Capstone project helps Outrider Foundation investigate oceanic nuclear waste

Photo of icebergs on the Artic Sea.

A first-of-its-kind project conducted by students in the La Follette School’s Master of International Public Affairs program helped inform a groundbreaking Outrider Foundation investigation published in the fall of 2022 that looked at radioactive materials littering the Arctic seas.

Authored by students Marek Benda, Avneesh Chandra, Signe Janoska-Bedi, Jamey Kane, and Jonny Vannucci for the workshop in international public affairs course in the spring of 2019, “Silent Dangers: Assessing the Threat of Nuclear Submarines” constituted the first comprehensive catalog of nuclear submarine failures from 1958 to the present day.

“The nuclear submarine project was a unique opportunity to consider the possible threats from a nuclear submarine accident, which are very real,” says La Follette School professor Tim Smeeding, who taught the course and advised the students on the project. “It was one of the most interesting and satisfying capstone projects that we, and I, ever undertook.”

The report also served as a source for Outrider Foundation’s story, “A ‘Chernobyl in Slow Motion’ Under Arctic Seas” by journalist Melissa Rossi, which focused on the 17,000 pieces of radioactive debris sitting at the bottom of the waters surrounding Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden. Outrider’s investigation also discussed the dangers and environmental impact of the sunken radioactive materials and directed readers to the La Follette project at the end of the story.

In fact, the La Follette School report was conducted on behalf of Outrider Foundation as part of the program’s capstone course taken by master’s students in their final semester. The capstone project gives students experience working in teams and collaborating with actual clients on policy projects with real-world implications.

The students on this project connected with Outrider Foundation through Ambassador Tom Loftus, former U.S. Ambassador to Norway and former Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly. Ambassador Loftus now sits on the Board of Directors for Outrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about nuclear threats and climate change. He has deep ties to the La Follette School, having helped establish the school as a member of the Assembly in the 1980’s.

Ambassador Loftus was interested in bringing together Outrider Foundation and the La Follette School after serving as an advisor to an earlier capstone project completed for the Nelson Institute on climate change and the Norwegian city of Tromsø. His experience as the ambassador to Norway in the 1990’s helped inform the topic of the project. “In four years as ambassador, I saw first-hand how the U.S., Norway, and Russia did a lot of joint programs on securing nuclear weapons and waste,” says Ambassador Loftus. “I was involved in these operations and got to know quite well the dangers.”

The report collected nearly 500 data points on 226 individual sunken submarines from six countries, relying on a variety of sources and research methods. It also conducted a threat assessment of the failures and provided recommendations for policymakers about how to mitigate the threats posed by nuclear submarines.

In addition to being used in Outrider Foundation’s investigation, the capstone project was presented to Outrider Foundation’s Board of Directors and the La Follette School’s Board of Visitors. “Members of the La Follette School Board of Visitors were stunned by the threats and the students’ knowledge,” says Professor Smeeding.

The Outrider Foundation’s subsequent investigation stunned as well. On Facebook, their post on the story was shared more than 430 times and amassed more than 350 comments.

Ambassador Loftus is already thinking about potential future collaborations between Outrider Foundation and La Follette School students. One possibility is looking into the prevalence of low-level tactical nuclear weapons. These are less potent than standard nuclear weapons, but their ubiquity and mobility make them particularly dangerous. While they are often overlooked, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that many tactical weapons have yields greater than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In the meantime, “Silent Dangers: Assessing the Threat of Nuclear Submarines” will continue to play a large role in the story of the threats posed by sunken nuclear submarines. “This project is a tool that will be useful for the life of Outrider. It’s there, it’s a piece of history that doesn’t go away,” says Ambassador Loftus.

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