Nuclear Weapon Issues in the 21st Century

Pierce S. Corden, David W. Hafemeister and Peter Zimmerman, eds., American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings #1596, 2014. v + 266 pp., graphs and illustrations, ISBN 978-0-7354-1230-9, hardcover.

For many members of the public, nuclear weapons have largely faded as a political issue since the breakup of the Soviet Union, garnering attention only when Iran, North Korea, or perhaps Pakistan makes the news. Many of this reviewer’s acquaintances and students are often surprised to learn that America and Russia still deploy thousands of such weapons and that billions of dollars will be spent over coming years on maintenance and modernization plans. Nuclear weapons may be in the political background, but are still very much with us and will be for decades to come.

This volume comprises papers presented at a “Short Course” sponsored by the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs and the Forum on Physics and Society which was held at George Washington University over 2-3 November 2013; the course was organized by the editors. There is perhaps no more telling recognition of the continuity and growth of nuclear weapons issues than that this is the fourth such course held over the last 30 years. The first, titled “Short Course on the Arms Race,” was held in January 1982 and was described in the April 1982 edition of P&S. Papers presented at the following two short courses were published as AIP Conference Proceedings numbers 104 (“Physics, Technology, and the Nuclear Arms Race”; 1983) and 178 (“Nuclear Arms Technologies in the 1990s”; 1988 - reviewed in the January 1989 edition of P&S). This reviewer attended the most recent course but did not present or contribute a paper. Paralleling the presentations made at GWU, this volume gathers contributions under five headings: Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control, Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, Ballistic Missile Defense, Nuclear Proliferation, and Mass Casualty Terrorism. An appendix prepared by David Hafemeister offers a handy chronology of the development of nuclear arms and related world events.

Over an intense two days, some 140 participants listened to two dozen talks by acknowledged experts in the above-listed areas. All but two talks are included in these proceedings; the two missing are a lunch-time discussion of future weapons policies by James Acton, a senior associate in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment, and a presentation on bioweapons by Daniel Gerstein, the Acting Under Secretary for Science and Technology in the Department of Homeland Security. For background, the proceedings include reproductions of seven articles (most from Physics Today) on issues as diverse as gas centrifuges and nuclear diplomacy.

The pleasure of reviewing a proceedings volume is that one is not constrained to read linearly: you can dip in where your interests take you. For this reviewer, the most striking aspect of attending and now reviewing these lectures is how much more numerous and complex nuclear-weapons issues have become. Some contributions address technical and policy issues that are long-established but continue to be relevant due to the emergence of new threats and/or improved technologies: verification of weapons destruction under the terms of various treaties; the United States Senate and the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT); ballistic missile defense (now in the context of North Korea); problems with ground-based missile defense; technical strategies to aid non-proliferation efforts; monitoring techniques for detecting illicit tests; and detection of nuclear material smuggled in vehicles or shipping containers. Other papers address matters that would have barely if at all been on the radar 25 years ago: the Indian, Pakistani, Iranian and North Korean nuclear programs; risks of non-state nuclear terrorism; costly modernization efforts that seemingly run counter to the spirit if not the word of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; logistics of on-site CTBT inspections; future technical and workforce needs to ensure responsible stockpile stewardship; and nuclear forensics. Yet other contributions offer perspectives on the Soviet response to the Strategic Defense Initiative and the current status of both “horizontal and “vertical” proliferation threats (horizontal refers to country-to-country proliferation, whereas vertical speaks to improvements in weapons systems within a given country). Whether one approaches nuclear weapons from a policy or technical perspective — the two are sides of a coin which cannot be separated from each other — this volume can be strongly recommended to readers who are familiar with the issues as well as novices who seek a primer on the current nuclear landscape.

I would recommend beginning exploration of this volume by reading Pierce Corden’s contribution. He reviews the course and sets out a menu of future issues that will need to be addressed if the world is to move toward being free of nuclear weapons – an endpoint he unquestioningly believes would contribute to global security and stability. (Some strategists would argue that nuclear weapons have provided and continue to provide a measure of such stability; this debate could be the subject of a short course in its own right.) Corden uses the physics concept of a metastable state to characterize the current configuration of the nuclear world. Many powerful forces (treaties, export controls, monitoring systems) in play work to nudge the situation toward a more stable condition, but others push in the opposite direction: the thousands of weapons still in existence, the rise of non-state terrorism, and possible unpredictable perturbations to international order which could lead to events spinning catastrophically out of control. Overall, however, Corden concludes that what he calls the ”vector” of the threat posed by nuclear weapons is pointed in the downward direction (that is, toward a more stable state). This said, many issues lie ahead, including the need for future negotiations to address control, inspections, and safeguarding of enrichment facilities; spent-fuel storage; safe development of nuclear power generation; and the use of highly-enriched uranium in naval reactors.

I have a few quibbles with the quality of production of this volume. All photos, graphs, and charts are printed in grayscale; this makes those that were originally in color difficult to read, and a number appear grainy or blurry. Course participants received copies of this volume as part of their registration fees; other readers can access individual papers from the AIP website, but the $28 per-paper fee may dissuade many readers, especially students.

I imagine that some years hence another reviewer will be offering comments on a similar volume; it will be interesting to see what has changed and what has remained the same. Corden’s threat vector has a long way to go to reach zero, and the continued contributions of civic-minded physicists will be necessary to help provide the incremental impulses to get it there.

Cameron Reed
Alma College

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