Michelle Dover has a perspective on nuclear weapons that few others have. She grew up a short drive away from the Hanford nuclear production site in Washington State. Plutonium manufactured in her community was used in the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945. For Michelle, growing up in the shadow of one of the most toxic radioactive sites on Earth meant nuclear catastrophe was a backdrop to life. Now director of programs at the Ploughshares Fund, one of N Square’s founding funders, in Washington, DC, Michelle has dedicated her career to reducing that threat. In this interview, she talks about the field of nuclear nonproliferation, how it’s changing, and what gives her hope for the future.
Q How did you get into this field?
A It was a bit of a winding path. I grew up near the Hanford nuclear site—one of the legacy Manhattan Project sites—so nuclear threat was always in the background for me. I’ve always been interested in how conflict is pervasive in human interactions, in both the positive and negative sense. Differences of opinion and differences of interest permeate our lives from the individual to the state level. I was always more interested in how things were resolved, so I didn’t end up at law school. The skill that I needed was negotiation.
But I really came into the field through the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). They sent me to a course at the Monterey Institute and I met the most fascinating people. When I finished my graduate work, I was accepted as a Nonproliferation Graduate Fellow at the NNSA. I worked on international safeguards—including the policies of the international inspectors that go into different nuclear facilities, the agreements between countries on the types of technology they’re allowed to use, and the way they approach analysis.
Q Who was the Secretary of Energy then?
A Dr. Steven Chu. Many people were excited to have a scientist running the Department of Energy. It changes the tone of conversation, knowing that he understood the science behind things. My impression was that civil servants were happy to have somebody who understood and appreciated the work of the scientists within the complex.
Q Is that also what excited you about the people you met in the nuclear field?
A When I was taking the course at Monterey Institute, I remember talking to scientists from Livermore National Laboratory who had done some really interesting technical work. I had assumed that work was what they’d be most proud of—but the thing they were really most proud of was going into places like Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union to help secure nuclear material and engage Russian scientists. I really respect that dedication to the issue and the sense that whatever small part you play, you really are contributing to making the world a safer place. That is one of the key features that I see in people who work in this field.
I did my graduate work on a phenomenon called epistemic communities. They’re tight-knit groups of people, typically based in science, who share a common language and a common set of opinions about how the world should operate. When this phenomenon was described in the early 1990s, the arms control community was a key study. It’s a group of people who refer to themselves as a community, and, once you’re in—once you can speak the language, once you can articulate what some of these shared values are—I’ve found it to be very supportive. This strong network gives them a very powerful impact on policy.