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Nuclear Perils

Intractable threats from nuclear arms bring plea for chemists and other scientists to get involved

December 13, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 50

Like many British periodicals, the highly regarded Nature can, at times, be blunt about things. A case in point is its Nov. 25 issue.

On its cover is a nuclear mushroom cloud. Its editorial pleads for scientists to remind the public of the devastating nature of the nuclear threat. It states that "modern researchers must take up the important work of disarmament and have much to offer in doing so."

This Nature issue also has a six-page special report on the increasingly unstable worldwide nuclear situation. In addition, it has a commentary by the head of a national weapons laboratory, C. Paul Robinson of Sandia National Laboratories. He suggests revisiting the Baruch Plan. This was an early post-World War II proposal, largely inspired by Manhattan Project scientists, for keeping nuclear weapons under control and avoiding the very situation the world finds itself in today.

Such straight talk could not be more timely. Nonexistent nuclear weapons from a nonexistent nuclear weapons program were the primary trigger for the conflict in Iraq.

In just the past few weeks, there has been much in the news about nuclear activities in Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, India, Brazil, South Korea, and Japan. These activities have raised concerns about what they may mean for current or future nuclear weapons development in these countries.

Perhaps most disturbing of all is the real fear that nuclear weapons or fissile materials to produce them will one day end up in the hands of terrorists.

In addition, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty is coming unglued. This pact, which was opened for signature in 1968, was crafted to limit nuclear weapons to the five nations that had them at that time. And these nations--the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K., France, and China--were supposed to get rid of them; they haven't.

Meanwhile, four other nations--Israel, South Africa, India, and Pakistan--have acquired nuclear weapons. North Korea may have done so, too. And the latest concern is that Iran will be the next nuclear-armed state, although it vehemently denies it has such intentions.

The basic technology of making a starter nuclear weapon has long been an open book. Enterprising Pakistanis set up a nuclear weapons technology boutique. North Korea is another source of nuclear information. Any nation with even a modest scientific infrastructure can produce a deliverable nuclear weapon.

This all leaves a prognosis of endless nuclear instability. The U.S. has overwhelming nonnuclear conventional military force. It also has even more overwhelming nuclear force that it states will always be indispensable to its security and that it would like to further refine to make more usable.

So the complex issue is this: In light of the attitude and actions of the U.S. and the other four original nuclear powers in retaining nuclear forces, is the desire for nuclear arms by other nations inevitable or negotiable? Is it stabilizing or destabilizing, stoppable or unstoppable?

The U.S.'s approach to nuclear arms control in Iraq is not likely to be repeated anytime soon. Nuclear, as opposed to conventional, preemption is questionable, especially if the target nation, such as North Korea, may already have a nuclear weapon or two.

Since the end of World War II, it can be argued that the only thing nuclear weapons have achieved has been to deter the use of nuclear weapons. Logic would suggest that a better approach would be having the goal of getting rid of all nuclear weapons.

There are inklings that this is not the dangerous pipe dream it is usually portrayed as being. One nuclear power, South Africa, voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons and program. Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan could have become nuclear powers upon the breakup of the Soviet Union. They chose not to. Argentina, Brazil, and Libya have given up nuclear weapons programs before they came to fruition. And the U.K., France, and China have, in effect, at least adopted defensive, no-first-use nuclear postures.

There is a precedent for an outside group having an impact on nuclear weapons policy. In the early 1980s, a Nobel Prize-winning public effort by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War turned nuclear weapons into a public health issue--something in which it, and not the Pentagon, was the expert.

Actively assisted by some prominent scientists--including Harvard chemist George Kistiakowsky, who helped develop the explosive trigger for the first nuclear weapons--this effort came at a time when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union were in a frantic race to upgrade all of their nuclear weapons systems. It contributed to the beginnings of what has become a series of mutual nuclear arms reductions by the U.S. and now Russia.

Nature's editorial pleads, "It is up to physicists, chemists, computer scientists, and all those who understand what goes into nuclear weapons to remind the public of the devastating power of the bomb and the constant threat it poses." It goes on, "Together, they need to help the world arrive at a new global consensus: that nuclear weapons--regardless of whose hands they are in--pose a threat to every nation's security."

It will be a long, long road to global nuclear disarmament. But something that was once considered equally unthinkable has happened. Who in 1944 would have believed that most of the major European combatants in World War II would today have open borders and a common currency?


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