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Experts at AAAS Event Imagine the Benefits—and Risks—of a World without Nuclear Weapons

A world without nuclear weapons, widely considered a desirable if challenging goal over the long term, could pose new uncertainties and risks, experts from the United States and Japan said during a day-long symposium at AAAS.

The legal framework does not yet exist that would allow the pursuit of a nuclear-free world, they said. Nor has there been enough clear-headed analysis of the potentially de-stabilizing impact of a world with zero nuclear weapons where terrorists or rogue states might not play by the rules.

For the short term, Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state for arms control, verification and compliance, said it is time for the United States and Russia to ratify the pending New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which was signed by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April. It would set the stage for further reductions in nuclear warheads by the two nations, which control more than 90% of the world nuclear weapons.

Rose Gottemoeller

Gottemoeller, the chief U.S. negotiator for the treaty, noted that the original START treaty was ratified by the Senate in 1991 in a 93-6 vote. New START deserves “similar bipartisan support,” she said.

The 8 November event, “Science and Nuclear Disarmament: Progress and Challenges,” was co-sponsored by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and the AAAS Center for Science Technology and Security Policy.

Despite bipartisan support from past and current foreign policy leaders, prospects for ratification of the treaty in the Senate during the lame-duck session of Congress look dim, however, after U.S. Senator Jon Kyl (R-Arizona), the No. 2 Republican in the Senate and considered a key vote, told Senate majority leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) that there is not enough time to craft an agreement that would allow a vote this year.

Gottemoeller also said it is time for the United States and other nations to get North Korea engaged again in talks about its nuclear program. “I do think it’s time to be getting back to the six-party talks,” Gottemoeller said, “and to resume our efforts to talk to the North Koreans at the negotiating table about their nuclear program.”

The six-party talks, involving North Korea, the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia, have been stalled over international sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and missile tests last year and more recently for its torpedoing in March of a South Korean warship. Intelligence agencies believe North Korea has enough plutonium to presumably assemble several nuclear weapons. A newly revealed uranium enrichment facility also could enhance Pyongyang’s ability to make nuclear weapons, another topic for discussion in any resumption of talks to rein in the reclusive state’s nuclear ambitions.

Beyond such ongoing efforts to control nuclear proliferation, what are the odds of a world eventually free of nuclear weapons altogether?

George Perkovich, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the prospect of such a world alarms some observers as much as it inspires others. The United States has more potent conventional forces at its disposal than Russia, for example, leading Russia to view a nuclear-free world with suspicion.

“Russia looks at the proposal to eliminate nuclear weapons and says, ‘Sure, this is an American plot to take over the world,’ ” Perkovich said. To Russia, he said, “a world without nuclear weapons is another way for the U.S. to try to dominate the world through conventional capability.” China also views calls for total nuclear disarmament with suspicion, Perkovich said.

Thomas Schelling

Thomas Schelling, a Nobel laureate in economics at the University of Maryland, said he has not seen any good analysis “of why a world without nuclear weapons would be safer than a world with some nuclear weapons.” Even if a nuclear state were to give up its weapons, he said, it is “bound to be able to re-create them” fairly quickly if needed. There will be at least eight nations with the ability to produce nuclear weapons quickly, Schelling said, and others for which it will take longer. That could be an unstable situation, requiring substantial investments in intelligence and monitoring to ensure that no nation is trying to get a jump on its non-nuclear neighbors. Governments could be much more nervous about the possibility of nuclear war than they were in an age of stable deterrence between superpowers, Schelling said.

Although Schelling said he is not opposed to a world without nuclear weapons, the advantage “has to be demonstrated by analysis,” he argued. “It can’t simply be assumed.”

There were calls during the symposium for serious efforts to pursue just such a world. Hirotaka Sugawara, director of the Washington office of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science, cited the recommendations of the the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, a joint initiative of the Australian and Japanese governments. The commission has urged a global total of no more than 2000 nuclear warheads by 2020, with the United States and Russia reducing to a total of 500 weapons each compared to the 2,200 each permitted under the current START treaty.

