Michael KreponDoomed to Cooperate with the Nuclear Competition

Quote of the Week:

“Nuclear history is the history not only of weapons but also of societies and individual destinies. This fact was obscured by the secrecy that prevailed during the Cold War, and yet it is in the human dimension of nuclear history that one has to look for hope that the nuclear danger can be overcome.” — David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb (1994)

Sig Hecker has served a great public purpose by detailing cooperation between U.S. and Russian nuclear laboratories before and after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. This hefty, two-volume survey published by Bathtub Row Press in 2016, Doomed to Cooperate, consists of first-person reminiscences by U.S. and Russian authors who collaborated on what may be the most consequential applied science project since their separate, competitive pursuit of atomic and hydrogen bombs. The subtitle of this immense work says it all: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers. We’re either doomed or doomed to cooperate with our competitors to reduce nuclear dangers. U.S. officials made the right call before and after the Soviet Union  dissolved. The imperative to cooperate with competitors to reduce nuclear dangers never grows old.

The apex of cooperative threat reduction between the United States and the Russian Federation happened at just the right time, when a prostrate country and newly independent states emerging from it possessed 39,000 nuclear weapons and 1.5 million kilograms of plutonium and highly enriched uranium. (As points of reference, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima contained 64 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and the Nagasaki bomb contained six kilograms of plutonium.) Not one of these 39,000 weapons and none of this fissile material resulted in mushroom clouds during a wrenching period of nuclear anarchy. In his overview essay, Sig asks, “How did this happen?”

“I argue, and this book demonstrates, that the extraordinary professionalism, dedication, and patriotism of the Russian nuclear weapons workers and leaders, combined with an extraordinary and timely assist from the United States through innovative government programs and scientific cooperation, saved the world from potential disaster. Numerous firsthand accounts from Russian scientists and their leaders, published for the first time in this book, capture the extraordinary actions of the Russians at the frontlines of the nuclear dangers, actions enabled and enhanced by direct scientific cooperation between the nuclear labs.”

This pattern of cooperation didn’t start from scratch when the Soviet Union dissolved. Antecedents proved to be crucial, establishing the personal and institutional connections that enabled subsequent, deep cooperation between nuclear laboratories. One precursor step was cooperation after the disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the need for technical help, and the United States responded appropriately.

Another precursor was an initiative supported by Gorbachev and an equally unorthodox partner, Ronald Reagan, to direct technical experts to figure out ways and means to break the impasse over allegations of Soviet cheating on the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty. Treaty skeptics and staunch supporters of nuclear testing believed, based on seismic data and unsubstantiated assumptions about the geology of the Soviet test sites, that the Soviet Union had violated the Treaty’s provision that underground tests not exceed yields of 150 kilotons. U.S. and Soviet technical experts and laboratory directors worked side by side to instrument test sites and sat together in control rooms for joint verification experiments, which clarified yields and rectified mistaken assumptions of Soviet cheating. The TTBT entered into force in late 1990.

Relations between Washington and Moscow may not be as bad today as in 1983, but they are certainly bad enough. One way to lay the groundwork for improved ties is to take a page from the Reagan playbook to regenerate lab-to-lab ties, perhaps with a new joint verification experiment. This would not absolve Moscow for disregarding the sovereignty of its neighbors any more than the Reagan administration waved away its concerns about “the evil empire” when it decided to engage in limited cooperation with Moscow. But it does require, now as then, an ability to walk and chew gum at the same time: to pursue common interests to reduce nuclear dangers while contesting egregious behavior.

Other useful ideas for cooperative threat reduction can be found in the proceedings of a workshop convened by the National Academies of Science’s Committee on International Security and Arms Control. I recommend these proceedings to assess how concepts of cooperative threat reduction have evolved and how to reinvigorate them.


  1. cthippo (History)

    I did not know this book existed. Guess where my next paycheck is going.

  2. Andres Kabel (History)

    Me too, this fascinating book somehow slipped through my net. My interest lies in “peaceful” nuclear energy but I’m betting Sig’s book features some of the key nuclear weapons scientists, on both sides of the Cold War, who also contributed towards nuclear energy. I’ll snap this up! Thanks. Andres Kabel

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