Talking Points

Containing nuclear proliferation

Editor’s Note: The following is an edited excerpt from an extended Q&A interview with Sidney Drell and Richard Garwin. 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 onto serve in prominent federal advisory positions. The full interview, which took place before the North Korean nuclear test, can be found online at www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/200608/backpage.cfm

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?

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: 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?

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: You have been working on these issues for more than four decades; how would you characterize this moment?

DRELL: 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. 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.

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