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Containing Nuclear Proliferation

Sidney Drell Richard Garwin

Sidney Drell

Richard Garwin

Physicists Sidney Drell and  have been deeply involved in nuclear weapons development and policy for more than 40 years. Garwin contributed to the design of the first thermonuclear weapon in 1952 and Drell worked on a JASON study in 1960 that examined national security issues. Both went on to receive numerous distinctions and serve in prominent federal advisory positions. The conversation was led by Francis Slakey, Associate Director of Public Affairs and
Jennifer Ouellette, APS News Associate Editor.

Q: When nuclear weapons were first developed, what did the designers believe the future held?

GARWIN: Nuclear weapons were a scarcity. We finished the war with maybe one nuclear weapon in August of 1945. And, in fact, the people at Los Alamos had very different views, it turns out, of the future. Hans Bethe, shortly before he died, commented, "Nobody at Los Alamos believed that there would be thousands or tens of thousands of nuclear weapons." And yet, in November 1945 Robert Oppenheimer said that, "If there were to be a war between two nuclear-armed countries they would be used by the thousands or the tens of thousands." So, between these two people who were intimately involved in the creation of nuclear weapons to have such different views is quite striking.

DRELL: The first envisaged use was to confront the large Soviet army in Europe as NATO was being built. They were a substitute for large manpower if the Soviets had moved west. But, when thermonuclear weapons increased the destructive potential of these weapons by factors of a thousand beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the policy became to prevent their use.

Q: There is no longer a Soviet Union to deter. What is the role for nuclear weapons today? How do you think the president views the use of nuclear weapons?

GARWIN: Well, you would certainly use them in response to an attack by nuclear weapons. But there are a number of points here. One problem is that this President has said, "We'll never take any tool off the table." So, we won't promise not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states. The current Administration doesn't want to limit its freedom of action in any regard. I think that is a very great mistake. It's not in our national security interest to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, and in the past we have had formal commitments in that regard. These commitments have encouraged people to remain members in good standing of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970. Some folks on the military side were horrified at the cavalier approach to using nuclear weapons in the current dispute with Iran as if they were just another kind of conventional weapon.

DRELL: I think the President has made clear–all Presidents have made clear–that these are weapons of last-resort. At this point, I don’t worry that the President would use nuclear weapons. But, what he says about their importance is quite relevant to our effort to try and prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons. You shouldn't say you'll never use a weapon, because you can't predict the future, not accurately. But the NPT calls upon the nuclear nations to reduce the salience of these weapons, and what we say matters.

Q: What do you think is the right size arsenal?

GARWIN: There's no security in having vast numbers of nuclear weapons. There's insecurity in our having vast numbers, and especially having vast numbers of not very well protected nuclear weapons in Russia. The US could immediately reduce its arsenal to two thousand nuclear weapons and within a couple of years to one thousand nuclear weapons total, including reserves. And that would be on the way to having a few hundred nuclear weapons in the world all together.

DRELL: I can't think of any value to having more than a few hundred. If I had infinite confidence that I knew all scenarios coming I might say we should get rid of all nuclear weapons, along with other countries. But I can't envisage every possible scenario. At the Reykjavik summit, Reagan and Gorbachev came within a hair's width of saying, "We're going to get rid of all nuclear weapons." I think we should work toward that goal. But if a dictator knows that we have five, or ten, or a hundred nuclear weapons then he also knows it would be total suicide for him to act crazy. So nuclear weapons might have value while we’re sorting out this new world with terrorists. I'm not quite arrogant enough to say "I know they have zero purpose, get rid of them."

Q: Some analysts warn that the US lacks the weapon to hold certain hard and deeply buried targets at risk and they proposed developing a Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator –the “bunker buster”. What do you think of that weapon concept?

DRELL: If you can bury a nuclear bomb a few meters under the ground and then detonate it you can get ten to twenty times as much over pressure–shock pressure–to destroy an underground target. That's the advantage of an RNEP. But if the enemy builds a target that's reasonably hard at a depth of a thousand feet, it’s going to take a hundred kilotons to do any damage and that would have tremendous fallout effects. The proposal to build a bunker buster with no side effects is just sheer nonsense. To put a number on it, just a one-kiloton bomb–one-fifteenth of Hiroshima–that is dropped and penetrates as deep as practical into hard, dry soil before detonating would still cause a crater larger than the World Trade Center and put about a million cubic feet of debris up in the atmosphere.

GARWIN: The typical justification for a program is to say: "Our current things are inadequate and we need this new one." And so, you show that there is something that cannot be achieved with existing systems and could be achieved with a future system.

Regarding the bunker buster in particular, General Cartwright, the head of STRATCOM, says he doesn't need it. He can have functional defeat of these underground facilities by controlling what goes in, what comes out, their communications, and so on. More generally, we need to recognize that in order to limit what other countries do, we have to accept limitations ourselves.

Q: Another proposal is to develop a Reliable Replacement Warhead. The stated motivation is to address emerging technical problems with the current stockpile, deteriorating weapons design capabilities, and the lack of “responsiveness” in the current arsenal. Is an RRW necessary?

