5 myths about getting rid of the bomb
By Barry Blechman and Alex Bollfrass
Wasington Post, Outlook section. Sunday, June 27, 2010
It's everyone's nightmare scenario: After a 65-year hiatus, nuclear bombs are again used as weapons. But despite the evident dangers posed by their existence, nine nations cling to nukes, and a few others, such as
1. We can't eliminate nukes because countries would cheat and build them in secret.
When countries get the bomb, it's because the rest of the world is unwilling to stop them, not because everyone is caught by surprise.
Almost every step toward acquiring a nuclear arsenal has its own telltale. To build a bomb, you need either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Uranium is found only in a few locations, and national intelligence agencies monitor sales. Enriching uranium requires specialized equipment, the sale of which is also monitored. Creating plutonium is even harder, requiring specialized facilities that emit known pollutants and whose designs are familiar to experts. And testing a bomb is a clear giveaway: Nuclear explosions give off unmistakable seismic, acoustic and radioactive signals.
No country has ever fielded operational nuclear weapons without the
International monitoring systems are now complementing
2. Nuclear weapons are a guarantee of security.
States with nuclear weapons maintain they are the ultimate insurance policy against fighting, or losing, a war. Recent history suggests otherwise: Nuclear powers have fought and even lost a number of wars during the atomic age.
This myth began with the idea that the bombing of
3. As long as there is nuclear energy, there will be nuclear weapons.
The technological line between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons is permeable: The same uranium-enrichment process used to manufacture fuel for energy reactors can be reconfigured to produce bomb fuel, and the plutonium some countries extract while recycling reactor fuel also can be used in nuclear weapons. Every country that has joined the nuclear club since 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed --
But history need not repeat itself. The line between the two technologies can be strengthened to prevent the use of energy programs as bomb starter kits, provided individual states stop producing their own reactor fuels. Putting multinational organizations in charge of reactor fuels would keep states from diverting nuclear fuel supplies to weapons programs. Already, the biggest builders of nuclear reactors are multinational corporations.
4. If all nations dismantled their nuclear arsenals, a cheater with just a few weapons could rule the world.
We've all seen James Bond villains threaten to gain world domination with a single nuclear weapon. But even if an evil despot could secretly build a few bombs, what would he gain? He couldn't use them to win a war. It would take hundreds of weapons to destroy dispersed armies, as Cold War-era NATO and Soviet plans for nuclear conflict in
The cheater could try to coerce the rest of the world by threatening a nuclear attack, but even that wouldn't lead to lasting domination. Other nations could try to destroy the nuclear arsenal preemptively with conventionally armed long-range strikes. If that failed, they could invade with conventional forces, under the protection of air and missile defenses. In a worst-case scenario, the former nuclear powers could rebuild their arsenals in less than a year. The world would be no worse off than it was before disarming.
Today, James Bond-style villains have been replaced by terrorists. If terrorists acquired a nuclear bomb, the results could be catastrophic -- but terrorists can't be deterred with nuclear weapons. This brings us full circle: The only real solution to the threat of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate nuclear weapons, thereby ensuring that they will stay out of the hands of terrorists.
5. Nuclear weapons are the only way to become a global power.
This idea is a relic of the Cold War, when the two global superpowers were the two leading nuclear powers. Now, nuclear weapons are at best irrelevant to a nation's standing, and their pursuit can even be harmful.
The United States is the sole remaining superpower, but not because of our nuclear weapons -- it's our economic and diplomatic strength that permit us to dominate world affairs, and it's the global reach of our conventional military forces that protects us. As demonstrated by our non-use of nuclear weapons for 65 years, nuclear weapons are worthless on the battlefield and any threat to use them in most situations short of war is simply not credible. No wonder so many military officials would rather devote fewer resources to our nuclear arsenal and more to the weapons and equipment they actually use.
Barry Blechman and Alex Bollfrass are researchers at the
Comments | View All »