APS News

Public Affairs Report Examines Nuclear Weapons Policy

Ed. Note: The following article has been updated to reflect the final version of the APS/AAAS/CSIS report, Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security.

The APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) will soon issue a joint report intended to provide guidance to the next administration on nuclear  weapons policy. The report, Nuclear Weapons in 21st Century U.S. National Security, will be available on the APS web site after its release.

The APS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) collaborated on the report, which was drawn from a series of three workshops held earlier this year covering three separate tracks: technical, military and international. The workshops brought together experts from the scientific, defense and diplomatic policy communities. A fourth “integration” workshop brought together results from the three tracks.

The most urgent issues identified by the report are: preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, especially to North Korea and Iran; securing and reducing global inventories of nuclear weapons to prevent them from falling into the hands of terrorists; and engaging Russia in a new strategic dialogue.

It states that a clear statement of policy on nuclear weapons will be needed from the next president.

“Renewed interest in US nuclear policy has been stimulated in the past year through a series of editorials by distinguished statesmen and by the appointment of a congressional commission to look into these matters,” said John Browne, chair of the APS Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) subcommittee on national security.

“This report identifies a possible way to bring together disparate views regarding the appropriate role of U.S. nuclear weapons in our 21st-century defense strategy,” said Browne. “We identify the opportunity to pursue a parallel approach that regains leadership in global nuclear nonproliferation through a series of initiatives while continuing to refurbish and update our nuclear stockpile and infrastructure as necessary without creating any new nuclear weapon capabilities.”

There has not been a coherent statement on the role of nuclear weapons for security in a post-9/11, post-Cold War world, the report states. 

“Such a ‘centrist’ approach as outlined by this paper has been lacking, causing our nuclear policy to drift for a decade or more,” said Browne.

In order to re-establish the US role as a leader in nonproliferation, the report suggests several possible steps, including ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The US should also address the challenge of expanding use of nuclear energy without increasing proliferation risks. Some possible steps toward addressing that challenge include creating an international fuel bank, developing advanced technical safeguards and closing a loophole in the nonproliferation treaty, the study suggests.

Opinions differ on the importance of nuclear weapons for security. Study group participants generally agreed that the US needs a credible nuclear deterrent.

Refurbishing and updating the nuclear stockpile and infrastructure as necessary without creating any new nuclear weapon capabilities could increase confidence in the reliability of our nuclear weapons, thereby making it possible to reduce the total inventory while maintaining a credible nuclear deterrent, the report states. The report recommends using a “spectrum of options” to refurbish and update the stockpile, considering each system on an individual basis. There is no immediate need to commit to any particular program, the report states.  The nuclear weapons laboratory directors continue to certify annually the current stockpile as safe, reliable and secure.

“In this approach, the president will be assured that our deterrent force is safe, secure and reliable as long as it is needed, regardless of its size. This would enable new efforts to engage other nations in reducing global arsenals and strengthening efforts against nuclear terrorism,” said Browne.

To maintain a credible nuclear deterrent the US also needs to sustain the necessary human capital, the report says, expressing the concern that “expertise and competence is declining across the nuclear enterprise.” A broader mission for the nuclear weapons labs to include energy and nuclear security can help recruit scientists and engineers, the report recommends.

“The next step after the release of our report is to discuss these issues with appropriate audiences within the government, the defense and scientific communities, hopefully to stimulate action in the next administration,” said Browne.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Science Writing Intern: Nadia Ramlagan