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Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century

 

Nuclear Weapon Basics

After witnessing the first test of a nuclear weapon on July 16, 1945, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, is said to have uttered, "Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds."1 More than 60 years later, nuclear weapons continue to astound with their devastating power. Like their conventional counterparts, nuclear bombs cause damage by creating an explosion, yet the two categories of bombs produce explosions of vastly different magnitudes. In nuclear weapons, lighter atoms combine with heavier ones (fusion) or heavy atoms break apart (fission), releasing massive quantities of energy as a byproduct yielding at least a million times more energy than the ordinary chemical reactions that take place in conventional weapons.2 Nuclear weapons also release radiation, which has serious public health consequences miles away from and years after the explosion.3 According to the Canberra Commission, one nuclear weapon can release more energy in a single microsecond than the cumulative amount ofenergy released by all conventional weapons in all wars throughout history.4 Additionally, since the destructive potential of nuclear weapons has grown exponentially in the decades since the weapons were last used in 1945, the devastation rendered by today's nuclear weapons would dwarf the destruction wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.5

Resources:

"The Atomic Archive" by the Nuclear Pathways Project

"How Nuclear Bombs Work" at HowThingsWork.com by Craig C. Freudenrich, Ph.D.

Paths of Proliferation

Despite the catastrophic nature of these weapons, many of the major nuclear powers continue to retain large nuclear stockpiles. Five states – China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States – possess officially declared nuclear arsenals; these states are known as nuclear weapons states under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Israel is widely thought to possess a clandestine arsenal, and both India and Pakistan have declared themselves nuclear weapons states and tested nuclear weapons.

About 20 other states have pursued nuclear arsenals since World War II.6 After researching nuclear weapons technology, most states – including Argentina, Brazil, Libya, and Taiwan – decided to forgo the development of nuclear weapons. South Africa, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus all produced weapons but then renounced their capabilities in the 1990s. Several other countries have continued with their aspirations to build or obtain nuclear weapons, most notably Iran and North Korea. Both of these countries received technological assistance from Abdul Qadeer Khan, the founder of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, who secretly sold nuclear knowledge and technology to countries with nuclear aspirations for two decades.7

North Korea’s growing nuclear program has been a concern to the international community since the early 1990s. Despite agreeing to suspend its nuclear weapons program as part of the U.S.- North Korea Agreed Framework of 1994, Pyongyang resumed its efforts to process plutonium and renewed its quest for a fission bomb in the late 1990s. North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and announced that it had produced nuclear weapons on February 10, 2005. Hoping that diplomatic efforts would persuade Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear program, diplomats from Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and the United States sat down with representatives from North Korea during four separate rounds of diplomatic negotiations that began in 2003.Through these talks, North Korea agreed in September 2005 to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for economic cooperation and an assurance of its sovereignty; however, the talks stalled.8 Tensions surrounding North Korea’s nuclear efforts further escalated in early July 2006 when North Korea tested several missiles including the Taepodong-2, a long-range ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching the U.S, which failed to make its intended target.9 However, the situation improved in March 2007 when the six-party talks resumed. In July 2007, the IAEA confirmed that North Korea had shut down its nuclear reactor. Nonetheless, negotiators cautioned that this is only the first step towards the North's nuclear disarmament.

Iran restarted enriching uranium – a process integral to the development of nuclear weapons – in August 2005, stating that, as a party to the NPT, it had the right to develop nuclear power for peaceful purposes. Through negotiations with France, Germany, and the United Kingdom in the two years prior to this development, Tehran had agreed to suspend its enrichment program in exchange for a package of economic and political incentives.10 After these negotiations fell apart and Iran resumed its nuclear weapons program, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors passed a resolution (pdf) on September 24, 2005 recognizing Iran to be in non-compliance with its NPT safeguard obligations. In February 2006, the IAEA referred Iran to the UN Security Council for further action regarding its non-compliance, and the Security Council has underlined the importance of Iran meeting its obligations to the IAEA.

