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Fellows explore science & policy of nuclear power and weapons

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The Stanford Graphic Novel Project Pika-Don (crash-boom), tells the true story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, a naval engineer during WWII in Hiroshima, who survived the 1945 atomic bombings.
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Stanford Graphic Novel Project

The horror of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has become an inescapable part of childhood in Japan. For Toshihiro Higuchi – a CISAC fellow who this last academic year focused on the political risks and fallout of nuclear weapons – it started with comic books and pencil sales for victims of the American bombs.

“For me, like every kid in Japan, the discourse about Hiroshima and Nagasaki was always familiar – from reading graphic books about the hell-like aftermath to joining a donation drive at school for victim relief,” said Higuchi, a historian and postdoctoral fellow at CISAC. “I remember that I was fascinated by the sheer power of nuclear weapons, and how that power overshadows everything else about war and conflict.”

That fascination with the political and social fallout of nuclear weapons and the complexities of nuclear energy is what drives the six nuclear fellows at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. The fellows – funded by grants from the Stanton Foundation and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – spend their time at Stanford conducting research to build public engagement and shape government policy.

“I have great respect for scientists who can apply their knowledge not just to advance their field, but to use their skills to more directly improve policy,” said Robert Forrest, a physicist examining the role of nuclear reactors driven by particle accelerators. “In some small way, I hope to eventually be one of them. Nuclear issues present not only a fascinating and profound set of problems, but I feel a sort of responsibility toward them as a physicist.”

Seminars, mentorships with Stanford scholars and some of the world’s thought-leaders on nuclear science and policy, as well as annual visits to national laboratories, military bases and security conferences enhance the decades-old CISAC nuclear fellowship program.

“I got properly interested in nuclear weapons on a CISAC trip to the Nevada Test Site,” said John Downer, a Stanton postdoctoral fellow who focuses on the risks of nuclear power. “It’s one thing to read about atomic bombs; it’s another to stand on the edge of a giant crater in the desert.”

 

 

 

Lynn Eden, CISAC’s associate director for research, recently led the center’s postdoctoral fellows to the two-day Strategic Command Deterrence Symposium in La Vista, Neb., in which top military brass, academics and policymakers gathered to discuss nuclear deterrence in the emerging international security environment.

“Panelists had very different ideas about the role of nuclear weapons now and in the future,” said Eden, author of the groundbreaking book, Whole World on Fire, which explores how the U.S. government has underestimated the potential damage of nuclear detonations. “I have to say, the Shultz, Perry, Kissinger, Nunn vision of a world without nuclear weapons was not at the top of the agenda.”

Eden was referring to the watershed editorial in the Wall Street Journal co-authored by the four Cold War veterans, who are now advocating for a vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. The heft of their credentials and the passion behind their argument enabled President Barack Obama to call for the same, and be honored with a Nobel.

Eden said many of Strategic Command’s responsibilities regarding nuclear war planning have not changed under the Obama administration, but the thinking of their top officers has. U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, the commander of Strategic Command, met privately with the CISAC fellows. “None of our questions surprised him, and his answers were extremely thoughtful,” she said. 

The March 11, 2011, earthquake in Japan and subsequent tsunami and nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant gave the fellows rich, real-world lessons about the human and environmental costs of nuclear energy gone wrong. The worst nuclear disaster since the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986 galvanized Stanford scholars across the campus to study the cause and effects of the Japanese tragedy.  

“As someone who is interested in technological risk, I think there is no technological sphere where the stakes are higher and the knowledge more political than in nuclear power – except maybe in nuclear weapons,” Downer said. “The way formal reports and journalistic accounts construe nuclear disasters and radioactive fallout is often terrifyingly misleading. I think I can contribute something by helping restructure debates about nuclear risks.”

In keeping with CISAC’s mission, the fellows are encouraged to engage in pubic debate by drawing out the policy relevance of an issue. They publish in scholarly journals and write academic papers, as well as blog and submit op-eds and editorials to online sites.  Forrest, for example, had a commentary on Huffington Post that urged Congress to maintain federal funding for scientific research and development.

Benoît Pelopidas, a postdoctoral nuclear fellow from France, ran a Friday evening film series this last academic year, highlighting such traditional films as the Kurosawa classic “I Live in Fear” – about a Japanese man whose fear of another nuclear bomb drives him to insanity – to the recent South African science fiction thrilled, “District 9,” which explores strands of xenophobia and social segregation behind national security.

“At Stanford, I found a real interdisciplinary community interested in nuclear issues and unexpected access to policymakers,” Pelopidas said, including former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz and Ambassador James Goodby, senior fellows at CISAC’s neighboring Hoover Institution who called on him to write a paper about the future of nuclear deterrence. “This helped me appreciate the value of interdisciplinary research in the nuclear discourse – to create opportunities for change.”

What’s next for the six fellows:

  • Edward Blandford: University of New Mexico, assistant professor of nuclear engineering in the Department of Chemical and Nuclear Engineering
  • Alexandre Debs: Yale University, assistant professor of political science
  • John Downer: University of Bristol, U.K., assistant professor of risk and resilience in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies
  • Robert Forrest: Continues his research at CISAC into the role of particle accelerators in a nuclear-powered future
  • Toshihiro Higuchi: University of Wisconsin-Madison, an ACLS/Mellon Foundation postdoctoral fellow in the Department of the History of Science
  • Benoît Pelopidas: University of Bristol, U.K., assistant professor of international relations at the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies