Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."


Bloggers for Nuclear Policy

Überblogger ZenPundit has vectored me to a "group blog request" by Cheryl at WhirledView on nuclear weapons policy. This topic was an early passion of mine, while an undergrad physics major at Berkeley in the closing days of the Cold War, so I am happy to participate.

However, I disagree with Cheryl's premise that current U.S. policy is "stuck in the Cold War"; the National Nuclear Security Administration's just-released "Complex Transformation" plan seems like the right plan for continuing to convert our nuclear stockpile to one that is relevant and sustainable for the 21st century.

Three topics I'll cover in this post:
  • Great Power War
  • Stockpile Management
  • Future Challenges
Living in Oak Ridge, Tennessee (a city founded solely because of the Manhattan Project in World War II), there are daily reminders of the role this city played in bringing a terrible war to an end. The old guard posts still stand on the Oak Ridge Turnpike and Scarboro Road, and the three facilities with cryptic alphanumeric names (X-10, K-25, Y-12) still adorn signs and maps.

One thing that becomes clear, touring the various historic sites around Oak Ridge, is the magnitude of effort needed to manufacture nuclear weapons. This is not something where a couple centrifuges can be turned on in a basement and voilĂ ! you have material to build a bomb. The undertaking is complicated, laborious and time-consuming -- and this is a good thing. The skill sets needed to preserve and maintain a credible stockpile are scarce -- and this is not so good of a thing (I'll cover this in "stockpile management" below).

This creates a taxonomy of "Nuclear Powers":
  1. Those that have it
  2. Those that want to have it
  3. Those that don't want it
  4. Those who can never make it
Obviously, those in the first category want to preserve their "exclusivity" -- because after all, the logic of nuclear warfare is that you can never logically use them. This led to policies like the Baruch Plan after World War II (which the Soviets rejected because, in their opinion, it would have preserved the U.S. nuclear monopoly) and today's proper emphasis on nuclear non-proliferation (a great success to date, in my opinion).

Since "great power war" has faded in likelihood, some nations have active nuclear research programs -- ostensibly so they can join the "great power club" and garner increased international standing. This demonstrates the continued effectiveness of deterrence within the nation-state system (where even the most despotic rulers are still governed by some semblance of rational self-interest).

The fourth category ("those who can never make it"), therefore, is the most worthy of attention. A transnational terror organization lacks the resources to develop their own program, so they would have to resort to theft in order to obtain a weapon. (Note that I am deliberately focusing on nuclear weapons, not the other varieties of "Weapons of Mass Destruction" like chemical or biological.) Therefore, in order to minimize the likelihood of an al-Qa'eda-like organization obtaining a nuclear weapon, we should focus our attention on stockpile management.

Since the end of the Cold War, many old weapon systems have been dismantled in order to diminish the U.S. arsenal -- both to abide by international treaty obligations, and to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars. This requires a labor force with the same skill sets necessary to manufacture weapons: not just physicists and engineers, but master machinists, pipe fitters and other skill trades. This is an area where international cooperation should continue to increase -- especially between Russia (which has the largest cache of weapons in the world) and the United States.

Therefore, the three "core values" of a relevant nuclear policy for the 21st century are:
  1. Maintain a credible deterrent (because it's the dominant "control mechanism" in international politics)
  2. Preserve the industrial base (both for demobilization of existing stock as well as for continued research and development)
  3. Continue emphasizing non-proliferation
We can never put the nuclear djinni "back in the bottle". So long as we live in a world ruled by conflicting interests, total disarmament will never be a practical solution.

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At 22/12/07 07:38 , Blogger Vinay Gupta - Hexayurt Project said...

Shane, I think it's pretty easy to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle. 20 years from now, I think it will already have happened.

Here's how. We now have solar panels coming on to the market which are cheaper than coal, which is the cheapest conventional power generation option, and far, far cheaper than nuclear.


Imagine now that in 20 years technologies like these generate essentially all of the world's power. It's simply uneconomic to bother dragging coal out of the ground... nuclear plants become obscenely expensive relics.

So at that point, there's no "dual use" argument for having nuclear reactors. If you have a reactor, it's being run for isotopes, either for science and medicine, or for bombs.

The existing weapons have shelf lives. The gear required to successfully purify waste into weapons, if that's even possible, is highly visible.

So in the future, it becomes possible to simply close down other people's reactors, because there's no dual use cover, and keep an eye on how the existing piles of nuclear waste are being handled, watch for centrifuges and other large scale purification efforts, and take the bombs off the map for almost everybody.

The step from there to the great powers dropping their nuclear capability is fairly small, and odds-are that it involves having a lot of junk in space for picking up and reacting to missile launches...

In that future, when you want to reach out and smite someone, it's probably a six foot ceramic rod which costs two hundred thousand dollars. Perhaps not a safer future after all.

At 22/12/07 18:32 , Blogger deichmans said...

Dave, Thanks for the link!

Vinay, I admire your enthusiasm, but I disagree that cheap solar is sufficient to satisfy our world's growing electricity appetite. Solar radiation is fixed at about 1.3kW/m^2, so you'd need millions upon millions of square meters of solar panels to meet demand.

I also disagree with your assertion that steps in the enrichment process are "highly visible". So even if one were to accept your argument for the "dual-use" nature of all nuclear programs, if we can not guarantee absolute transparency in *all* nuclear programs you are invalidating the credibility of the remaining deterrent -- and inviting another arms race.

At 4/1/08 13:10 , Anonymous Anonymous said...


I completely agree, especially with your core values of a nuclear policy and the need to maintain deterrence. There is some empirical evidence[1] that by creating environments of mutually assured destruction, and an awareness of the overall destructiveness of military power, this decreases a state's propensity to go to war or escalate wars in a military crisis. Either way, nuclear weapons in the hands of states brings peace as each realizes that other nuclear-armed states are self-restrained.

[1] Asal, Victor; Beardsley, Kyle. "Proliferation and International Crisis Behavior." Journal of Peace Research, 44(2)2007.

At 7/1/08 12:10 , Blogger deichmans said...

Stephen, Thanks for your comment, and the link to the Asal-Beardsley article. I'm intrigued by their argument of the "pacifying" effect of nuclear weapons -- and their analysis of conflict data since 1945 to support their hypotheses. I wonder how "pre-emptive" strikes against emergent capabilities (e.g., Israel's OPERATION OPERA strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor in June 1981) would skew the results?

You should think about posting on your new 'blog and have Cheryl include you in the mix.


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