Nuclear security is confusing. And like in so many other fields, it’s dominated by white dudes. So when we found out about Lovely Umayam, an emerging interruptor in the field, we knew we had to sit down for some schooling.
Lovely is a Research Analyst and Program Manager at the Stimson Center, a non-profit, non-partisan think-tank based in Washington, DC. At Stimson, Lovely leads projects focused on nuclear security – practices and procedures to secure nuclear materials to prevent or deter their misuse. Prior to her role at Stimson, Lovely served as Regional Program Manager at the U.S. Department of Energy – National Nuclear Security Administration, where she assisted partner countries in Southeast Asia and South America establish strong nuclear safeguards infrastructure to ensure that nuclear material and technologies are exclusively used for peaceful purposes.
She also is the founder and chief writer for Bombshelltoe, a blog featuring stories about nuclear history/politics, art, and media. Bombshelltoe is the first-prize winner of the U.S. Department of State’s Innovation in Arms Control Challenge in 2013. Lovely’s articles were also featured in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. In 2012, Lovely lived in Beijing to study China’s nuclear history and the formulation of its no-first-use policy of nuclear weapons. She speaks fluent Tagalog and advanced Mandarin.
In essence, Lovely is in hot pursuit of the golden mean between policy practice and creative expression in the nuclear nonproliferation field.
Fun-fact: Lovely is absolutely in love with bouldering – rock-climbing on shorter rock formations without rope – and enjoys the sport to practice fearlessness and confidence. “What better way to channel go for it-you got this!!! by literally hurling oneself onto a rock and clinging on to it for dear life?” she asks. “To me, the dynamic act of bouldering feels like dancing in the air.”
Our brain-picking session begins:
FPI: Your Twitter bio is one of our favorites: “Breaking down nuclear issues so your homie’s homie can feel it.” What does that mean? And what does that entail?
It means promoting access to knowledge so that anyone can talk about nuclear issues openly, smartly, and with no judgment. There are plenty of acronym-riddled technical papers out there that cover nuclear energy and security issues, but there is not enough of a concerted effort in the scientific or policy community to translate this to digestible, relevant information for everyone else. This includes my homie’s homie, or someone’s grandmother, the curious college student, the local grassroots activist. It is a way to combat practitioner or academic naval-gazing; as with philosophy, “high”-cuisine, or space pre-Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, we cannot contain knowledge to a select few, but must allow for the free exchange of information to generate new modes of thinking about a particular topic.
For instance, I find it so odd that in the United States there isn’t enough open engagement on nuclear issues given that not too long ago families built bomb shelters, practiced the duck and cover, and feared for their lives because we were literally in the brink of nuclear war. In this context, access to knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean increasing open-source information on how nuclear reactors or weapons work. Rather, it is more important to cultivate a better understanding and appreciation for nuclear history and collective societal memory, how it has informed policies and cultures overtime, and the ways in which lessons learned back then can ultimately help address foreign policy challenges we face today.
I also find it fascinating how nuclear issues influence popular culture in overt and subtle ways. Oftentimes in movies, the crazy mad scientist villain is concocting a devious plan to destroy the world with some sort of thermonuclear device. It doesn’t seem to get old! Society is allured by the power of nuclear technology, but when faced with hard-hitting issues – the merits of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran or the implications of the recent nuclear weapons test by North Korea – the greater public tend to a.) fall quiet, b.) become too confused to care, or c.) become too confused to think clearly and simply panic. So with my friends, I try to challenge them to recognize the lines linking fiction and reality.
FPI: What are some top nuclear issues one’s homie should know about? And in short, why should our homies care?
First, your homie should know what nuclear nonproliferation means. It is a fancy phrase to describe the effort of limiting and eliminating the spread of nuclear weapons around the world. It sounds obvious once you break down the phrase, but let’s admit it – no one really uses the word “proliferate” in casual conversation (if you do, you should check yourself).
I think it’s important to recognize the dual-use nature of nuclear technology. For example, there are some types of nuclear materials that are used to generate power from power reactors or help advance the sciences in research reactor, that if put through certain processes, can turn into weapons-grade material. Think of it as such: nuclear energy harnesses the power of the atom through a controlled nuclear chain reaction whereas nuclear weapons allow it to go buck-wild (physicists are probably cringing at this over-simplification, but whatever, don’t care). This is why Iran’s nuclear program was such a threat to the international community – Iran had this capability to “enrich” uranium at higher levels that could make the material weapons-grade. So for example, it was very important for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (a.k.a. the Iran Nuclear Deal) to negotiate a threshold to Iran’s nuclear enrichment activities and limit the number of centrifuges (the technology Iran is using to enrich its uranium) it can possess.
This all sounds horrifying at first blush – why the hell should we allow access to nuclear technology if it presents pathways to a weapons-usable material?!
But there are some serious benefits to nuclear technology. Countries in Africa and Southeast Asia are using nuclear techniques to develop water management programs and advance cancer research. Given that nuclear technology is with us here and now for better or worse, the international community is doing what it can to ensure that none of it is being used for the bad. For instance, countries that have signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (there are 191 states party to the Treaty today) agree to conclude nuclear safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a UN body with a wicked smart horde of inspectors that are given access to countries’ nuclear facilities so that they can verify that nuclear material and technology in a given state are only used for peaceful purposes. IAEA inspectors are trained to seek out diversion pathways and have access to really cool gadgets that help carry out their work. This is another milestone achieved under the Iran Nuclear Deal – IAEA inspectors are granted access to facilities to ensure that the terms of the deal are fully implemented. An aside: I don’t know why there isn’t a mystery sci-fi thriller movie, TV show, or novel with an IAEA inspector as a protagonist. There’s untapped potential there.