Resources:

"Country Profiles" from the Nuclear Threat Initiative

Current News and Resources on Iran from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Current News and Resources on North Korea from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

NRDC's "Nuclear Databook"

"WMD around the World" from the Federation of American Scientists

International Arms Control Efforts

Despite rising concerns about the proliferation of nuclear technology that could be used to create nuclear weapons, the total number of nuclear weapons worldwide has decreased significantly since the Cold War. The National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) approximates that the current cumulative number of nuclear weapons possessed by all countries stands at around 27,000 nuclear warheads, about 12,500 of which are operational. This number is significantly smaller than during the mid-1980s, when global nuclear stockpiles soared to over 70,000 nuclear warheads.11 These reductions are due in part to unilateral and bilateral initiatives taken by countries to cut back their arsenals; international treaties have also contributed to the falling numbers.

Designed to curb nuclear nonproliferation, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which entered into force in 1970, is almost universal in scope with 189 state parties. Notable exceptions include Israel, India, and Pakistan, as well as North Korea, a former party that withdrew from the treaty. The treaty binds the five original nuclear-weapons states to pursue general disarmament and prevents them from transferring nuclear weapons technology to states without nuclear arsenals. Through the NPT, states that do not possess nuclear weapons agree not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, though the treaty entitles these countries to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is another international agreement designed to curb nuclear proliferation. The CTBT bans all nuclear testing in an attempt to prevent the development of new types of nuclear devises and to impede qualitative improvements to existing weapons. Although 132 states have ratified the treaty, it has not entered into force since it requires ratification by 44 specific countries before it can be implemented. Ten of these countries have not ratified the agreement including China and the United States. Prospects for the treaty’s enactment in the near future are dim: the George W. Bush administration has stated that it does not intend to submit the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification, and India, North Korea and Pakistan have not yet signed the agreement.

Resources:

Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organisation (CTBTO)

Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch of Disarmament Affairs at the United Nations

"Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zones" from around the world from the Agency for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in Latin America and the Caribbean (OPANAL)

Rethinking Nuclear Weapons?

More than a decade after the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons continue to play an important role in U.S. military strategy. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that the United States alone currently deploys just over 5,200 strategic nuclear warheads,12 and the United States has spent over $5.5 trillion dollars on its nuclear weapons program since 1940.13 However, U.S. military leaders and governmental strategists are torn regarding the benefits of nuclear weapons, and a lack of consensus exists as to whether the weapons deserve the money and attention they have been afforded. Some experts, including policymakers in the Bush administration, argue that nuclear weapons helped prevent the escalation of tensions between the Cold War superpowers from devolving into a “hot” conflict14 and have argued that nuclear weapons should be adapted (pdf) to the demands of the new security environment.15

Under the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), an assessment of U.S. nuclear policy required by Congress, the Bush administration announced its intent to retain nuclear weapons and to make them a key element of the U.S. national security strategy, while altering the traditional U.S. strategic triad to reflect changing threats.16 Whereas during the Cold War the U.S. strategic triad – a grouping of the most important strategic weapons systems for U.S. security – consisted of ballistic missiles, bombers and submarines equipped with nuclear weapons, the “new triad” introduced in the 2001 NPR also stresses the importance of non-nuclear capabilities. All missile, bomber, and submarine-based nuclear defenses are grouped together in one leg of the revised triad, with a national missile defense system (pdf) forming the second leg, and technologically-advanced conventional forces (such as precision guided munitions) comprising the third.17

Additionally, the 2001 NPR suggested that research should be undertaken on low-yield nuclear weapons that could destroy hardened or deeply buried targets, such as underground facilities where biological or chemical weapons are stored.18 This recommendation, which grew into the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator (RNEP) project, garnered criticism (pdf) from the scientific community for its scientific improbability.19 RNEP research was put on hold after congressional funding for the program was cut in October 2005.20

Following the underlying sentiment in favor of modernizing the U.S. nuclear arsenal in the 2001 Nuclear Posture Review, the United States is also developing a plan to update the warheads in its nuclear stockpile. Through the Reliable Replacement Warheads (RRW) program, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) of the U.S. Department of Energy is developing updated designs that they assert will help the United States maintain a smaller nuclear stockpile with more reliable and safer warheads.21 Critics of the program argue that U.S. weapons are already reliable and the new untested designs from the RRW program might be more unreliable than those already in the U.S. arsenal. Also, critics worry that the program would result in new weapons designs, hurt U.S. nonproliferation efforts, and force the United States to resume nuclear testing.22

