Can We End the Nuclear Threat?

Obama promised to rid the world of nuclear weapons, but can it be done?

February 10, 2009, 6:11 PM

Feb. 11, 2009— -- 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."

That's in stark contrast to the premature claim of victory by President Bush in 2004, who proclaimed "We busted the A.Q. Khan network" after Kahn, a Pakistani physicist, confessed to supplying nuclear weapons technology to Libya, Iran and North Korea.

Kahn was later pardoned by Parvez Musharraf, president of Pakistan. Many of those who assisted in Kahn's exploits either slipped through legal loopholes or served very short sentences, according to researchers at the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

It is not known exactly how much of a role Kahn played in North Korea's ability to set off a low yield test explosion in October 2006. The fact that the weak explosion was detected by the International Monitoring System is one of the few bright sides to this story.

That means no one is likely to join the nuclear club unannounced.

So, where is the greatest threat today? It's not likely that a band of terrorists, no matter how well funded, will build a nuclear weapon in a cave somewhere in the Middle East. It's not that easy.

And it's hard to imagine that any country would will its own destruction by nuking another nuclear power. But it doesn't take much to imagine suicide bombers with nuclear weapons bringing a nation, and perhaps the world, to its knees.

The Road to Weapons

But where would they get such a weapon?

"The most direct way for terrorists to acquire a usable nuclear weapons capability would be through theft, or illegal purchase, and the danger is real," Drell and James Goodby, also of the Hoover Institution, warned in 2004. The activities of Pakistan's Kahn, who has since recanted his confession, are not reassuring.

So the most likely scenario is this: terrorists somehow acquire a nuclear weapon from a member nation of the nuclear club, which is growing in membership, and manage to somehow place it in a strategic location and set it off. It wouldn't be easy, but few thought it would be easy to wipe out New York's twin towers until 19 men pulled it off.

So where do we go from here? Drell has two suggestions.

"Rekindling the vision of Reykjavik will be President Obama's main challenge, but realizing that goal will be very difficult," he said. The second goal is to convince the rest of us that it's really possible to solve this difficult, and potentially catastrophic, problem.

In the meantime, the "Doomsday Clock" at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, founded 60 years ago by scientists at the Manhattan Project, is ticking away.

The hands of the clock have been moved 19 times, an iconic symbol of changing global uncertainties. The clock was initially set at seven minutes to midnight in 1947. They were moved to two minutes before midnight in 1953 after the United States decided to build the hydrogen bomb.

The world looked safer in 1991, with the Cold War officially over, and the hands were set to 17 minutes before midnight.

The hands were reset on Jan. 17, 2007, as more nations moved closer to joining the nuclear club. Today, the hands are set on five minutes to midnight.

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