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Closing the Technological Gap: The Role of Blockchain in Russia’s Nuclear Security

February 1, 2019

Author:

Julia Summers

As cyber-information technologies became “weapons of choice” in today’s geopolitics, the nation-states have begun to engage in a so-called “cyber arms race.” Governments recognize the potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and blockchain in offensive and defensive applications, and security, placing significant attention on the rapid adoption of these emerging technologies.

However, just as during nuclear arms race and the space race, nation states are vigorously competing for the opportunity to direct the trajectory of development and to command the technological standards for AI and blockchain worldwide, as well as reach their national and foreign policy objectives. Whether true or not, Russia in particular has been “claiming” to pioneer blockchain technology.[1] Rosatom’s most recent announcement about implementation of a blockchain framework in its manufacturing process for increased efficiency leaves details out and begs for more questions to be answered.[2]

In recent years, Russia’s assertive foreign policy underlines Moscow’s ambition to not only counter United States, as seen in Ukraine and Syria, but to openly challenge US’s dominance while fulfilling Moscow’s own interests.[3] Playing a long-term game, Russia aims at sustaining regional geopolitical and social influential leverage chiefly for economic reasons and its energy export markets.[4]

Since Russia’s economic development is highly dependent on its energy resource exports, and according to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) the world energy demand is projected to increase 28% by 2040,  Russia’s farseeing strategy hinges on becoming a global energy exporter.[5] However, taking into consideration that climate change is shifting global economies focus towards clean energy consumption and the European Commission’s latest call to become climate-neutral economy by 2050, Russia cannot continue relying only on its fossils being country’s primary money-maker.[6] Thus it follows that Russia must not only diversify its energy exports and meet the new clean energy demand, Russia should also keep up with innovations in technology for maintaining its economy competitive on international markets. Understanding this, one of the sectors that began receiving significant investment in Russia is nuclear energy, particularly research on Fast Neutron Reactors (FNR). 

New Approach: Stemming Scientific Brain Drain

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia was in a great turmoil. The post-Soviet economy was in a scramble and its scientific cadre was immigrating west. However, around the time of Putin’s 2007 speech at Munich Security Conference that stressed a multipolar world, Moscow started implementing new and more aggressive strategy.[7]

Kremlin began strengthening Russia’s domestic and foreign security, while addressing internal instability as well as assuring NATO’s distance from Russia’s borders.[8] The Kremlin also rolled out new data localization laws in Russia which became the impetus for development of larger pool of Russian scientific and information technology cadre base and helped control country’s immense brain drain at the time.[9]

As related to Russia’s Data Localization Law, all data of Russia’s citizens must be moved and stored on servers physically located in Russia. For non-compliance with this law, international firms operating in Russia could either be faced with penalties or be banned from Russia. In 2016, LinkedIn was blocked in Russia indefinitely, shutting down a major channel for Russia’s best to leave for West’s IT corporations and research labs.[10] This gave Moscow a new legal mechanism, albeit passive, for retention of much needed labor to develop the industries Russia needs .[11]

Fast Neutron Reactors: Innovating Russia’s Nuclear Energy Industry

There is another incentive for Russia to diversify its future energy production industry and reduce economic dependence on oil exports. Latest swings in oil prices illustrate that oil is Russia’s Achilles heel. The instability of Russia’s economy is directly proportional to the global oil (and gas) prices. The dependence on oil prices combined with economic sanctions, which are often used as a lever to contain Kremlin’s military ambitions in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria, shape Russia’s need to diversify.[12] For instance, Russia’s GDP plummeted some -7.8% in 2009 and in 2010 Russia’s real GDP grew to 4.5% according to IMF’s data.[13] That fluctuation mirrors the OPEC oil prices graph in the same years.[14] Understanding such dilemmas, in 2009 Russia’s Institute of Energy Strategy released Russia’s Energy Strategy for the period of up to 2030, that underlines one of the following key objectives: “… transition to the path of innovative and energy-efficient development; change in the structure and scale of energy production.” [15]

Additionally, according to the World Nuclear Association, Rosatom’s strategy up to 2050 is focused on fast neutron reactors and a closed nuclear fuel cycle, attesting to ultimate elimination of radioactive waste from nuclear energy production process. Rosatom also projects nuclear electricity production increase to 70-80% from current 45-50%.[16]

