Bethany Goldblum at Berkeley Lab.

Bethany Goldblum at Berkeley Lab. (Photo by Daniel McGlynn)

Keeping watch on nuclear weapons

In 2004, when Nuclear Engineering’s Bethany Lyles Goldblum was a doctoral candidate at Berkeley, she won a dream of a fellowship from the state-sponsored Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation, based at UC San Diego. It would pay for her Ph.D. — provided she attended a three-week summer boot camp dubbed Public Policy and Nuclear Threats.

Physical and chemical engineering were her passion, and for the first week at boot camp she was skeptical, doubtful she was learning anything useful. Then she started having nightmares of nuclear disaster. What started as a narrow concern with technology opened onto a broad and disturbing vista. She says, “I went in wanting to be a weapons designer, and I came out wanting to shape nuclear security policy.”

Today Goldblum, an assistant research engineer, is director of the same annual boot camp that inspired her, one of several public policy programs she leads or manages. She oversees, as executive director, the Berkeley-based Nuclear Science and Security Consortium (NSSC), a coalition of eight universities and five national labs training a new generation of scientists. The issue, she says: “How do we transfer knowledge from the aging nuclear science and engineering workforce to their successors?”

That knowledge goes beyond weapons design to embrace such matters as proliferation-resistant technologies, designed to decrease the risk of malicious use by others, and nuclear forensics, the analysis of samples of potential bomb materials before they’re used or of the residue after a blast. In a volatile world, this kind of evidence is needed to shape a response, by identifying who was responsible for a provocation — and who wasn’t.  

Well into its second five-year, $25 million grant from the National Nuclear Security Administration, NSSC has supported hundreds of students (presently over a dozen at Berkeley) who’ve gone on to national labs or other research facilities.

Nukes in the news     

Yet Goldblum’s best-known campus program may be the Nuclear Policy Working Group (NPWG), which she founded in 2012. “When I started, I thought it was going to be a seminar series with a few students,” she says. “Dozens of people from all over campus showed up at the first meeting.”

Open to undergraduates and graduate students from all disciplines, the NPWG rapidly evolved its own culture, which Goldblum describes as a mix of club, class and research group. Each weekly session begins with a group member presenting a current nuclear security issue, known as “Nukes in the News.”

But the heart of the program is year-long, in-depth research on a single topic. “Last year we were looking at alternate proliferation pathways,” says Goldblum. “The question was, what if ISIS wanted to develop just one bomb, instead of a whole nuclear weapons program?” In other words, would a single bomb in the hands of a terrorist group be enough to deter a response?

Goldblum takes the historical view. “It sure looks like we approached North Korea differently, once they claimed to have a device, than we did with the Iraqis” and their rumored WMDs. The NPWG’s report researching the question was accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed journal Nonproliferation Review.

War games

The scintillator array that Goldblum built at the Berkeley Lab to investigate new technologies for nuclear weapons detection. (Photo courtesy Bethany Goldblum). Goldblum’s passion for fundamental science has never waned. Many on the long list of papers she’s co-authored concern research at the area’s national laboratories. Currently she’s pursuing an experiment at Berkeley Lab’s 88-Inch Cyclotron to accurately measure light emitted by different scintillators when they encounter energetic neutrons, data that will improve detection of nuclear weapons components.

But some of her research is more psychological than physical. Invited to join a war-gaming exercise at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Goldblum encountered an intense learning experience, with different specialists talking through possible life-or-death decisions they had to make in unfolding scenarios. “I was developing ideas I wouldn’t have thought of in a different community,” she says, “and gaming allows you to understand the decision-making process of the players.”

Of the games Goldblum is currently developing, one has a social-media twist.

The question is how deterrence strategies may change if one or both adversaries have, in addition to standard nukes, alternate effects weapons such as low-yield bombs or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) devices. She asks, “When you’re not talking about a fireball directly killing a massive number of people, does the nuclear taboo remain?”

There’s a suspicion that adversaries might be more easily tempted to use alternate weapons, which may seem cleaner, but so far there’s no evidence either way. That’s what the game intends to provide. The players’ decisions and the outcomes won’t be the only data; by making the game available on Facebook, says Goldblum, “we’ll also get some info on the profiles of the players” — clues to what kind of people make what kinds of choices.             

But these projects are only a partial list of what fills Goldblum’s workday. “What’s great about Berkeley is that the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know,” she says. “We’re able to communicate across disciplinary boundaries here; we need to value this, encourage it, enable it — an experiential learning environment is a mechanism for exploring the unknown.”

Her lifetime commitment is to nuclear security and proliferation issues, which she calls “central to understanding one of the biggest existential threats to humanity. Those are the issues I want to work on.”