3-D Printing and the Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons

With all of this international talk of sanctions and invasions and “decapitation strikes,” the aspiring and enterprising thermonuclear monarch might ask oneself, “Why not just 3-D print a bomb?”

That hypothetical question has been vexing both nuclear policy wonks and fabrication entrepreneurs of late. 3-D printers, or “additive manufacturing,” present a unique challenge because they circumvent the usual mechanisms of nuclear non-proliferation enforcement. On the other hand, a related technological scheme called the “Internet of Things” (the concept behind one’s Smart Thermostat or Wi-Fi-enabled refrigerator), offers an opportunity to better monitor processes and equipment sold to other governments.

A recent report from The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists breaks down the concerns and silver-linings of these two technologies emerging in a tense era of international affairs:

Over the next decade, the spread and maturation of additive manufacturing could challenge major control mechanisms for inhibiting nuclear proliferation. At the same time, the cyber-physical nature of this production technology creates the potential for the emergence of an Internet of Nuclear Things, which could be harnessed to increase the information visibility of dual-use activities in civil nuclear programs. This new capability could offer unique opportunities to mitigate proliferation risks and augment traditional methods of regulating and monitoring sensitive nuclear technologies. But barriers stand in the way of leveraging an Internet of Nuclear Things – notably, political issues related to information access and integrity. As additive manufacturing technology matures, government and industry stakeholders should adopt a strategic approach toward an evolving Internet of Nuclear Things – an approach that would include principles to encourage transparency within the Internet of Nuclear Things and ensure the integrity of the information it produces.

Read the whole study at The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.