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Nukes and Nanotech
Mike Treder   Dec 14, 2006   Responsible Nanotechnology  

At the “Future WMD” symposium I attended on Monday, I came across an interesting paper written by Peter Hayes, executive director of the Nautilus Institute for Security and Sustainable Development, which is described as “a non-governmental policy-oriented research and advocacy group.”

The paper, titled GLOBAL INSECURITY AND NUCLEAR NEXT-USE [PDF], is available on the web. In the introduction to Section 2.1, Hayes writes:

The impact of nanotechnology on state-centric security concerns in the short to medium term is speculative. A complete analysis of this impact would include the possibility that nanotechnology would change the distribution of physical resources, for example, by facilitating the shift to a solar or hydrogen economy and rendering oil valuable primarily for its materials hydrocarbon value.

Looked at with a narrower military frame of reference, in the long run, according to RAND experts, entire weapon and support systems will be built bottom-up with micro- and nano-scale parts that will be much cheaper than those made with today’s top-down macro-engineering production.

We’ve written before about the RAND report that Hayes refers to.

In Section 2.1.3 of the paper, he says:

[R]ealization of offensive nanotechnology weapons of mass destruction (WMD) would simply reinforce the existential deterrent effects of nuclear weapons unless one power managed to develop and deploy such weapons in complete secrecy. Given that only big powers are likely to mobilize the resources to make such an enormous technological breakthrough, let alone have the resources and military ability to deploy nanotechnology-WMD against other nuclear-armed states, this degree of secrecy seems unlikely—and the other great states allowing such an attempt to succeed once it became public is equally implausible.

In reality, more than one state would develop differing types of nanotechnology-WMD at the same time, the net effect of which would be to reinforce the overarching and still over-whelming general nuclear deterrence with a reinforcing threat. In short, far from destabilizing the nuclear balance of terror or neutralizing the power of nuclear weapons, the existence of generally available nanotechnology-WMD to states would be ballast on the keel.

This reasoning seems tenuous. True, it appears unlikely that nano-built weapons could have the effect of “neutralizing the power of nuclear weapons”—but for many reasons, not all of them military, it also appears that molecular manufacturing could exert a destabilizing impact on the general geopolitical balance of power. Increased fragility of relations, combined with decreased reasons to trust, may in fact produce a world more susceptible to nuclear war instead of less.

We should point out here that the overall point of Hayes’s paper is that certain notable trends, which he describes in some detail, will “converge to increase the probability that nuclear weapons will be used in war in the coming two decades.” [emphasis his] So, we don’t disagree on the dangers ahead, just (perhaps) on the potential negative impacts of molecular manufacturing development with regard to nuclear stability.

It may actually be the case that Hayes was writing this paper with the partial intent of convincing people that nanotechnology should not be viewed either as a panacea, nor as an antidote to Armageddon. He concludes his section on nanotech by saying:

[N]anotechnology does little to make us immune to the on-going effects of nuclear weapons, both positive and negative.

On that we agree.


Mike Treder is a former Managing Director of the IEET.

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