The Catalyze podcast: The role U.S. universities play in driving nuclear weapons research and development, with Seth Shelden ’98 of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

Podcast | November 9, 2021
Headshot of Seth Shelden ’98
Seth Shelden ’98 is the United Nations liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN).

Seth Shelden ’98 is the United Nations liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). The coalition was awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 2017 for its work to bring about the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

The TPNW outlaws the use, testing, development, production, possession, and transfer of nuclear weapons, and it outlines how countries can destroy their own stockpiles. It also stipulates victim assistance, environmental remediation, and other humanitarian efforts as part of each participating country’s obligations.

Seth is also a partner in the law firm of Farkas & Neurman, an adjunct professor at the City University of New York School of Law, and vice president of Ground UP Productions. The alumnus received his bachelor’s degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a major in international studies (with concentrations in economics and peace, war, and defense). He earned his J.D. from University of California, Berkeley, School of Law in 2002.

Seth offers insights on Biden’s projected nuclear arms policy, how U.S. universities serve as research and development pipelines, and what anyone can do to divest from companies involved in building and maintaining nuclear weapons.

Listen to the episode.

ICAN reports, resources, and other references mentioned in the episode:

Follow ICAN on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. You can follow Seth on Twitter.

Episode Credits

The intro music for this episode is by Scott Hallyburton ’22, guitarist of the band South of the Soul. The outro song, “On the Island,” is by the artist Godmode.

How to listen

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Catalyze is hosted and produced by Sarah O’Carroll for the Morehead-Cain Foundation, home of the first merit scholarship program in the United States and located at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You can let us know what you thought of the episode by finding us on Twitter or Instagram at @moreheadcain or you can email us at

Episode transcription


Seth, thank you for joining us.


Yeah, thank you for having me.


So, before we look at the United States’s involvement in nuclear arms research and production, I’m wondering if you might provide a more global outlook. Can you give us a sense of how many countries support nuclear disarmament?


An overwhelming majority of the world’s countries—more than two-thirds—support a total ban on nuclear weapons in the form of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Those are the countries that recognize the growing risk, the unacceptable consequences of any use of nuclear weapons, and the need to take more decisive action toward a world without nuclear weapons. That’s at least 135 countries, and it’s growing.


The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or TPNW, outlaws the use, testing, development, production, possession, and transfer of nuclear weapons, and it also outlines how countries can destroy their own stockpiles. Tell us more about why the treaty was established and how its formation came about.


Basically, between 2013 and 2014, there were three conferences (one in Norway, one in Mexico, and one in Austria) that led to an endorsement of a humanitarian pledge that sought to close that legal gap, that logical gap to ban the most destructive weapons.

In July, on July 7th of 2017—the most exciting day of my life—the text of the treaty was brought to a vote and was adopted by 122 “yes” votes to one “no” vote.

This is, well, certainly groundbreaking—it’s the first treaty to require its state parties to assist those who are affected by nuclear weapons use and testing.


Of course, the United States is among the group of nuclear-armed countries who have not signed the treaty. And in President Biden’s first year in office, some Democratic lawmakers have been pushing him to take a bolder stance on the country’s nuclear policy.

What have we been able to learn so far about Biden’s position on investing in nuclear weapons as part of our national defense strategy, and to what extent will his decisions be influenced or limited by the policies he inherited from the Trump administration?


Well, it would be very nice for some of us to think of this as a problem of Donald Trump’s making, but it really isn’t. And unfortunately, this is one thing that Democrats and Republicans alike have been equal opportunity offenders. The Nuclear Modernization Program was really initiated under the the Obama administration and was continued under Trump.

The budget of this modernization program over the last year has been put in the range of, like, $1.7 trillion over thirty years, and I think that, with inflation and expansion, is likely more. It’s mind blowing.

There’s all kinds of ways we try to break that down. $100,000 per minute is one way that I like to think about it because how do you wrap your head around those kind of numbers? So, it’s not looking good, so far. I think we have a lot of work to do as Americans, or U.S.-ers, to influence what he’s going to do.


Even $100,000 per minute is pretty hard to fathom. How does the United States compared to other nuclear-armed countries in terms of total annual spending? Where do we measure up?


During the pandemic, it’s been even more outrageous. In 2020, we issued this report (you can find it on the ICAN website) called, “Complicit,” talking about this problem emanating from these nine countries that spent $72.6 billion, I think it is, in 2020, which was an increase during 2020 from the previous year of $1.4 billion, I believe—in the pandemic, when we could have spent all this money on more human needs. How could that happen? How can we say that we don’t have the money for getting vaccines to the rest of the world? Or, how do we run out of hospital beds and nurses and doctors? How is that the answer for security when we are clearly facing such real problems with security?

And the answer is money. That’s what this complicit report helps break down. That’s what our partners, Don’t Bank on the Bomb project, which has been issued by PAX in the Netherlands every year, basically is showing us, is how much money is being spent and who’s getting it.

In fact, the “Complicit” report is the first to do this, as far as we know, to really try and figure out not just which companies are getting that money and which companies are spending that money, but how much of it is actually going to lobbyists and also to think tanks. Because when we talk about the prevailing consciousness and the U.S. public around nuclear weapons, I think you can’t ignore, we need to stop ignoring, the impact that that money cycle is having on the media and our policymakers because these reports are being funded, the reports that they’re reading and that are maintaining the status quo, are being funded by the industry.


In addition to lobbyists and think tanks, ICAN has also reported on the role of U.S. universities in funding the United States “nuclear arms complex,” as ICAN calls it. In ICAN’s report, “Schools of Mass Destruction,” what are some of the covert activities mentioned and how do universities receive support from the federal government to conduct them?


We’re not just talking about these private investments, we’re talking about how this money and resources get given to and also taken from our nation’s institutions of learning and this pipeline that we built from schools to industry.

Schools do all kinds of things. There’s direct management they do, where a university directly manages the nuclear weapons lab; there’s partnerships, where the government partners with institutions for projects and research programs; and then there’s workforce development programs, where school STEM programs are basically used as a pipeline to the industry.

Universities are involved in all kinds of ways, and at least in this initial report, we’ve tried to identify the ones that are most directly involved in this process, and they are a lot of our most prominent universities.


So UNC–Chapel Hill is the 12th largest university in the United States, and we rank sixth in the country for federal research expenditures. Was Carolina on the list, and how do we rank in terms of our participation in this apparatus of sorts?


Well, I’m happy to say that my alma mater is not on that list of the most involved universities. Well, one of my alma mater’s; I also went to law school at U.C. Berkeley, and the University of California is one of the key institutions maintaining the main research and production centers for the nuclear weapons complex, Los Alamos National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. And Berkeley, where I went, has been really involved ever since the Manhattan Project, where nuclear weapons originated.

Carolina does not have that legacy, thankfully. But that doesn’t mean that UNC isn’t involved in other ways. And that’s something that we have yet to really dig through and understand is, for instance, how much of our money is invested in nuclear weapons, and what are the ways our faculty, individuals or, basically, labs, might be invested in or part of the process in a less direct way.


After reading the report’s recommendations, for students, faculty, and staff at Carolina and otherwise who would be opposed to their university’s participation in nuclear weapons research and development, what can they do to uncover the extent of their institution’s involvement, given the clandestine nature of these activities and programs?


I’d be really interested to look at how UNC invests money, for instance, because, like I said earlier, I think that that’s going to be the key: is make profiteering from nuclear weapons less profitable. We have investment funds that are entities that are managing the university’s long term assets, pension funds for faculty administration. I mean, I wonder where that money is invested, and it’s something that we can easily look into. And we built the tools for doing this through the Don’t Bank on the Bomb research. So, we can look at that report for identifying what we’re looking for, which is figuring out the companies that are responsible for maintaining and building our nuclear weapons and making sure they’re not in our portfolios.

We’re just talking about a couple of dozen companies that are doing this that we would be asking the school in this case to take their money out of. And I think that’s really doable. And that’s something we’ve seen done. Basically, as financial institutions are looking to define what ethical investing is, all we need to do is convince them that ethical investing should include not investing in nuclear weapons.


Once students have been able to identify hard numbers, either using ICAN’s many resources or on their own, can you speak to other ways they might go about increasing awareness about these issues and advocating for the change they see as necessary?


Young people have energized the resistance movement and opposition to nuclear weapons since well, since nuclear weapons existed, especially coming around in the 1960s and 1970s. That’s who we need to pick up the mantle today. The end of the Cold War gave so many people a false sense of comfort that we were through the crisis of nuclear weapons. And people have since, understandably, turned to other existential crises: climate change, the systemic institutionalized racism, refugee crises. I mean, there’s so much right now to worry about. But I think what people need to realize is, despite the fact that we are not hiding under our desks the way we did in the 1950s though the 1980s, according to experts, were more danger now than we ever were during the Cold War.

Just to point to one example, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the Doomsday Clock that’s maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It’s like a metaphorical symbol for how close we are to nuclear armageddon, and it has ticked back and forth during the Cold War. It’s maintained by many scientific experts and political experts, Nobel Prize winners themselves. They say that needle is closer to midnight—the metaphorical armageddon—than it ever has been, that it’s as close as it ever has been, even during the height of the Cold War.

How can this be, when no one’s even talking about it in the way that they did then? A lot of their thinking, and those who agree with them, is connected to how nuclear weapons are actually, unfortunately, connected to all of these other crises, climate in particular.

Nuclear weapons represent our climate’s our most acute danger in the sense of what you may have heard called “nuclear winter”—the notion that any use of nuclear weapons anywhere would have catastrophic impact even in regions far away from the conflict. A lot of the modeling has been done . . . Say the India and Pakistan conflict—any use of nuclear weapons there, or even a limited use, could have effects on resource scarcity and crop damage, global cooling in total parts of the world.

