one of the five authors of the essay, “A call for antiracist action and accountability in the US nuclear community.”

(And if you didn’t get a chance to read our colleague Miyako Kurosaki’s thoughtful post putting the TPNW into the context of the decades-long struggle of the hibakusha community to “To make sure that no one else suffers as we have suffered,” please do.)

LG:  The nuclear ban treaty enters into force this week as an instrument of international law. This isn’t surprising: 122 states voted to adopt the treaty text, 50 states signed the treaty on the first day that it opened for signatures, and there has been a steady stream of state signatures and ratifications ever since. Yet the US-based nuclear policy community has consistently underestimated the nuclear ban treaty movement; at the 2019 Carnegie International Nuclear Policy Conference, one expert panelist and over a third of the surveyed audience estimated that the ban treaty had ten percent or less chance of entering into force by March 2021. How did so many in our policy community fail to anticipate such a major development in the field? Is this a consistent weakness, and if so what are the consequences?  

Dr. Aditi Verma, a Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Harvard University Belfer Center’s Project on Managing the Atom and the International Security Program

AV: Much of the surprise about the success of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) stems from a deep entrenchment of the received wisdom surrounding the nuclear non-proliferation regime as we have known it until recently. I am referring specifically to two things: First, an abiding belief that only the possessors of nuclear weapons should make decisions about what constitutes nuclear security and non-proliferation; and second, an excessive fixation on deterrence as a way of ensuring security. We have to recognize that ‘deterrence’ itself is a construct and was created after the fact in order to legitimize the existence of nuclear weapons and their possession by a handful of countries. The belief in deterrence is so widespread that policymakers in the US and in other weapons states are not able to imagine a different set of institutions and norms for controlling the spread of nuclear weapons, let alone dismantle them. What makes TPNW so groundbreaking is that it turns the existing normative logic of deterrence, which defines security as the accumulation of weapons and the threat of use of force as a deterrence, on its head and instead calls for a ban on nuclear weapons on humanitarian grounds because the existence of nuclear weapons, rather than a guarantee of security, is a threat to human security.

The Treaty is also remarkable because it, perhaps for the first time ever, represents an instrument of nuclear security and governance that is democratic and representative of the views of people and communities of color from around the world, including especially from the Global South. The treaty is fully in line with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which, in article VI, calls for weapons states to work towards “ general and complete dismantlement.” Yet opponents of the TPNW have tried to delegitimize it by asserting that it undermines the existing non-proliferation regime. In fact, it is truly in line with it and advances it by reframing the normative logics that should underpin disarmament and non-proliferation. Increasingly, we should seek to reimagine and reconstitute our global governance institutions in more democratic and humanitarian ways as the TPNW does by foregrounding justice and equity. In other words, while the TPNW is certainly a landmark accomplishment, we should in fact consider it also as a starting point for considerable institutional rebuilding on a global scale.

LG: Nuclear weapons are sometimes called indiscriminate weapons, but you and your co-authors describe how the costs of nuclear development, testing, and use have been disproportionately borne by indigenous communities and people of color. What is the nuclear policy community’s responsibility to the victims of nuclear weapons?

AV: I think ‘victims’ is an interesting word to use here. We are referring here of course to those who were killed and those who suffered unimaginable losses as a result of the US’s use of nuclear weapons in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan. We are also referring to the massive casualties that could result from the future of nuclear weapons. But we are also referring to the numerous communities around the world who have been impacted by the design, development and testing of nuclear weapons, as well as by the extractive processes used to procure the materials needed to make them.

It is the responsibility of the nuclear community to repair, with haste yet care, the harms that have been done to these communities around the world — which perhaps unsurprisingly, have largely been communities of color. Consider the Native Americans whose lands were seized for weapons development facilities as part of the Manhattan Project, or the Native American communities whose lands and people were poisoned by uranium mines that have not yet been remediated to this day. Consider the indigenous and Pacific Islander communities that were displaced as a result of testing of nuclear weapons in lands that were considered “remote” and therefore of inferior importance by the policymakers and weapons developers of that time. This is but an abbreviated list of the severe harms caused during the design, development, testing and use of nuclear weapons. The list is not only an abbreviated one but it is also incomplete because in many ways, we have not fully understood the damages that have been done and we are still working to understand them.