DRELL: The current arsenal is quite reliable. I think it's being maintained very well by a very strong Stockpile Stewardship Program that was initiated in 1994 soon after we announced a moratorium on testing. For ten years now the lab directors have annually reported to the Secretaries of Defense and Energy that our arsenal is reliable and safe. Now, if the RRW program is just another way of better focusing the Stewardship Program on what needs to be done to maintain confidence in the arsenal, then it makes sense. And, I think it's important to note that the enabling legislation on that RRW program has very, very powerful and restrictive words in it: “Any weapon design work done under the RRW Program must stay within the military requirements of the existing deployed stockpile,” and “any new weapon design must stay within the design parameters validated by past nuclear tests.” If the RRW program were used to make new weapons for new military missions, a resumption of nuclear testing would be required. That would be an invitation to other countries to become nuclear or renew their nuclear programs.

GARWIN: Well, this is another one of those propaganda activities. To promote RRW, proponents are not going to say: "We’ll search for new weapon concepts." You're going to imply that what we're doing now does not result in reliable replacement warheads. But in fact, it does. The Stockpile Stewardship Program already generates replacement warheads. We are making them, and they are reliable. There's no problem. The argument is that our nuclear weapons are designed too close to some failure cliff. But, in fact, aging does not move them closer to that cliff, and there are ways for compensating. For example, more tritium can be added as the weapons age.

Q: Do you think the fact that North Korea and Iran are pursuing nuclear weapons means that our nonproliferation policies are failing? Is it inevitable that more countries will develop nuclear weapons?

GARWIN: It's not inevitable if we focus much more seriously on nonproliferation. The current Administration is focused on freedom of action for the US rather than a path of collective security. Let me say specifically what you need to do. The big problem with the NPT is that it is perfectly legal under the NPT to be a member in good standing as a non-nuclear weapon state and get support and information from the nuclear weapons states in development of enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing. Then, after one has these facilities and created a lot of low-enriched uranium or separated plutonium, one can abandon the NPT and in three months have facilities for making nuclear weapons. That possibility has to stop. And the way it stops is for countries who are members of the NPT to sign a modification of the treaty requiring that any facilities that they have obtained as a member of the NPT will be returned or destroyed if they are no longer members of the NPT.

DRELL: Only eight countries have nuclear weapons–that's an extraordinarily successful achievement over 61 years. Maintaining the commitment to the nonproliferation regime is very important. With the spread of nuclear technology, it's become clear that the NPT needs to be supplemented by further restrictions in order to keep countries from becoming latent or virtual nuclear powers. I say this because when you can enrich uranium you can also make a uranium bomb. What the US has been emphasizing, and properly so, is that additional restrictions to the NPT are necessary, such as allowing challenge inspections to all suspect facilities, not just to declared facilities. There's a Proliferation Security Initiative that has countries working together to prevent the shipment of equipment that facilitates uranium enrichment. And the President has a proposal, and so does Mohamed ElBaradei at the IAEA, that restricts development of new national enrichment and reprocessing facilities and in exchange provides fuel service guarantees. I think we also need restrictions that say we're not going to build arsenals larger and that we're not going to test nuclear weapons. I think some of these things should be put in the legislation by Congress.

Q: Both of you have been working on these issues for more than four decades; how would you characterize this moment? Are we living in promising time? Critical times? Dangerous times?

DRELL: We have survived the Soviet empire's confrontation and we avoided nuclear use during those years of the Cold War. That's a tremendous achievement. We are now, I think, facing a very different and more difficult problem. That is keeping the most dangerous material and weapons out of the hands of very dangerous people for whom the conventional notion of deterrence doesn't work. Nations have to work together, cooperatively, to prevent proliferation. And I think that at the moment we're really at a crossroads. If Iran and North Korea get away scot-free and have nuclear weapons then we're going to lose some if not all the benefits of the non-proliferation regime and the world will become more dangerous. It will be a different kind of danger. With more nuclear-armed countries and more confrontations, nuclear weapons will gain increasing relevance around the world and the likelihood of crossing the nuclear threshold, even at a low level, I think, will grow. So, I think we're at a very dangerous point and I just urge the leaders of countries to continue to use diplomacy as creatively as possible, balancing carrots and sticks. I see no other course.

GARWIN: I think that we are at a crossroads; that we are losing control. We are not spending nearly enough to resolve this problem and not spending the money we spend effectively. For example, we try to secure nuclear materials–plutonium and uranium in Russia. This is a program on which we should spend $10 billion a year instead of a billion dollars a year. So, things are bad. But they can get worse. I believe that we will see, within the next few years, one or more terrorist nuclear weapons explode in an American city and it will kill 100,000 - 200,000 people. It's going to be very bad, unless we take measures to survive the social and economic disruption that's going to follow. So, that's what I believe, because there are nuclear weapons–improvised nuclear weapons–available. A gun-type weapon will have the same yield whether it's something dropped from an airplane or something assembled on an apartment floor in Manhattan. And unless we can change the motivation of people, the technology becomes more and more available. And we certainly have not done enough to keep the materials from being available. Dr. A. Q. Kahn, who stole the Urenco centrifuge design for Pakistan, and was the founder of their nuclear weapon program, was a pro-proliferation machine, selling technology to Libya and to North Korea. So there are people who benefit from this and the forces against them are not very effective. We don't have all that much time.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff