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Resetting the Clock

David Morrison

Nuclear Weapons: The Road to Zero. Edited by Joseph Rotblat. 331pp. Westview Press, 1998. $69.

The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now. Jonathan Schell. 240pp. Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 1998. $25.

Following the events in the Indian subcontinent last year, the symbolic clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was reset to the closest to midnight since the Cold War. Was it prescience that guided Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 Nobel Prize winner for peace, to organize and edit his volume of essays, and Jonathan Schell, a best-selling author who more than a decade ago had issued a warning of nuclear peril, to publish his conversations with worldwide leaders who executed and devised the nuclear policies of the Cold War? The issue of elimination of nuclear weapons is once again before us, and these books provide rationales and roadmaps to attain that end, albeit with only sketchy details on the process.

Rotblat draws heavily on the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and in particular on the findings of a comprehensive international study published in 1993 on the need and ways to eliminate nuclear weapons. His monograph is a collection of essays that describe the many intertwined technical, economic, legal and political issues that must be resolved through international negotiations and be based on mutual trust. Contrary to the philosophy of nuclear powers—that these weapons are needed for security—is the "no longer . . . fanciful dream of a fringe group" of a nuclear-weapon-free world. It is, rather, "a sound and practical objective, which could be realized in the foreseeable future." Although most people in most countries would probably favor a nuke-free world, this matter hasn't been high on most people's agendas.

Schell also identifies the obstructions to the path of abolition. He perceives the question of breakout as the most difficult and contentious issue about which a full-scale, detailed study has yet to be done. Social verification, which includes a legal obligation of scientists and others to report on any efforts to build weapons of mass destruction, would be an important element of an inspection regime. Collective action to restrain or punish violators, as was done in the Gulf War, is an element of the process. Serious doubts have been expressed on the benefits of violations, and war games have demonstrated the dubious utility of possessing nuclear weapons if violations did occur. History has shown that the advantages of nuclear arsenals are far smaller than theory predicts, and the tradition of non-use has proved surprisingly durable.

Schell builds his case through interviews with several individuals who had responsibility for nuclear policy in the United States, Russia and Europe and who, over the past decade, have come to support the global elimination of nuclear weapons. Several of these people are signatories to the reports of the studies referenced by Rotblat. Schell addresses the issues of deterrence, disarmament, abolition and breakout. He notes that "the unique historical experience of being the sole country to posses nuclear weapons, and of using those weapons to end a great world war, may underlie the singularly American preoccupation with the idea of breakout."

Rotblat observes that the nuclear powers cling, overtly or tacitly, to other justifications for keeping their weapons. As Schell discusses, the Nuclear Posture Review and the new Presidential Decision Directive make clear that the United States deploys nuclear weapons to deter a potential threat from some future hostile Russia and to deter chemical or biological attacks by rogue states. Rotblat, as well as others, argues that a nuclear-weapon-free United States, which would remain the most powerful nation in the world, has less to worry about and more to gain from abolition.

The issues surrounding abolition are many. The Stimson Center, for example, has proposed phased elimination of nuclear weapons based on commitments by the highest officials of five declared nuclear weapon states and, one now assumes, India and Pakistan. The commitments would be backed by concrete actions to provide direction and coherence to a long-term program for nuclear elimination. Even if this step is achieved, what about the potential for nuclear-weapon development by, say, North Korea and Iraq?

Among the many problems is a need to develop the economic base of the nuclear cities in the former Soviet Union. Economic collapse in these cities would pose a serious threat to security, particularly to the United States, given the large quantities of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials stored there. Moreover, as long as these cities have no new mission, they will continue to lobby energetically for the continuation of their past missions—production of nuclear weapons and weapon-usable materials. More broadly, in strained economic circumstances, a number of members of the Russian Parliament raised the issue of the cost to implement START II.

A major technical issue remains the disposition of highly enriched uranium (HEU) and plutonium stocks and fissile materials recovered from the dismantling of nuclear weapons. The U.S. Enrichment Corporation's purchase of 500 tons of HEU from Russia is but a small step. Plutonium raises even more thorny issues. Nearly all isotopes of plutonium can be used in weapons—it cannot be blended to a proliferation-resistant form.

Rotblat's agenda includes not only removing nuclear weapons but also finding a formula for the three threshold states (India, Pakistan and Israel) to join the nuclear-nonproliferation nations; concluding a no-first-use treaty; continuing negotiation for the reduction of strategic nuclear forces beyond start ii; and attaining a declaration not to use nuclear weapons against targets at sea.

Schell notes that no full-scale, detailed study has yet been done on abolition—perhaps because no government has yet taken the goal of abolition seriously enough to think that it needs to know the results. Deterrence theory teaches that nations without nuclear weapons are helpless in the face of nations that have them. History, however, has suggested that the advantages, if any, of possessing nuclear arsenals are far smaller than theory predicts.

Together these books provide an excellent background on the subject of nuclear weapons and the current thinking on the prospects for their elimination from arsenals throughout the world. Schell is the optimist; he believes the time is ripe to abolish nuclear weapons, mainly because of a shift in attitude by influential people. Rotblat is a pragmatist; technical and economic details have to be worked out. They agree that it is possible to eliminate nuclear weapons if we can muster the political will. If the lack of political will in the United States to deal with a simpler issue—the storage and disposal of spent fuel from currently operating power plants—is a good analogy, the end of nuclear weapons will not come soon. An informed public throughout the world will be the linchpin to the future of nuclear weapons, and these books are a readily available and comprehensive source of information on the issues.—David L. Morrison, Nuclear Engineering, North Carolina State University

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