This year’s Nobel Peace Prize puts a worthy spotlight on the job of ridding the world of one type of weapon of mass destruction. The award went to an international body that is now trying to clear Syria of chemical weapons and has been tasked under a 1997 treaty to eliminate these weapons everywhere.
This great honor, however, could have gone further. The prize recipient, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, is mainly focused on removing or detecting material weapons. It is not yet equipped to accomplish a far more difficult and critical task: making sure scientists who know how to make chemical weapons, especially in rogue nations such as Syria, are diverted into other work and don’t spread their know-how, especially to terrorist groups.
Such knowledge, like the gift of fire to humans from the Greek god Prometheus, is not easy to suppress. Yet there is a successful model for preventing the dissemination of weapons knowledge, one that the Norwegian Nobel Committee might want to honor someday.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, two US senators, Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, saw the need to find alternative employment for tens of thousands of scientists, technicians, and engineers who had worked in Soviet programs making nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. The United States and a few other countries spent hundreds of millions of dollars to engage these experts in peaceful research. The aim was to change their daily focus from making war products and tap their expertise for useful pursuits in fields such as energy and biotechnology.
Often the scientists ended up working in research labs or private technology companies. The high pay prevented them from being tempted to sell their knowledge to other nations, such as North Korea, or militant groups.
The Nunn-Lugar program, called Cooperative Threat Reduction, also destroyed 7,619 nuclear warheads, 902 missiles, and 2,855 metric tons of chemical weapons agents spread across four states of the former Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. This effort will go down in history as a noble – if not yet Nobel – disarmament success.
The idea of employing former experts of nontraditional weapons did not end there. After 9/11, the Group of Eight nations launched a 10-year initiative to greatly reduce the threat from nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in all parts of the globe. One focus is to divert the scientists working on those weapons. In 2003, Congress expanded the Nunn-Lugar effort to address proliferation threats outside the former Soviet Union. In post-Saddam Iraq, for example, weapons scientists were offered alternative work, either in Iraq or abroad.
Such efforts should be central to nonproliferation campaigns. Most scientists, when given a choice, would prefer to channel their expertise into peaceful research.