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5 myths about getting rid of the bomb

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By Barry Blechman and Alex Bollfrass
Sunday, June 27, 2010

It's everyone's nightmare scenario: After a 65-year hiatus, nuclear bombs are again used as weapons. But despite the evident dangers posed by their existence, nine nations cling to nukes, and a few others, such as Iran, seem to want them. The existing nuclear powers resist disarmament because they believe, or claim to believe, in a number of myths about how easy bombs are for rogue regimes to get -- and how useful they are once in hand.

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1. We can't eliminate nukes because countries would cheat and build them in secret.

When countries get the bomb, it's because the rest of the world is unwilling to stop them, not because everyone is caught by surprise.

Almost every step toward acquiring a nuclear arsenal has its own telltale. To build a bomb, you need either highly enriched uranium or plutonium. Uranium is found only in a few locations, and national intelligence agencies monitor sales. Enriching uranium requires specialized equipment, the sale of which is also monitored. Creating plutonium is even harder, requiring specialized facilities that emit known pollutants and whose designs are familiar to experts. And testing a bomb is a clear giveaway: Nuclear explosions give off unmistakable seismic, acoustic and radioactive signals.

No country has ever fielded operational nuclear weapons without the United States knowing about the program beforehand. Beginning in the 1960s, satellites allowed us to detect the distinctive structures used to produce the materials needed for nuclear weapons; this imagery shed light on bomb-making efforts by China, and later South Africa and Pakistan. Traditional espionage techniques provided information about the French, Indian and Iranian programs. Imports of rare and suspicious materials first alerted us to Israel's intentions.

International monitoring systems are now complementing U.S. efforts. The International Atomic Energy Agency, which supervises the use of nuclear materials for civilian energy production, is adept at detecting attempts to divert those materials for weapons-building; when IAEA inspectors are expelled, as they were by North Korea in 2002, it's the ultimate sign that a country is up to no good. And as part of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a worldwide monitoring system (using seismic and other technologies) is nearing completion, much to the dismay of nations that are not playing by the rules.

2. Nuclear weapons are a guarantee of security.

States with nuclear weapons maintain they are the ultimate insurance policy against fighting, or losing, a war. Recent history suggests otherwise: Nuclear powers have fought and even lost a number of wars during the atomic age.

Egypt and Syria attacked Israel's armed forces in 1973 and Iraq launched missile attacks on Israeli cities during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, despite Israel's nuclear weapons. The United States was stalemated in Korea and lost the war in Vietnam even though it had tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. Such weapons haven't helped us in Iraq or Afghanistan. And the Soviet Union lost not only its own war in Afghanistan, but the Cold War itself: Despite its nuclear arsenal, the USSR disintegrated.

This myth began with the idea that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki forced Japan to surrender in World War II. Most Americans were taught this in school, but Japanese records suggest that the war in the Pacific was won by the courageous American and allied troops who fought it, not by the scientists of the Manhattan Project. By the summer of 1945, 66 Japanese cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing; against this backdrop, Hiroshima was just one more loss. And, in an influential 2007 article in the journal International Security, Ward Wilson, now a senior fellow at the Monterey Institute, showed that the Japanese Supreme Council didn't gather to discuss surrender immediately following Hiroshima; only after the Soviets declared war on Japan and invaded Manchuria, three full days later, did it take that step.

3. As long as there is nuclear energy, there will be nuclear weapons.

The technological line between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons is permeable: The same uranium-enrichment process used to manufacture fuel for energy reactors can be reconfigured to produce bomb fuel, and the plutonium some countries extract while recycling reactor fuel also can be used in nuclear weapons. Every country that has joined the nuclear club since 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed -- India, Israel, North Korea and Pakistan -- acquired its weapons under the cover of a civilian nuclear program.

But history need not repeat itself. The line between the two technologies can be strengthened to prevent the use of energy programs as bomb starter kits, provided individual states stop producing their own reactor fuels. Putting multinational organizations in charge of reactor fuels would keep states from diverting nuclear fuel supplies to weapons programs. Already, the biggest builders of nuclear reactors are multinational corporations. Europe has been operating multinational fuel production facilities since long before it had a common currency. And Russia has proposed a multinational arrangement that would provide enriched uranium for Middle Eastern nations. Last year, the United Arab Emirates agreed to outsource uranium enrichment for its civil energy program; if its neighbors agreed to do the same, Iran might be pressured to follow suit.

4. If all nations dismantled their nuclear arsenals, a cheater with just a few weapons could rule the world.

We've all seen James Bond villains threaten to gain world domination with a single nuclear weapon. But even if an evil despot could secretly build a few bombs, what would he gain? He couldn't use them to win a war. It would take hundreds of weapons to destroy dispersed armies, as Cold War-era NATO and Soviet plans for nuclear conflict in Europe recognized.

The cheater could try to coerce the rest of the world by threatening a nuclear attack, but even that wouldn't lead to lasting domination. Other nations could try to destroy the nuclear arsenal preemptively with conventionally armed long-range strikes. If that failed, they could invade with conventional forces, under the protection of air and missile defenses. In a worst-case scenario, the former nuclear powers could rebuild their arsenals in less than a year. The world would be no worse off than it was before disarming.

Today, James Bond-style villains have been replaced by terrorists. If terrorists acquired a nuclear bomb, the results could be catastrophic -- but terrorists can't be deterred with nuclear weapons. This brings us full circle: The only real solution to the threat of nuclear terrorism is to eliminate nuclear weapons, thereby ensuring that they will stay out of the hands of terrorists.

5. Nuclear weapons are the only way to become a global power.

This idea is a relic of the Cold War, when the two global superpowers were the two leading nuclear powers. Now, nuclear weapons are at best irrelevant to a nation's standing, and their pursuit can even be harmful. North Korea has nuclear weapons, but it cannot feed its own people, much less exert meaningful regional or global influence. Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons has drawn the world's attention, but led only to condemnation, a failing economy, diminishing oil production and growing political isolation.

The United Kingdom and France have nuclear weapons, but among European powers, both have been eclipsed by Germany -- a non-weapons state -- in their influence on economic matters. Brazil, which relinquished its nuclear weapons program, and South Africa, which dismantled its nuclear arsenal, are rising powers with growing influence on world affairs. China and India are emerging superpowers, even though their nuclear arsenals are small. Rapid economic growth, technological advances, and pragmatic self-interested political and diplomatic decisions have contributed to their rise.

The United States is the sole remaining superpower, but not because of our nuclear weapons -- it's our economic and diplomatic strength that permit us to dominate world affairs, and it's the global reach of our conventional military forces that protects us. As demonstrated by our non-use of nuclear weapons for 65 years, nuclear weapons are worthless on the battlefield and any threat to use them in most situations short of war is simply not credible. No wonder so many military officials would rather devote fewer resources to our nuclear arsenal and more to the weapons and equipment they actually use.

abollfrass@stimson.org

bblechman@stimson.org

Barry Blechman and Alex Bollfrass are researchers at the Stimson Center and co-authors of "Unblocking the Road to Zero." They also created Stimson's simulation of the risks facing a cheater on a disarmament treaty, which can be played at www.cheatersrisk.com.


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