Russia’s nuclear security strategy has been substantiated by drastic change in its nuclear energy policy over the past decade. Specifically, broader international market engagement of Rosatom that goes beyond its traditional near-abroad countries, as well as involvement of international nuclear energy community and IAEA domestically.[17] Russia also began focusing on the advanced development of closed fuel cycle nuclear energy production technologies. As a result, Rosatom initiated the PRORYV project which focuses on research and development of new generation closed cycle fast neutron reactors and innovative nuclear energy technologies.[18] PRORYV has nine project centers responsible for managing all R&D stages of fast neutron reactors, from the policy creation to construction of research reactors.[19] Rosatom believes that development of fast neutron reactors technologies will secure Russia’s leadership in global nuclear energy sector. [20]

At the beginning of 2017, Rosatom’s CEO Alexei Likhachev said: “We took a punt on the Breakthrough project, on fast reactor technologies, and today we are leading in this field. It’s necessary to make this leadership absolute and to deprive our competitors of their hopes of overcoming the gap in the technological race.”[21] To date, Russia has three active fast neutron research reactors and four more in mid-term deployment.[22]

Although fast neutron reactors efficiency in use of nuclear fuel and reprocessed nuclear fuel waste to generate power is a great advantage, its known proliferation issues according to IAEA scientific community have a long-standing hold back for wide adoption.[23]  Specifically, closed nuclear fuel cycle’s proliferation concerns are based on the possibility to diverge fissile material and inability to guarantee accountability of the highly enriched uranium (in a fuel) and plutonium (in the spent fuel) for IAEA verifications and safeguards purposes. Thus, fast neutron reactors with closed fuel cycle fall under higher levels of scrutiny and verifications, still with high levels of uncertainty. Such conclusions of IAEA are also halting Russia’s distribution of fast neutron reactors tech, and wide-scale adoption and demand for this technology.

However, the fate of Russia’s fast nuclear reactors might change, if with the help of technologies such as blockchain and artificial intelligence, Russia can come up with viable solution that addresses fast nuclear reactor’s proliferation issues.[24] Understanding this, Rosatom’s engineering group ASE signed a collaboration contract with one of the US’s most established leaders in blockchain development for supply chain, IBM Corporation. [25] This project will be conducted on the base of MBIR. MBIR is a fast neutron 150 MWt multi-purpose research reactor that has a capability for lead testing, has sodium, lead-bismuth and gas coolants and feeds on MOX fuel.[26] MBIR is due for deployment sometime in 2020 (tentative).[27]

What is Blockchain’s Potential for Nuclear Security?

Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology (DLT). It is the technology that lays at the foundation of electronic currency Bitcoin, a type of cryptocurrency that was described in 2009 white paper authored by Satoshi Nakamoto.[28]  Generally speaking, it is a system of shared electronic ledger (SLT) that records all transactions made by blockchain participants. Blockchain participants are referred to as nodes, or independent computers (with end users normally). Every time a particular transaction is made – the task is completed and the block is created. Each new block relies on the previous block and creates a hashtag for the next block, making it virtually impossible to break the chain.[29]

In order for the task to be completed, 51% of the nodes on the blockchain must accept it (although the number now varies depending on the type and purpose of the blockchain, as well as its design), or come to verified consensus. If at least one participant disagrees with information, the transaction does not go through. It is important to note, that blockchain’s distributed ledger is shared between all nodes (participants on the network) who see every change and time it was made on the ledger. This means that no tampering can happen without all parties with whom the ledger is shared agreeing to it.

Although first created purely for financial system and to eliminate intermediary in the transaction process by creating a shared ledger where transaction happen in a direct (peer-to-peer) fashion, many realized that the potential of blockchain’s key features is much bigger. For instance, DLT’s immutability (meaning it cannot be altered without such activity being accepted and recorded) and the time stamp for every change made to the shared ledger are highly valued in supply chain for traceability and accountability assurances. [30]

The full range of blockchain’s potential has not been fully explored yet and there are more “cannots than cans” still among claimed potentials.[31] However, one of the core proven characteristics of blockchain is its innate tamper resistant traceability mechanisms and verification features. Traceable transactions allow to see who logged in where and who did what without third party involvement. When applied to fresh and spent nuclear fuel handling and storage, there is a feasible possibility to create control and monitoring measures using blockchain, which is of paramount importance for nuclear non-proliferation. Hence, adopting the technology will not only ensure effectiveness of verification procedures aimed at nuclear weapons non-proliferation, but also according to Aaron Arnold, a researcher at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, blockchain can be utilized in nuclear export-controls. He argues that, “The use of blockchain technologies to undergird global supply-side WMD control systems may be some years away. Nonetheless, it is clear that this technology will be a fundamental component to ensuring trust in global markets in the not too distant future.” [32]

While systems like these already exist, it’s the technology’s lack of reputation that holds blockchain’s value. Thus, DLT has a potential to be a confidence and trust building measure for IAEA nuclear safeguards. This is very important because of the potential it presents for fast nuclear reactors to become mainstream.

