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Nuclear experts on mission to educate young people

UPDATED: Fri., May 4, 2018, 4:54 p.m.

Erin Connolly, a program assistant at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, left, and Kate Hewitt, a Gonzaga University alumna and Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Brookings Institution, deliver a presentation on nuclear arms control for a class at Gonzaga on Monday, April 30, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Erin Connolly, a program assistant at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, left, and Kate Hewitt, a Gonzaga University alumna and Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Brookings Institution, deliver a presentation on nuclear arms control for a class at Gonzaga on Monday, April 30, 2018. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

President Donald Trump has another opportunity to pull out of the Iran deal, and Kim Jong Un is finally speaking with other world leaders about North Korea’s nuclear program.

But for young people who weren’t terrified by the nuclear threats of the Cold War, it might be hard to grasp the importance of today’s headlines. Deterrence, nonproliferation and the difference between low- and high-yield atomic weapons are foreign concepts to many American high schoolers.

That’s why two experts, including a Gonzaga University alumna who grew up in the Tri-Cities near the Hanford reactor site, are on a mission to educate young people about foreign diplomacy and nuclear arms control.

Kate Hewitt, who graduated from Gonzaga in 2013 and is a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and Erin Connolly, a colleague at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, were in Eastern Washington this week to kick off their educational initiative: “The Manhattan Project: Engaging the Next Generation on Nuclear Issues.”

“The nuclear policy debate is critical for the next generation to understand for many reasons, but ultimately this debate has become so abstract and removed from the American public, we feel the lack of engagement creates a situation in which decisions are being made without American consent,” Hewitt and Connolly said in an email. “From the outside, nuclear weapons policy is intimidating, and we are here to make it accessible.”

The pair spoke at Gonzaga on Monday and then drove to the Tri-Cities to present at five local high schools. By the end of the day Thursday, they had given more than 20 presentations to more than 1,000 students.

Speaking to one class Monday evening, Hewitt began with a basic question: “Does anybody here know how many countries have nuclear weapons?”

Many of the students’ guesses were correct or close to it. Nine countries have nuclear weapons, including the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

Israel has them too, Hewitt said, even though the country hasn’t publicly acknowledged it.

“There are 14,700 nuclear weapons in total,” she said. “But, to put it in perspective, the United States and Russia have 93 percent of that arsenal.”

Connolly explained the concept of the nuclear triad – the ability to strike an enemy by land, air and sea – and then the pair launched into a discussion about current events in North Korea, Iran and Russia.

“North Korea has a full-fledged nuclear program,” Hewitt said. “There really is no debate anymore as to whether or not they are a nuclear power. They are one.”

She said that to understand the nuclear threat that North Korea poses, it’s important to understand Kim Jong Un, the young leader whom Trump has derided as “Little Rocket Man.”

“I find Kim Jong Un to be predictable, patient and strategic,” Hewitt said, noting how he timed his diplomatic overtures to coincide with this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Connolly then sought to dispel misconceptions about the controversial deal that President Barack Obama made with Iran in 2015 to stunt the country’s ability to develop nuclear weapons. She said the deal is working as intended, noting that inspectors from Europe and the International Atomic Energy Agency have repeatedly verified Iran’s compliance.

“We did not take all of the sanctions off of Iran,” she said. “When the IAEA confirmed that they were in compliance with the deal, we removed the sanctions that were related to the nuclear program. But the sanctions that are related to ballistic missile development, human rights violations and other regional activities – those sanctions are still very much in place.”

The deal is important now, Connolly said, because Trump will decide on May 12 whether to recertify or withdraw from it. Because Trump has repeatedly criticized the deal, she said that “hardliners in Iran who support the Revolutionary Guard, who really dislike the West, see Trump as validating their opinion that you cannot trust the West.”

Connolly and Hewitt agreed the biggest nuclear threat could come from Russia, which has a slightly larger arsenal than the United States. At the highest levels of government, they said, decades of negotiations and strategic moves have kept both superpowers from using those tools of destruction.

“It’s important the next generation understand how to critically engage on these issues, looking at how much we spend on them, where, when, if we say it’s OK to use them, and who else has this technology,” Hewitt said.

Connolly and Hewitt said they hope to continue their educational mission in schools across the country.

Editor’s note: This article was changed on Friday, May 4, 2018 to add more information about Kate Hewitt’s title related to the Brookings Institution.


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