Nuclear Weapons and Related Security Issues

Edited by PierceCorden, Tony Fainberg, David Hafemeister and Allison Macfarlane. American Institute of Physics Conference Proceedings #1898, 299 pp., 2017, ISBN 978-0-7354-1586-7, paperback.

Since the early 1980’s the Forum on Physics and Society has sponsored short courses on nuclear weapons and the arms race. This volume comprises papers presented at the fifth and most recent such gathering, which was held 21-22 April 2017 at the Elliott School of International Affairs of The George Washington University. The course attracted some 120 attendees and was organized by the editors and co-sponsored by the Elliott School, the GWU Nuclear Science and Security Consortium, the American Association of Physics Teachers, and the Federation of American Scientists. Powerpoint files of the talks are at, and the papers themselves are free at

The proceedings of three of the first four of these short courses were reviewed in the April 1982, January 1989, and October 2014 editions of P&S. The gap in the 1990’s reflected the optimism of the end of the Cold War and substantial reductions in the numbers of deployed American and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons at the time. I had the pleasure of writing the October 2014 review, and remarked that I imagined “some years hence” another reviewer would be offering comments on a similar volume. My unanticipated prescience speaks to the deterioration in the world political and arms-control environments since then.

The 29 contributions are gathered under four topics: Strategic Nuclear Weapons, Multilateral Arms Control, Nuclear Nonproliferation, and Terrorism. The subjects are, however, broader than purely nuclear weapons, also touching on transportation security technologies, drones, and conventional, chemical, and biological weapons. Appendices include David Hafemeister’s handy chronology of weapons of mass destruction (updated from the 2014 proceedings), brief biographies of authors, and a list of attendees. A useful addition would have been a glossary of the numerous acronyms.

About 40% of the contributions are exact or approximate reproductions of published articles and books. Examples include papers based on Joel Shurkin’s recent biography of Richard Garwin; Harold Feiveson et. al’s Unmaking the Bomb (reviewed in P&S April 2014);Frank von Hippel’s study of Sakharov, Gorbachev, and nuclear reductions (Physics Today April 2017);Alex Wellerstein and Edward Geist’s analysis of the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb (Physics Today April 2017); and Siegfried Hecker’s 1000-page, two volume work Doomed to Cooperate on Russian-American inter-laboratory cooperation. It is certainly convenient to have these bound with the new contributions in a single volume.

The following paragraphs summarize the take-away messages from some of the nuclear-oriented papers in each of the four sections of the proceedings.

Strategic Nuclear Weapons. These10 papers open with Steven Pifer’s review of the history of deployed US-Russian nuclear weapons and arms control agreements, along with a sobering menu of various pressures facing these agreements: The Intermediate Nuclear Force (INF) treaty is in peril due to mutual accusations of violations and the acquisition of such weapons by China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Israel, North Korea and others. America and Russia do not seem eager to open negotiations for a successor to the New START treaty and its very successful system of verification measures. And ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty remains in limbo. Pifer argues that such ratification would go a long way to locking in advantages in knowledge of weapons performance acquired by the US. Ultimately, a breakdown of the now 50-year-old system of nuclear arms control agreements could return us to a situation of no caps on numbers of weapons and types of delivery systems.

Two papers following Pifer’s remind us of the ever-present dangers of nuclear weapons, their fantastic costs, and their associated strategic-balance factors: Hans Kristensen reports that USA, Russia, France, and Britain boast nearly 1,900 nuclear weapons on prompt alert (ready to launch in under 15 minutes), and Amy Woolf summarizes ongoing modernizations of weapons and delivery systems, efforts which the Congressional Budget Office estimates may cost over a trillion dollars over 30 years. To be sure, Russia and China have been pursuing their own modernizations since before the US commitment to do so, and it would be naive to imagine any party unilaterally abandoning such efforts even if others did so.

The possibility of game-changing technologies compounds threats of instability due to uncertainties in future nuclear postures. Mark Lewis’s paper explores one such technology, hypersonic aircraft and missiles, which could render defense systems impotent. Alexander Glazer’s contribution reminds us that even as modernizations of weapons and delivery technologies advance, the last 20 years have seen much progress in the area of stockpile verification procedures. A remaining challenge is verification of dismantlement operations, although advances in cryptographic and virtual-reality systems may be of help in addressing these concerns. In the end all verification measures will run up against the hard reality of nations’ reluctance to allow inspectors access to sensitive design or operational information.

