Nuclear disarmament | November 14, 2022

Can blockchain verification re-energize nuclear disarmament? (Q&A)

Dan Keeler
Guest Author

Dan Keeler

ImpactAlpha, Nov. 14 – The crypto economy has never shied away from bold use-cases. An international security researcher from King’s College London has perhaps one of the boldest: nuclear disarmament and permanent world peace.

Hear him out. 

Nuclear disarmament can happen only with effective validation. Current monitoring and verification systems are antiquated and ineffective. 

Instead: Deploy a global army of citizen scientists using off-the-shelf tech. Track nuclear signals and feed them to a blockchain. Suddenly, you have a fast, cheap – and profitable – global nuclear verification system.

“Along the way, you’d create a permanent peace economy,” says Lyndon Burford, who cofounded The Path Collective, a startup that aims to “invert the war economy and make peace profitable.” 

Burford is a fellow with N-Square, a nonprofit network of innovators applying themselves to nuclear threat-reduction, and the author of the 2020 report, “The Trust Machine: Blockchain in Nuclear Disarmament and Arms Control Verification.” ImpactAlpha caught up with Burford to talk Web3 and nukes. 

ImpactAlpha: You’ve been focused on policy around nuclear non-proliferation and arms control for almost two decades. What prompted this shift in your approach?

Burford: I realized that a lot of what I’d been doing had had very little to no impact whatsoever on actually shifting the policy dial. In the nuclear world we are having, quite literally, the same conversations today about non-proliferation and disarmament that we were having 50 years ago.

At the same time, support for nuclear policy research and advocacy has been dwindling. Funders are saying, ‘Where’s the policy impact of my investment?’ So philanthropic organizations are literally walking away from nukes right now.

ImpactAlpha: So who’s funding research and policy analysis now?

Burford: It’s the countries that have nuclear weapons, or their allies. And they want you to say ‘nuclear weapons are great, deterrence works. It makes the world a safer place. And we just need to keep doing deterrence better. And that means we need new nuclear weapons.’

Part of the reason that nothing’s changed over the decades is that making and maintaining nuclear weapons is a really profitable business. This is quite literally a multi trillion dollar industry.

ImpactAlpha: So how can you support disarmament?

Burford: Make peace profitable! Build a system where you can feed your family by building, selling, or deploying consumer-grade tech that helps to ensure the absence of nukes, and actively builds a positive peace. 

ImpactAlpha: You’re developing a blockchain-based decentralized system – so-called Web3 – for monitoring nuclear weapons. Why do you think Web3 can solve this problem that has proved so intractable for so long?

Burford: Because Web3 offers decentralized funding, coordination and decision-making, there are new possibilities for creating socioeconomic and socio-technical systems that simply did not exist before. We can reimagine how we do governance, how we build societal structures and wealth distribution, which offers the potential in the longer term to create an alternative societal structure in which peace is profitable.

ImpactAlpha: You’re taking on quite a fearsome adversary. 

Burford: Yes. The top seven nuclear weapons manufacturing companies spent almost $120 million on political donations from 2012 to 2020. And the companies that manufacture or the auxiliary industries that support the manufacture of these weapons are spread across all 50 states. And that is not an accident.

At the moment in the U.S. in particular, we have a rich, powerful, influential, highly motivated constituency who want to make sure that nuclear weapons absolutely continue to be made and maintained. 

We need to build a rich, wealthy, educated, influential constituency who are highly politically and financially motivated to make sure that we never build nuclear weapons again.

ImpactAlpha: One of the key hurdles to nuclear disarmament is the difficulty in monitoring and verifying different countries’ weaponry. How can Web3 help with that?  

Burford: At the moment, disarmament verification is only done with what’s called National Technical Means, which use satellites, on-site inspections by people with high security clearances and so on. The current Russian and U.S. capabilities to actually verify and monitor what’s happening with regard to other people’s weapons are minuscule. They have maybe 1% of what they need to confidently move toward a phased, verified reduction. 

Since that framework was put in place, we’ve had an explosion of civilian satellite launches, so we have this huge civilian space network now, which has the same or better technical capabilities than what governments have. We have a whole new world where all this tech is now in the public domain, there’s massive venture capital investment, there’s distributed systems that didn’t exist when the international treaties were negotiated in the 1970s and 80s. 

So in future, governments could negotiate treaties about certain kinds of reductions, and then they could outsource the monitoring of those treaties, in ways that don’t impinge on their national security interests, to private sector actors. 

This is not just about reforming an industry, we could create an entirely new industry: the nuclear verification industry. You’d have a centralized set of actors – the governments – saying ‘these are our verification needs.’ They would then throw that out onto the open market.

ImpactAlpha: Sounds promising. How will it work? 

Burford: The concept of citizen verification has been out there for decades, but we didn’t have the tech. Now we have the tech and we have Web3, which enables you to have tech in a distributed manner and to financially incentivize cooperation. 

I am proposing a global nuclear monitoring system made up of a distributed network of devices owned and operated by citizen scientists. 

The model is already out there with the Helium internet-of-things network, where the actual building of the physical infrastructure network is paid for by the end users. Instead of the device being configured to provide public Wi-Fi, it can be configured to sniff the air for isotopic signatures that shouldn’t be there. All they do is sniff the air constantly, and send messages to the network once a minute confirming if they detect anything. 

ImpactAlpha: What technology do you need to make this happen?

Burford: All the technology we need already exists and is commercially available. The US National Nuclear Security Agency is already using it in weapons manufacturing plants and inside the nuclear industry, to monitor where tools are 24/7, 365, attached to a blockchain. They’re using it to monitor armories, so if anyone goes out and shoots two rounds of ammunition, they know about it instantly, because half a second later, it’s locked on a blockchain. 

So everything that I’m describing is technically – and in many cases, legally – possible. All it would require is a reconfiguration of the tech stack and a reconfiguration of the incentive structure. 

ImpactAlpha: Tell us more about the incentive structure.

Burford: That’s where crypto comes in. Using crypto economics – and a system of micropayments – we can incentivize pro-social behaviors in a network where the decision-making structures and the assignment of those financial incentives is arrived at in a distributed or decentralized manner. 

The key is that this would enable citizens to actually make money by helping to verify the absence of nuclear weapons as part of a globally distributed network that maintains monitoring devices. Those devices – which are all connected to a blockchain – actively monitor for any signal that would suggest the possibility of nuclear weapons development.

ImpactAlpha: Where does the money come from?

Burford: There’ll be some VC money and there’ll be some patient social capital from people who love the idea and want to invest but can wait 10 or 15 years for a return.

ImpactAlpha: That sounds like a perfect candidate for blended finance!

Burford: Yes: Blended finance, plus global crypto crowdfunding. Ukraine showed us that it is now possible to globally crypto crowdfund a war. So why are we not globally crypto crowdfunding peace?

ImpactAlpha: And the end result is…?

Burford: The end state would be a globally distributed, 24/7 365 monitoring system built on a highly decentralized network.