The Nuclear Threat—Far From Over
“The proliferation of superweapons is now the most dangerous specter facing this planet.”—CRITICAL MASS, BY WILLIAM E. BURROWS AND ROBERT WINDREM.
AT DAWN on January 25, 1995, an ominous blip suddenly appeared on early-warning radar screens across northern Russia. A rocket had been launched somewhere off the coast of Norway! Radar operators alerted Moscow to the possible arrival of a nuclear bomb. Within minutes, the Russian president was handed a suitcase containing electronic devices that would allow him to order a devastating nuclear counterattack. All-out nuclear war seemed to be just moments away.
Fortunately, cool heads prevailed, and the trajectory of the rocket was seen to pose no threat to Russia. It was later learned that the projectile carried equipment for meteorologic research. Even so, an article in The Washington Post observed: “These may have been some of the most dangerous moments of the nuclear age. They offer a glimpse of how the high-alert nuclear-launch mechanism of the Cold War remains in place, and how it could go disastrously wrong, even though the great superpower rivalry has ended.”
For decades the nuclear posture of both the former Soviet Union and the United States was based on the deterrence concept known as mutual assured destruction (MAD). One pillar of MAD was the strategy called launch on warning. This gave each side the grim assurance that if they attacked, their enemy would launch a massive retaliation before the attacking warheads could even hit their targets. A second pillar of MAD was the strategy called launch on attack. This referred to the capacity to unleash retaliatory strikes even after enemy warheads had done their damage.
In spite of the thawing of the Cold War, the specter of MAD still haunts mankind. Yes, U.S. and Russian nuclear stockpiles have been reduced dramatically—some say by as much as half—but thousands of nuclear warheads still exist. There is the possibility, then, that weapons could be launched by accident or without authorization. And because both nations still fear the seemingly unlikely possibility of a first-strike attack, a large number of missiles are maintained on hair-trigger alert.
True, in 1994 the United States and Russia agreed to stop aiming their strategic missiles at each other. “This change, though a welcome gesture, has little military significance,” notes Scientific American. “Missile commanders can reload target coordinates into guidance computers within seconds.”
New Weapons on the Horizon?
Not to be overlooked is the fact that nuclear weapons research and development continues. In the United States, for example, the annual budget for such weapons is about $4.5 billion! In 1997, The Toronto Star reported: “Paradoxically, the U.S. is now spending more than it did during the cold war on the preservation of its nuclear war machine. And some of that money is earmarked for ambiguous programs that critics say carry the seeds of a new global arms race.”
For example, much controversy arose over the multibillion-dollar U.S. government project called the Stockpile Stewardship and Management Program. Although the ostensible purpose of the program is the maintenance of existing nuclear weapons, critics say that it also serves a more sinister purpose. Reports The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: “There are plans for alterations, modifications, updates, and replacements—not just to extend the life of the nuclear arsenal . . . but to ‘improve’ it as well.”
In 1997 a furor arose over the development of a nuclear bomb called the B-61, which has the ability to penetrate the earth’s surface before detonating. It can thus destroy underground command posts, factories, and laboratories. While proponents claim that it is merely a repackaging of an older bomb, opponents claim that it is indeed a new bomb—a gross violation of promises made by the U.S. government that it would not develop new nuclear weapons.
In any event, Ted Taylor, a nuclear physicist at Princeton University, observed: “My guess is the sort of research now going (in the U.S.) is also going on in Russia, France, Germany and other places, and I believe that some of our projects are leading the world into a new arms race.” Critics also claim that the research, development, and design of new weapons is being actively promoted by the weapons designers themselves. Bruised egos, dwindling prestige, and financial difficulties may be powerful motivation for these skilled scientists to push for the revival of weapons research.
New Powers on the Nuclear Scene
Then there are the changes in the world’s political lineup. Traditionally, five nations used to make up the nuclear club: Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States. However, it is generally recognized that other countries too have gone nuclear. India and Pakistan, for example, recently conducted nuclear tests that sparked fears of an intense arms race in Southeast Asia. Other nations suspected of having nuclear programs include Algeria, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. More than 180 nations have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which went into effect in 1970. But to date, a number of powers widely suspected of hiding their nuclear ambitions have not signed it.
