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Dual-use is a term often used in politics and diplomacy to refer to technology which can be used for both peaceful and military aims. It often refers to the proliferation of nuclear weapons, but that of bioweapons is a major issue as well.

Many types of nuclear reactors produce fissile material, such as plutonium, as a by-product, which could be used in the development of a nuclear weapon. However, nuclear reactors can also be used for peaceful, civilian purposes: providing electricity to a city, for example. As such, a nation which wanted to develop a nuclear weapon could build a reactor, claiming it would be used for civilian purposes, and then use its plutonium to construct a nuclear weapon. Other nuclear power station designs, such as fusion reactors or liquid-salt Thorium reactors do not suffer from this dual-use issue since they do not produce trans-Uranic elements such as plutonium as by-products.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union spent billions of dollars developing rocket technology which could carry humans into space (and even eventually to the moon). The knowledge gained from this peaceful rocket technology also served in the development of intercontinental ballistic missile technology as well.

The International Atomic Energy Agency attempts to monitor dual-use technology in countries who are signatories of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to make sure that fissile material is not diverted to military functions. In recent events, both Iran and North Korea have been accused of having nuclear weapons programs based on dual-use technology.

Lax biosecurity at laboratories is worrying researchers and regulators that potential select agents may have fallen into the hands of malevolent parties. It may have been instrumental to the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States. Universities sometimes flout regulations, complacent as to the dangers in doing so. Though the majority of breaches are benign, the hybridization of Hepatitis C and dengue-fever viruses at Imperial College London in 1997 resulted in a fine when health and safety rules were not observed. A research program at Texas A&M University was shut down when Brucella and Coxiella infections were not reported. That the July 2007 terrorist attacks in central London and at Glasgow airport may have involved NHS medical professionals was a recent wake-up call that screening people with access to pathogens may be necessary. The challenge remains to maintain security without impairing the contributions to progress afforded by research.[1]

Most industrial countries have export controls on certain types of designated dual-use technologies, and they are required by a number of treaties as well. These controls restrict the export of certain commodities and technologies without the permission of the government. The principal agency for dual use export controls in the United States is the Department of Commerce, Bureau of Industry and Security.

There are several international arrangements among countries which seek to harmonize lists of dual-use (and military) technologies to control. These include the Nuclear Suppliers Group, the Australia Group, which looks chemical and biological technologies, the Missile Technology Control Regime, which covers delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction, and the Wassenaar Arrangement, which covers conventional arms and dual-use technologies.

More generally speaking, dual-use can also refer to any technology which can satisfy more than one goal at any given time. Thus, expensive technologies which would otherwise only serve military purposes can also be utilized to benefit civilian commercial interests when not otherwise engaged such as the Global Positioning System.


  1. ^ Daniel Cressey (17 August 2007). "Not so secure after all". Nature 448 (7155): 732–733. doi:10.1038/448732a.  

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