News: News Archives
Top Weapons Experts Explore Ways to Reduce the Global Risk of Nuclear Weapons
The danger inherent in nuclear arms proliferation far outweighs other threats from weapons of mass destruction, according to two top U.S. weapons experts, and they warned that intense political leadership must focus on halting the spread of nuclear technology and on dismantling many of the weapons in existing arsenals.
At a debate co-sponsored by AAAS, Linton Brooks and Joseph Cirincione said other weapons of mass destruction—meaning chemical and biological weapons—also pose dangers. But they cannot compare in destructive power with nuclear weapons, which could have immediate and long-term global impacts if used in large numbers, the two experts said.
"Only two issues threaten global catastrophe: nuclear war and global warming," said Cirincione. "Both are caused by machines we made; both are reversible. But, in our rush to solve one, we cannot make the other worse. Expanding nuclear power could spread the technologies for nuclear weapons. We cannot allow that. We need more leaders who can connect the dots."
Brooks replied that "we don't disagree on the goals, just the tactics." Although Cirincione argued that momentum was building for a new drive to eliminate all nuclear weapons, spurred by the efforts of George Schultz, Henry Kissinger, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn, , Brooks warned that trying for perfection—eliminating all such weapons—is not likely to succeed, while arms reductions are possible and desirable. He said the U.S., Russia and other nuclear-armed nations should strive to dramatically reduce the numbers of bombs, continue the moratorium on nuclear testing and stop making fissile materials, meaning enriched uranium and plutonium.
But, Brooks said, "trying to get elimination [of nuclear weapons] is very, very hard." In fact, he said, striving for the ideal might block getting to what's possible. "Finding the balance is hard. The question is to find out what is the reasonably low level" of nuclear armaments that can be verified while still providing stability.
Brooks is a former administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration, arms treaty negotiator and Navy submariner; Cirincione is a senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, and author of "Bomb Scare: the History and Future of Nuclear Weapons." The debate, the last in a series on "Science and Society: Grand Challenges," was sponsored the Georgetown University Program on Science in the Public Interest; the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention; and by the AAAS Center on Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP).
Benn Tannenbaum, associate program director at CSTSP, said that the nuclear terrorism discussion was unique because it focused on U.S. weapons policy.
"Since the end of the Cold war, most discussions on nuclear proliferation have focused on securing loose Russian weapons, or preventing terrorists from detonating a dirty bomb," said Tannenbaum. "But the speakers here talked about how the weapons policy of the United States affects global security. In the five years I've spent in D.C., it was by far the richest conversation I've heard on the topic."
To put the issue in perspective, moderator Joe Palca, a science correspondent for National Public Radio, reminded the audience that most adults today grew up under the threat of nuclear war; many lived through the Cuban missile crisis, which brought the danger close to reality. Palca also cited "The War Game," a 1965 BBC documentary considered so inflammatory that it didn't get aired for 20 years. The film depicted what life in a city in England would be like after nuclear war and "it was devastating," he said. "One scene showed buckets of wedding rings—all that was left of the people."
With that in mind, Palca asked the two speakers: "To what degree do nuclear weapons make the world a safer place?"
Cirincione replied: "I don't think there's any compelling evidence at all" that the world is safer because such weapons exist, although "there's some evidence they have played a role in preventing conventional wars." But, he added, ordinary warfare kills people by the hundreds and the thousands, while nuclear war starts by killing millions.
Brooks countered that the value of deterrence should not be ignored. Wars that might have been fought were not, including a war with the Soviet Union in Europe, probably in part because there was fear of igniting nuclear conflict. Having nuclear weapons "does make the possessors more cautious," he said.
On the international scene, despite fears of North Korea and Iran working on nuclear weapons, "Pakistan is the real problem," Brooks added. Although news reports indicate efforts are being made to safeguard Pakistan's bombs, "that doesn't get to the entire problem. If a Taliban-style government takes over in Pakistan—which is not likely—then we will be in much more danger. It will make a real difference who is running things there two years from now."
Both Cirincione and Brooks agreed that the coming U.S. presidential election will be important for the issue of nuclear proliferation and disarmament. And both predicted that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty will be approved by the U.S. Senate during the next administration.
The administration of President George W. Bush "botched it," Cirincione added. "They came in with a radical agenda," and chose to renounce international agreements such as the anti-ballistic missile treaty, down-played efforts to reduce weapons numbers, and didn't push the comprehensive test ban treaty. "They thought it was 'old think'."
Brooks agreed on the importance of the upcoming presidential election. Although the issue of nuclear proliferation hasn't been a hot topic among aspiring candidates, he said, "these issues will be determined by the election." Indeed, he hopes the next administration will put proliferation, disarmament and nuclear policy issues on the table, because "I've been trying to get this debate started for seven years."
Moderator Palca asked: "Does the ballistic missile defense system have any credibility?"
Cirincione replied: "Missile defense doesn't work. All the arguments are theological. It's an enormous waste of national resources. The Joint Chiefs of Staff have never thought much of it. And it's an $11 billion program that is now completely unaffordable."
On the other hand, he added, "I do believe that, politically, you need to include a (missile defense) research project, because it could become important if nuclear weapons numbers get low enough" because of disarmament that a defense system could be useful.
Brooks explained that ideas about what a missile defense shield should be, and the threat from abroad, have changed dramatically. "Today's definition and 1980's (definition) have a very different focus," concerned more with the danger of one or a few nuclear-tipped missiles fired by Iran or North Korea, rather than dozens or hundreds of missiles coming from the former Soviet Union. That is in part driven by concern that it may be difficult to deter Iran or North Korea.
In any case, Brooks added, in terms of funding for a missile shield, "this is probably the high-water year for missile defense," as the amount of money appropriated to the project is likely to decline due to significant pressure on the defense budget.
Brooks and Cirincione also debated the wisdom of designing and building a new family of nuclear warheads, the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead.
"What event could possibly occur when we'd need to make thousands of new warheads?" Cirincione asked. "Of course we don't need it. We have more than we know what to do with that are perfectly reliable, safe and have a lifespan of 100 years. So I think it's a 'make-work' program for the (National) labs. And we'd have to test it. That's insane!"
Brooks: "We wouldn't make it if it requires testing. And it makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, to replace some portion of the W76 warheads (the most numerous in our arsenal) with a substitute. Also, although plutonium metallurgy will last 100 years, we don't know everything about aging of the entire warhead. We want to make them less susceptible to aging." In addition, such warheads would have greater safety and security, he said.
19 December 2007