Debating Nuclear Weapons

There are two sides to the public debate on nuclear weapons. One: All nuclear weapons must be abolished, as rapidly as possible. Two: They have preserved the peace for more than half a century; the world would be more dangerous without them.

Each side is convinced of the morality of its position. Nuclear weapons can destroy civilization, after all. So they must be eliminated. So we must have them to deter their use by others.

The public seems little interested in debates over nuclear weapons, for many reasons. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 convinced many people that nuclear weapons are no longer a problem. It’s unpleasant to think about the collapse of civilization in radioactive clouds. Nuclear weapons and deterrence seem like highly technical subjects that most people don’t have the time to understand. And, at the moment, Donald Trump is sucking out the oxygen from discussing anything else.

The antinuclear mobilizations of the 1980s are done and gone. The 1980s were a scary time, with both the United States and the Soviet Union building up their nuclear capabilities with very short warning times in Europe. Movies featured the coming nuclear holocaust. We aren’t that close to nuclear war now, despite Vladimir Putin’s attempts at fearmongering.

We now have an opportunity to downsize nuclear arsenals, although probably not to eliminate them entirely. Nuclear weapons and the industrial complexes that design and build them are aging. The weapons themselves need make-overs to convert them and their systems from vacuum tubes and floppy discs to more modern technology. Other parts of the weapons, like the plutonium pits that are central to the nuclear bang, may need to be replaced as they age.

The facilities that service the weapons are also aging. Los Alamos has been trying for decades to build a replacement for their 1950s-era Chemistry and Metallurgy Building, which houses hot cells and laboratories for analyzing weapons parts and their replacements. The Y-12 enriched uranium complex at Oak Ridge contains buildings at least that old.

Upgrades are likewise planned for delivery vehicles. In combination with upgrades to the warheads, some open the question of whether they are new weapons in contravention of treaties.

Congress has not yet decided to fund these upgrades. The best guide to funding would be linked to an assessment of future nuclear weapons needs. Unfortunately, that assessment is not simple. Those who want to see nuclear weapons zeroed advocate for serious cuts in the requested budgets. The military, of course, want the shiniest and most weapons possible. Both ignore the much more complex realities underlying future needs for nuclear weapons.

Whether nuclear weapons are necessary depends on the rest of the world. Russia’s recent actions in Crimea and the Donbas, drills for nuclear war against Sweden, and aggressive flight tactics in the Baltic and Black Seas make it difficult to argue against the deterrent value of nuclear weapons. There also seems no immediate prospect for extending arms control talks between the United States and Russia. Until Russia and the US move closer to nuclear minimums or disarmament, it will be difficult to engage China, Britain, or France in reductions of their nuclear arsenals. India and Pakistan are far from giving up their nuclear weapons. North Korea and Israel are each in a category of their own. Michael Krepon describes some of the complexities.

Even if there were general agreement to destroy all nuclear weapons, that activity and its verification would take years – perhaps a decade. The facilities needed are the same ones that need to be upgraded to maintain a nuclear arsenal. Decommissioning the weapons is more dangerous than building them because of the way explosives, electronics, and fissile material are intertwined.

Think tanks and universities have gone beyond the simple dichotomy of no nukes versus continuing the status quo, but the flat pros and cons make the news. Any political decision benefits from public participation. There are good arguments for moving toward fewer nuclear weapons and also for maintaining the ones we have until other international issues are resolved. We haven’t had that discussion, and we really should.

I plan to look at the debate in more detail in later posts.


Thanks to Alex Wellerstein for helpful discussion.


Photo: Building 9212 at the Y-12 plant, one of the older buildings still in use in the nuclear complex.