Statement of Arjun Makhijani at the press briefing on the release of the nuclear disarmament issue of Science for Democratic Action
October 23, 1998

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The end of the Cold War has led to complacency about the dangers of nuclear weapons. It is misplaced. After a few years of respite, nuclear dangers are again on the rise. The threat of black markets in nuclear weapons and materials, the risk of all-out nuclear war by accident or miscalculation and the danger of regional nuclear war are all far larger now than they were when the Berlin Wall came down. The world continues to face the threat of utter devastation. In that respect, the Cold War lives on.

All five nuclear weapons states that are signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) are modernizing their arsenals. By their actions, they are refusing to abide by the World Court’s advisory opinion that Article VI of the NPT requires the achievement of complete disarmament.

A great deal of the problem arises from an adherence to an outmoded and dangerous deterrence theory. The United States and Russia keep their weapons on hair-trigger alert, ostensibly as a deterrent to prevent the other from striking first. Yet they both have a first use policy and maintain nuclear forces that are capable of a first strike. Neither has any rationale for thousands of warheads. Russia would clearly like the US and Russian arsenals to be reduced to 1,000 or less due to its own desperate economic circumstances. Instead of seizing upon the opportunity to greatly reduce nuclear dangers, the United States continues to insist Russia ratify START II first.

The process of disarmament would get a big boost if the 150 US tactical bombs that are now stored in Europe were to be brought back to the United States. The US position has been that these warheads are needed to reassure its NATO allies that the United States would not shrink from using nuclear weapons first if its European allies were attacked. But in a historic agreement, the new coalition government in Germany has decided to adopt a no-first-use policy and to support de-alerting of nuclear weapons. If Germany, historically the most important state in the Cold War confrontation, does not want first use of nuclear weapons, the United States has no excuse to continue such a policy, or to base nuclear weapons in Europe. The 150 US tactical bombs in Europe are a major irritant to US-Russian relations and should be removed from the US arsenal immediately and unilaterally.

The South Asian nuclear tests last May demonstrated that five NPT nuclear states cannot indefinitely assert their prerogative to keep nuclear weapons while denying that same right to others. There are now many initiatives in the United Nations, by governments as well as NGOs, to press for disarmament — the goal of Article VI of the NPT. In April 1999, the last preparatory committee meeting before the year 2000 review of the NPT will be held. The April 1998 meeting in Geneva ended in complete failure largely because of the continued resistance of nuclear weapons states to progress on disarmament. A continued failure of the NPT review process could seriously endanger the non-proliferation regime, which so far has worked fairly effectively to limit the number of nuclear weapons states. Further, the South Asian events have put the world at a nuclear crossroads. The undeclared but substantial Israeli arsenal is creating additional proliferation pressures. Pulling the world back from the nuclear brink and maintaining progress on non-proliferation require early effective action towards disarmament.

The flow of money into the nuclear establishments of the world is also a factor inhibiting progress. But there will be plenty of secure jobs in the nuclear arena for a long time to come. Those who fear for their jobs need only look at the immense security, materials management, waste management, and clean-up issues in all nuclear weapons states, and especially the United States and Russia. Just the materials and weapons accounting functions, and the associated storage and monitoring will require large commitments of personnel. If properly carried out, these programs will probably require as much money as present allocations, perhaps more.

The nuclear weapons powers seem to be too wedded to their arsenals to agree now to a process of complete nuclear disarmament. Therefore, a kind of nuclear weapons moratorium is needed to set the process in motion. This would be analogous to a nuclear testing moratorium that preceded the achievement of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). A nuclear weapons moratorium, which can be implemented within a few months, would consist of the six urgent steps:

  1. At least one effective de-alerting measure for all nuclear weapon
  2. Removal of tritium bottles from all warheads that contain them
  3. Ratification of the CTBT and strict adherence to its provisions
  4. Strict adherence to the provisions of the ABM treaty as signed in 1972
  5. Removal of all tactical weapons from Europe and reduction of the US and Russian nuclear arsenals to less than 1,000 warheads each
  6. Shut down of all production of weapons-usable radioactive materials (plutonium, tritium, and highly enriched uranium) for military purposes

A word of explanation is needed for the second item. Tritium reservoirs are needed in weapons to make the use of plutonium and uranium more efficient and to trigger the thermonuclear (or “hydrogen bomb”) part of the weapons. Without tritium, the hydrogen bomb part of warhead would not go off, but there would generally be a huge fission explosion ranging from several hundred to a few thousand tons of TNT equivalent. Warheads without tritium could be used to destroy cities and hence present a deterrent to any one contemplating a first strike. But such warheads could not be used to destroy nuclear weapons in hardened silos. Therefore, removing the tritium bottles from warheads would eliminate first-strike possibilities and increase the stability of the disarmament process. It would also reduce the overall explosive power of the world’s nuclear arsenal from several thousand megatons to roughly a hundred megatons, possibly less, greatly reducing the consequences in the event of an accidental explosion.

De-alerting of nuclear weapons is in the self-interest of the United States and Russia. When the US and the Soviet Union were building up their arsenals, both assumed implicitly that their governments and military structures would stay stable forever, even though each government worked for the demise of the other. A disintegration of the Soviet military and non-payment of wages for months of troops freezing in Siberia were not part of the calculation. But they are part of the present reality and the core of the global nuclear danger.

In 1991, as the Soviet Union was disintegrating, the danger of nuclear black markets suddenly increased. In response President Bush took the largest unilateral nuclear disarmament measure in history by withdrawing almost all US tactical nuclear weapons from deployment. Nuclear dangers today are at least as high. President Clinton must make a similar gesture by unilaterally de-alerting all US weapons, and on that basis, pushing for reciprocity by the other nuclear weapons states.

De-alerting would be a first step towards nuclear disarmament, which will be a long and complex process. In the current issue of Science for Democratic Action, IEER has set forth a comprehensive, phased plan for nuclear disarmament that will increase US and global security and remedy some of the insults to environment and democracy that have been the hallmark of the nuclear weapons era.