Adding Up to Countdown: Additive Manufacturing and Its Implications for Nuclear Security

Additive manufacturing — also known as 3D printing — promises to have a significant impact on nuclear security and nonproliferation in the 21st century. Advances in the manufacturing sector will complicate how states pursue nuclear capabilities and manage international relations, potentially making it easier to acquire nuclear weapons. Through integration into nuclear supply chains, additive manufacturing can destabilize nonproliferation regimes and complicate relations between states.

Additive manufacturing represents a revolution in the efficiency of the manufacturing process. Supply chains that produce the components used in both nuclear weapons and reactors rely on a traditional process known as “subtractive manufacturing,” in which parts are created from a larger block of material that is pared away, formed, and shaped into the necessary dimensions. This process inherently creates waste and inefficiencies. Alternatively, additive manufacturing involves the creation of three-dimensional objects through a layering process that adheres to a strict computer-guided model. Layers of polymers, ceramics, and metals are applied by a precision-guided instrument according to precise dimensions until the object is completed. This process results in roughly 70-90% less waste than traditional subtractive manufacturing means.

Additive manufacturing holds distinct advantages over traditional manufacturing. For example, tools and components can be designed to be compatible with specific applications that require matching material signatures. This holds anti-counterfeiting potential for nuclear-related uses, as anything from centrifuge parts to missile storage and construction could potentially be outfitted with unique parts that operate only under specific conditions. Another major advantage to additive manufacturing is that complexity of design is not tethered to cost limitations in the same ways as traditional manufacturing. Conventional manufacturing is limited because increasing design complexity inevitably leads to greater costs. For additive manufacturing, on the other hand, design is optimized to produce products in the most economical way possible. Together, the anti-counterfeiting potential and design optimization represent two of the most distinct advantages that additive manufacturing brings to the table, and thanks to the reduced barriers to entry, there are now more seats at the table.

The dividing lines between access to additive manufacturing are increasingly blurring, as the technology is closing the gap between innovation and production. It allows smaller, less resourced firms and entities the ability to produce goods at a faster pace and larger scale, while doing so at relatively affordable cost. This opens the floodgates for smaller, less wealthy states and actors to enter this emerging market and begin manufacturing localized goods — no longer dependent on major producers or governed by traditional limitations. In the nuclear realm, this could incentivize investment into nuclear programs and research, as the potential pathways to successful nuclear capabilities are now greater and the ability to legitimize the industry now easier. With requisite access to materials and machinery, a nation could capitalize on indigenous innovation-production streams to build out the initial stages of a nuclear industry.

The United States has begun to research additive manufacturing’s utility to civilian nuclear programs, exploring new designs of nuclear fuel rods and large cylindrical pressure vessels. The potential to further optimize supply chains has also caught the industry’s attention. As additive manufacturing proliferates internationally and begins to level the manufacturing playing field, other states will likely begin investing in similar research and development. Competition to out-innovate one another may ultimately sow instability as each actor becomes incentivized to mask their research programs. To limit the structural impact of additive manufacturing, nuclear states and international organizations must cooperate to ensure that the technology “matures into an asset rather than a liability for nuclear energy programs.”

Liabilities abound, however, as the combination of these emerging manufacturing techniques and novel production materials could create volatile pathways to nuclear capabilities and weapons. States could use additive manufacturing to make detection of nuclear proliferation considerably more difficult. Those without nuclear capabilities could progress towards such abilities largely in secret under the guise of commercial additive manufacturing industries as access to sensitive nuclear technology becomes easier. The dual-use nature of additive manufacturing means that genuinely benign investments into nuclear energy could become indistinguishable from weapons programs. The speed, secrecy, and relative ease with which non-nuclear states could potentially turn nuclear as this novel technology comes into maturity creates vulnerabilities that nonproliferation regimes must begin to consider. Export controls represent one such pressing area where international regulators could make progress.

Currently, a lack of international export controls around additive manufacturing’s role in the nuclear value chain constitutes an unmanaged proliferation pathway. Current controls fail to capture the democratizing nature of additive manufacturing and its ability to link previously unconnected markets. Specifically, the sharing of CAD files that contain the design elements necessary to produce 3D-printed objects poses a cross-border concern that promises to grow more acute. In addition to file sharing, the sheer manufacturing power that additive technology surrenders to the general public has the potential to overburden export controls currently in place, and means that anonymized products can be trafficked along illicit networks with greater ease. Should proliferators, whether they be state, military, or subnational in origin, decide to adopt additive manufacturing for illicit purposes, it could prove difficult for export control regimes to stay abreast.

Additive manufacturing will gradually usher in an era of novel manufacturing means that will challenge current nonproliferation arrangements. It will create new pathways to nuclear capabilities along accelerated timeframes, while its dual-use nature will complicate distinguishability. Illicit production and procurement may find camouflage beneath legitimate nuclear networks and channels as the technology gains commercial popularity. Additive manufacturing harbors much disruptive potential. To prevent this technological disruption from sowing instability in the nuclear domain nonproliferation regimes will require greater detection capacities and more robust export controls to stem the illicit flow of nuclear materials and equipment connected to additive manufacturing.

Shawn Rostker is a research intern with the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.

Shawn Rostker

Intern, Strategic Technologies Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies