Solutions to Violent Conflict

Achieving a Future Free of Nuclear Weapons

In Nuclear disarmament on March 4, 2011 at 3:57 pm

anti-nuclear protest Helsinki

Anti-nuclear demonstration at Helsinki Railway Station square in Finland. Photo: Satu Pitkänen (Flickr)

Kennette Benedict

The end of the Cold War has made it possible to contemplate vast reductions in nuclear arsenals—and even their elimination. The United States and Russia already have reduced their nuclear weapons stocks from a high of nearly 70,000 in 1986 to fewer than 22,000 in 2011.

With recent agreement on the New Start treaty, the two governments are poised to bring down those numbers further. A combination of new thinking, further government action, new technologies, and renewed political will is providing the practical basis for a radically different future—free of nuclear weapons.

COOPERATIVE SECURITY

The new concept of cooperative security proposes that countries share information about their military programs to promote trust and reduce misperceptions that can trigger arms races and military conflict. This concept undergirds the aid the U.S. gives to Russia for disposing of excess weapons through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program.

Current proposals for shared U.S. and Russian missile defenses are another practical application of the cooperative security concept. To assure countries that they do not need nuclear weapons to deter a potential U.S. nuclear attack, the U.S. nuclear doctrine declared in 2010, for the first time, that the U.S. will not use nuclear weapons against other countries that are in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

International control of nuclear fuel could prevent attempts—overt or clandestine—to divert enrichment capabilities to the development of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

The U.S. and other governments cooperate through the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor nuclear programs globally. After the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq, the agency successfully dismantled that country’s illicit nuclear weapons program. The agency has responded to concerns about the spread of national uranium enrichment programs by establishing an internationally accessible uranium fuel bank, with financial aid from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a private nonprofit group. Such a mechanism for international control of nuclear fuel could prevent future attempts—overt or clandestine—to divert enrichment capabilities to the development of fissile material for nuclear weapons.

TRANSPARENCY AND ASSURANCE

Technological developments in the private sector offer new communications capabilities that support the transparency and assurance that successful cooperative security requires. These new technologies could enable governments and agencies to better account for existing supplies of fissile material and equipment at some 140 sites around the world. In addition, the role of industry in the growth of civilian nuclear power worldwide may encourage the development of new market-based incentives to ensure the security, as well as the safety, of nuclear technologies and materials.

NEW CALLS FOR ABOLITION

Renewed political will is emerging in the U.S., Russia, and Europe, prompted by former “cold warriors” who call for a world free of nuclear weapons. With this support, U.S. president Barack Obama announced in April 2009 his commitment to greatly reduce the role of nuclear weapons and work toward their eventual elimination. These new calls for abolition are based, in part, on the idea that nuclear arsenals are costly and useless against today’s threats from suicide terrorism or accidental launch. Even the phrase “a world free of nuclear weapons” reflects a growing sense that nuclear weapons are a dangerous burden that needs to be lifted.

New calls for abolition are based, in part, on the idea that nuclear arsenals are costly and useless against today’s threats from suicide terrorism or accidental launch.

The proliferation of fissile material is increasingly seen as an international problem. In April 2010, the U.S. convened 47 heads of states to establish cooperation in securing all vulnerable materials in nuclear weapons or civilian power programs.

AN ARRAY OF OPPORTUNITIES

New projections of the catastrophic effects of even a regional nuclear exchange lend urgency to the challenge of nuclear abolition. Recent calculations of potential atmospheric effects show that the explosion of as few as 50 nuclear weapons in a conflict between India and Pakistan would cause dramatic disruptions to agricultural growing cycles, resulting in worldwide famine for as long as a decade.

Such prospects of calamity are a burden that all societies bear as long as nuclear arsenals exist. They argue for taking advantage of the combination of opportunities—renewed political will, greater international cooperation, innovative information technology, and new political thinking—to achieve freedom from nuclear weapons.

Kennette Benedict is the executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.