The Negotiator

Ploughshares Fund’s Michelle Dover talks about the role of civil society—and unexpected new voices—in reducing nuclear threat. 

Interview by Eric Brown / November 12, 2018

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.

Hanford N Reactor
Photo Credit – United States Department of Energy.

Q  Does that make it harder, though, for the public to understand nuclear issues?

A  One of the things that we run into is how to translate this for the broader public, and how not to turn them off. I offer up my own background as an example that you don’t need to be a nuclear scientist to have a say in these issues, or even have a career in this field. You need nuclear scientists, and you also need people from other backgrounds, perspectives, and disciplines. I think that’s the best practice when you’re talking about policies that affect everyone.

For the public, it’s not just about making nuclear issues meaningful for them—it’s also about giving them agency. People find this topic important, but they don’t think they can make a difference because it’s something that’s controlled by faceless bureaucrats. It’s always a challenge in a highly technical field to figure out what to convey to the broader population, and what they will find interesting or useful. But there’s a broader world out there that does care, and people do have important things to say on this. So, how do you give them a chance to do that? And how do you give them the tools and knowledge that they need to have an informed opinion?

It was frustrating to know that one of the most highly contaminated sites in the US was a 20-minute drive from my house. I felt powerless. I was told this radioactive material would far outlive me and future generations. But I didn’t see policymakers addressing the issue unless someone raised it in a really public way.


Q  How do you do that?

A  My perspective is informed by growing up near a Manhattan Project site. It was frustrating to know that one of the most highly contaminated sites in the US was a 20-minute drive from my house. I felt powerless. I was told this radioactive material would far outlive me and future generations. But I didn’t see policymakers addressing the issue unless someone raised it in a really public way. And you need that—you need the public to say that this is an issue that’s important. The public wants to see a world in which we’re trying to reduce nuclear threats, where we get rid of weapons through negotiation or engagement and not through military action. But unless you are telling policymakers that these are your values and your principles, and this is what you think should happen, they’re not going to make it a priority.

Q  What role do you think popular media has in creating a common understanding of the threats posed by nuclear weapons—or even in influencing policy?

A  There’s the lore that President Reagan saw the movie The Day After and that was a wake-up call for him on the effects of nuclear weapons. Talk to anyone in the field and they usually have an opinion on Dr. Strangelove, War Games, The Hunt for Red October. You just start listing off the movies and you realize that nuclear weapons, how we relate to them, and what we think of them has been a theme in our popular culture. Public consensus is shaped by that. Nucleus, one of the groups that has worked with N Square, has done some really interesting work on how people between the ages of 15 and 35 view the world. It’s not so much that they think the apocalypse can be stopped, it’s that they think the apocalypse is inevitable and that they will survive it. They point to examples like The Hunger Games or The Maze Runner or other dystopian novels where the apocalypse has happened, but the focus is on how you survive. It’s an interesting take on nuclear weapons, because does that mean you think it’s impossible to reduce nuclear threats or to eliminate them? How do you move that focus to before the event arrives?

I think Hollywood can help with that. Do you know that the president will only have at most about 12 minutes to decide whether to launch nuclear weapons in the case of a potentially incoming strike? Do you know how many weapons are out there? Do you know who has them? Do you know how much money it takes to maintain them? Do you know under what conditions we are actually going to use them? Hollywood can play an important role in communicating the basic facts about these issues.

Michelle Dover at Hanford B Reactor

Q  How did you end up at Ploughshares Fund?

A  By chance—a colleague sent me a note about an opening. I was aware of what grantmaking looked like but I had never really thought about the role that foundations play in supporting civil society. When I got to Ploughshares, I found they were doing amazing things. Ploughshares funds in a few different areas. We’re aiming for a world free of nuclear weapons, and we see three main approaches to that: get rid of the ones that already exist, prevent new groups or states from getting them, and then address the underlying problems that drive states to proliferation to begin with. We pride ourselves on trying to be as nimble and responsive as we can be, despite the fact that foundations can be slow to respond.