Implications

Since Russia’s GDP growth almost fully relies on country’s energy exports, Russia’s developmental growth is highly reliant on the world’s consumption of Russia’s energy.[33] Moreover, along with energy exports Russia also gains political leverage in state-importers of its energy. Given the above, United States is advised to promote greater energy diversifications in Europe with the focus on energy efficient systems.

If Russia’s MBIR gains support backed by IBM’s blockchain solutions, it will give Russia an upper hand and a market to build its fast nuclear reactors. Ultimately, Russia will be offering clean and cheap energy. Given the aforementioned, US should start looking at other more innovative energy solutions where the focus is on energy efficient systems. For instance, the adoption of smart grid systems.[34] As of 2007, smart grids activities are supported by legislature and the DOE in an effort to modernize national grid. EISA Section 1303 also provisions Smart Grid Advisory Committee and Federal Smart Grid Task Force. These systems will require a more thorough policy framework and an economic strategy as well as budget for further research and deployment. Finally, US government should create a Task Force dedicated to thorough research of  efficient energy transportation systems using latest technological innovations and blockchain’s potential in energy sector.

Endnotes

[1] Popper, Nathaniel. Blockchain Will Be Theirs, Russian Spy Boasted at Conference. New York Times. April 29, 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/29/technology/blockchain-iso-russian-spies.html

[2] Rosatom press release. VEB will take part in the Rosatom project to create an International Research Center based on the MBIR reactor. June 1, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.rosatom.ru/journalist/news/veb-primet-uchastie-v-proekte-rosatoma-po-sozdaniyu-mezhdunarodnogo-tsentra-issledovaniy-na-baze-rea/

[3] Giles, Keir. Russia’s ‘New” Tools for Confronting the West: Continuity and Innovation in Moscow’s Exercise of Power. CHATHAM HOUSE. March 21, 2016. Accessed December 3, 2018. .https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/russias-new-tools-confronting-west

Goldenberg, Ilan and Julie Smith. U.S.-Russia Competition in the Middle East Is Back. Foreign Policy. March 7, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/07/u-s-russia-competition-in-the-middle-east-is-back/

[4] Polyakova, Alina and Marlene Laurelle, Stefan Meister, Neil Barnett. The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses. Atlantic Council. November 15, 2016. Accessed December 3, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/kremlin-trojan-horses

Atlantic Council. The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2.0 . November 15, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/the-kremlin-s-trojan-horses-2-0

[5] EIA. Today in energy. September 14, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=32912

[6]European Commission. 2050 long-term strategy. November 28, 2018.  Accessed December 3, 2018. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/strategies/2050_en ;

EIA. Russia. Overview. October 31, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=RUS

[7] Baev, Pavel K. Tenth Anniversary of Putin’s Munich Speech: A commitment to Failure. The Jamestown Foundation. February 13, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://jamestown.org/program/tenth-anniversary-putins-munich-speech-commitment-failure/

[8] Anti-protest laws, Anti-terrorist laws, Data localization laws, War in Ukraine

[9] Newton, Matthew and Julia Summers. Russia’s Data Localization Laws: Enriching “Security” and the Economy. February 28, 2018. The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. University of Washington. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://jsis.washington.edu/news/russian-data-localization-enriching-security-economy/

[10] Lunden, Ingrid. LinkedIn is now officially blocked in Russia. Techcrunch. Accessed December 3, 2018.

https://techcrunch.com/2016/11/17/linkedin-is-now-officially-blocked-in-russia/

[11]Graham, Loren. Lonely Ideas: Can Russia Compete. September 2013. MIT Press. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/lonely-ideas

[12] Oil Price in Russian Politics: a history. The Economist. January 21, 2016. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2016/01/21/oil-price-and-russian-politics-a-history

