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Former Los Alamos R&D chief, Stephen M. Younger on the NPT, 10 January 2009

'Taming the Nuclear Dragon: A global nonproliferation treaty is in serious danger of falling apart', Wall Street Journal, Stephen M. Younger, 10 January 2009.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970, signed by 190 countries, was intended to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and ultimately create a bomb-free world. It will come up for review next year and it is in serious danger of unraveling.

North Korea has done a masterful job of stalling the reversal of its weapons program, and Iran steadfastly refuses to allow inspectors into its nuclear facilities. Pakistan celebrated its 1998 nuclear test as a demonstration of an "Islamic Bomb," a frightening prospect given the current violence in Gaza. Never has nuclear proliferation -- and the treaty that for nearly four decades has kept it in check -- been a more serious issue on the world agenda.

The most important element of the NPT is the promise by nations without nuclear weapons not to develop them. In exchange, they receive assistance in the peaceful uses of nuclear technology for energy, medicine and industry. The existing nuclear states -- the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France and China -- agreed to "general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control." Only India, Israel and Pakistan declined to participate. (North Korea signed, but then withdrew in 2003 and conducted a nuclear test in 2006.) Many countries are now capable of creating their own bombs and some believe that they need them to deter attacks from neighbors.

Early American proposals to put atomic energy under international controls were rejected by Moscow, but progress was made in limiting the environmental damage caused by nuclear testing. The Partial Test Ban Treaty signed in 1963 by the U.S., the Soviet Union and Great Britain (and later by many other countries), outlawed nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, under the ocean or in space, effectively ending the threat of nuclear fallout. Limits on nuclear testing did not answer the fundamental question of nuclear proliferation: Why is it acceptable for some countries to have the bomb and not others?

Fierce negotiations leading up to the NPT led to a compromise -- the clause that bound the existing nuclear states to eventual nuclear disarmament. A blind eye had been turned to this requirement during the Cold War -- no one really expected the U.S. or the Soviet Union to voluntarily disarm when hundreds of thousands of combat troops faced one another across the Iron Curtain. But now, nearly 20 years after the Berlin Wall came down, patience is wearing thin.

It's not that non-nuclear countries are anxious to have their own bombs. They are simply demanding that the nuclear nations live up to their part of the bargain and get rid of weapons that threaten everyone on the planet. Without a convincing demonstration that the weapon states are serious about disarmament, Iran and other countries could withdraw, just as North Korea did in 2003.

"The first decades of the twentieth century were a period of stunning advances in physics and chemistry. It seemed that every experiment, technical paper, and scientific conference revealed some new aspect of nature."

This is not to say that there has been no progress at all toward reducing Cold War stockpiles of nuclear weapons which, at their peak in the 1980s, numbered in the tens of thousands. The Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) of 1969 capped the number of missile silos and submarines maintained by the U.S. and the Soviet Union -- things that could be counted from spy satellites. The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991 led to the cancellation of new weapons development programs and the destruction of hundreds of nuclear artillery rounds. Bombers, which used to sit at the end of runways with their engines running to enable them to take off on a moment's notice, were taken off alert.

Congress was unhappy with the slow pace of nuclear reductions and in 2001 mandated the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), a comprehensive look at nuclear weapons policy. The NPR recommended significant reductions in our nuclear arsenal and greater use of advanced conventional weapons to achieve what had been nuclear missions. In an age of smart bombs and cyber warfare, nuclear weapons are no longer the only way or even the best way to achieve critical military objectives. Mobile missiles, most command bunkers and other vital military assets can be destroyed without crossing the nuclear threshold.

Policy conservatives in the Department of Defense all but ignored most of the recommendations of the study, doggedly insisting that there was no reason to dismantle perfectly good weapons built at taxpayer expense and that we might need someday. Officials at the Department of Energy, which oversees nuclear weapons research and development, claimed that nuclear weapons had prevented a Third World War by making the consequences too horrible to contemplate, the implication being that there is no reason to change a successful strategy.

Conservative intransigence over nuclear weapons was overruled at a higher level when Presidents Bush and Putin signed the Treaty of Moscow in 2002, a bilateral agreement to reduce each country's stockpile to between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed strategic weapons. But, like the strategic treaties before it, the Moscow treaty says nothing about the many thousands of weapons kept in "inactive reserve" or other "non-strategic" nuclear weapons intended for tactical battlefield use. The result is that America, and presumably Russia, continue to maintain thousands of nuclear weapons beyond those specified in the treaty, some of which have no identified military utility.

Given the pressures of responding to the terror attacks of 2001 and the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively little senior attention has been given to the role of nuclear weapons in a multi-polar world. Congressional hearings on nuclear issues are often poorly attended, and the Secretary of Defense only became energized when the Air Force inadvertently shipped nuclear weapons and classified warhead parts to unauthorized destinations. Nongovernmental organizations such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have tried to fill this policy vacuum with public meetings and white papers, sensing that, without concrete proposals for change, the 2010 NPT Review Conference could end up as a disaster.

Three main arguments are put up against nuclear weapons elimination: that nuclear weapons cannot be un-invented; that a cheater could blackmail the world with only a few weapons; and that some targets cannot be destroyed with anything less than a nuclear explosion. But are these valid objections? Before rejecting even the possibility of a nuclear-free world, proponents of deep reductions in the nuclear arsenal recommend that we at least take a look at the challenges. Would the intrusive nature of inspections make them impractical? Would international teams have to have access to the White House, the CIA or even our own living rooms to assure them that we were not secretly harboring a few weapons?

The blackmail argument deserves similar critical scrutiny. Any use of a nuclear weapon will entail horrific consequences, but a few weapons would not destroy the entire country. Our military would survive and could inflict a fatal blow on the attacker, most likely without nuclear weapons. However, whether you accept the cold logic of this reasoning depends on whether you and your family happen to live in one of the cities that would be targeted.

The final criticism of elimination -- that targets buried deep under mountains cannot be destroyed with anything less than a massive nuclear explosion -- is harder to argue against. But there are relatively few of this type of challenging target; the vast majority of missile silos and submarines can be eliminated by advanced conventional weapons. As for the others, perhaps a treaty could be negotiated to outlaw the construction and use of underground facilities. Or, we might find a way to isolate them from the outside world, rendering them ineffective during a conflict.

Nuclear elimination boils down to how much risk one is willing to take, weighed against the benefits of a nuclear-free world. There is no easy answer and the same course of action could produce opposite effects. For example, American elimination of its nuclear weapons could stimulate other countries to do likewise or, conversely, to develop their own, as Japan has indicated it might do if it loses nuclear assurances from the U.S. Even doing nothing will have consequences -- other countries could cite our failure to live up to our commitments as an excuse to develop their own weapons.

Perhaps the most prudent course would be to show good faith by reducing existing nuclear stockpiles while developing rigorous verification technologies that would provide assurance against cheaters. A detailed plan could be established with goals and timelines, including off-ramps in case we cannot find adequate means of verification or if international tensions rise to unacceptable levels.

A failure of the international regime to halt and reverse the spread of nuclear weapons is too horrible to contemplate -- all the more reason to take whatever actions we can to assure the success of next year's review conference.

Stephen M. Younger formerly led nuclear research and development at Los Alamos National Laboratory. His most recent book is "The Bomb: A New History."

Source: Wall Street Journal, www.wsj.com.

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