A Nuclear Weapon-Free World

Dan Schlitt

Dan Schlitt is a retired UNL physics professor who has followed issues related to nuclear weapons for 50 years. A founding member of Nebraskans for Peace and active Quaker, he currently sits on the “General Committee of the Friends Committee on National Legislation” and recently served on the Regional Executive Committee and the national Board of the American Friends Service Committee.

The past several months have been very encouraging for those of us who yearn for the end of the threat from nuclear weapons. For three decades we have seen little progress. The current steps are not all we could wish for, but they are steps in the right direction.

What are these encouraging things? 

They can be placed in four groups. Each has many details.

Some are primarily talk. The April 2009 speech in Prague by President Obama contained an encouraging message. The “Nuclear Posture Review” presented in April of this year contains good elements although it did not include some important things. The administration’s public announcement of the size of the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal removed the secrecy surrounding a critical piece of information, providing greater transparency as we move slowly toward zero nuclear weapons in the world.

There is in fact a new breath of international cooperation. A “New START” treaty has been negotiated with Russia. The President initiated a large international gathering of national leaders to discuss the securing of all nuclear materials. That was followed quickly by the meeting held every fifth year to reevaluate and extend the “Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.” We have yet to see the consequences of these activities.

Our Congress too must act. Treaties may be signed by the president, but they must be ratified by the Senate. The first big step on this road is the ratification of the New START treaty. There will be hearings followed by careful vote counting and courting. Sixty-seven votes are needed to put this treaty into effect, which is an essential step toward the goal of eliminating nuclear weapons. If the START treaty is approved, there will then be a second effort to ratify the “Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty” (CTBT), which has been waiting since 1996 for U.S. ratification.

It’s essential that both the House and the Senate provide support for some activities. They must support those forward-moving steps outlined in the Nuclear Posture Review in the budget appropriations for the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. The international securing of nuclear materials, for example, will require congressional support in various ways, including the extension and funding of the “Nunn-Lugar program” for securing and dismantling weapons of the old Soviet Union.

The Prague speech sets out a clear goal.

So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I’m not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly—perhaps not in my lifetime. It will take patience and persistence. But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, “Yes, we can.”

Now, let me describe to you the trajectory we need to be on. First, the United States will take concrete steps towards a world without nuclear weapons. To put an end to Cold War thinking, we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy, and urge others to do the same. Make no mistake: As long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies—including the Czech Republic. But we will begin the work of reducing our arsenal.

The test of these goals is how actions support these words about a world without nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Posture Review is a policy document. It sets out five key objectives:

1. Preventing nuclear proliferation and nuclear terrorism;

2. Reducing the role of U.S. nuclear weapons in U.S. national security strategy;

3. Maintaining strategic deterrence and stability at reduced force levels;

4. Strengthening regional deterrence and reassuring U.S. allies and partners; and

5. Sustaining a safe, secure, and efficient arsenal.

The first two objectives have the potential to move us forward. Like any policy, much will depend on the implementation. The policy gives no details about how we will go about preventing proliferation in the case of Iran. 

The last three objectives have the potential for continuing on much as we have been. They contain a policy of extending the life of our current nuclear arsenal. On the positive side the new, but hedged, policy is to not respond or threaten to respond to a chemical or biological attack with nuclear weapons. On the disappointing side is the absence of a policy prohibiting a nuclear first strike.

We will need to be watchful as these policies are put into effect. Our efforts will be required to make sure we actually move toward zero nuclear weapons and a more peaceful world.

Treaty Ratification

Central to this new nuclear policy is the ratification of the New START treaty. The initial Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I) was negotiated by President Reagan and went into effect in 1991. The treaty expired on December 5, 2009. It placed limits on delivery vehicles and warheads which required reductions in the arsenals of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. It provided an extensive system of intrusive verification.

There should not be any problems in ratifying the new treaty. It is basically an extension of the treaty that has been in effect since 1991 with reduced limits on the numbers of weapons and strengthening of the verification regime taking into account experience with the previous treaty and new elements tailored to the limits in the new treaty.

The new treaty limits deployed warheads to 1,550 compared with 6,000 in Start I and delivery vehicles to 800 compared with 1,600 previously. While these are significant reductions, the remaining numbers of weapons are beyond any conceivable rational need.

The new treaty does not deal with missile defense programs. Regrettably, any effort to do this would create significant political opposition. We can also expect that the adequacy of the verification provisions will be strongly questioned. They include on-site inspections, data exchanges and notifications, and facilitate the use of national technical means for monitoring. Our experience over 20 years should provide an answer to these fears.

The next treaty that the U.S. needs to ratify is the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). It bans all nuclear explosions on Earth whether for military or peaceful purposes. The treaty has been ratified by 151 states. The lack of ratification by the U.S. is a road block to ratification by the remaining countries. Over time it has been established that the treaty can be adequately monitored by the “International Monitoring System” and on-site inspections provided for in the treaty supplemented with national technical means.

If the CTBT is presented for ratification, it will require a significant public campaign supporting it. Serious organizing work has been underway for more than a year. Potential Senate supporters have been identified to make up the 67 required votes.

The “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (NPT) is longstanding. It was opened for signatures in 1968 and was signed then by the major nuclear weapons states and 59 others. It entered into force in March 1970 with the ratification by the U.S. In simple terms, the treaty places a requirement on the nuclear weapons states to not transfer nuclear technology to non-nuclear states and to undertake nuclear disarmament. The non-nuclear states in exchange agree not to acquire or produce nuclear weapons and are allowed to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. These peaceful purposes include enrichment of uranium to reactor grade. The International Atomic Energy Agency is responsible for overseeing these peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Every five years an NPT “Review and Extension Conference” is held, with the latest meeting having just occurred this past May. While these conferences are a good opportunity for discussion between the participating nations, substantive progress is much more difficult because all decisions are made by unanimous agreement. This has led to some interesting maneuvers to accomplish things like extending the life of the treaty.

It will be interesting to see the results of this meeting. The initial part of the meeting was dominated by the conflict between the U.S. and Iran. While important, this is not an issue suitable for resolution in this conference.

Finally there is a ‘work-in-progress’ that should be mentioned. President Obama organized a “Nuclear Security Summit” in April involving leaders of 47 invited nations. The summit’s stated object was securing and safeguarding vulnerable nuclear materials. The outcome was a non-binding communique and a number of voluntary agreements to secure specific sites. If this is all that results, then it is probably not important. If however it becomes the first step toward a new international agreement that supplements the non-proliferation treaty, then it might be very useful. The fissionable materials are just a narrow part of the materials that need to be safeguarded. Materials that can be used in radiological weapons are important too.

After years of inaction, we are now at a moment where there is the potential to make a significant step toward a world free of nuclear weapons. If we make the most of it, we’ll have moved toward a more peaceful world. But for the potential to be fulfilled, we will need to be watchful and ready to act.


Facts about the Non-Proliferation Treaty

Summary of New START key issues

Factsheet on US-Russia Arms Agreements

Briefing on New START and the Nuclear Posture Review

Prague One Year Later 

Kissenger Newsweek Article 

More Perspective

Former Secretary of State George Shultz on Obama’s Strategy

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