To this end, the responsibility of the nuclear community requires not only remedying the explicit harms we know about but also embarking on a period of prolonged introspection and internal transformation that includes re-writing a more complete history of the field — in the US as well as globally. This will require collaborating with scholars who may not have previously identified with the nuclear field — anthropologists, historians, sociologists as well as others, and using this new knowledge to reconsider what counts as knowledge, how we make that knowledge and how we incorporate ethical considerations into our practice and policymaking.  I do not suggest these measures as an academic or intellectual exercise. We must do this work so that future decisions, including about as-yet-undiscovered technologies and artifacts, do not repeat the mistakes of the past and are made in equitable and just ways.

LG: The nuclear policy community is reckoning with a collective, decades-long failure to integrate anti-racism and anti-colonialism into our work. What has been the response of the community to your and others’ calls for accountability?

AV: The response has largely been a positive and supportive one — both from within the nuclear science and engineering community as well as from the nuclear policy community. One of the most heartening examples of this support is that several academics in engineering, social scientific and humanist spaces have told us that they plan to include our article and a recent podcast in their syllabi for nuclear history and policy classes.

However, it is also the case that the support and buy-in has largely been from individuals who understand what is at stake and understand why the field needs to recognize its racist and colonialist history, work to remedy the damage it has done and also to ensure the grave mistakes made are not repeated. I do hope that these individual expressions of support lead to a more durable, epistemic and institutional transformation of the field. Such a transformation is needed because the field, since its inception, has been epistemically and institutionally racist. A field is epistemically racist when its practices of knowledge-making are inequitable and which normalize the racist and colonialist dehumanization of Black and non-Black people and communities of color. A field is institutionally racist when it creates exclusionary mechanisms that prevent the entry, full participation and professional advancement of Black and non-Black people of color.

More broadly and importantly, I hope for these ways of thinking about the epistemic and institutional racism of the field to inform how we make policies about nuclear technologies at the highest levels, including, to the degree possible, within the incoming US administration. The ultimate goal here is to move from being a field that has long been epistemically and institutionally racist to one that strives for epistemic and institutional equity at an individual, organizational and cultural level.

LG:  The death of George Floyd this summer and the organizing response by the Movement for Black Lives led many people in the United States to examine racism, particularly anti-Black racism, in personal and professional contexts. The nuclear policy community is no exception. But some have raised concerns about what will happen to anti-racist work when the media spotlight fades on anti-Black racism. What steps can we take now to help ensure the sustainability of anti-racism work in the nuclear policy community?  

AV: Antiracist work and action has to be part of the epistemic and institutional constitution of the nuclear field and community. Only in this way can the nuclear field and community become accountable in a sustained and ongoing way.

Sustained antiracist action in the field is especially important because we need to make the field more open and inclusive such that it able to draw to it the Black and non-Black students and professionals of color whose excellence and talent have for so long, for non-meritocratic reasons, been excluded, undermined and under-appreciated.

We also have to acknowledge this antiracist action is inherently desirable from a justice perspective and also desirable because it makes the field more robust. It does so because it challenges us to approach our familiar, recalcitrant and unsolvable problems in the field from newer perspectives that push us to think harder and formulate new kinds of solutions — just as the TPNW has done by reframing the disarmament discourse on humanitarian grounds. The nuclear security community must commit to examining many critical issues from an antiracist and anti-colonialist perspective. Consider for example the very question of what we mean by security and whose security we attend to; or how should we think about making knowledge in ways that are ethical and just; or how we should transform that knowledge into technologies that are used equitably and justly?

It is in the interest of the nuclear field and community, and indeed society writ large, for the nuclear field to strive to be more equitable, not just at this moment but at every point in its future.

The featured image in this blog is courtesy of  ICAN | Aude Catimel. 

UPDATE: 1/21/21: The number of authors of the article a “A call for antiracist action and accountability in the US nuclear community,” was originally reported as four, but has since been updated to accurately report that there were five authors.

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