Challenges for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists at 70: Restoring reason to the nuclear debate

By Gareth Evans, November 16, 2015

Editor’s note: The following is a keynote address by Gareth Evans, chancellor of The Australian National University and former Australian foreign minister and minister for resources and energy, at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Annual Clock Symposium, convened in Chicago on November 16, 2015.

Getting serious change on almost any major policy issue, nationally or internationally, usually demands a combination of reason and emotion: reason to identify what will best solve the problem, and emotion to ignite the spark of political will that in the best case will advance a cause (but which in the worst case may kill it). Optimal outcomes come when the best rational arguments are harnessed to the best emotional instincts, and the best political leaders are those that get that balance right. My fear is that in the world of today, in the policy debates that matter most, the balance has tipped far too much toward emotion—and, worse, toward the kind of emotion which kills rational solutions rather than advances them.

And I fear that this is currently particularly true of nearly every one of the nuclear issues with which the Bulletin has been preoccupied throughout the 70 years since its foundation—nuclear disarmament; nuclear nonproliferation; nuclear security; and the role of civil nuclear energy, especially now in the context of climate change. These are the issues on which I’ll focus today, leaving it to others to address the challenges posed by biosecurity and emerging technologies generally, which have more recently—for good reason, given their own existential significance—joined the list of the Bulletin’s concerns.

In the nuclear area, almost the sole recent exception to the rule of emotion trumping reason (albeit without much help from the US Congress in this respect) has been the negotiation of the hugely rational and attractive nuclear deal with Iran, which has demonstrated that the proliferation genie can indeed be kept in the bottle by a calm and measured approach to policy making. The recent agreement to establish, with crucial support from the US government and private sector, an international nuclear fuel bank in Kazakhstan is another immensely rational contribution to the cause of nuclear nonproliferation.

But against this there has been an alarming resurgence of blind emotional faith in nuclear deterrence and all the expansion and modernization of arsenals that is going with it; a disturbing loss of traction on some crucial disarmament and nonproliferation strategies; an inability to keep real nuclear security risks in perspective; and an unwillingness to take as seriously as we must the potential contribution of civil nuclear energy to carbon reduction. In all of these areas—which I’ll discuss now in turn, starting with nuclear energy and concluding with disarmament—the voices that have struggled to be heard have been those of well-informed reason. The Bulletin’s current masthead motto is “70 Years Speaking Knowledge to Power”—and it has never been more important that its voice of real knowledge, not half-baked emotion, be heard in the corridors of power.

Nuclear energy and climate change. One of the most bemusing features of the current debate on climate change, and the carbon reduction strategies that are going to be so critical if this planet is going to survive global warming, is the minimal attention being given in most countries, particularly in the developed world, to the contribution to a fossil fuel–free world that could be made by nuclear power.

Nuclear power may never be the whole solution to climate change (as Joe Romm argues in the current issue of the Bulletin) but I find it impossible to disagree (with those like Gwyneth Cravens, also in the current Bulletin) that it makes no sense at all to try to exclude it playing a much greater role or, even more dramatically, trying to phase out nuclear power altogether, as countries like Germany and Japan are now doing (or at least saying that they’re doing) in the emotional aftermath of the Fukushima accident in 2011. To do so is a classic case of the heart ruling the head.

Of course there are regulatory issues with operating safety and security, and waste disposal, but they are not remotely insoluble. Nothing that went wrong in Fukushima, or Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, was anything we did not know how to avoid at the time, or now don’t know how to fix or can’t afford to fix. The waste disposal issue is one where reason has gone almost completely out the window as NIMBY—“not in my backyard”—arguments are employed by activists everywhere, summoning up fears of precious bodily fluid contamination reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove’s General Jack Ripper. As Robert Socolow points out in his very level-headed evaluation (again in the current Bulletin) of acceptable-versus-unacceptable, short-versus-long-term risk, just because we can’t now be completely confident that some kind of contamination won’t occur over the course of the next 24,100 years, which is the half-life of plutonium 239, this should not stop us being completely comfortable for at least the next 50–100 years, while technology further evolves, with reversible deep underground storage solutions.