However, the continued presence of nuclear weapons in U.S. security strategy invites criticism from a range of sources. Many military leaders assert that nuclear weapons are unusable on the battlefield and contend that funds spent on nuclear weapons would be better invested in conventional weaponry, a field in which the United States enjoys superiority.23 Other experts have argued that nuclear weapons should not be central to any nation's security strategy and should be significantly reduced,24 and some argue for a strategy ending in complete nuclear disarmament.25 In particular, the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs has argued that nuclear weapons, if retained, will eventually be used again in conflict with results far more horrific than those seen at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Resources:

"The Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator" from globalsecurity.org

"Nuclear Weapons: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program" from the Congressional Research Service Report (pdf)

"New Triad" from the Nuclear Threat Initiative

Excerpts from Nuclear Posture Review by the U.S. Department of Defense

The Nuclear Information Project directed by Hans M. Kristensen

Although some influential policymakers promote nuclear weapons as integral to U.S. security, important steps towards reducing the U.S. nuclear arsenal have been accomplished. In particular, the United States and Russia have entered a series of strategic arms control agreements over the last 35 years, from the SALT negotiations in the early 1970s to, most recently, the Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty (SORT), which was signed in 2002. Through the SORT treaty, which both enters into force and expires on December 31, 2012, the United States and Russia agreed to cut down the number of “operationally deployed strategic warheads” in their respective arsenals to between 1,700 and 2,200 warheads each. The Bush administration has praised the treaty for reducing the number of nuclear weapons each country keeps on alert and helping create a better relationship between the United States and Russia.26 Critics of the treaty are concerned that SORT will not lead to irreversible weapons cuts since the agreement lacks verification measures and does not define what constitutes the “operationally deployed strategic warheads” that the agreement limits, giving each country the ability to interpret the substance of the treaty as befits their own national interests.27

The United States has also undertaken several programs to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons materials, notably the Cooperative Threat Reduction program, which secures vulnerable weapons of mass destruction (WMD) stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, and the Global Threat Reduction Initiative, which specifically secures nuclear fuel and nuclear power reactors. Internationally, the United States participates in the G8’s Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Material of Mass Destruction, initiated in 2002, through which the United States committed to contribute $10 billion (and the other original G7 nations combined dedicated another $10 billion) to fund WMD nonproliferation programs across the globe between 2002 and 2012. The United States also spearheaded the Proliferation Security Initiative, a program that interdicts WMD transit while they are in transit, and the Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism, a similar program that focuses on nuclear materials.

Resources:

U.S. Department of State

U.S. Department of Defense

National Nuclear Security Administration (of the U.S. Department of Energy)


Although a number of states continue to seek nuclear arsenals to bolster their security, some experts and non-profit organizations argue that improving security globally includes making strides to improve well-being in non-military sectors such as health, technology, sustainable development, energy, environment, and economy. Concerted diplomatic efforts to address these other areas of need will contribute to improved global welfare, as well as a sense of well-being that can devalue nuclear weapons as a tool for ensuring security.

Visit the following links to examine these perspectives further:

Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

Abolition 2000

Global Nuclear Disarmament Fund

 