So what’s the rub? I hope that this short overview is enough to get our homies to pay attention to the Iran Nuclear Deal and recognize that there is technological rigor put into place with the IAEA involved. Even having the most basic low-down also helps deflect misinformation and fear-mongering.
FPI: How did you become interested in nuclear issues?
Ha – my foray into nuclear policy was totally unplanned! I thought I would make a career out of my creative writing, but life took a funny turn in undergrad, there was a concentration switch, and I am now fully immersed in nuclear nonproliferation issues. I did not have a cathartic spark that inspired me to commit myself to this line of work. It is the constant discovery of the many layers that make up the field that really got me hooked.
You can study nuclear nonproliferation from a technical angle (how do you conduct inspections in a nuclear facility or negotiate nuclear arms reduction agreements?), a political theory angle (how does nuclear deterrence work?), an anthropological / historical angle (why did some states pursue or roll-back their nuclear weapons programs? What was the effect on their foreign policies moving forward?) – there are so many layers to peel, each one fascinating and important in its own right. And all of these layers are stitched together by this one heartbreaking point: the world witnessed what nuclear weapons are capable of in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan back in 1945, and we have to work really hard so that this would never happen again.
FPI: Any book or film recommendations on nuclear issues?
There are a ton of really compelling materials out there! Since I’ve created Bombshelltoe, I’ve come across quirky reads and films, which goes to show how nuclear issues are intimately connected to popular culture and our social psyche. Some of my favorites finds:
“Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout” by Lauren Redniss (2010) – A delicious graphic novel about the couple who discovered Radium and ushered in the nuclear age.
“The Girls of Atomic City” by Denise Kiernan (2013) – Real-life stories of what it was like to work on the Manhattan Project as a young woman…without actually knowing that the toil ultimately contributed to the development of the first nuclear weapons.
“African Americans Against the Bomb” by Vincent Intondi (2015) – A series of essays that discuss the ways in which the nuclear weapons dilemma is inextricably tied to the civil rights movement. I’m halfway through the book and it is eye-opening!
“Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War” by Hugh Gusterson (1998) – One of my classic faves – an anthropological study of nuclear weapons engineers in their habitat. Seriously.
Atomic Ivan (2012) – Really weird Russian indie movie about two physicists falling in love in a nuclear power plant. But not sure if we can call it 100% indie given that it was produced with full support from Rosatom – the Russia’s official nuclear regulatory body. (I know, right? This shit just got weirder!)
FPI: You wrote a piece on how females are largely diminished in American’s nuclear narrative. How and why is that the case?
The world of science and technology are undeniably male-centric. Although many women have contributed to the nuclear age, history has been unkind and has swept them under the rug. Without their presence as role models and their stories to draw inspiration from, it was – and is – intimidating for newcomers to enter the field.
The lack of women focusing on these issues have also affected the culture around the policy table. One article that deeply resonated with me in undergrad is Carol Cohn’s essay titled “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” which chronicles her time spent with male defense intellectuals in a summer workshop about nuclear strategic doctrine. Cohn described in great detail the military masculinity that hung heavy around her during the entire workshop in the form of microaggressive language that women had to adopt in order to belong. Cohn published this essay in 1987, so the world has changed a lot since then – in my article, I noted that there are many female senior leaders who are influencing the field at this day and age. But given that core nuclear concepts were developed in a culture that favored male voices, women in the field are still trying to catch up.
There’s also the added struggle for women of color who are typically “othered” in foreign policy spaces. Honestly, I don’t know how many women of color in the United States are recognized for making significant strides in international security – I’m not sure if that’s because there’s not enough of us out there reaching senior-level positions to make change or whether history rendered those who succeeded, well, invisible.
FPI: What have been some of the difficulties – if any – about being a woman in the industry? And what advice do you have for young interruptors?
The biggest challenge for me is to overcome analysis paralysis and self-censorship. I sometimes find it hard to share my opinions with others without fretting whether it is *the* greatest idea that will eventually help save the world. I don’t think I’m alone in this; a lot of women put the burden on themselves to be highly-exceptional in their policy circles while forgetting that their presence – the fact that they made it this far – already proves their intrinsic value and excellence.
My first advice for other interruptors is to practice self-love. Be mindful of the tone you use when you speak to yourself. Is it overly critical, even self-deprecating? Would you use that tone if your best friend made a mistake at work? Interruptors and pioneers need to be resilient, which entails going against the grain and embracing the prospect of failure. Gaining the confidence and grit required to succeed for this path can only come from kindness and self-forgiveness (thanks for talking to me about this, Gowri!).
The second – focus on intersectionality between and among international security challenges. Instead of falling deep into the wormhole of, say, nuclear nonproliferation, try to find overlap with other issues such as cybersecurity, small arms and light weapons trafficking, human trafficking, etc. This will help diversify your expertise.
And most importantly, paying attention to the gray areas may be where innovative solutions to these challenges are hiding, waiting to be discovered.