In today’s world, nuclear weapons no longer create security, they threaten it. In 1996, the World Court declared the use of nuclear weapons illegal under international humanitarian law, because these weapons of mass destruction cannot distinguish between combatants and innocent civilians and create unnecessary suffering. Maintaining the current U.S. nuclear arsenal of more than 10,000 warheads is extremely expensive. This year alone, it will cost the U.S. taxpayer $6.5 billion, or $18 million per day.
If we know that nuclear weapons pose an acute danger to our security; that their use is illegal because of their inhumane and indiscriminate power; and that maintaining them is consuming enormous resources, which could otherwise be used to improve our ailing public schools and universities or strengthen our exhausted conventional military forces, how can we tacitly accept our government’s and the National Weapons Labs’ push for the development of new generations of nuclear weapons and increased nuclear weapons spending of up to $30 billion over the next four years?
Under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty of 1970, the United States remains committed to the gradual reduction and eventual elimination of its nuclear arsenal. Article VI of the treaty stipulates that “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.” Accordingly, the United States is obliged to disengage from activities that risk fueling a new nuclear arms race, and to continuously reduce its nuclear arsenal. This has been confirmed at the last Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty Review Conference in 2000, when the United States signed on to “An unequivocal undertaking by the nuclear-weapon States to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals leading to nuclear disarmament to which all States parties [to the NPT] are committed under Article VI.”
The nuclear weapons activities at Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories are in direct violation of these international commitments.
The ongoing research into new generations of nuclear weapons — so-called bunker busters and mini-nukes — and the related expansion of laboratory capabilities represent vertical proliferation prohibited under the treaty. In addition to providing the other eight nuclear-weapon states, including North Korea, with a powerful incentive to put the reduction of their arsenals on hold and develop similar new nuclear weapons, these activities give the 180 non-nuclear-weapon states an equally powerful incentive to break their non-proliferation commitment under the treaty and start working toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Recently discovered nuclear weapons programs in Iraq, Libya, North Korea, and possibly Iran underscore this logic.
One cannot go around with a cigarette in one’s mouth, asking the rest of the world not to smoke. Yet this is precisely what the United States is doing. Only the total elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide in compliance with legal commitments under the treaty and under the strict control of the International Atomic Energy Agency can stop nuclear proliferation. New nuclear weapons research and design programs, combined with the expansion of nuclear weapons labs, undermine the international non-proliferation regime, stimulate the spread of nuclear weapons, and enhance the risk of these horrific weapons actually being used.
The impending expiration of its lab oversight contracts with the Department of Energy offers UC [University of California] a unique opportunity to disengage from aiding and abetting in the violation of international law and the potential commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws of war. Conversely, successful bids for the continued management of Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Labs could mean that UC and its weapons scientists may one day be sued under emerging international criminal law.
*Urs Cipolat is a lecturer on Law, Ethics and Science at UC Berkeley. He serves as program director at the Global Security Institute in San Francisco.