MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXII No. 4
March / April / May 2010
New Opportunities Toward Nuclear Disarmament: Reviving Faculty Roles?
Is President Obama Reducing the Probability of Nuclear War?
MIT in Action in Haiti
MIT Medical Director Discusses Changes: Community Care Center Proposed
The MIT Medical Department 1901-2004:
A Very Brief History
Academic Integrity
The Chancellor and Student Deans Ask Students to Share "What's On Your Mind?"
Arthur C. Smith
Richard K. Yamamoto
New AT&T and Sprint Nextel Transmitters Promise Better Cell Phone Coverage
Graduate Fellows Build Community
The Foremost Resource Students Need
is Your Time
MIT Center for International Studies:
Student Training and Faculty Funding
MIT Finance Initiating Digital Tools and Services: ePaystubs Available in June
MIT Professional Education: Summer 2011 Short Course Proposals
U.S. News & World Report:
Graduate School Rankings 2001-2010
MIT Publications Online
Printable Version

Is President Obama Reducing the Probability
of Nuclear War?

Aron Bernstein

On April 5, 2009 in Prague, President Obama announced his intention to work towards the long-range goal of total elimination of nuclear weapons, in accordance with Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). With this, he signaled his belief that whatever role nuclear weapons have had in the past in deterring war – and particularly nuclear war – the presence of enormous numbers of nuclear weapons and huge stockpiles of fissionable materials, is rapidly becoming counterproductive in an age of terrorist groups and “rogue states.” This article will examine whether a stated goal of eliminating nuclear weapons increases security, and whether Obama’s recent activities consistently work towards this goal.

The incredible destructive power of even the smallest nuclear weapon can be seen by the destruction visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki where a single bomb (10 to 20 times less powerful than today’s typical weapons) destroyed a city. To create the same level of destruction in WWII took hundreds of bombers dropping thousands of conventional weapons. The political results of 9/11, in the U.S. and abroad, were catastrophic and long lasting; a single terrorist nuclear event, even at the relatively small and crude Hiroshima level, would cause orders of magnitude more damage.

It would obviously be best to eliminate terrorism and war, but unfortunately this does not appear to be realistic. There is precedent for eliminating poison gas, another indiscriminate killer, from the arsenals; thus the goal of eliminating nuclear war is possibly a more realizable, although difficult, goal.

To achieve this will require multiple concrete steps: 1) the U.S. and Russia reduce their arsenals to 1000 weapons each, limit their use to deter nuclear war, and allow inspections to verify the reductions; 2) the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treat (NPT) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection system must be strengthened; 3) China, the U.K., France and the non-NPT nations (India, Pakistan, Israel, N. Korea) must agree to reducing and limiting the numbers and uses of nuclear weapons; 4) all responsible nuclear power and weapons states must lower the risk of theft of fissile material and nuclear weapons by terrorist groups; and, finally, at the end of this process, 5) the negotiations to zero weapons.

This is clearly a long and difficult agenda. Is implementation possible? If we don’t try it’s guaranteed not to happen. If this agenda is carried out will it increase security? If done carefully, with adequate inspections and increased political trust, it should – with the possible byproduct of lessening all wars. Finally, even if we do not reach zero nuclear weapons, each of the other steps outlined here are important in their own right and should be taken to increase security for all parties. Taking these criteria into account, are the recent activities of the Obama administration consistent with these strides forward, and with this long-range goal?

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On April 8, 2010 the new START treaty, reducing the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons by about 30%, was signed. More importantly, this treaty brought up to date the vital counting rules and inspection procedures that had been negated in December 2009, when the START treaty had been allowed to lapse. In my view, this is a vital step towards strategic stability, which enhances mutual security, even though these modest numerical reductions do not significantly reduce the overkill capacity still present in these arsenals. The step is also important politically for U.S.-Russian relations, and sets the stage for more significant reductions in the next stage of negotiations. However, the next step is the treaty ratification process in the U.S. Senate, requiring 67 votes. This could be difficult in the present partisan political climate in Washington. This is a critical step, as failure to approve this treaty will severely set back nuclear arms control.

Two days prior to the treaty signing, the U.S. released its Nuclear Posture Review. The result of this yearlong study of nuclear weapons policy places the prevention of nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism atop the U.S. nuclear agenda. It reduces the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security by stating that the primary role of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack on the U.S. and its allies, and limits the circumstances under which the U.S. would consider using nuclear weapons. The Review also states that the U.S. will not conduct nuclear explosive tests or develop new nuclear weapons.

