Preventing the spread of nuclear weapons while reducing and securing the country’s nuclear stockpile is achievable but likely to take time, according to a new APS report. The study, titled “Technical Steps to Support Nuclear Downsizing,” was conducted by the Panel on Public Affairs to organize steps the United States could take to reduce nuclear threats worldwide.
The report was, in part, prompted by the upcoming Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference. Every five years, signatories to the nuclear nonproliferation treaty meet to discuss ways to work toward the treaty’s goals of reducing nuclear weapons around the world. In addition, President Obama has stated that nuclear weapons reduction is a goal of his administration and is negotiating with the Russians to set up a new bilateral weapons agreement to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which expired in December 2009.
“I think the administration intends investment and action on all those grounds, and what we’ve done is said ‘here’s a way to do this,’” said Jay Davis, a lead study participant and founder of the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq. Davis, who is president of the Hertz Foundation, added that he hopes that it also prompts more in-depth study by individuals with access to classified information, after officials in the administration get a chance to examine the report’s conclusions.
Davis says that although there are no major technical obstacles to the reduction of nuclear weapons, diplomatic and political issues, as well as secrecy concerns, are the biggest impediments to the global reduction of nuclear weapons.
“One of the dangers is always to project your own beliefs and perceptions onto other countries,” Davis said, adding that it was important to incorporate “the attitudes of countries that don’t currently have nuclear weapons but might want them” into any non-proliferation framework.
The report breaks down the overall aim of nuclear weapons reduction into three main goals: verifying the dismantling of nuclear weapons, maintaining the country’s capability and expertise, and ensuring the peaceful use of fissile materials. The study establishes steps for the US to take to accomplish each goal.
It recommends that the United States declassify the number of nuclear weapons in its arsenal, establish sites to test verification technologies, and fund the development of “nuclear archeology” to examine a suspected site’s past nuclear use. So far, the report has been well received, with the Department of Energy setting up a center near the old Nevada testing sites to research possible verification technologies.
The report also emphasizes the importance of preserving the country’s capability and expertise while decreasing the number of weapons. Those that remain need to be maintained properly, so that in the unlikely event they are needed, they function correctly. Additionally, the US should refurbish its nuclear infrastructure and refocus the National Nuclear Security Administration so it can more efficiently maintain a scaled-back arsenal, the report says.
“The good news is we can do it. The bad news is it will take a long time. But, if Congress follows the report’s recommendations, downsizing the nuclear arsenal can be done safely and securely,” said Davis, announcing the report at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
To make sure that nuclear fissile materials are used peacefully, the report recommends that the government invest in programs to detect secret nuclear facilities, share information among nuclear industries, and prioritize non-proliferation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.