I am pleased to be able to report that in my own country, Australia, where nuclear power has long been politically unmentionable domestically even though we have around one-third of the world’s uranium resources, that a rational debate has now begun (initiated by a left-of-center Labor government!) on the contribution nuclear energy could or should make to our economy, including our capacity—as not only one of the world’s largest but most geologically stable landmasses—to host deep-mine storage facilities for high-level waste, not only that produced from our own uranium but from the world at large. I cannot guarantee that the political debate will continue to be rational if it ever gets to the sharp end of implementation, but we can live in hope.

In economic terms, the up-front costs of investment in nuclear power plants (not least in meeting safety and environmental standards) are clearly going to continue to be a disincentive, at least in competitive market economies, as the cost of competing renewables like solar and wind continue to come down, and indeed as fossil fuels remain abundant and their cost (so long as we delay putting a serious price on carbon) continues to stay very low. But we are still a long way to finding economic solutions to the problem of storage of solar and wind power to the point where they could become serious competitors to nuclear as base-load providers. The Bulletin should continue to make a strong case for using atoms for peace.

Nuclear security. The issue of nuclear security—not just in the context of ensuring that power reactors won’t be sabotaged, but ensuring that rogue states or non-state terrorist actors will never be able to get their hands on ill-secured nuclear weapons or dangerous nuclear material—has generated an enormous amount of worldwide attention in the aftermath of 9/11. Anxiety about the risk posed by Islamist extremists has been fuelled since then by the series of unhappy developments in the Middle East, and is bound to reach new heights in the aftermath of last week’s horrifying slaughter in Paris.

Of course we cannot be complacent about the risks posed by these extremists: Should they ever get their hands on the necessary nuclear material, we have to assume they would have no moral compunction whatever about using it. But I do think it is important that this debate, too, be conducted a little less emotionally, and a little more calmly and rationally, than has sometimes tended to be the case.

We cannot assume that intelligence and law enforcement institutions will become aware of and be able to intercept every conceivable kind of terrorist conspiracy—as the shocking events in Paris remind us—but there is a big difference in sophistication and timeline between the kind of coordination necessary to unleash simultaneous Kalashnikov attacks and that needed to manufacture and explode a nuclear weapon. While the engineering know-how required to build a basic fission device like the Hiroshima or Nagasaki bomb is readily available, highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium are not at all easily accessible, and to assemble and maintain—for a long period, out of sight of the huge intelligence and law enforcement resources that are now being devoted to this threat worldwide—the team of criminal operatives, scientists, and engineers necessary to acquire the components of, build, and deliver such a weapon would be a formidably difficult undertaking.

A manifestly less difficult undertakingand rather more likely to occur, although somewhat surprisingly it hasn’t yet—would be to assemble quantities of non-fissile radioactive material like caesium 137, much more readily available in multiple industrial and medical uses, and detonate it with a conventional explosive like TNT as a “dirty bomb” in the middle of a city. The physical damage would be relatively minimal, certainly by comparison with a fission bomb, but the psychological damage unquestionably great—made so largely by the way this threat continues to be so talked up by policy makers. Talk the risk down and it will become that much less likely to be perpetrated.

Getting the international community serious about measures to improve nuclear security should be the easiest of all nuclear policy issues to advance, because no state is actually against it, either in principle or in practice. But we still need to do better than all the self-congratulation following the Nuclear Security Summits in Washington, Seoul, and The Hague might make us believe we have done so far. There is now plenty of international regulatory architecture, and there are plenty of announced national implementation measures. But there is still not enough transparency or accountability for anyone to be really confident that enough is actually changing on the ground.

There are some crucial gaps in the system which next year’s second Washington summit—meant to be the grand finale of the process—really must try to redress. In particular, none of the new or expanded instruments address sensitive nuclear material (highly enriched uranium and plutonium) under military control, and that represents 85 percent of the world’s total; there is much more that needs to be done in setting overarching international standards; to the extent that the new or expanded measures create obligations or commitments, there is practically no provision anywhere for international accountability; international cooperation is increasingly fragile in some areas where it matters most, with Russia walking away from further participation in the hugely successful Nunn-Lugar program, and indicating that it won’t participate at all in the 2016 Washington meeting; and the International Atomic Energy Agency, here as elsewhere, continues to struggle for the budgetary resources it needs to do this part of its job successfully.