On April 12-13, the President hosted the leaders of 47 countries at a Nuclear Security Summit, whose goal was to reach agreement on the steps needed to secure and safeguard vulnerable nuclear materials, and cope with the worldwide terrorist threat. Among the commitments made, Ukraine and Canada announced the elimination of all of their highly enriched uranium, and Russia announced the closure of its last plutonium production facility.

From the 3rd to the 28th of May, the UN will carry out its five-year review of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which contains the only multilateral binding commitment to nuclear disarmament.

In 1995, this treaty was extended indefinitely. Five years later, at the 2000 Review Conference, all 187 governments – including the five official nuclear weapon states – agreed to a 13-point Action Plan for the systematic and progressive disarmament of the world's nuclear weapons. Still, the 2005 Review Conference was considered a failure due to fundamental disagreements: The U.S. shifted its focus almost exclusively towards non-proliferation once North Korea surreptitiously developed nuclear weapons, and the IAEA found that Iran had evaded its treaty obligations to provide timely and accurate information. On the other side, the non-nuclear-weapon states protested the Bush administration’s exploration of new and modified types of nuclear weapons, its opposition to the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and its withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

All of these moves contravene the 13 disarmament steps agreed to at the 2000 NPT Review Conference. This goes to the heart of the NPT bargain, in which the five nuclear weapons states (China, France, Russia, England, U.S.) pledged to work toward giving up their nuclear weapons while all other states pledged to forego acquiring them. Because of the 2005 failure, and also due to heightened concern about the possibility of a terrorist group or rogue state acquiring nuclear weapons, it is important to strengthen the NPT by a successful 2010 review conference. The Obama administration has worked hard to improve the political atmosphere so that this will happen.

Are these recent activities of the Obama administration on target to reduce the threat of nuclear war? I believe they are good beginnings that must be maintained over a relatively long time frame if they are to bear fruit.

Clearly, getting Iran and North Korea to change their course will require patient and skillful diplomacy at a minimum, and still might not ever succeed. On the other hand, there are really no viable alternatives.

An international effort will be required, needing the support of “neutral countries,” and a strong NPT consensus exerting political influence. We must reduce the more than 20,000 nuclear weapons in the world, most of them far larger than those used on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since many of these weapons in Russia and the U.S. are on hair trigger alert, it is possible (although unlikely) that they could lead to “accidental” nuclear war. Recently, the scenario that has caused the greatest fear and concern is a terrorist organization acquiring a nuclear weapon or, alternatively, getting enough fissile material to fabricate a crude bomb that could be smuggled into a city and detonated. This is what drove the recent Nuclear Security Summit, and is of central concern in the 2010 NPT review conference.

Although I believe that President Obama is off to a good start and is moving as fast as is practicable, much more needs to be done for his strategy to work on a global scale. The importance, both in planning and prestige, of nuclear weapons needs to be reduced, so that they are less desirable. This will require all nuclear powers to make major reductions in their arsenals, and a firm global commitment to a no-first-use policy. This is a tall order, not to be accomplished in a year and, probably, not even in a decade.

For the Obama strategy to succeed politically at home, many constituencies will have to be convinced that reductions in the number of nuclear weapons, and changing policy on their utilization, will not jeopardize the safety of the U.S. and its allies. After over 50 years of considering them as a deterrent, it is not easy for all parties, both at home and abroad, to shift towards seeing them as a threat. The length of time that it took for the administration to formulate the Nuclear Posture Review indicates that the process of working with the U.S. military on this issue has been done carefully with appropriate consultation. The very important task of working with our allies is just beginning. Many countries do rely on U.S. protection in a willingness to forego a nuclear arsenal of their own. This is particularly important for neighbors of North Korea and Iran.

The political issues of arms control are more difficult than the technical ones. Nevertheless, as in climate control, scientists and engineers have a significant role to play.

Reasonable skeptics must be convinced of the strength of a regime with fewer nuclear weapons and stronger policies against their use. The American Physical Society has recently published a report on “Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Arsenal Downsizing,” in which issues of verification, arsenal safety and reliability, and the assurance of the peaceful uses of fissile materials are emphasized. The National Academy of Science is working on an updated study of the reliability of the nuclear arsenal when they are not explosively tested.

I am reminded of the passion of the generation of scientists and engineers who, at the end of the Manhattan Project, worked so hard to inform congress and the public about the realities of nuclear energy in order to realize its peaceful potential and to prevent the future use of it in weapons. With nuclear weapons issues in the news, and political debate focused on numbers and uses, as the Senate gears up for debate on the new START treaty, it is as vital as ever for the MIT faculty to make their voices heard, and to help provide scientific and technical bases for rational discussion.

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