Where the presidential candidates stand on nuclear issues

By Lawrence M. Krauss | January 8, 2008

With primary season upon us, the presidential candidates have been busy debating and making policy presentations so that we can begin to glean some ideas of their views on everything from the economy to national defense. As is often the case, the media haven’t focused on the candidates’ views on technical issues, but in the end, these may be among the most significant issues that the next president will face.

On nuclear defense and disarmament, there are stark differences between the views of the Republican candidates, with the exception of Texas Rep. Ron Paul, and the Democratic candidates. When it comes to nuclear proliferation, the differences narrow slightly–although only the Democrats stress the need for the United States to consider its obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When it comes to nuclear power, most candidates are in favor of incorporating it into the energy mix, but there remains confusion about its safety and efficiency.

Ballistic missile defense

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who claims to have the greatest experience with national security and defense, joins former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in vociferously demonstrating their lack of understanding of the realities of missile defense. They both stress the urgent need to deploy effective missile defenses without seeming to recognize that no such defenses actually exist at present; there isn’t a clear, near-term threat against which even marginally workable defenses would be needed; and missile defense encourages proliferation.

Interestingly, with the exception of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the Democratic candidates who speak out eloquently on proliferation and disarmament issues haven’t made equally strong statements on missile defense. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton has said she voted to redirect funds from the existing missile defense appropriation for other purposes, but earlier, she supported missile defense funding.


Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have openly stated their opposition to reducing the U.S. nuclear weapon arsenals. They did so without explaining what threat 10,000 nuclear weapons are supposed to address, why the billions of dollars needed to maintain these arsenals is worthwhile, and whether the complicated logistics of command-and-control of such vast arsenals enhances or reduces our net security. Meanwhile, McCain seems to at least recognize the logic of reducing the size of our nuclear stockpile–although he hasn’t pushed for severe reductions. Paul firmly stresses the need to reduce the stockpile’s size.

As for the Democrats, they’ve universally adopted the goal of reducing our stockpile to a fraction of its current size. Two of the three Democratic front-runners (Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama) stress the ultimate goal of removing nuclear weapons from the planet. Clinton has been more ambiguous on this issue, indicating basic support but shying away from stating this should be a specific goal; Clinton and Obama do explicitly adopt the eminently sensible recommendations of former secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger, former Defense Secretary William Perry, and former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn for near-term reductions in the size of our arsenal, the need to take ballistic missiles off hair-trigger alert, and lessening our reliance on nuclear weapons.

The reliable replacement warhead, new weapons, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT)

The Democratic candidates speak explicitly and strongly about their opposition to building a new generation of nuclear missiles–the reliable replacement warhead and Complex 2030 programs in particular. They correctly point out the lack of need for such programs and their destabilizing influence. Clinton also specifically opposes the so-called Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, or “bunker-buster.”

The Republican candidates have avoided significant discussion of this issue. McCain and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson openly oppose the CTBT. Opposition to this treaty only makes sense if they feel there’s a need for possible testing of nuclear weapons, which suggests they are in favor of developing new types of weapons that need to be tested.


Here, the situation is complex and convoluted. The Democratic candidates express a clear understanding that in order to reduce proliferation pressures the nuclear weapon states need to abide by their NPT commitment to reduce their stockpiles, as well as the need to focus on securing existing nuclear materials and the need for a worldwide ban on the production of fissile weapons materials.

To the extent that they talk about proliferation, the Republican candidates place the complete burden of the NPT on the non-nuclear weapons states, without discussing our obligations under the treaty.

Regarding peaceful nuclear technologies, McCain goes so far as to suggest that we should consider the possibility that a non-nuclear weapon state shouldn’t have rights to any nuclear technology. But Romney joins Clinton in the sensible proposition that we need an international partnership to guarantee low-cost nuclear fuel to non-nuclear weapon states so they won’t need to develop fuel-enrichment facilities within their countries.

No matter party affiliation, all the candidates, save for Paul, adopt an implicit two-tier notion of proliferation: It’s okay for our friends, but bad for our enemies. As a result, they fixate on Iran and North Korea, while not discussing our own encouragement–either explicit or implicit–of proliferation in India, Pakistan, and Israel.

However, the candidates do differ in their approach to Iran and North Korea. As expected, the Democratic candidates emphasize the need to enter into diplomatic dialogues with these countries, while the Republicans generally focus on the need to develop credible threats, including military threats to Iran in particular.

Terrorism and no first use

The Democratic candidates explicitly emphasize the need to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in offensive strategic planning. Clinton has ruled out the preemptive use of nuclear weapons against countries such as Iran, and Obama has said that we shouldn’t threaten terrorists with nuclear weapons. As far as I can see, only Richardson has ruled out first use of nuclear weapons as a general principle.

Nuclear power

McCain, Huckabee, and Paul love nuclear power, declaring it both safe and efficient. Giuliani says no one has died from nuclear power, but presumably, he doesn’t count the numerous fatalities associated with Chernobyl because U.S. lives weren’t lost. As far as the efficiency of nuclear power, the candidates seem to focus more on the intrinsic efficiency of nuclear reactions producing heat energy, rather than the numerous practical economic difficulties–including the costly infrastructure that must be created as utility companies have chosen to back off from commitments to nuclear power over the past 20 years.

Aside from these enthusiastic endorsements, the rest of the candidates, sans Edwards, have argued that we need to increase, at least incrementally, our reliance on nuclear power as we attempt to reduce our reliance on oil and our greenhouse gas emissions. While the candidates have differing views on the issue of safe fuel storage in Yucca Mountain, only Edwards has argued that safety issues associated with nuclear power need to be addressed more explicitly before we commit to an increased reliance on this energy alternative.

It’s important to consider all alternative energy production technologies as we address the severe challenges of global warming and the rising worldwide energy demand–with the industrialization of China and India in particular. But at least to me, the extent to which nuclear power provides a cost-efficient, safe alternative to other technologies, including conservation, solar power, and wind power, isn’t yet clear. In this regard, Clinton’s expressed agnosticism toward nuclear power–recognizing the public’s resistance to nuclear power plants in their own neighborhood and the unresolved waste issues, while at the same time recognizing that we already rely heavily on nuclear power and therefore will need to include it in our energy mix for the near term–seems both realistic and reasonable.

These are key issues, and I wish the press would take them seriously enough to focus on them, which would force the candidates to flesh out their responses. Doing so would help us all assess their understanding of these scientific issues, and it would also help inform the electorate about key technical challenges that will affect our safety and security in the near term and the long term. Who knows, it might even prompt the election of candidates who are scientifically literate.

Editor’s Note: For more information on the candidates’ views on nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, visit the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s Presidential Candidates on Iraq, Iran, and Nuclear Weapons, Foreign Affairs candidate essays detailing the candidates’ foreign policy agendas, Grist/Outside Magazine’s candidate interviews, and the Council for a Livable World’s 2008 Presidential Candidates’ Responses to Seven Key National Security Questions.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments