Nuclear Dangers Have Not Gone Away
by David Krieger and Carah Ong, March 2005
It has been 60 years since the world was awakened to the Nuclear Age by the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the minds of many Americans, the threat of nuclear weapons has erroneously faded into the distant past. Few Americans realize that even today, fifteen years after the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia, though largely friendly in their relations, each still maintain more than 2,000 nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired in moments. And there are still more than 20,000 (some say even 30,000) nuclear weapons in the world.
The opportunity presented by the end of the Cold War to disarm and dismantle nuclear weapons has been largely squandered. The nuclear weapons states continue to uphold nuclear double standards, suggesting that nuclear weapons are reasonable for some, but unreasonable for others. As a result of this nuclear disparity, some countries are seeking to obtain nuclear know-how, materials and weapons to even the score card. The problem is further compounded by serious shortfalls in strict international controls, resulting in a constant danger of these weapons and materials falling into the hands of extremist groups that would not hesitate to use them.
There is a clear and urgent need to respond to the many proliferation challenges the world faces today. The best defense against the spread and use of nuclear weapons is moving rapidly to bring all nuclear weapons and the materials to make them under strict international controls and to expedite their phased elimination. Anything less continues to hold open the door to these weapons being used, by accident or design, by those who possess them or may in the future come to possess them. The reality is that human beings and nuclear weapons are an incendiary mix, and the world remains challenged to eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us.
The Essential Bargain: Non-Proliferation & Disarmament
The Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which is at the center of the world's efforts to control the spread of nuclear weapons, contains an essential bargain. Under the treaty, the countries without nuclear weapons — the vast majority of the world's states — agree not to develop or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons and, in exchange, the small number of countries possessing nuclear weapons agree to stop the nuclear arms race and engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament. This bargain has existed since the treaty entered into force in 1970.
With a few notable exceptions, the non-nuclear weapons states have kept their end of the bargain. On the other hand, the nuclear weapons states, and most notably the United States, have shown scant inclination to fulfill their disarmament commitments. Both sides of the bargain are equally important and mutually reinforcing.
In other words, preventing proliferation cannot be guaranteed without nuclear disarmament, and nuclear disarmament cannot succeed without preventing nuclear proliferation. Unless both sides adhere to the pact, the world will be thrown into nuclear chaos.
Proliferation Concerns Today
The five nuclear weapons states recognized under the Non-Proliferation Treaty ( China, France, Russia, United Kingdom and United States) have long tried to maintain exclusivity in their possession of nuclear weapons, which over time has only enhanced the perception that nuclear weapons are a source of power and prestige. In addition, their continued possession of nuclear weapons demonstrates to the world that even the most economically and militarily powerful nations rely upon nuclear weapons for security.
Furthermore, the possession of nuclear weapons provides the nuclear weapons states with a psychological advantage through the tacit threat to use these weapons in a worst case conflict scenario. All of these factors provide incentives for proliferation.
In order to counter the perceived power of nuclear weapons states, acquiring nuclear weapons has become the goal of some countries and extremist groups. The rapid spread of and increased ability to access information, along with scientific expertise and technical capacity, has also made it easier than ever before to build a nuclear weapon. Furthermore, it has also become easier to obtain fissile material from hundreds of poorly guarded nuclear sites throughout the world. With all of these developments, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the non-proliferation and disarmament regimes in general are under severe threat of unraveling altogether.
The nuclear weapons states have raised proliferation concerns only for select violators and only when it is in their interest to do so. In addition, the news media has been very selective in its reporting on issues of nuclear proliferation. For the most part, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea have been singled out, while proliferation concerns from the existing nuclear weapons states, in particular the United States, Israel and NATO, have been ignored or treated as taboo subjects. While India and Pakistan received attention in the past regarding their nuclear programs, they are now largely accepted as part of the "nuclear club" and rarely scrutinized. US intelligence agencies, for example, have never even interrogated A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist engaged in the largest nuclear proliferation scheme ever uncovered.
Nuclear proliferation can be prevented, but only if the nuclear weapons states fulfill their end of the bargain. Negotiated and verifiable solutions to the proliferation issues in Iran and North Korea can be achieved, but not without the US and other nuclear weapons states demonstrating the political will to meet their own nuclear disarmament obligations.
As demonstrated by its policies and backed by its budget, the US has become the most egregious offender of NPT disarmament and non-proliferation obligations. Nuclear weapons remain as central to US security policy today as they were during the Cold War. And increasingly aggressive US military policies, combined with a rejection of international law and norms, are negatively impacting relations with other countries around the world, as well as global nonproliferation and disarmament efforts. A thumbnail sketch of these issues follows.
The US is not only pursuing development of new nuclear weapons, it is also seeking new capabilities for existing weapons. While Congressional funding for the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator was zeroed out of the 2005 budget, the Bush administration is again seeking funding for the "bunker buster" in the 2006 budget. Additionally, the funding in the 2005 budget for the Advanced Concepts Initiative that was cancelled by Congress in 2004 was redirected into a program called the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). This is a concept that dates back a couple of decades to develop a robust, reliable warhead that could be kept in the arsenal with minimal maintenance for many decades to come. In the 2006 budget, the administration is once again seeking funding for the RRW that will focus on adapting an existing warhead. This adds to the strong impression that the US intends to maintain its nuclear arsenal indefinitely.
Further, the US has refused to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and is seeking to reduce the amount of time it would take to conduct a full nuclear weapons test. In 2004, Congress authorized $25 million in order to decrease the preparation time to resume nuclear testing from 36 to 24 months. For 2005, Congress has authorized $26.8 million for enhanced test site readiness to ensure that the Nevada Test Site could execute an underground nuclear weapons test within 18 months of receiving orders by the President. For 2006, the administration is requesting $25 million to complete Test Site preparedness. Should the US choose to resume testing, it would open a pandora's box of nuclear testing throughout the world.
In 2002, the US withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to develop and deploy a missile defense program that is actually offensive in nature since it enhances a US first-strike capability. By the end of 2004, six "interceptors" were emplaced at Ft. Greely, Alaska and two at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. There have been major technical difficulties in deploying a national missile defense system, and the last two tests of the system have been dramatic failures. As many military and scientific experts have expressed the program — which has already cost over $100 billion and will cost at least another $50 billion over the next five years — will only provide an illusion of security and could lead to an arms race on Earth and in Outer Space.
More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, the US continues to deploy some 480 nuclear weapons in Europe. The targets for these weapons are most likely in Iran, Russia and Syria. Although 480 is less than the number of nuclear weapons the US deployed in NATO countries during the Cold War, prior to a February 2005 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, most observers believed there were no more than half that many still left in Europe. US nuclear weapons currently are located at eight air force bases in six European countries — Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey and the United Kingdom. The continuing presence of these weapons undermines relations with Iran and Russia, as well as global efforts to dissuade other nations from developing nuclear weapons.
Charting a New Course
In order to address the wide-spread proliferation challenges the world faces today, simultaneous measures to both halt proliferation and to pursue complete and verifiable nuclear disarmament must be pursued. This means that nuclear weapons states must take their nuclear disarmament commitments seriously and engage with determination in fulfilling their long overdue obligations to achieve nuclear disarmament. The United States, for its part, should lead the other nuclear weapons states in this effort.
It is in the best interests of the United States to change the course of its nuclear policy, in order to protect US citizens, as well as people all around the world, from the serious nuclear dangers we continue to face today. This critical issue for US and global security cannot be left solely in the hands of governments. Ultimately, it is up to US citizens to hold their government accountable and urge elected officials to establish policies that will reduce and eliminate the nuclear threat.
David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). Carah Ong is the Advocacy and Research Director at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and is Director of the Foundation's Washington DC office.