Nuclear weapons: Countdown to zero?
Berkeley experts join George Shultz, others on Commonwealth Club panel
By Robert Sanders, 01 October 2008
Despite the financial meltdown, despite the ongoing war in Iraq, despite impending global warming and the energy crisis, the most important issue facing the next president will be nuclear weapons and the increasing chance of a catastrophe worse than Hiroshima.
That was the sobering consensus of a Sept. 26 Commonwealth Club panel convened to honor Berkeley geophysicist Raymond Jeanloz, the 2008 recipient of the Hans Bethe award of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) for his work assessing the nation’s aging nuclear stockpile.
The discussion, titled “Paths to Zero,” was nevertheless upbeat, with panelists optimistic that the country would unite behind a president focused on global nuclear disarmament — something both presidential candidates have said they favor. Yet the panel also acknowledged that the world has a lot of work to do to make the planet safe from terrorists or rogue nations wielding atom bombs.
“It is time for [the United States] to become more of a leader in this domain,” said Jeanloz, a professor of geophysics and astronomy at Berkeley. “We need to develop a clear idea of the role of nuclear weapons in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era and be viewed as leading the global effort against nuclear proliferation and the potential of nuclear terrorism.”
With his characteristic ponytail, Jeanloz stood in contrast to his pinstriped and formal fellow panelist George Shultz, former U.S. Secretary of State under President Ronald Reagan. They were joined by Harold Smith Jr., a Berkeley professor of public policy; Joseph Cirincione, president of the anti-nuclear Ploughshares Fund; and Ivan Oelrich, vice president of the FAS’s Strategic Security Program.
Jeanloz set the stage by recalling the unimaginable devastation of a single, small atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima 63 years ago: a quarter of a million people injured in a single minute; all but one hospital badly damaged and no one able to come to the aid of the injured. Today, more than 30,000 weapons’ worth of nuclear explosive material — the highly enriched uranium and weapons-grade plutonium waste from nuclear reactors — is sitting in civilian stockpiles. Taking military stockpiles into account, he said, there is 100,000 weapons’ worth of nuclear material worldwide.
“Even if protected with 99.99 percent perfection, the corresponding loss of a few weapons’ worth of material could have a catastrophic impact. A single nuclear detonation, whether caused by a terrorist or a nation’s military actions, would not only devastate the target but also shatter a 60-year taboo against use of nuclear weapons. The world would be instantly changed, with consequences hard for us to imagine.”
Given this situation and the prospect for increased use of nuclear power worldwide, and thus more emerging nuclear powers, the panelists had suggestions for the next president, whether it be Barack Obama or John McCain. Shultz, in tandem with former Secretary of Defense William Perry, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sam Nunn, laid the groundwork in 2007 with a call for a nuclear-weapons-free world and a list of explicit steps the president should take.
Though unheeded by current President George Bush, these recommendations were echoed by panelists as must-dos for the next president: lobbying Congress to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which is now more enforceable thanks to new monitoring technologies; strong steps to renew the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, which Bush decided to let expire in December 2009; and a serious reconsideration of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), now 40 years old.
A resurgent Russia needs to be a key player in all of these, Bloom said. “My advice to President O’Cain or McBama is to send an ambassador of Secretary Shultz’ caliber and agree to discuss those topics that are of immediate and enormous concern to both countries.”
Oelrich urged too that all U.S. nuclear weapons be immediately taken off alert to reduce tensions.
“We need to make it clear that there is now a different attitude toward nuclear weapons,” he said. “We have been carried forward for two decades after the end of the Cold War with ‘Cold War-lite’ thinking….We’re now at a tipping point where people are starting to realize . . . nuclear weapons contribute more to [our] insecurity than [to our] security. That is going be a rapid transition [in thinking], and the president can bring that about.”
“We’re not for unilateral disarmament,” Shultz said. “But if there is one real threat to the security of the U.S., it’s nuclear weapons, whether in a suitcase or a cruise missile.”
America has done away with its weapons before, Jeanloz noted, when, under President Richard Nixon, the U.S. removed biological and chemical weapons from its arsenal.
“We did this through a combination of leadership and the recognition that either these military weapons actually were not so useful militarily, or in an analysis of the balance of benefits and costs, decided the liability and cost [were] greater than the benefits,” he said. “It was a combination of technical factors but also moral and political factors. We all recognized that what we do defines for the rest of the world and for ourselves who we are.”
Disarmament may seem scary when Pakistan has nuclear weapons, North Korea says it has nuclear weapons, Israel won’t comment, and Iran seems too eager. The NPT was supposed to limit the number of nuclear nations with a combination of carrots and sticks, but the United States has just recently agreed to let India into the nuclear club without requiring it to sign the treaty, which includes a provision not to spread the technology. While panelists differed on whether this is a “body blow” to the treaty, in Smith’s words, or simply a balancing act between India and its nuclear neighbor, China, as Shultz suggested, they agreed that it merely reinforces the fact that the treaty is outdated and needs to be revisited.
With the NPT and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty must come better verification, however, and that is where scientists can contribute, Jeanloz said. The international organization charged with verification of a test-ban treaty, for example, is just now bringing that monitoring system into reality and is up to the challenge, he said.
“It has been used very successfully to analyze the North Korean test,” Jeanloz said. “But in another way, there are hundreds of academic instruments — seismometers and tsunami observations — that complement the international treaty-monitoring system [but] are independent of that system. It is graduate students and researchers around the world that can help validate the system. If something happens not picked up by the system, but is by researchers working overnight, we’ll know about that….There is a real symbiosis between the basic scientific community and those elements of the scientific community charged with verifying treaties.”
Nuclear forensics, likewise, is making it possible to track each country’s nuclear materials and either interdict illicit materials before they explode, or pinpoint the source after an explosion. The panel emphasized that it is up to the scientific community to work with policymakers to support test monitoring and nuclear tracking.
“If we can get this nuclear initiative off the ground and make it a . . . real global enterprise, it could have a transforming effect on the whole international atmosphere and people could see [that] it’s possible that the leaders of this world can take on an important issue and do something about it,” Shultz said. “I just wish I were a little younger and could go to the president and volunteer to help run this thing.”
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