My biggest nuclear security fear is that the nuclear weapons already in the arsenals of the world’s nine present nuclear-armed states—or those who might join them if further proliferation occurs—might actually be used, with even a relatively limited regional exchange having catastrophic consequences for life on this planet as we know it. My anxiety here is not so much that any such weapon would be deliberately used to start an aggressive war or to finish one started by conventional means—for reasons I will explain when I come shortly to the issue of nuclear deterrence and disarmament, I think the probability of that happening is actually quite small.

Rather, my more immediate concern, and that of a great many others—including the four statesmen Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Bill Perry, and Sam Nunn, who have contributed so much to making this debate more intelligent and better informed over the last decade—is that so long as any nuclear weapons remain in any of the world’s arsenals, it is only a matter of time before they are used, if not deliberately, then as a result of misadventure or miscalculation, human or system error, with the prospect of cyber sabotage now adding a whole new layer of rational ground for anxiety as to what could go wrong.

There is now a growing mass of anecdotal evidence (nicely summarized by Eric Schlosser in the current issue of the Bulletin, drawing on his recent book) from the Cold War years—when command-and-control systems on both sides were thought to be highly sophisticated, and were certainly more so than are some between potential nuclear adversaries, like India and Pakistan, today—revealing just how close to calamity the world regularly came, much more so than was understood at the time. It really is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has not been a result of good policy or good management that the world has avoided a nuclear weapons catastrophe for 70 years: Rather, it has been sheer dumb luck. 

Of course it is largely for these reasons that the Bulletin—which has done more over the years to publicize nuclear risks than anyone else—now sets its Doomsday Clock at three minutes to midnight, indicating that for all the complacency now around, there is a greater danger of nuclear catastrophe occurring than at any time since 1984.

It may be that our dumb luck will continue to hold indefinitely, but with Armageddon potentially just one wrong move away, one would need to be pretty confident about the compensating utility of nuclear weapons to be prepared to take that gamble. And the question of utility—the rational case, or lack of it, for nuclear deterrence—is one I will return to in a few moments.

Nuclear nonproliferation. The one thing about which the present nuclear-armed states find it possible to agree is that they do not want any newcomers to their ranks, and there is always a significant constituency there for effective nonproliferation measures. The successful negotiation of the P5+1 to produce the Iran agreement (albeit 10 years later than it could have been reached had the Western powers been more flexible) is testament to what is achievable in this respect.

But with the existing nuclear-armed states unwilling to make any substantive moves toward disarmament, it has proved very difficult—as the failed NPT Review Conference Treaty earlier this year makes clear—to get any buy-in from the wider international community for a stronger nonproliferation regime, in terms of stronger safeguards measures, penalties for walking away from the treaty, or anything else. The foot-dragging by key players on any kind of progress toward a “Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone” in the Middle East is another demonstration of emotional attachment to established positions trumping any capacity to move rationally forward.

There has also been a depressing immobility on the two crucial building blocks for both nonproliferation and disarmament—the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which remains to be finally ratified into effect, and a treaty to ban the future production of any fissile material for nuclear weapons on which, despite years of trying in Geneva, serious negotiations have yet to even commence. On the former, there is no good reason why countries like China, India, and Pakistan should make their own ratification dependent on the United States moving first, but they have chosen to shelter behind the obduracy of the US Senate.

In the present toxic political environment here, there is no good reason to be confident that the Obama administration’s recent announced willingness to make another attempt to secure agreement for the treaty will be any more successful than efforts to secure ratification of other treaties manifestly in the US national interest—like the Law of the Sea treaty—but the effort must continue to be made. Rational, evidence-based argument is not a sufficient condition for good policy making, but it is a necessary one, and I hope the Bulletin will lend all its support to this endeavor.

Nuclear disarmament. The main game in all of this, as those associated with the Bulletin have known from the outset, is not peaceful uses, or nuclear security, or nonproliferation, but outright nuclear disarmament—the complete elimination from the face of the Earth of the most indiscriminately inhumane weapons ever invented. The basic argument first articulated by the Canberra Commission in 1996 remains compelling: So long as any country has nuclear weapons, others will want them; so long as any country has nuclear weapons, they are bound one day to be used, by accident if not by design; and any such use will be catastrophic for life on this planet as we know it.