So that we see is that there is a real risk that conflict can lead to use of, or heightened risk of use of weapons, and for those who have them, use of nuclear weapons, even by accident or miscalculation. But that would increase climate change, which spurs resource insecurity, and thus in itself increases conflict again, and increases the risk of nuclear weapons more. This mutually reinforcing cycle of doom is really something that we need to pay attention to insofar as it connects with nuclear weapons.

People on universities, people who are studying and concerned about global existential crises, need to think about this as well. If you go to our microsite for this Schools of Mass Destruction, the URL is We just launched a pledge basically saying that for students, for faculty, for alumni, basically, anyone who works for or in the orbit of a university can sign and say, “We’re concerned about this, and we declare that we want our schools or universities to get out or stay out of the nuclear weapons complex. And we ourselves will abstain from working on research and development for nuclear weapons.”

And we intend to use that pledge to build a network among activated university communities. And that’s something I think that everyone can do.


Going back to the personal finance side, before I graduated college and started working full time, I certainly didn’t give a whole lot of thought to pension funds, let alone which companies my employer might be investing in. So what guidance might you give to alumni and scholars about similarly auditing where their money is going?


Even a call to your bank, starting to ask these questions, has impact. And you can educate yourself a bit more by looking at this Don’t Bank on the Bomb report and seeing what companies you’re trying to identify and trying to get out of, and then just asking your bank. I mean, we’ve had people do this and in my local city, in New York, we’ve had our campaigners do this with a couple of specific banks effectively, sometimes to my amazement, that just a few people can make these calls and say, “I’m just curious, where is my money? Usually, they don’t know, the people you speak to and it takes some digging. And we’ve had some policies change just from a few small investors or depository holders calling their banks.


Well, Seth, appreciate your thoughts so far. If I can ask a more personal question, I want to know where this interest came from for you in studying nuclear arms issues, and how did you end up with ICAN?


Well, it’s been kind of a long and varied journey, I guess, because this isn’t something I’ve done for my whole life. But I do credit Carolina and, therefore, the Morehead-Cain Program, for helping me get here. My main focus was in arts and music, because that’s where I came from. My whole family are artists and musicians. But I got involved and interested in a lot of political science, and [there was] one professor in particular that I followed through some courses, and got excited about nuclear weapons policy through some of those programs and courses. And then wrote my honors thesis on nuclear weapons and particularly the Israeli nuclear weapons program.

And it was just this thing that really interested me. But then after graduation, I didn’t really do much with that. I didn’t even know what to do with it, honestly. I went into law and then also back into music. But I was doing a Fulbright program teaching law in Japan a few years back and visited Hiroshima and Nagasaki and realized again, I don’t know how I could have forgotten, but basically it reignited my strong interest in helping make a difference in this area. And then I knew that the U.N. was about to start negotiating this treaty and I wanted to be a part of that. So, I just figured out who do find in the ICAN network and get involved.


Well, very cool to hear how you made that happen. Seth, is there anything else you’d like to share about ICAN’s work for those who similarly want to get involved?


We have so many projects through ICAN that people can participate in. And one of them, for instance, that I’m thinking about is the Cities Appeal. That’s a project where cities and municipalities in nuclear-armed states are joining, basically taking a pledge but in whatever way you do it, through your city council, mayor, or something, to say that that their city supports the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. We’ve had hundreds of cities around the world join this, major cities: Paris, Sydney . . . in the U.S., Washington, D.C. to L.A.

In North Carolina, I think it’s only Asheville. I’m not sure if any other city has joined, so maybe, some student wants to get Chapel Hill, the town of Chapel Hill or Carrboro, Durham, Raleigh to join. We could help them through that process. And if they go to our website, they can find the Cities Appeal background. But you can also get in touch with me. You can follow us in all the medias. Our handle is @NuclearBan and check on our website where all of this is like a portal to all the stuff I’m talking about. And start mobilizing our clubs and communities and extracurricular associations.

A couple of years ago I came down to speak with CIRA, the Carolina International Relations Association, about this stuff. But just like, whatever your starting point is, it’s great. People come at it from so many different ways. But the point is that we need to wake up, and we need to all realize how much this affects all of us. We need to communicate that to our leaders, and we need especially young people and future people who can speak on behalf of future generations to get involved and to speak out.

And if I can close with this, maybe. I mean, most of all, I think it’s important as we go through, especially as we go through our academic sort of curriculum to make sure that we don’t forget whenever anyone talks about nuclear weapons in the U.S., like when you’re going through, like all the game theory and institutionalized, like academic practice and more about the way we do what we do and why we did what we did. That’s what I studied when I was at Carolina and to realize that all of that realism and realpolitik obfuscates the more important reality, which is that any use of nuclear weapons, intentional or perhaps more likely accidental, would have a devastating consequence.

And that’s something that needs to be more at the forefront, especially now, of our discussions when we talk about what we’re talking about and not forgetting how much the harm the industry has already caused and continues to cause in particular to marginalized communities. We can’t forget this. Deterrence is a theory. The risks and the consequences are real.


Thank you so much.


Sarah, thank you so much for having me. I’m so glad that you’re interested, and I hope that other people get interested, also.