Zeroing Out Nuclear Bombs

Both Obama and McCain say that's their goal


In Reykjavik, Iceland, on October 12, 1986, U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev seriously discussed the possibility of the two countries completely eliminating their nuclear weapons. An agreement could not be reached, but the Reykjavik Summit laid the groundwork for treaties aimed at eliminating intermediate range nuclear missiles and making deep cuts in each country's strategic arsenals. The result is that the number of nuclear weapons has been cut in half—down from 65,000 to 26,000 since the height of the Cold War. However, the U.S. retains 10,685 nuclear bombs and Russia is estimated to have around 14,000. In 2002, the U.S. and Russia signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty which commits each side to reducing its number of warheads to between 1700 and 2200 by 2012.

Currently, both countries maintain 2,000 weapons on hair-trigger alert, ready for launching in 15 minutes after an order is given. Just how dangerous the situation remains was made clear in 1995 when the launch of a Norwegian satellite designed to study the northern lights nearly provoked a nuclear response from Russia. Estimates of the stockpiles of other known nuclear powers vary, but the total is probably less than 850 weapons. According to the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed elBaradei, some 40 countries could currently build atomic weapons if they chose to. The possibility of a nuclear war would be significantly magnified if there existed that many nuclear-armed countries.

The goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons is embodied in the 40-year old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The treaty's 190 signatories, including the United States, are supposed to pursue "general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." As former ambassadors and nuclear weapons negotiators Max Kampelman and Thomas Graham point out, the NPT was a bargain between the vast majority of countries that agreed not to develop their own nuclear weapons and the then-five nuclear powers that agreed to share peaceful nuclear technology and pursue eventual nuclear disarmament. On the way toward disarmament, the non-nuclear states wanted countries with nuclear weapons to agree to interim measures, including "a comprehensive nuclear weapon test ban, a prohibition on the further production of nuclear explosive material, a significant world-wide reduction in the number of nuclear weapons, and binding obligations not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear NPT parties." So far none of these measures have been adopted.

To its credit, the Bush administration did sign the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, but it has made unilateral decisions that undermine the NPT goal of complete nuclear disarmament. For example, the Bush administration has opposed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), which commits parties not to conduct any nuclear test explosions. The U.S. signed the treaty in 1996, but the Senate failed to ratify it in 1999.

Nevertheless, the U.S., Russia, Britain, and France have been observing a de facto nuclear testing moratorium since 1992. China joined the moratorium in 1996 and Pakistan and India have also stopped testing since 1998. However, the U.S. has continued subcritical tests (ones that involve fissile material but do not produce a sustained nuclear chain reaction). In addition, the Bush administration has hinted it may want to test bunker busting nuclear weapons in the future. Furthermore, the Bush administration produced a new draft Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty (FMCT), which would ban the new production of highly enriched uranium and plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. The problem is that its new version of the treaty contained no provisions for verifying compliance.

The Bush administration is winding down. So where do the two major party presidential candidates stand? In a 2007 foreign policy speech, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), declared, "Here's what I'll say as President: America seeks a world in which there are no nuclear weapons." Obama was careful to add, "We will not pursue unilateral disarmament. As long as nuclear weapons exist, we'll retain a strong nuclear deterrent." Obama also promised to seek a global ban on the production of fissile material that could be used to make bombs. He will also make ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty a priority.

In a May 2008 speech on nuclear policy, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) stated, "A quarter of a century ago, President Ronald Reagan declared, 'our dream is to see the day when nuclear weapons will be banished from the face of the Earth.' That is my dream, too." In addition, McCain wants to "move quickly with other nations to negotiate a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty to end production of the most dangerous nuclear materials." He would cancel all work on the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator, a.k.a. the bunker buster. Although he voted against the CTBT in 1999, he would "take another look at it" and, in the meantime, McCain pledged to "continue America's current moratorium on testing."

Is the total eradication of nuclear weapons really feasible? Certain unsavory regimes are seeking nuclear weapons as a way to deter assaults from the U.S. and other countries. Had Saddam Hussein possessed nuclear weapons, it is doubtful that the coalition of the willing would have risked attacking Iraq. It is this deterrence calculation that is behind the drive of NPT scofflaws like North Korea, Iran, and Syria to develop nuclear weapons. Frankly, it is difficult to see what incentives would persuade these regimes to put aside their nuclear ambitions. In the case of Iran, Stanford University political scientist Scott Sagan argues, "Relinquishing the threat of regime change by force is a necessary and acceptable price for the United States to pay to stop Tehran from getting the bomb." Just how to make such assurances really credible to suspicious tyrants is not clear.

And there is another problem. In the past, negotiations to cut nuclear weapons have chiefly involved the U.S. and Russia. This would change. As the U.S. and Russia draw down their arsenals, the relatively smaller forces of other countries rise in comparative strategic importance. In other words, cutting U.S. and Russian arsenals might actually encourage proliferation because such reductions could tempt some countries to try to seek nuclear parity. Avoiding this outcome will require dramatically strengthening the inspection provisions of the NPT well in advance. Fortunately, there is an NPT review conference scheduled for 2010 at which such measures can be negotiated.

As the cuts mandated by the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty are achieved, the U.S. and Russia should embark on negotiations with smaller nuclear powers to reduce the number of their nuclear weapons. One way such a phased build-down might take place is outlined in a Model Nuclear Weapons Convention being submitted to the NPT review conference in 2010. For example, five years after the model convention is adopted, all nuclear weapons would have to be destroyed except for 1,000 in each of the stockpiles of the U.S. and Russia and 100 each in the stockpiles of China, France, and the United Kingdom. At ten years, the U.S. and Russian stockpiles would contain 50 warheads each, while those of China, France, and the U.K. would fall to 10 weapons each. At fifteen years, all stockpiles of warheads would be demolished.

Nearly 22 years after Reykjavik and 17 years after the demise of the Soviet Union, it is time to revive the goal of completely eliminating nuclear weapons.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.