The Second Nuclear Age — Strategy, Danger and the New Nuclear Politics

By Paul Bracken, Henry Holt and Company, 306 pages, ISBN 978-0-8050-9430-5

The author and this reviewer have quite different backgrounds. Paul Bracken worked with Herman Kahn at the Hudson Institute and is now a professor of management and political science at Yale University. From 1941 to 1945 I was a junior physicist in the cyclotron group at the Metallurgical Laboratory. Later I was a professor of physics at Cornell, LSU, and RPI. I became a Quaker in 1987, and seven years later I walked fifty miles in a march protesting nuclear weapons.

Bracken distinguishes between the first and second nuclear ages as follows. In the first nuclear age, the fission bomb (and later the hydrogen bomb) was developed by only five major powers, the permanent members of the Security Council. The cold war between the U.S. and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, involved nuclear threats, and regional wars with conventional weapons in Korea and Indochina. These five powers signed and pushed the non-proliferation treaty (NPT) to try to preserve their special status as nuclear powers. Negotiations between the U.S. and USSR limited the wild escalation of nuclear weapons by these two adversaries. Negotiations also resulted in the l963 ban on tests of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere. (Bracken omits mention of the treaty banning atmospheric testing, but I think it was a significant forward step. We didn’t know fifty years ago, and we still don’t know, how many lives worldwide were saved by this treaty. At the time, Pauling said tens or hundreds of thousands of lives; but Teller said none. The controversy continues.)

Thirty or forty years ago we slid from the first to the current second nuclear age. Bracken says we must reconsider old strategies and develop new strategies to meet current problems. The doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (abbreviated MAD) of the first nuclear age is no longer relevant; nor is the NPT. What are good new strategies? Bracken says the U.S. should follow China and India in proclaiming a no-first-use policy. Bracken proposes adding a ‘guaranteed second use’ — if any country uses nuclear weapons, we would respond with a nuclear attack. (I favor no-first-use but not guaranteed-second-use. I also advocate a pledge by all members of the nuclear club to keep their weapons secure under military control; we must be sure that terrorists cannot steal or buy nuclear weapons.)

Neither Bracken nor I have many specific proposals for policy in our second nuclear age. Despite the nearly seventy years since Hiroshima, there’s still a major industrial effort to produce nuclear weapons. The NPT did not prevent some other countries from producing their own nuclear weapons: Israel (1966), India (1974), Pakistan (1998), and North Korea (2006). South Africa, with Mandela as President, rejoined the NPT by returning its nuclear weapons to Israel. In the past few years we have seen great concern that Iran may be trying to join the nuclear club. There have been only minor changes in the technology of production of U-235 and Pu-239. For U-235, gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation have been replaced by ultracentrifuges — lots of them! Plutonium is still produced by giant nuclear reactors. A terrorist group could not escalate from current production of chemical explosives to nuclear weapons without substantial help from a government — or if they have enough money they could try to buy nuclear weapons from a governmental stockpile. Terrorists cannot make nuclear weapons in their kitchens.

Bracken has started a crucial discussion of nuclear strategy and danger in our second nuclear age. I look forward to many of us, of course including Bracken, continuing this discussion.

Joe Levinger
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.