The Commonwealth Blog

Our Nuclear Dilemma

Jan 15, 2014 @ 2:37 PM

By: Mehroz Baig

“It’s hard to imagine fallible human beings creating machines that are infallible,” Eric Schlosser said in reference to nuclear weapons. Schlosser is an investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation and, most recently, Command and Control, which examines nuclear risk. “Nuclear weapons are highly complicated machines and like all machines, they can go wrong,” he added.

Schlosser’s book documents some of the mishaps that have taken place in our history of owning and expanding our nuclear arsenal. However, as Schlosser admits and Walter Russell Mead in a review of his book in The New York Times points out, there hasn’t been a nation that has yet to face the consequences of an accidental nuclear disaster. Schlosser warned that the likelihood of an accident happening increases every day that there isn’t an accident. “I think we were lucky [that we haven’t had an accident], and there’s no guarantee that that luck will last,” he said. 

Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund and author of Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It’s Too Late, joined Schlosser at the Commonwealth Club for a discussion recently on nuclear safety. He noted another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the sheer cost of maintaining and updating nuclear weapons. A report by the Ploughshares Fund estimates that the United States will spend anywhere between $620 and $661 billion dollars on nuclear weapons in the next 10 years. And though it’s understandable that creating and maintaining nuclear weapons is costly, there is some questioning about where that money is going. 

An article in Time magazine reported that in October 2013, the Pentagon requested approximately $10 billion in funding to update the country’s B61 bombs. However, we had already developed a more advanced version of the B61: the B83. The problem? The B83 is much too destructive. The article reported, “The B83, truth be told, is a city-destroyer. First detonated in 1984, its yield (adjustable, but about a megaton) is 75 times that of the ‘Little Boy’ that destroyed Hiroshima.” That means that it’s not very good at being a deterrent, one of the reasons why we keep nuclear weapons. The reason is that more than likely, our government wouldn’t use such a strong weapon against an enemy due to the much higher number of casualties and destruction it would cause because, it could be against international law. If the United States faced an attack and retaliated by obliterating a city, it would be in violation of the Geneva Conventions and the principle of proportionality, which requires attacks in armed conflict to take into account the destruction they would cause compared to the military advantage they yield. 

Kennette Benedict, executive director and publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, makes another argument for reducing our nuclear arsenal: the increased ability to use diverted funds to strengthen the U.S. economy. In an article for the Bulletin, she notes, “The diversion of investment into military production leaves a society with fewer resources for housing, agriculture, and education,” and goes on to add, “public sector investment, as well as production in the civilian economy, are engines of long-term growth.” The money that would be saved from nuclear spending could indeed be put to good use elsewhere, to improve the myriad issues the United States is currently facing, including education, unemployment, and weakening infrastructure. 

Complete denuclearization might be unrealistic, especially with other nations acquiring or working toward acquiring nuclear weapons. However, the argument that Schlosser, Cirincione, and Benedict make is that the thousands of nuclear weapons we currently possess are an unnecessary source of danger, not only physically but also economically. Cirincione noted that in order to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, the United States only needs about 500 of them, not the estimated 7,700 we currently have. “Several hundred seems to be what many military and national security experts think will serve our deterrence needs,” he said during his discussion at the Commonwealth Club. 

Mead agrees, noting in his review, “[Schlosser’s] core recommendation that the United States explore the possibilities of operating a minimal deterrent, the smallest number of nuclear weapons needed to prevent adversaries from contemplating a nuclear attack on us, may be the most hopeful direction in which we can look.” The United States is slowly moving in that direction, having signed the New START treaty with Russia, which aims to reduce the nuclear arsenals of both nations. The treaty’s duration is 10 years and reduces the number of weapons to 1,550. And though the president is working toward further reducing our nuclear arsenal along with that of Russia’s, we’ll have to wait to see how long it takes, and hope that the luck that’s kept a nuclear accident from happening up until now comes along for the ride.