NSE - Nuclear Science & Engineering at MIT


Mareena Robinson Snowden: Plotting new paths to a nuclear “yes”

Mareena Robinson Snowden, MIT

These are tough times for proponents of arms control and nuclear nonproliferation. Talks with North Korea seem to be at another impasse, and the U.S. and Russia are walking away from decades-old weapons agreements. But this state of affairs doesn’t seem to faze Mareena Robinson Snowden ’17 PhD (nuclear science and engineering).

“It’s exciting as a researcher to work on something that people are thinking about now, something with real-world implications,” says Snowden. A Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (CEIP), she is focused on bringing new ideas to the table on nuclear arms control.

“I try to understand how policy makers and negotiators think, explore current nuclear challenges, and then try to evolve technical frameworks to meet the world as it is,” she says.

Snowden’s work is part of a larger CEIP initiative, the “nuclear firewall” project. Through this effort, scholars hope “to distinguish between peaceful nuclear programs and those focused on weapons,” applying both technical and contextual analysis, explains Snowden. CEIP wants to help nations sidestep nuclear crises, and stem the acquisition of nuclear weapons by non-nuclear states.

Since joining Carnegie last summer, Snowden has been looking especially hard at the question of nuclear verification, a problem that is quite different today than in years past.

With the U.S. and Russia, established nuclear states, verification frameworks permit reciprocal inspection of nuclear weapons systems. Under the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, an international agency goes on location to monitor progress on the accumulation of fissile nuclear materials used for bomb building.

But North Korea presents a new, hybrid challenge for verification, according to Snowden. “The U.S. does not consider North Korea a peer nation like Russia, and reciprocal nuclear inspections are not on the table here,” she says. And given North Korea’s sprawling, highly developed, and very secretive nuclear system—from missiles and mobile launchers to warheads and enrichment plants—it seems implausible to establish a framework involving demands for the system’s complete dismantlement, and intrusive visits to ensure compliance with the framework.

So what kind of plan might work for the kind of evolving, emerging nuclear challenge represented by North Korea?

One concept, suggests Snowden, might require “the U.S. government and international community to prioritize what constitutes militarily significant activities within the larger program, and to ask for limits and demonstrations of compliance on just those activities.”

Under “probabilistic verification,” negotiators pose the question, “What’s enough?” says Snowden. They zero in on a cluster of technically critical features whose elimination or destruction would prove sufficient for the purposes of reducing nuclear weapons capability.

But it seems unlikely the current U.S. administration would embrace such a framework. “Today the expectation in the American mind, set by the current commander in chief, is to go big, go for an all-or-nothing deal,” she says. Successful agreements require lengthy negotiations between diplomats, says Snowden, noting it took 10 years to lay the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate –Range Nuclear Forces pact between Gorbachev and Reagan. “One-and-done”—a single nuclear summit between two leaders—is unrealistic, believes Snowden.

Driven to succeed

It took just a single class on the history of nuclear non-proliferation to seize Snowden’s interest as a graduate student.

“I had so many questions: ‘Why were there such tensions between countries? What policies deal with these weapons?’” she says. “There are technical questions at the heart of nuclear disagreements between nations, and for a technical person, this was a clear lane for me,” she says.

Her thesis investigated whether natural radiation signals generated inside of plutonium-based warheads could be using to monitor them in a future arms control agreement.

Conducting this research wasn’t always smooth sailing. But Snowden found guidance and support from two key advisors. “Richard Lanza (a senior research scientist), a titan in the field of radiation detection, spent so much time brainstorming with me, and discussing my data and analysis,” she says. “And with Sidney Yip (emeritus professor of nuclear science and engineering), it went beyond technical mentorship to personal mentorship: He talked about how difficult the PhD process is, and gave me the encouragement to get through it.”

Snowden felt strongly driven to get through her graduate studies, which she describes as “an extended period of uncertainty.” She was the first black woman to receive a PhD from MIT’s nuclear science and engineering program. “I understood I existed in a unique space, and this was a complete motivator for me,” she says. “There was no license to lie down and give up, because who knows when the next person of color, particularly another black woman, will come in behind me.”

Dual missions

Snowden seeks to advance both the community she represents and her ideas in the arms control domain—sometimes simultaneously. In “Responsible Disruption,” a paper she recently published on the website N Square, she argues for greater inclusion of women and other marginalized voices in nuclear security debates.

“For a long time, gender was not considered a valid part of nuclear security discussions, but it’s now becoming a vibrant conversation,” she says. “There are biological impacts related to the ionizing radiation of nuclear weapons that affect women differently, as well as gendered impacts associated with crisis and conflict during and following war.” She also notes that the impacts of most conflicts fall hardest on those pushed to the margins, whether along class, racial, or gender lines. So it is imperative, Snowden says, that “we have different voices at the table, especially when some are starting to entertain the premise of limited nuclear war.”

She sees popular culture as a way to lure interest to arms policy discussions, and to her field more generally. Just as the film Hidden Figures drew attention to black women in computer science, making the discipline more accessible, she believes that creative storytellers could “dig into the history of the nuclear security space and tell that story in a new way that really connects with people, especially with underrepresented communities ,” says Snowden. “We need to reframe who this space belongs to.”

While Snowden might someday delve into such storytelling, she is at full throttle at Carnegie, currently preparing a paper on the necessary evolution of verification.

“I discovered I really love research, so I would like to find a fulltime position continuing this work,” she says. “There is a lot of instability now between countries with a history of conflict, which worries me, but I hope I will be able to provide valuable suggestions that will make a useful impact on real-world conversations about nuclear security, and navigate to a future that’s more stable.”


Written by Leda Zimmerman. Photo by Leslie Jean/LNJ Designs.

May 2019