Sugawara, a physicist, acknowledged that it would not be easy reaching such levels. He said the nuclear bomb “is a product of ‘devil’s work’ by physicists” and added: “If the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should be repeated somewhere, sometime by someone, physicists should seriously consider contributing to ‘God’s work,’ which is to nullify nuclear bombs.”

Sadaaki Numata

Sadaaki Numata, former Japanese ambassador to Canada and Pakistan and deputy representative to the Conference on Disarmament, said that Japan has been pulled for more than six decades between an idealistic aspiration to eliminate all nuclear weapons and a realistic need to rely on the United States and its nuclear capability for extended deterrence. “The idealists and the realists need to hammer out together a strategy which will take us closer to the elimination of nuclear weapons,” Numata said, while at the same time giving Japan “a water-tight assurance of security.” That will require strengthening Japan’s non-nuclear military capabilities, he said.

Kenneth Brill

Kenneth Brill, president of the Fund for Peace and a former U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said that those who desire a world without nuclear weapons must be willing to identify and address the practical challenges.

“If you are going to have nuclear disarmament, you are going to need to have a legal framework to make it happen,” Brill said. Existing treaties, such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, do not provide that framework, he said.

“You will need to negotiate either a large umbrella agreement or a suite of smaller agreements that will form a disarmament regime,” Brill said, a process that could take decades.

Monitoring and verification measures will be crucial to the success of such a regime, he said, as will agreement on such basics as the definition of a nuclear disarmed world. Brill such a world would feature: no assembled nuclear weapons; no nuclear weapons components; no plants capable of making components or assembling those components into weapons; no national stockpiles of weapons-grade nuclear materials; no national production facilities to make such materials (although perhaps a multinational facility to make fuels for nuclear power plants); and all national and private sector nuclear reactors subject to a strict monitoring regime.

“Everything nuclear would have to be a part of this regime,” Brill said. The regime also would have to encompass all nations, he said, and it would need clear guidelines on what states can and cannot do in the nuclear realm so as to prevent a state from trying to lurk just short of having a weapons capability.

Controls, safeguards, prohibitions, and requirements under the regime would have to mandatory, Brill said, rather than voluntary, as is now the case with IAEA safeguards.

After the disarmament phase, Brill said, there will be a costly sustainment phase—which must essentially be maintained forever—requiring solid intelligence gathering and global monitoring to ensure that no state or non-state actor, such as a terrorist group, attempts a “breakout” to develop a nuclear weapon.

The sustainment phase will test the political will and funding resources of the international community, Brill said. Many states, no matter how much they support a nuclear disarmament regime, will want to enhance their own capabilities to assess whether others are living up to the regime.

Richard Garwin

Richard Garwin, a physicist and IBM Fellow Emeritus, said that dismantlement of nuclear weapons “can be verifiable and demonstrable” with existing tools of science. Similarly, he said, there are methods, including use of digital seismometers, that can identify any illicit nuclear explosion with a potential for military consequences.

Succeeding at nuclear disarmament “will be a complex undertaking” that will require funding far beyond what is now provided to the IAEA and other international institutions, Brill said. There will be a need for new international organizations to implement and police a comprehensive nuclear disarmament agreement.

“If we’re going to have nuclear disarmament, then people have to really think about what does it mean to have it,” Brill said. “There are an awful lot of very, very tough, practical issues that have to be dealt with. This is not just an issue that involves rhetoric and bumper stickers.”

Nobuyasu Abe

Nobuyasu Abe, director of the Center for Promotion of Disarmament and Nonproliferation at the Japan Institute for International Affairs, echoed Brill’s assessment. “Just reciting beautiful words about an ideal world doesn’t bring about a beautiful world,” Abe said.

Abe noted that the “vaccination” effect of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings may be wearing off as generations are born with no direct knowledge of the terrible effects of nuclear weapons. Still, he said he remains optimistic about the prospects for nuclear disarmament. Scientific advances should make it easier to monitor and verify whether nations adhere to nuclear commitments, he said. Abe also expressed a hope that the nuclear weapon will someday simply go out of fashion as an instrument of warfare.


Learn more about the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

Learn more about the AAAS Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy.


Earl Lane

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