3D PRINTING AND NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION

3D PRINTING AND NUCLEAR PROLIFERATION

The combination of innovation and digitalisation poses a threat to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the current institutional framework is targeted at objects, not information. The spread of technology does not fall under the jurisdiction of the NPT and is, due to its digital nature, hard to regulate.

By Caitlin Irvine

 

The political implications of the recent technological tsunami have yet to be fully explored. Additive Manufacturing (AM), the broader term for 3D printing is one such area as it is displaying the potential to alter the global nuclear balance. Although AM technology has been in use since the 1980s, investment in 3D printing has increased in the 21st century as the initial intellectual property rights expired [1].

After a non-profit organisation called Defence Distributed produced the Computer Aided Design files for a 3D printed handgun, the plans were downloaded over 100,000 times around the world before the cease and desist order came into effect [2]. Although currently it is not possible to use this technology to manufacture nuclear weapons due to the export controls on the maraging steel required for use in centrifuges, 3D printing represents a potential proliferation pathway [3]. The combination of innovation and digitalisation poses a threat to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as the current institutional framework is targeted at objects, not information. The spread of technology does not fall under the jurisdiction of the NPT and is, due to its digital nature, hard to regulate.

The need for a regulatory framework, however, is urgent. In 2015, General Electric used a AM process called Direct Metal Laser Melting to produce a jet engine capable of 33,000 rotations per minute, similar to the requirements of a uranium-enriching centrifuge [4]. As 3D printing technology, expands in the aerospace industry it will develop a reputation for quality manufacturing; an example of this emerging trend is Raytheon, the U.S. defence contractor, who is attempting to use 3D printing technology to create components of a guided missile system that can be used for a nuclear warhead [5].

Policy must keep comfortable pace with technological advances. Even though AM is still an evolving technology, policy is seriously lagging behind. With no export controls or centralised manufacturing base for the AM industry, the technology is decentralised and open source – to such a degree that my flatmate built two 3D printers in his bedroom for his undergraduate dissertation. Presently, it is possible to almost completely build handguns, grenade launchers, drones, and even guided missiles [6]. Developments in AM technology are therefore likely to impact the system of global governance and non-proliferation because of the variety of products that can be produced. Especially since there is no way of knowing in what hands this knowledge will end up.

 

References:
[1] Kruth, JP, Leu, MC, and Nakagawa, T (1998) ‘Progress in Additive Manufacturing and Rapid Prototyping’, 
CIRP Annals, Vol 47: 2, pp 52. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0007-8506(07)63240-5

[2] Morelle, R (2013) ‘US government orders removal of Defcad 3D-gun designs’ [online] BBC News 

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-22478310

[3] Christopher, G 2015, '3D Printing: A Challenge to Nuclear Export Controls' 
Strategic Trade Review, vol 1, no. 1, 2, pp. 22.http://www.str.ulg.ac/3D_Printing_A_Challenge

[4] GEreports (2015) ‘The 3D Printed Jet Engine’, YouTube

 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6A4-AKICQU

[5] Raytheon (2017) ‘To Print a Missile: Raytheon research points to 3-D printing for tomorrow's technology’ 
[online] https://www.raytheon.com/news/feature/print-missile

[6]  Fey, M (2017) ‘The Increasing Salience of 3D Printing for Nuclear Non-Proliferation’ [online], 
Peace Research Institute Frankfurt Blog,  https://blog.prif.org/
Author’s Further Reading:
Fey, M (2017) ‘The Increasing Salience of 3D Printing for Nuclear Non-Proliferation’ [online],
Peace Research Institute Frankfurt Blog, 

Available: https://blog.prif.org/

Sauer, F and Schörnig, N (2015) ‘LU15: Emerging Technologies: Challenges for Arms Control’,
EU Non-Proliferation Consortium and Peace Research Institute Frankfurt 

Available: https://nonproliferation-elearning.eu/learningunits/emerging-technologies/

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