Sources: “Los Alamos National Laboratory: History – The Oppenheimer Years,” Los Alamos National Laboratory; Alyn Ware, “Weapons Basics,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation; “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” Atomic Archive; Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Canberra Commission, 1996; Karen Yourish and Delano D’Souza, “Father of Pakistani Bomb Sold Nulcear Secrets,” Arms Control Today, March 2004; Paul Kerr, “North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall,” Arms Control Today, December 2005; Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, “Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945 – 2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006; Stephen Schwartz, “Overview of Project Findings: The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal,” the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Group at the Brookings Institution, 1998; Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006; “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations,” Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Final Coordination 2), March 15 2005; “Nuclear Posture Review (Excerpts),” U.S. Department of Defense, January 8, 2002; Robert Nelson, “Nuclear Bunker Busters, Mini-nukes, and the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile,” Physics Today, November 2003; Wade Boese, “Congress Cuts Nuclear Bunker Buster Again,” Arms Control Today, December 2005; “Nuclear Weapons: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program,” CRS Report for Congress, updated 2006; Andrew Krepinevich and Steven Kosiak, “Smarter Bombs, Fewer Nukes,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Winter 1998/1999; Jack Mendelsohn, “America and Russia: Make-Believe Arms Control,” Current History, October 2002.

-Kate Amlin, Summer 2006


Footnotes

1) “Los Alamos National Laboratory: History – The Oppenheimer Years,” Los Alamos National Laboratory.

2) Alyn Ware, “Weapons Basics,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

3) “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” Atomic Archive.

4) Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Canberra Commission, Part 1, August 12, 1996.

5) Devon Chaffe and Alyn Ware, “Effects of a Nuclear Weapon on a Target,” Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.

6) Carey Sublette, “Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions: Nuclear Weapon Nations and Arsenals,” Nuclear Weapons Archive, August 2001.

7) Karen Yourish and Delano D’Souza, “Father of Pakistani Bomb Sold Nulcear Secrets,” Arms Control Today, March 2004.

8) Paul Kerr, “North Korea Nuclear Talks Stall,” Arms Control Today, December 2005.

9) “North Korea Test-Fires Several Missiles,” New York Times, July 4, 2006.

10) Paul Kerr, “Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion,” Arms Control Today, September 2005.

11) Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, “Global Nuclear Stockpiles, 1945 – 2006,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006.

12) Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris, “U.S. Nuclear Forces, 2006,” NRDC: Nuclear Notebook in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January/February 2006.

13) Stephen Schwartz, “Overview of Project Findings: The Hidden Costs of Our Nuclear Arsenal,” the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Cost Study Group at the Brookings Institution, 1998.

14) Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, “The Rise of U.S. Nuclear Primacy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2006.

15) “Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations,” Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, March 15 2005.

16) “Nuclear Posture Review (Excerpts),” U.S. Department of Defense, January 8, 2002.

17) J.D. Crouch, “Special Briefing on the Nuclear Posture Review,” U.S. Department of Defense, January 9, 2002.

18) Charles Ferguson,“Mini-Nuclear Weapons and the U.S. Nuclear Posture Review,” Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, April 8, 2002.

19) Robert Nelson, "Nuclear Bunker Busters, Mini-nukes, and the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile," Physics Today, November 2003.

20) Wade Boese, “Congress Cuts Nuclear Bunker Buster Again,” Arms Control Today, December 2005.

21) Thomas D’Agnostino, Deputy Administrator for Defense Programs at the NNSA, Testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Subcommittee on Strategic Force, April 5, 2006.

22) Jonathan Medalia, “Nuclear Weapons: The Reliable Replacement Warhead Program,” CRS Report for Congress, updated March 9, 2006. Pages 18 – 22.

23) Andrew Krepinevich and Steven Kosiak, “The Military Revolution and the Case for Deep Cuts in Nuclear Forces,” published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists as “Smarter Bombs, Fewer Nukes,” Winter 1998/1999.

24) Sidney Drell and James Goodby, “What are Nuclear Weapons For?” Arms Control Association, April 2005.

25) Report of the Canberra Commission.

26) Donald Rumsfeld, Prepared Testimony for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Regarding the Moscow Treaty, July 17, 2002.

27) Jack Mendelsohn, “America and Russia: Make-Believe Arms Control,” Current History, October 2002, pages 325 – 329.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How much danger do the world's nuclear arsenals pose?

Check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' Doomsday Clock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The “usability” of nuclear weapons is a hotly debated topic. Learn more from Nina Tannenwald’s “Stigmatizing the Bomb: Origins of the Nuclear Taboo.” (pdf)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn about the history of “U.S.-Soviet/Russian Nuclear Arms Control” in Arms Control Today