With the Ongoing Risks of Nuclear Weapons, Why Is the Issue on the Back Burner?

Ask the Scientist - February 2015

P. Arveson of Rockville, MD asks "Recent stories, such as the scandal involving Air Force ICBM staff, highlight the ongoing risks of nuclear weapons. Why is the nuclear weapons issue on the back burner?" and is answered by David Wright, Ph.D, co-director of the UCS Global Security Program. 

This is a vexing question, especially given the fact nuclear weapons remain one of the few existential threats to humanity. Studies show that even the use of a relatively small number of nuclear weapons could lead to disastrous global consequences. I’ll focus here on U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals, since they are by far the largest.  

I see three main reasons why people pay little attention to this issue. Some assume that 25 years after the end of the Cold War the risks posed by nuclear weapons must have been largely eliminated. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. The U.S. and Russian arsenals still possess a total of some 9,000 nuclear warheads, with more than 3,700 deployed on missiles or bombers to deliver them.

 

Others recognize that the nuclear risk still exists but believe the problem is simply too big and intractable. Yet the United States and Russia have made considerable progress in cutting their arsenals over the past several decades, slashing them from a peak of more than 63,000 warheads in 1986 to the 9,000 today. Most recently, the New START treaty of 2011 reduced the limit on deployed U.S. and Russian weapons and ensured strong verification measures. Likewise, the two countries have reduced their stocks of nuclear material and have worked together to significantly improve the security of what stocks remain. The international community, meanwhile, negotiated the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans nuclear explosive tests, although it has not yet entered into force. So there has been more progress than most people realize, and more can be done.

Still others think that despite the risks posed by nuclear weapons, the status quo seems to work and so there is no reason for the United States to reduce its nuclear arsenal. But this argument fails to recognize that the status quo continues to place the world at undue risk. For example, both the United States and Russia continue the Cold War practice of keeping large numbers of their nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in minutes. Keeping missiles on high alert increases the risk of mistaken, accidental, or unauthorized launch. In fact, there have been a surprising number of incidents that increased the likelihood of a launch due to errors and confusion. The longer both countries continue to keep missiles on hair-trigger alert, the greater the risk that one of these incidents will end in disaster—especially as tensions between the two countries increase. 

Ultimately, the low level of public interest in nuclear weapons issues means there is little pressure for policy makers to make them a high priority. As a result, even though President Obama set expectations he would focus on reducing risks from nuclear weapons early in his first term, he has done less on this issue than expected. Similarly, Congress has not made reducing nuclear risks a priority.

Soured relations with Russia means that arms control negotiations will be difficult for the foreseeable future. But there are steps that President Obama can and should take independent of Russia that would increase national security.

For example, President Obama should take all U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) off hair-trigger alert, and we are working to educate policymakers and the public about this issue to create pressure for this step. My colleague Stephen Young has recommended a number of additional measures in a series of blog posts, including cutting U.S. deployed long-range warheads to 1,000.  

Taking these steps would benefit the United States in several ways. Most important, they could reduce the risk that nuclear weapons would be used by either country. In addition, taking steps to further reduce the role of nuclear weapons would help strengthen the international nonproliferation regime by demonstrating that the major nuclear powers are serious about reducing their arsenals and changing their nuclear policies. UCS is continuing to work on several other aspects of the nuclear issue. We are working to ensure that the United States does not begin to develop and build a new generation of nuclear weapons, but instead simply refurbishes its current warheads to ensure safety and reliability while it reduces its arsenal. We are also trying to ensure that an expansion of U.S. missile defense [LINK] will not inhibit the possibility of more nuclear reductions, and are providing policymakers and the public with accurate information about China’s nuclear weapons program.

 

David Wright is a nationally known expert on the technical aspects of missile defense systems, missile proliferation, and space weapons. In 2001, he was a co-recipient of the American Physical Society’s Joseph A. Burton Forum Award for his arms control research and his work with international scientists. He received his doctorate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1983 and worked as a research physicist from 1983 to 1988.

Last revised date: February 4, 2015