But the cause of disarmament right now is not in good shape. Despite all the hopes so many of us had with the advent of President Obama, so well articulated in his 2009 Prague speech, since the deterioration of US-Russian relations we have been going rapidly backwards—with arms-control negotiations on hold at all levels; expensive force modernization programs everywhere proceeding; net weapons numbers increasing across Asia; the use of tactical nuclear weapons being openly canvassed by Pakistan; and the Russian president talking up the usability of nuclear weapons in language we haven’t heard since the Cold War years.

To me the most unhappy element in all of this is the casual re-embracing by policy makers almost everywhere of all the old Cold War language about the utility of nuclear deterrence—the absolute necessity of nuclear weapons to keep the peace, at least between the major powers. It is true that over the last two years we have seen the welcome rebirth of an international movement campaigning against the catastrophic humanitarian impact of any nuclear weapons use, which has strong appeal both intellectually and emotionally, and which has won strong support from many governments and civil society organizations worldwide. But this has had much less traction with publics, and the governments that matter most, than might have been hoped. When it comes to visceral, emotional appeal, in the context of old fears resurfacing about Russia and new ones emerging about China, reliance on nuclear deterrence seems to trump the appeal of nuclear disarmament every time.

If there is any area of global policy which cries out for the restoration of reason over emotion, this is it. To me there is no more important challenge for the Bulletin in the period ahead, and no more important role it could play, than to use the force of reasoned argument to contest the arguments for deterrence, which are simply no longer credible, if they ever were. It is not just a moral argument—as important as the reborn humanitarian movement now is—that has to be mounted against nuclear weapons. Nor a financial argument, though the extraordinary opportunity cost of nuclear programs—in terms of other desirable expenditure foregone—might appeal to some hardheads. What policy makers need to be persuaded about are the rational, strategic arguments against nuclear weapons: that in fact they are at best of minimal, and at worst of zero, utility in maintaining stable peace.

The relevant strategic arguments can be relatively simply stated, and they need to be made over and again. The first big claim that disarmament advocates have to meet is that possession of nuclear weapons has deterred, and continues to deter, war between the major powers. It is certainly the case that nuclear weapons on the other side have always constituted a formidable argument for caution, but it can be strongly argued that their impact has been much exaggerated.

In this respect, may I say in parenthesis that I really don’t think it helps for the Bulletin itself to be running, as the current issue does, a sentimental piece from Richard Rhodes arguing that, on the whole the Manhattan Project, ushering in as it did the age of mutually assured destruction, was a pretty good thing for global peace and security. Preserving industrial archaeological sites is one thing, but conceding that the Manhattan sites made a positive contribution to mankind is something quite different.

There is, for a start, simply no evidence that at any stage during the Cold War years either the Soviet Union or the United States ever wanted to cold-bloodedly initiate war, and were only constrained from doing so by the existence of the other’s nuclear weapons. And we know that knowledge of the existence on the other side of supremely destructive weapons (as with chemical and biological weapons before 1939) has not stopped war in the past between major powers. Nor has the experience or prospect of massive damage to cities and killing of civilians caused leaders in the past to back down—including after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the historical evidence is now very strong that it was not the nuclear attacks which were the key factor in driving Japan to sue for peace, but the Soviet declaration of war later that same week.

If you want a plausible non-nuclear explanation for the “Long Peace” since 1945, it is that what has stopped—and will continue to stop—the major powers from deliberately starting wars against each other has been, more than anything else, a realization, after the experience of World War II and in the light of all the rapid technological advances that followed it, that the damage that would be inflicted by any war would be unbelievably horrific, and far outweigh, in today’s economically interdependent world, any conceivable benefit to be derived.

A second major argument for the strategic utility of nuclear weapons is that they will deter large-scale conventional attacks. But there is a long list of examples where non-nuclear powers have either directly attacked nuclear powers or have not been deterred by the prospect of their intervention: e.g., the Korea, Vietnam, Yom Kippur, Falklands, two Afghanistan, and first Gulf wars. The calculation evidently made in each case was that a nuclear response would be inhibited by a combination of factors: military commanders’ understanding of the formidable practical obstacles involved in the use of these weapons at both the tactical and strategic level, not least the damage they can cause to one’s own side and to any territory being fought over; and the prevailing normative taboo on the use of such weapons, at least in circumstances where the very survival of the state was not at stake.

