Can We End the Nuclear Threat?

President Obama's attempt to solve the financial crisis will probably seem like a walk in the park compared with the challenges posed in meeting another one of his promises, to ultimately rid the world of nuclear weapons.

And yet, there is a more immediate problem that has virtually dropped off the public radar screen -- to stop the spread of those horrendous weapons to other countries, some of which are politically unstable.

Scientists around the world are leading the effort to "re-energize" public concern that began diminishing at the end of the Cold War and is languishing even further today.

It's a tough challenge, partly because so many people believe it's impossible to control the proliferation of nuclear technology and weapons, especially in a world that is moving closer to relying on nuclear power plants in a time of diminishing resources and global warming.

And, of course, it's something that most folks just don't want to think about.

So their first goal has to be to convince the skeptics that they can eventually end the nuclear threat.

"Winning over skeptical audiences in the U.S. and elsewhere will take time, but the Obama administration can begin by proposing a series of practical steps to convince skeptics and allies alike that the vision of a world without nuclear weapons is not a flight of fancy but a practical goal," physicist Sidney Drell asserted Feb. 2 in Physics World.

Drell, a senior fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a long-time leader in the push toward disarmament, noted that it will be difficult but necessary to "convince skeptics" that it is possible to disarm without jeopardizing national security.

That's likely to prove a hard sell in these days of suicide bombers and nations that have supported international terrorism. And there's real concern that the public just isn't interested.

'Catastrophic' Consequences

Writing in the Feb. 4 issue of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Gareth Evans, co-chair of the International Commission on Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament, warns that, "despite the post-Cold War decline in public attention, the consequences of nuclear weapons proliferation and an indifferent international performance on nuclear disarmament remain potentially catastrophic."

He goes on to note that despite the reduction in nuclear warheads in Russia and the United States after the historic meeting in Reykjavik between President Ronald Reagan and then-Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986, there are still "tens of thousands of nuclear warheads in the world."

And thousands of these warheads remain on high alert, "ready to be launched within minutes."

One concern among the scientists is that the old "mutual assured destruction" scenario -- MAD for short -- is not as reassuring as it once was. It's no longer a case of two superpowers recognizing that in the event of global nuclear war, everybody dies.

Nuclear weapons have spread to other countries in recent years, and the world keeps a wary eye on Iran, which is just a short hop from Israel, a presumed nuclear power.

"If we see a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, everybody will be in danger," Obama warned during his press conference Monday.

Kahn and the New Nuclear Club

The scientists take heart in the fact that Obama has said he intends to "make the goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons a central element in [U.S.] nuclear policy."

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