Scientists ponder how to get nuclear genie back in the bottle

A new nuclear weapons report by a panel of scientists and two new books by weapons scientists show just how deeply the nuclear genie still haunts the scientific heirs of the Manhattan Project.

"Scientists have always felt a special responsibility for nuclear weapons, the one weapon they have created of such import," says physicist John Browne, a former head of Los Alamos (N.M.) National Laboratory.

Now, amid pressing economic and wartime worries, nuclear weapons are poised once again to enter public debate, fueled by warnings from Congress and a campaign pledge by President-elect Barack Obama to support the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The treaty, which bans nuclear weapon test explosions, has been ratified by 143 nations, but not the United States.

Global Zero, a group of world diplomats, generals and leaders, met in Paris earlier this month to discuss plans to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide over the next 25 years. And weapons scientists are joining the jousting for the nuclear attentions of the Obama administration.

"For the last eight years and even before that, things in the nuclear world have really been drifting," says Browne, who headed the scientific panel that produced the nuclear weapons report, co-sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Physical Society.

Crises have popped up in places like North Korea and Iran, but focus on weapons themselves has lagged, Browne says. "Now there is a lot more discussion and thought about the role of nuclear weapons."

The report, Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security, puts forth three major goals for the new administration:

•Prevent nuclear weapons from spreading, including in North Korea and Iran.

•Cut global stocks of nuclear materials to keep them from terrorists.

•Lower U.S.-Russian nuclear weapon stockpiles.

"All things nuclear are interrelated," Browne says. "Everyone looks at parts of these things but don't see the connections. There's really a chance now for a more thoughtful discussion."

In November, the U.S. National Academies released the first Chinese-English glossary of nuclear-security terms, an effort by weapons scientists in both countries to make nuclear connections plain between nuclear powers.

"Words count, and it matters how we use them," glossary panel member Raymond Jeanloz of the University of California-Berkeley told Science magazine.

Words and unseen nuclear connections are the subject of two new books by weapons scientists. The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation by Danny Stillman and Thomas Reed, and The Bomb: A New History by Stephen Younger, hit store shelves in January.

"There is no such thing as a national nuclear program. They are all interconnected," says Reed, a former U.S. Air Force Secretary and Lawrence Livermore (Calif.) National Laboratory weapons scientist.

In The Nuclear Express, Reed and Stillman, a former intelligence official at Los Alamos, detail unsuspected links among nuclear scientists worldwide since the days of the Manhattan Project, the World War II program that created the atom bomb. For example:

•French nuclear scientists took Manhattan Project secrets with them after a July 1944 consultation with Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

•Stillman reported suspicions that a Soviet-era spy, code-named "Perseus," was still working at Los Alamos in the mid-'90s. Investigation into Perseus was botched, according to the book, amid the Wen Ho Lee case, in which investigators filed 59 espionage-related charges against the scientist. (The charges were later dropped to one, to which Lee pleaded guilty as part of a settlement.)

•Repeated visits by U.S. scientists to China suggest China designed and tested a bomb for Pakistan, which the authors view as the nation with the most dangerous weapons enterprise.

"Pakistan is different," Reed says, citing, among other issues, unstable politics and al-Qaeda sympathies among parts of the population.

In The Bomb, Younger, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a former weapons designer, focuses on U.S. nuclear weapons. Congress has required a reassessment of the nuclear stockpile, part of a long-running political tussle over proposals to build new nuclear warheads.

"Our weapons are still locked in a Cold War, and it is time for us to examine again the question of what we intend with our weapons," says Younger, who intends his book as a corrective history that cuts through the fog of public misperceptions about nuclear weapons.

Browne says the questions about how nuclear weapons relate to international stability have become increasingly difficult in the modern world.

"Things were a lot easier, in many ways, when it was just us and the Russians," he says.