What about the manifest belief of some smaller states, like North Korea, that a handful of nuclear weapons is their ultimate guarantor against external regime-change-motivated intervention? The argument has to be that any such confidence is not rationally well founded. Weapons that it would be manifestly suicidal to use are not a credible deterrent, nor are weapons that are not backed by the infrastructure (e.g., nuclear-missile-carrying submarines) that would give them a reasonable prospect of surviving to mount a retaliatory attack. In the case of North Korea, its strongest military deterrent remains what it has always been: its capacity to mount a devastating conventional artillery attack on Seoul and its environs.

It is important to note that there are also cases where the presence on both sides of nuclear weapons, rather than operating as a constraining factor, has been seen as giving one side the opportunity to launch small military actions without serious fear of nuclear reprisal (because of the extraordinarily high stakes involved in such a response): as with Pakistan in Kargil in 1999, and North Korea in the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. It may be that—rather than, as the old conservative line would have it, “the absence of nuclear weapons would make the world safe for conventional wars”—it is the presence of nuclear weapons that has made the world safer for such wars. There is in fact substantial quantitative, as well as anecdotal, evidence to support what is known in the literature as the “stability/instability paradox”—the notion that what may appear a stable nuclear balance actually encourages more violence under the shelter of the nuclear overhang.

The remaining key strategic argument for nuclear weapons possession, at least by the United States, is that America’s willingness to offer extended nuclear deterrence to its allies and partners has restrained proliferation. It may be true, historically, that this has been an important inhibitor in the case of Japan, South Korea, Germany, and others, but I for one remain unpersuaded that there is any continuing compelling necessity for American protection to retain a nuclear dimension. What continues to matter for all of us is credible US conventional capability to meet any threat contingency with which we might be confronted that we cannot confidently handle by ourselves, and the objective reality is that the United States has and will retain that capability for the indefinitely foreseeable future.

Outside the US alliance context, I think it is very hard for anyone to argue other than that nuclear weapons encourage proliferation, and stand in the way of further strengthening the nonproliferation regime. All the world hates a hypocrite. And so long as the nuclear weapon states—and those which, like Australia, shelter under their umbrella—continue to insist that their security concerns justify retaining a nuclear option but other countries’ concerns do not, that is exactly how the weapons states will continue to be regarded. For them to continue to insist that everyone else do as they say and not as they do does not begin to be a recipe for reducing the terrible nuclear weapons risks the world continues to face, and certainly does not help the nonproliferation agenda.

Restoring the role of reason in the nuclear debate of course involves much more than making reasoned arguments against the essentially emotional case for nuclear deterrence. If we are going to get from a world with 16,400 nuclear weapons to “Global Zero,” we have to propose a strategy, and timeline, for getting there, which is seen as credible, not hopelessly incredible, by policy makers. And that means, I think, being very careful about how we articulate the zero objective. We have to frankly recognize that we will not get there as a straight-line process, and we certainly won’t get to it by anything like 2025 or 2030 as some activists continue to insist we must.

There will need to be, as the Australia-Japan sponsored International Commission I co-chaired in 2010 argued, two distinct stages, first “minimization”—hopefully achievable in the medium term (for which it is rational to set a target date like 2030)—and only then “elimination.” There will be some inevitable discontinuity between these stages, because of the reality, when it comes to moving from low numbers to zero, that there are not only psychological barriers, and geopolitical barriers (in the world as we can envisage it for the foreseeable future), but serious technical barriers—of verification and enforcement—as well.

In the present environment it is not going to be at all easy to build any momentum at all toward a nuclear weapons–free world. But this is the cause, above all others, that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists exists to advance, bringing to bear all the resources of knowledge and reasoned advocacy for which it is justly renowned. There are many other issues and concerns to which the Bulletin can reasonably be devoting its resources and reputation, but I am sure I am not alone in hoping that, with 70 years of intelligent, passionate commitment to a safer and saner nuclear-free world behind it, this is the cause which will be always center stage, and the challenge which the Bulletin remains most determined of all to meet.


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