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Nuclear Weapons

Long disparaged as a dangerous and impossible dream, the goal of nuclear disarmament has attracted some heavy-weight support of late

by Michael Heylin
July 14, 2008 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 86, Issue 28

"NUCLEAR WEAPONS today present tremendous dangers." These are the opening words of an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) earlier this year. Note that it doesn't read Russian nuclear weapons, Chinese nuclear weapons, or Iranian nuclear weapons. Just nuclear weapons.

The piece is coauthored by former secretaries of state George Schultz and Henry Kissinger, former secretary of defense William Perry, and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn. It's a sequel to a similar WSJ op-ed by the same so-called Gang of Four national security statesmen one year earlier.

The rest of the first paragraph of the new article goes on to call for U.S. leadership "to take the world to the next stage—to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to prevent their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world."

Getting rid of nuclear arms is not a new idea. For four decades, the U.S. has been committed to it by treaty.

Ronald Reagan went further than most other U.S. presidents to achieve it. In October 1986, he and Soviet chief Mikhail Gorbachev stunned their advisers by discussing the elimination of nuclear weapons altogether when they met in Reykjavik, Iceland.

To both of them, nuclear weapons were totally irrational, totally inhumane, good for nothing but killing, and possibly destructive of life on Earth and civilization.

However, the U.S. and Russia today still maintain nuclear arsenals that are monstrous, if smaller than they once were. And any hint, even false or speculative, of the further proliferation of such weapons triggers—depending on who is doing the proliferating—U.S. reactions ranging from indifference, diplomacy, alarm, threats, and sanctions to preemptive war and military occupation.

The first effort to control the nuclear threat, in which weapons scientists were heavily involved, failed in the atmosphere of distrust of the initial Cold War years.

A second came in 1968 with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). It set up a bargain: Nations that did not have nuclear weapons promised they would not seek them and they would have access to nuclear technologies for peaceful purposes. The five nations with nuclear arsenals at the time—the U.S., Soviet Union, U.K., France, and China—could keep them. But they committed to working toward getting rid of them on the way to general disarmament.

It should have worked, and it may still in the long run. But for the past 40 years, nuclear weapons policy worldwide has been dominated by irrationality, delusion, and denial.

For a while, the U.S. and the Soviet Union believed each one needed to deploy 20,000 or more nuclear warheads to deter the other. There was delusion about a clean separation between military and civilian nuclear technology. And there was denial that nuclear war would be as bad as predicted and belief that controllable nuclear fighting was feasible.

One can be appalled by the acquisition of nuclear weapons by North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan. But North Korea has three nuclear-capable military forces on its borders. Israel is in a tough neighborhood. And in the case of seemingly implacably hostile India and Pakistan, one cannot have nuclear strike capability without the other also having it.

These nations see their weapons as a deterrent. The probability they will fire them off willy-nilly and so face a nuclear counterstrike is vanishingly small.

Similarly, do Iranian nuclear weapons that don't, and may never, exist justify building missile defenses to protect nations that Iran has no reason to attack?

THE PRINCIPLE of mutually assured destruction (MAD) that dominated the Cold War is simple: Any nation that attacks another nation with nuclear weapons will be punished by a nuclear response. It is brutal. But it is easily understood, even by the survivalist leaders of so-called rogue nations.

This leaves the nightmare scenario of nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorist group with no associated territory or population. In this case, the nuclear weapon is 100% of the problem, 0% of the solution.

The U.S. takes this issue extremely seriously. The civilian and military heads of the Air Force were recently fired, at least partly because of sloppy nuclear weapons security. The U.S. is sending billions of dollars to help Russia keep its nuclear weapons and technology secure. The latest scare is that the nuclear smuggling network run out of Pakistan may have made the design for an advanced nuclear warhead available to God only knows who.

This terrorist scenario is the strongest argument for getting rid of nuclear weapons, not for retaining them. The MAD concept would no longer apply. Nothing can guarantee deterring those who are willing to die. And there would likely be no logical target for military, let alone nuclear, response.

The outlook today is not great. The five original nuclear powers are all looking not to eliminate their nuclear arsenals, but to freshen them up to last another 40 years or more.

As one who has long advocated active involvement of the science community in the issue of nuclear disarmament—and long been criticized for using the pages of C&EN to try to involve the chemical community in what is seen by some as a distasteful matter—I applaud the Gang of Four for joining the dreamers.

Without dreamers, there is only darkness.

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



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