Nuclear Weapons | Analysis and New Insights

Better Than a Floppy: The Potential of Distributed Ledger Technology for Nuclear Safeguards Information Management

Cindy Vestergaard, Ph.D. | November 2018


Blockchain is transitioning away from the hype and gaining legitimacy as the next-wave technological solution to distribute data and build a network of trust among parties. Distributed ledger technology (DLT), which underpins cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, is a combination of already-existing technologies (such as cryptography) to securely manage and easily audit large volumes of data across a network. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has identified the need to examine the potential utility of blockchain technology for safeguards applications, specifically nuclear material accounting, in its safeguards Research and Development Plan. In this policy analysis brief, Dr. Cindy Vestergaard of the Stimson Center further explores the idea.

This policy analysis brief provides an overview of DLT and explores its utility for safeguards information management. It considers the landscape of factors determining how safeguards data is inputted, processed, and accessed. The findings and recommendations suggest where adding a DLT layer could be applied to provide greater efficiency, data reconciliation, accuracy, and trust in information management at the international, national, and facility levels.

Proof of concept will be the first step to understanding the plausibility of DLT for safeguards information management. It would not be technically difficult to configure a permissioned DLT to meet specifications of the organizations involved. The bigger hurdle to adoption will be acceptance by member states, each of which has their own policies for information exchange and technology practices. The varied ideas on how to create greater resource efficiencies within the IAEA and different lead times in adoption of emerging technologies also pose challenges to implementation.

The application of DLT to nuclear safeguards information management will not displace the essential role of the IAEA as a central authority nor diminish the importance of its work. Instead, it could add layers of security and traceability to better control and streamline data which, in turn, can facilitate more-effective safeguards implementation.