I came at a time when Ploughshares was focusing a lot of its work on diplomacy with Iran. I watched the debate over the deal that summer and saw so many policymakers speak about the deal in the Senate. For those who supported the agreement, they were listing the work of groups in civil society as having factored into their decision, sometimes citing specific experts. For me, it was such a powerful example of the role that civil society can play. The way I see it, we may be playing on the margins in some ways, but they’re really important margins.


Q  What innovations in the field are you most excited about?

A  Some of the most interesting innovation involves bringing in voices that haven’t been heard before, or voices that may have been there but were not given a prominent place at the table. The work that some in the Navajo Nation are doing to tell the story of the impact of uranium mining, and the international campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, are good examples. There’s a lot of energy in that type of work that is really powerful.

In the technology arena, democratizing access to information is a game-changer. Instead of having to hunt down routes for ships, there’s satellite imagery you can buy, and there are large amounts of data that are available to anyone if they have the time and they’re smart about how they spend it. I think of innovation as, “What are the new ideas that we’re applying to this space?” Somebody told me once that the most creative space is the space between fields, and that’s where we’re seeing some of the brightest innovation.

Photo Credit – F Charles Photography

I also think that cultivating networks of people who are working on—or could be working on—nuclear issues is itself a key innovation. At Ploughshares Fund we work hard to cultivate a network for our grantees so that they’re not working on their projects in isolation and can draw on a broader field of people working on this issue. And, of course, that’s the central idea of N Square—to facilitate and support this kind of connecting the dots between different kinds of experts to create a new kind of community working these problems together. It’s been fun to sit in the room at N Square convenings and see people from completely outside the field saying, “Wait a minute. How many people work on this issue? How many weapons are there actually in the world? How big is this problem?” People are able to draw connections that are not otherwise obvious. I’ve appreciated the perspective that this problem is solvable, which brings me hope.


Q  What else gives you hope?

A  I’m a strong believer that change is possible and that civil society can influence that change. It can be a force for reducing threats and increasing peace. And I don’t just mean peace as an absence of war, but as a place where you can achieve your potential. With nuclear weapons, we’ve gone from the peak of almost 70,000 weapons to 15,000. We can keep going. If we’ve gotten this far, movement is possible.

If you look at the bigger picture, you see that there’s so much that we’ve already done to reduce the chances of another Cuban Missile Crisis. Is there more that we can be doing? Absolutely. But the point is that we’ve seen that movement before. We’re at a place where, at least in the US, we’re questioning who we want to be. In looking at the current grassroots mobilizations, I’ve been reminded that we are in the midst of a values-based movement, where what you stand for matters in some cases more than the issue. From a conflict resolution point of view, that’s a positive discussion to have. We have an opportunity to demonstrate what we value, and that’s what drives my work and what gives me hope.

Q  One of the limitations in this field is that not that many people fund this work. How can the field attract more funders?

A  Foundations each have their own personality and mission, but we also have places where our missions align. I’m a part of groups like the Peace and Security Funders Group, where I can engage with foundations that are outside of the nuclear field but are still working in peace and security to hear how they’re thinking about problems. Bringing in new foundations or new types of funding requires thinking outside the box about how your projects fit with others’ goals. It also requires making the case of why it’s important and why you think providing resources will make a difference. We do our best to reach out to potential new donors to make that case, but it will require a field-wide effort. The good news is that we’ve seen some new individuals either become engaged or re-engaged with the topic since the 2016 election. In terms of very large new institutional funders, I really haven’t seen much, but that’s something that we’re going to keep plugging away at. N Square, which helps make these connections, is part of this outreach effort.

Q  What do you think the nuclear threat field will look like in 10 years, and what could the future look like if everything goes well?

A  You’re going to see a field that preserves the important lessons we’ve learned. There is a very strong mentorship component in this field and a transfer of knowledge that I’m confident will continue. The field will be more diverse and more inclusive. There will be people from different fields and walks of life who have a say on some of these issues. There is even a chance that multilateral treaties could be negotiated. Maybe that’s a hope, but given how much globalization has affected relationships between countries, I think it’s a reasonable one. I believe we can truly make a safer and more secure world, and that working on reducing nuclear threats opens up more space to tackle the other problems. If we can keep addressing it, we can make room for collaboration and cooperation on a variety of issues that affect us all.

Photo Credit – Patrick Dover Photography