Multilateral Arms Control. This section opens with a review of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty by Raymond Jeanloz. The US Senate rejected ratification of the treaty in 1999 over concerns that nuclear detonations could go undetected, but since then the International Monitoring System that supports the treaty has grown much more sophisticated and boasts a high probability of detecting even underground explosions “decoupled” from the surrounding earth. At the same time, experimental and numerical-simulation work in support of the Stockpile Stewardship Program have led to much improved understanding of weapons performance and aging issues. Two National Academy of Sciences reports have concluded the US can maintain a safe, secure, and reliable stockpile without returning to testing. There are now no credible technical arguments against ratifying the treaty. A companion paper by Edward Ifft describes the extensive onsite capabilities that the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization has ready to deploy in the event that inspections are demanded. However, the treaty must be brought into force before these can be activated.

A contribution by Matthias Auer and Mark Prior describes the technicalities of the CTBT sensor network, but this is reproduced from a 2014 article and comes off as dated because its opening passage refers to speculation on a possible fourth North Korean Nuclear test (there have now been six). A paper by Reis et. al. describes the Stockpile Stewardship Program. While this too is reproduced from an earlier publication (2016), one statistic did catch my attention: At the height of the Cold War, the US exploded, on average, one nuclear device per week at the Nevada Test Site. An original contribution by Rachel Stohl describes the approximately $80-billion conventional arms industry, a significant cause of human misery that is easy to overlook in view of all of the attention devoted to nuclear weapons. Papers by Theresa Hitchens and George Lewis on space weapons technology and the effectiveness of ballistic missile defense will be of interest to readers concerned with the militarization of space and the difficulties of missile interception presented by technical limitations of sensors in kill vehicles. This section closes with a paper on treaties governing chemical and biological weapons and the United Nations Security Council’s inaction in holding Syria accountable for using chemical weapons.

Nuclear Non-Proliferation. This section opens with a lengthy paper by George Perkovich on the July 2015 “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” that was negotiated to address Iran’s nuclear program. Despite President Donald Trump’s criticism of this agreement, knowledgeable observers credit it with greatly reducing the prospect of a regional nuclear arms race over the next 15 years. Apropos, the next paper, by Daryl Kimball, addresses the status of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in his article “the Age of Trump.” Current stresses on the non-proliferation regime include diplomatic riftscaused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine; alleged Russian violations of the Intermediate Nuclear Force treaty; expansion of nuclear weapons programs in India, Pakistan, and North Korea; and Trump’s contradictory statements on disarmament and expansion of American nuclear capabilities.

Other papers include a review of IAEA safeguard systems, an analysis of an internationally unique Brazil/Argentina safeguard agreement, proliferation risks presented by products of the nuclear power infrastructure (dual-use technologies, waste, enrichment and reprocessing facilities), and a contribution by conference organizers Corden and Hafemeister on nuclear proliferation and testing. While this is reproduced from a Physics Today article (April 2014), its core message is still relevant: The reason the US and other nuclear-weapon-possessing states don’t test nuclear weapons is that to do so would not only invite a new arms race but would make addressing nuclear programs in countries such as North Korea much more difficult.

Terrorism. The prospect of nuclear terrorism is the ultimate low-probability, high-consequence scenario. Papers in this section examine different aspects of this situation. The first contribution, by Miles Pomper and Gabrielle Tarini, surveys the general landscape of nuclear terrorism, identifying three general types of scenarios. These progress from easiest to hardest (for the terrorists), with corresponding escalation of damage and casualties: a radiological device (dirty bomb), an attack on or sabotage of a nuclear facility (reactor or waste repository) to either acquire nuclear material or disperse it over a wide area, and detonating a nuclear explosive. The second of these scenarios is perhaps the most alarming, as an attack need not be by direct action: Standoff attack scenarios involving rockets, mortars, drones, or cyber-infiltration need to be considered in the security plans of potential target facilities. Also, consideration of potential adversaries cannot be restricted to jihadist-type groups: Far-right militants have also expressed interest in nuclear terrorism.

Anthony Fainberg’s lengthy paper on technical and policy approaches to countering terrorist threats serves as an excellent primer on the history of terrorism, the evolution of terrorist targets and weapons, and possible countermeasures that can be deployed to prevent and contain such incidents. A brief paper by longtime FPS participant Peter Zimmerman analyzes attempts to calculate the probability of terrorists successfully developing a nuclear weapon. He points out that, despite their apparent sophistication, such efforts are futile because such an event would be so unique that normal statistical techniques simply do not apply. Rather, he posits that we need to analyze the steps involved in such a program and how they could be detected and thwarted. The final paper, by Hugh Gusterson, examines the history, tactics, operational protocols, and legality of, drone warfare. It emphasises the vexing question of civilian casualties.

Overall, these papers provide much food for thought—much of it depressing—for scientists and policymakers interested in the myriad issues addressed. The spectrum of state-based and non-state-based nuclear and other WMD threats is vast, but so too is the available suite of policy/enforcement and technical means of deterring such threats. The fate of Western civilization may depend on whether we have the will and imagination to use them wisely. And yes, I confidently predict that not too many years hence another reviewer will be offering comments on a similar volume!

Cameron Reed
Emeritus, 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.