Reports Asiaweek: “Nuclear proliferation experts still believe that the real threat comes from the growing number of countries whose leaders would like to have their finger on the nuclear trigger.” Some observers feel that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will simply not be able to stop governments that are determined, despite penalties, to get the technology and materials they need to go nuclear on the sly. James Clapper, director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted: “By the turn of the century we could see numerous countries with the capability to mate a [chemical, biological, or nuclear] warhead with an indigenously produced missile.”
Nor is it likely that all nations will succumb to pressure to ban nuclear testing. When a number of nations were lobbied to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996, an editorial in Asiaweek observed: “It is fine for the Americans or the Europeans to preach the gospel of test bans, since they have already detonated enough nuclear devices to be able to sit back on the information they have collected.”
Nuclear Smuggling and Terrorism
Some feel that the greatest threat is that some terrorist group might get their hands on a nuclear weapon and decide to explode—or at least threaten to explode—the device in order to press their political agenda. There are also fears that a criminal organization could similarly use radioactive material for large-scale extortion of a government or corporation. An article in Scientific American explains: “It would be fairly easy for a nuclear blackmailer to establish credibility by leaving a sample for analysis. Subsequent threats to pollute air or water supplies, or even to detonate a small nuclear weapon, could have considerable leverage.” Law-enforcement agencies have already uncovered attempts to smuggle nuclear material. This adds weight to fears that rogue groups may in fact be trying to develop nuclear weaponry.
True, certain analysts dismiss nuclear smuggling as a minor threat. Not only has little material apparently changed hands, they say, but, with a few exceptions, most of it has not been close to weapons grade. Scientific American, however, reminds readers that “in almost all illicit markets, only the tip of the iceberg is visible, and there is no reason why the nuclear-materials black market should be an exception. . . . To believe that authorities are stopping more than 80 percent of the trade would be foolish. Moreover, even a small leakage rate could have vast consequences.”
Although the exact amount is a well-kept secret, it is estimated that a nuclear bomb requires between 6 and 50 pounds [3-25 kg] of enriched uranium or between 2 and 20 pounds [1-8 kg] of weapons-grade plutonium. To the delight of smugglers, 15 pounds [7 kg] of plutonium takes up roughly the space of a standard aluminum soft-drink can. Some think that even reactor-grade plutonium—which is more easily obtainable than weapons-grade—could be used to build a crude, but still destructive, nuclear bomb. If, as many experts claim, stockpiles of radioactive materials are poorly protected, they may be more vulnerable to theft than most people realize. Mikhail Kulik, a Russian official, quipped: “Even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials.”
Clearly, then, nuclear danger, like a Damoclean sword, still hangs over mankind. Is there any hope of it ever being removed?
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“Nuclear proliferation experts still believe that the real threat comes from the growing number of countries whose leaders would like to have their finger on the nuclear trigger.”—Asiaweek
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Biological and Chemical Threats
Aggressive nations that are too poor to develop nuclear arsenals may turn to medium-range missiles armed with poison gas or with biological weapons. These have been dubbed the poor man’s nukes. In fact, many analysts fear that such devices may also become the weapons of choice for terrorist groups.
However, biological and chemical weapons can wreak havoc even without a high-tech delivery system. U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in November 1997: “With advanced technology and a smaller world of porous borders, the ability to unleash mass sickness, death, and destruction today has reached a far greater order of magnitude. A lone madman or nest of fanatics with a bottle of chemicals, a batch of plague-inducing bacteria, or a crude nuclear bomb can threaten or kill tens of thousands of people in a single act of malevolence.” Such fears were proved valid when cult terrorists used sarin, a nerve agent, to attack commuters in the Tokyo subway system in March 1995. Twelve people were killed, and 5,500 were injured.
“If a chemical attack is frightening, a biological weapon poses a worse nightmare,” notes professor of political science Leonard Cole. “Chemical agents are inanimate, but bacteria, viruses and other live agents may be contagious and reproductive. If they become established in the environment, they may multiply. Unlike any other weapon, they can become more dangerous over time.”
In an effort to curb the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention have been implemented. The Economist notes, however, that despite such good intentions, “no arms-control regime is perfect. . . . They cannot pick up every transgression.” The same source remarks: “And, of course, the real cheats are unlikely to sign up anyway.”
Law-enforcement authorities fear that chemical and biological weapons could easily be used by terrorists
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Nations with nuclear capability
Nations known to have carried out nuclear testing
Nations believed to be developing nuclear capability
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Dropping a B-61 nuclear bomb, which is designed to destroy underground facilities
U.S. Air Force Photo
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U.S. Air Force Photo