Commentary: The US should dismantle its nuclear weapons

  • 07 May 2008
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  • Lawrence Krauss

I CAN'T help thinking of US news events that didn't happen in the past month but should have.

On 19 April there should have been widespread coverage of a presidential debate on science and technology in Philadelphia the night before, in which the candidates could have addressed important issues such as energy, the environment, economic competitiveness and nuclear proliferation. But in spite of an invitation by the Franklin Institute to host such an event ahead of the Pennsylvania primary, the Democratic candidates chose instead to participate in two other debates.

In the first, held on 13 April to discuss faith and politics, one candidate pointlessly asserted that the "potential for life" begins at conception and the other that the world may or may not have been created in six days. The second debate, on 16 April, seemed to focus on trivial issues compared to those that a science debate would have raised. Questions discussed included why Barack Obama doesn't wear a flag pin and whether, when he described rural working-class Pennsylvania voters as bitter and clinging to their religion and guns, he intended to deride religion and guns or not.

The next day, what should be a vital political issue was raised but was virtually ignored by the media. A group of 95 scientists - of which I am proud to be a part, but which more importantly includes 23 Nobel laureates and 10 National Medal of Science winners - unveiled a statement outlining a series of unilateral steps that the US could take to reduce the global threat of nuclear weapons.

In the long run, there may be no issue more important for the world's peace and security, but apparently there wasn't space for the media to cover our proposals. As far as I am aware only one major newspaper, theLos Angeles Times, even mentioned the story, giving it just four sentences.

There is no plausible threat to the US that requires it to possess more than a few hundred of its 10,000 nuclear weapons. Nor need it retain the ability to launch nuclear weapons in a matter of minutes rather than days. So we proposed 10 actions that the US could take unilaterally, among which are the following (for the full list, visit www.tinyurl.com/4xxcp7).

1. Declare that the sole purpose of US nuclear weapons is to deter and, if necessary, respond to the use of nuclear weapons by another country.

2. Reject rapid-launch options by changing deployment practices to allow the launch of nuclear forces in days rather than minutes.

3. Eliminate preset targeting plans, and replace them with the capability to develop a tailored response if nuclear weapons are used against the US or its allies.

4. Reduce the US nuclear arsenal to fewer than 1000 warheads, including deployed and reserved.

5. Halt all programmes for developing and deploying new nuclear weapons, including the proposed Reliable Replacement Warhead.

6. Retire all US non-strategic nuclear weapons.

7. Announce a commitment to reducing the number of US nuclear weapons further.

8. Commit to not resume nuclear testing, and work with the Senate to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty.

We do not suggest that the US can achieve the goal of a world free of nuclear weapons on its own. But by maintaining its current arsenal it is sending a message to the world that nuclear weapons are legitimate. To move to a world free of nuclear weapons we need to remove this legitimacy.

The US is sending a message to the world that nuclear weapons are legitimate

Political lethargy, combined with the media's fascination with non-issues, sadly validate how Albert Einstein described the new nuclear age over 60 years ago: "Everything has changed, save the way we think."

Read all of Lawrence Krauss's columns here

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From issue 2655 of New Scientist magazine, 07 May 2008, page 54