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The Status of Nuclear Non-Proliferation


At the United Nations this month, more than 180 countries are discussing how to contain the spread of nuclear weapons. The countries have all signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; it's not been an easy debate. Many nations criticize the US for not doing enough to de-emphasize nuclear weapons. The US wants to focus attention on the problems of North Korea and Iran.


The talks at the UN make this a good time to revisit some of the basic questions about nuclear weapons. NPR's Mike Shuster has the first of three reports on the perils of proliferation.

MIKE SHUSTER reporting:

Many of that rather small circle of people who spend most of their time thinking about nuclear weapons say not much has changed from the days of the Cold War. Sam Nunn, former Georgia senator who was chairman of the Armed Services Committee, is now president of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.

Former Senator SAM NUNN (Democrat, Georgia; President, Nuclear Threat Initiative): We still have a Cold War posture. We still thousands of weapons on what I call `hair-trigger alert,' the US and Russia do. Other nations in the world are going to get more like us unless we figure out a way how to dismount this tiger that we've both been riding on for a long time.

SHUSTER: The United States now has an active arsenal of some 8,000 nuclear warheads. Only about 3,000 of them are actually deployed on missiles, long-range bombers and in submarines; the rest are in reserve. Russia has a comparable arsenal. A treaty signed by the US and Russia three years ago will reduce the number of deployed nuclear warheads to roughly 2,000 by the year 2012.

Most of the bombs in the US arsenal are very large. They are the multiple-megaton bombs that the US developed during the Cold War. They were designed to hold the whole of the Soviet Union at risk in order to deter Moscow's use of nuclear weapons against the US. John Hamre, president of The Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, says those bombs--their size and characteristics--are no longer appropriate for how the United States ought to think about its nuclear arsenal.

Mr. JOHN HAMRE (President, The Center for Strategic and International Studies): We're just so far out of scale. As long as we're not going to be engaging in protracted nuclear warfare with Russia, we don't need this inventory. More importantly, this inventory has locked our thinking into the past; it's not `Let us think about this problem for the future.' So we need to start over. We need to start fresh in thinking about this problem.

SHUSTER: Most of the officials and former officials who have had responsibility for America's nuclear capabilities believe there is still a need for nuclear weapons. Siegfried Hecker is a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where many of the nation's nuclear weapons were designed and built.

Mr. SIEGFRIED HECKER (Former Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory): Regardless of how the world has evolved, with the US being the dominant world power, I think it needs to retain nuclear weapons as long as anybody else has them.

SHUSTER: For Hecker and many others, as long as other nations have them, and as long as some of those nations are not true close friends and allies of the United States, then this country will have to retain enough nuclear weapons to deter their use against us. But that doesn't mean the arsenal has to remain the same as it was during the Cold War, according to retired General Larry Welch, former chief of staff of the Air Force, now president of the Institute for Defense Analysis.

General LARRY WELCH (Retired; President, Institute for Defense Analysis): What constitutes an adequate deterrent, even in the minds of sort of the most avid nuclear supporter, is, like, maybe a fifth of what we thought was adequate during the Cold War.

SHUSTER: General Welch believes much has changed since the end of the Cold War. He argues that even the alert status of America's weapons is not quite the hair trigger it was. That's because the US has been taking silo-based missiles with multiple warheads out of commission, replacing them with single-warhead missiles. Before, the equation facing an American president upon the launch of missiles from the Soviet Union was, `Use the land-based missiles or possibly lose their multiple warheads to a first nuclear strike; therefore, launch once there is an early warning of a possible attack.' General Welch says that kind of thinking is changing.

Gen. WELCH: So by going to a single-warhead, silo-based missile, we completely change the equation. And the `Use it or lose it' goes away and the last vestige of hair trigger goes away.

SHUSTER: General Welch and other strong proponents of nuclear weapons are supportive of changing the size and characteristics of the American nuclear arsenal, but within limits. For one thing, notes Siegfried Hecker, the fact that the US has nuclear weapons keeps many nations from pursuing them.

Mr. HECKER: The US nuclear weapons still provide what one calls the nuclear umbrella for many other countries, which then allows them not to have to develop nuclear weapons themselves.

SHUSTER: Most of the formal allies of the United States do not pursue their own nuclear arsenal because the US protects them. That list includes some powerful nations, points out Michael Nacht, a former arms control official, now dean of the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

Mr. MICHAEL NACHT (Dean, Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California at Berkeley): Japan, in particular, and Germany possibly--I think much less likely--would fundamentally rethink their nuclear position if the United States were to really get out of the nuclear business, or even were to show great weakness in security affairs, particularly now, let's say, with respect to North Korea and, eventually, in dealing with the Chinese.

SHUSTER: This is one of the paradoxes of nuclear non-proliferation. In the non-proliferation treaty now under discussion at the UN, the accepted nuclear powers, including the US, pledge to disarm themselves eventually. But as long as the US retains a nuclear capability, that keeps many nations from going nuclear themselves.

The nuclear posture of others may suggest a way ahead for the US. China is generally considered to be the next possible nuclear adversary of the United States, but it has only some 18 intercontinental missiles deployed that might reach the US. And unlike the United States, China's warheads are stored separately from the missiles and the missiles do not contain fuel. So it would take hours for the Chinese to mount a missile attack rather than the minutes it could take to launch American nuclear missiles. India deploys its nuclear weapons like China does. Scott Sagan, who is director of Stanford University's Center for Security and Cooperation, says this is a lesson the US could learn from the Chinese.

Mr. SCOTT SAGAN (Director, Center for Security and Cooperation, Stanford University): The United States and Russia should seek, as a goal, to move more towards that kind of minimalist posture. But instead, I fear that what is happening is that our posture and our statements are encouraging the Indians and the Chinese to move more towards the posture that we had in the Cold War and that we, unfortunately, are maintaining today.

SHUSTER: Sagan argues that as the threat to the US has changed, so should the US nuclear posture adapt.

Mr. SAGAN: Threats to the United States no longer come from Russia; they come from potential uses of nuclear weapons by either so-called rogue actors or, more likely, from terrorists. And our strategy should take that into account.

SHUSTER: That certainly could mean many fewer nuclear weapons and much smaller weapons as well, argues Siegfried Hecker.

Mr. HECKER: For nuclear weapons to have utility, they must deter, because in the end, that is the principal reason for having nuclear weapons. And to deter in countries such as Iran or North Korea, you do not need weapons of huge yield.

SHUSTER: So this presents the US with an opportunity to rethink its entire nuclear posture, says John Hamre, including the kind of damage we as Americans are willing to contemplate inflicting on other states.

Mr. HAMRE: The credibility of those weapons has to be in scale with the way America has to fight in the future. And for us--this may not be for other countries, but for us, we have to pursue a program where we minimize collateral damage.

SHUSTER: This is a military argument and a political argument, but it also has a moral component. However enormous the potential damage nuclear adversaries contemplated during the Cold War, the United States now has an opportunity to craft a nuclear deterrent that, if it were ever used, would fit the scale of the far smaller threats it faces today. Mike Shuster, NPR News.

BLOCK: Tomorrow on the program, nuclear terrorism and the security of nuclear weapons and materials. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.