14 August 2013

Let August nuclear anniversaries spur action

Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict

Benedict served as executive director and publisher of the Bulletin from 2005-2015. She currently teaches at the University of Chicago, where she is also a Senior Fellow at the Energy...


On August 6, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a plea from Hiroshima, where the United States dropped the world’s first atomic bomb 68 years ago. As leader of the only nation to ever come under nuclear attack, he called for a world free of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, his call and others like it seem to fall on deaf ears. The momentum of the past few years toward military policies that rely less on the nuclear option has stalled.

Yes, there has been some progress. Since the end of the Cold War, now almost 25 years ago, Russia, the United States, Britain, and France have dismantled thousands of nuclear weapons. Russia and the United States, through the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty and later New START, have established cooperation that could reduce even further the risks of a nuclear exchange. The Obama administration’s Nuclear Security Summits, launched in 2010, focus on the dangers of fissile material whether for military or civilian use, and are intended to secure them against theft and malicious use. An international community mobilized to prevent new countries from building arsenals responds to challenges from North Korea and Iran.

Yet other actions signal continued reliance on nuclear weapons by states that already possess them. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, though opened for signature almost 17 years ago, still requires ratification by key countries, including the United States and China, before it can take effect. The United States, Russia, and China are modernizing their nuclear weapons, declaring that their actions are necessary to prevent accidents and explosions caused by degraded materials. If countries were serious about achieving a world free of nuclear weapons, worries about aging arsenals would inspire rapid dismantlement rather than rebuilding.

India and Pakistan—both outside of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty—make no bones about the nuclear weapons they continue to develop. In fact, security experts have reported that Pakistan is developing small “battlefield” nuclear weapons to be used in a war with India. The danger is that in fighting conventional enemy forces to gain advantage in border wars, militaries would be more likely to use such “small” weapons than megaton hydrogen bombs. But, while these lower-yield weapons cause less damage to the other side and less risk that a country’s own citizens will be exposed to radioactive materials, using them could quickly cause a conflict to escalate. The risk of mutual annihilation may appear to be reduced, but in fact, the risk of triggering an all-out nuclear war becomes much greater.

Use of civilian nuclear power is also expanding, despite the nuclear disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011. As many countries develop new plants, they increase the risk that civilian fuel-enrichment technologies will be used to make nuclear bomb material as well.

All of this leads to a sense of business as usual, as though nuclear weapons are of little consequence in the grand scheme of things. With 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world, including some 1,500 in the United States and Russia ready to launch within 10 minutes of a command, this is no time for complacency. Yet complacent we are.

How to account for this drift in nuclear weapons policy? Any successful long-term government project develops vested interests that depend on continued funding for survival. The beneficiaries of a program fight for its continuation, and nuclear weapons schemes are no different. Three communities in particular benefit from support for nuclear weapons programs: scientists and engineers, private military firms, and the government nuclear weapons bureaucracy. Physicists and designers in weapons laboratories have made careers out of refining and testing nuclear devices, applying their knowledge in particular to modernizing arsenals and ensuring their reliability. The companies that fabricate and supply fissile material, as well as those that manufacture missiles and other launch systems, are almost uniquely specialized for the nuclear mission. And radically shrinking the government nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge, Savannah River, and elsewhere would require laying off thousands of technical and manufacturing employees whose specialized knowledge would have few applications in other industries.

The interests of the nuclear power industry in the United States are meanwhile aligned with those of the nuclear-weapons industrial complex. While demand for domestic nuclear power is likely to remain static or even decline in the coming decade, the opportunities for exporting nuclear technology and material could increase as US manufacturers work with foreign companies to supply civilian nuclear technology overseas. Not wanting to sacrifice these potential gains, the nuclear power industry—including fuel fabricators, construction firms, and utility companies—is unlikely to start participating in public debate on nuclear issues, even though its members could provide useful expertise. Fearing that nuclear weapons and power are connected in the popular imagination, the nuclear energy sector isn’t interested in raising awareness about the perils of the atomic bomb.

The interests of these three communities—scientific and technical personnel, private firms, and bureaucratic interests—are served by silence about the risks. Official government secrecy about nuclear policy feeds public complacency, which allows funding for nuclear weapons programs to continue and keeps arsenals in place.          

In the face of these entrenched interests, how can we motivate public debate about weapons systems that seem more irrelevant every day, but still pose catastrophic threats? Who can be mobilized to provide a counterweight to vested interests? Would more people get involved if there was less secrecy, or more investigation into the cost to society?

Crises can shake us out of complacency; in fact, much of the world seems to be governed by crises these days—whether in the financial sector, the Middle East, or cyberspace. But a crisis involving nuclear weapons, killing thousands in a matter of minutes, would be much too high a price to pay for attention to this vexing problem. How can we get our leaders to act sensibly before it’s too late?  

Since 1945, the actions of scientists, physicians, engineers, clergy, and civic leaders, among many others, have spurred the outlawing of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963, stopped a US weapons buildup in the 1980s, and brought an end to Cold War nuclear hostilities in 1989.  Although the contemporary political dynamics of nuclear arms control and proliferation are different from those in past decades, there is much to learn from those earlier successes.