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Ever More Complex Nuclear Conundrum

Inherent irrationality of nuclear weapons confounds command and control of their worldwide menace

by By Michael Heylin
April 10, 2006 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 84, ISSUE 15

In the calculus of war, it is argued that the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, causing more than 200,000 instant deaths, saved lives. The bombings precipitated Japan's surrender within a few days and so prevented what would have been even greater civilian and military casualties from an invasion of Japan.

At the time, the bombings were the culmination of the incredible tour de force by the scientific and technological community to turn a concept of physics into a usable and incredibly destructive device within less than four years. Today, it takes 20 years or more to develop and deploy a souped-up military helicopter.

The atomic bomb project boosted the public standing of scientists. It helped launch the post-World War II explosion of federally funded scientific and technological activity and its subsequent cornucopia of benefits to society. It also became the cornerstone of the military-industrial complex, and it underpinned development of the nuclear power industry.

The creation of the atomic bomb also left the world with a set of so-far intractable problems and unresolvable questions. They include: Who can have nuclear weapons? Who can't? Who can stop whom from having them? And how? How and to what extent can they be tested? How can they and the fissile material they contain be stored securely and disposed of safely? How, in the long term, can they be kept out of the wrong hands? And how can they finally be gotten rid of altogether?

These are not new issues. Elements of the scientific assemblage that built the first atomic weapons foresaw most of the problems. This group strove mightily in the immediate postwar years to have nuclear weapons eliminated or placed under the control of a single international entity.

They failed. But a lot of their ideas ended up as the basis for the efforts over the past 60 years to keep nuclear arms under some control and to limit their proliferation. The keys to this effort were, and continue to be, the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968 and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996.

The NPT has been signed by every nation except Cuba, India, and Pakistan. North Korea signed but has since withdrawn. The treaty allows nations that had nuclear weapons in 1968—the U.S., the Soviet Union, the U.K., France, and China—to keep them. But it commits these nations to reducing their nuclear arsenals and working actively toward total disarmament. Nonnuclear weapon parties to the treaty are obligated to not seek nuclear weapons and to open their "peaceful" nuclear power facilities to international inspection.

The CTBT bans all nuclear explosions of any size, anywhere. It has been signed by about 180 nations. But it has not entered into force because, so far, 10 of 44 nations, including the U.S., that have nuclear reactors and are required to sign and ratify it have not done so. The U.S. has signed but not ratified the treaty.

The first country to expand the nuclear weapons club was Israel. Then, the proliferation barriers started to come apart with the additions of South Africa, for a while; India and Pakistan; and possibly North Korea. And concern is escalating over Iran's nuclear actions and intentions.

Today there are at least four hot nuclear weapons issues:

◾ What is North Korea up to? Does it really have, as it claims, nuclear warheads and the ability to deliver them strategically?
◾ Does Iran have a nuclear weapons program? Or are its recently revealed efforts to explore uranium enrichment for peaceful purposes, as it insists?
◾ Should Congress go along with the Bush Administration's tentative agreement with India for enhanced nuclear cooperation?
◾ Does the Administration's policy of aggressive action to prevent nuclear proliferation, including preemptive war, contain or encourage proliferation?

There seems to be a concept of "good" and "bad" nuclear weapons. Otherwise, is there any consistency or logic to the Administration's relatively benign response to their acquisition by Israel and India, the description of Iran's current activities as the greatest security risk to the U.S. from another nation, and the invasion and occupation of Iraq over nonexistent nuclear weapons?

Nuclear weapons all pose a threat to mankind, even weapons that have never existed and virtual ones that are perceived in the twinkle of somebody else's eye.

Once they are made, nuclear weapons are very difficult to get rid of. But it has been done. South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear arsenal. Libya and Brazil gave up development programs. Former Soviet republics returned their weapons to Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Maybe it can be done again. The U.K. is approaching the time when it has to make an initial decision on if, or how, it will replace the four aging missile-carrying submarines that constitute its nuclear arsenal.

The issue that political leaders will eventually have to face is this: Will the world continue on the current dangerous and pointless path under which the five original nuclear powers remain free to maintain and refine their nuclear weapons while other nations determined to acquire them can do so, if selectively? Or will the world's nations finally take to heart their NPT obligations to work unambiguously toward preventing proliferation and ridding the world of nuclear weapons, however long it takes?

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.



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