[13] International Monetary Fund. Real GDP Groth. Map. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDP_RPCH@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD/RUS

[14] BP Global. Oil Prices. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.bp.com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy/oil/oil-prices.html

[15] Energy Strategy of Russia for the Period up to 2030. Moscow 2010. Accessed December 3, 2018.   http://www.energystrategy.ru/projects/docs/ES-2030_(Eng).pdf

[16] World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Power in Russia. October 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.   http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/russia-nuclear-power.aspx

[17] World Nuclear Association. Russia’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle. Updated May 2018. Accessed December 16, 2018. http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/russia-nuclear-fuel-cycle.aspx

[18] Proryv Project. About Us. Accessed December 3, 2018.  http://proryv2020.ru/en/

[19] Proryv Project. About US in detail. Accessed December 3, 2018.  http://proryv2020.ru/en/o-proekte/

[20] MBIR. ANALYTICS. Special Representative of ROSATOM for International, Science, and Technology Projects Vyacheslav Pershukov noted that Russia is the world leader in the development of fast reactors. Accessed December 3, 2018.  http://mbir.org/analytic/russkiy-rosatom-razvitie-tehnologiy-byistryih-reaktorov-zakrepit-liderstvo-rf-v-atomnoy-energetike/

[21] World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Power in Russia. October 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.   http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/russia-nuclear-power.aspx

[22] World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Power in Russia. October 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.   http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/russia-nuclear-power.aspx

[23] Greneche (Areva), Dominique. Proliferation issues related to the deployment of Fast Neutron Reactors.  INIS. IAEA. World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Power in Russia. October 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://inis.iaea.org/collection/NCLCollectionStore/_Public/41/070/41070082.pdf

[24] Rosatom press release. VEB will take part in the Rosatom project to create an International Research Center based on the MBIR reactor. June 1, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.rosatom.ru/journalist/news/veb-primet-uchastie-v-proekte-rosatoma-po-sozdaniyu-mezhdunarodnogo-tsentra-issledovaniy-na-baze-rea/

[25] Rosatom press release. ASE group of companies and IBM Corporation signed a cooperation agreement in the field of digital transformation development. Accessed December 3, 2018.  http://rosatom.ru/journalist/news/gruppa-kompaniy-ase-i-korporatsiya-ibm-podpisali-soglashenie-o-sotrudnichestve-v-oblasti-razvitiya-ts/

[26] World Nuclear Association. Nuclear Power in Russia. October 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.   http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/country-profiles/countries-o-s/russia-nuclear-power.aspx

[27] World Nuclear Association. Fast Neutron Reactors. November 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018.  http://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/fast-neutron-reactors.aspx

[28] Nakamoto, Satoshi. Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System. White paper. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf

[29] Crosby, Michael and Nachiappan, Pradhan Pattanayak, Sanjeev Verma, Vignesh Kalyanaraman. Blockchain Technology: Beyond Bitcoin. Sutarja Center. Berkeley. University of California. October 16, 2015. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://scet.berkeley.edu/wp-content/uploads/BlockchainPaper.pdf

[30] Zuckerman, Molly Jane. Walmart, IBM Blockchain Initiative Aims to Track Global Food Supply Chain. Cointelegraph. June 28, 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://cointelegraph.com/news/walmart-ibm-blockchain-initiative-aims-to-track-global-food-supply-chain

[31]Gatteschi, Valentina and Fabrizio Lamberti, Claudio Demartini, Chiara Pranteda, Victor Santamaria. Blockchain and Smart Contracts for Insurance: Is the Technology Mature enough? 2018. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.mdpi.com/1999-5903/10/2/20/htm

[32]Arnold, Aaron. Blockchain: A new aid to nuclear export controls? Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. October 19, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://thebulletin.org/2017/10/blockchain-a-new-aid-to-nuclear-export-controls/

[33] EIA. Russia. Overview. October 31, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. https://www.eia.gov/beta/international/analysis.php?iso=RUS

[34] Office of Electricity. US DOE. Grid Modernization and the Smart Grid. Accessed December 3, 2018.  https://www.energy.gov/oe/activities/technology-development/grid-modernization-and-smart-grid

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Atlantic Council. The Kremlin’s Trojan Horses 2.0 . November 15, 2017. Accessed December 3, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/publications/reports/the-kremlin-s-trojan-horses-2-0

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This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.