Michael KreponAlternative Nuclear Futures

The two polar-opposite alternative nuclear futures are abolition and cascading nuclear proliferation. Strategic analysts who worry most about abolition see signs of it in treaties that permit four-digit nuclear arsenals. It takes only a single additional, one-digit nuclear stockpile to trigger worst-case projections of nuclear cascades.

In between these poles lie two other alternative nuclear futures: sustainable nuclear deterrence and sustainable arms control. It’s hard to envision one without the other, but that doesn’t prevent warfare between these tribes. Supporters of sustained nuclear deterrence abhor abolition as well as cascading proliferation. In the United States, they sit on a three-legged stool – the nuclear triad — and will probably lose one of these legs. Many advocates of sustainable nuclear deterrence also oppose strategic arms reduction treaties and the CTBT, even though support for recapitalization – even at lower levels – will be hard to cobble together without new treaties.

Sustainable nuclear deterrence is the preferred end-state for countries that already possess the Bomb, especially states with declining national fortunes. In states that have lively debates over the utility of nuclear weapons and budget choices, definitions of sustainability are shrinking. Generational support for sustainable arms control, like nuclear deterrence, is also declining. When market shares for sustainable deterrence and arms control are both diminishing, what nuclear future will gain ground?

A fifth alternative nuclear future is slow-motion proliferation – which would be a continuation of our nuclear past, meshing with deterrence and arms control. This shared space has been made possible by the Nonproliferation Treaty regime. The NPT is built on two premises: that proliferation abhors a steady state, and that slow-motion proliferation does not lead to a sustainable nuclear future. To counterbalance slow-motion proliferation, the NPT points in the direction of abolition. Absent this pursuit, the NPT may not be sustainable, either.

Alternative Nuclear Futures: The Role of Nuclear Weapons in the Post-Cold War World was published in 2000, when ambitious hopes began to clash with new, harsh realities, including nuclear tests on the subcontinent. These essays, edited by John Baylis and Robert O’Neill, are worth reading (or re-reading) for the zeitgeist of debates over abolition at this juncture. Robert O’Neill participated in the Canberra Commission, which provided a blueprint for getting to zero. Here are some excerpts from his summary chapter:

My argument is that with the end of the Cold War the utility of nuclear weapons has changed. Formerly they were weapons of the top dogs: now they are becoming weapons of the underdogs…

The idea of marginalization of nuclear weapons sounds to the non-nuclear states very much like children being told to run off and play, and leave the adults to handle serious matters. Alternatively it seems like being told to shut up and stop complaining as if it were the complaints that are causing the problem, not nuclear weapons: just tiptoe around the arsenals of the nuclear-weapon states and almost treat them as if they were not there.

Marginalization will not be convincing to the non-nuclear states, and all the incentives for proliferation will continue to be in effect. Perhaps proliferation will be even easier if nobody is making a fuss about nuclear weapons. But marginalization is not likely to prove workable because the potential of nuclear weapons for causing death and destruction is simply too great. Nuclear-weapons crises will occur from time to time, resulting from a wide range of causes — accidents, defiance of international treaties, proliferation, and terrorism to name a few — and people will call for their control, reduction, or elimination.

A[nother] option is for the existing five major holders of nuclear weapons to recognize that their long-term security interests would be better served by ridding the world of nuclear weapons and begin to act on that basis. In other words they should be treated similarly to the other two major categories of weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical weapons, and eliminated. The process of elimination could not be immediate. It would require a long series of gradual steps, each to be taken as confidence grows that security is actually being increased by a controlled passage towards elimination.


  1. John Schilling (History)

    So long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a finite probability each year that they will be used. And if nuclear weapons do not exist, there is a finite probability each year that someone will build new ones. I do not believe that either of these probabilities can be realistically reduced to negligible levels.

    The more important question, I think, is what sort of nuclear wars we are going to fight and how frequently. I think those answers can plausibly be “survivable” and “rare”, but the next nuclear war will utterly transform the non-proliferation debate.

    • krepon (History)

      Thanks, John.

      It would be a useful exercise to list the biggest wild cards that are out there in terms of impact on our nuclear future. I’ll write something on this to stir up some comment.

      I agree that at the top of this list would be the use — purposeful or inadvertent — of a nuclear weapon. It’s not clear to me how this pendulum would swing. Context would be key.


    • George William Herbert (History)

      Although it is not necessarily the preferred method, point defense against asteroids or comets about to hit inhabited parts of the planet is one non-warfare use for nuclear weapons that plays in to this. If Chelyabinsk had been more directly hit by its asteroid, either with a burst right over town or with a lower altitude burst, the whole city could easily have been effectively gone. THAT would no doubt change people’s perceptions on risks, though the odds of that happening to a city in the future are low over reasonable time periods.

      Warfare of some sort is much more likely, but it’s not the only vector to worry about.

    • Mark Gubrud (History)

      A quick rebuttal to John’s glib “realism.”

      There is a finite probability (0.00288%) that a given Pu-239 nucleus will decay in the next year, determined by its quantum dynamics. There is not a comparable fixed dynamics which determine a probability of nuclear war. Belief in such a probability is not a good way to think about the risk posed by the continued existence of nuclear arsenals.

      In some years, we fear imminent nuclear war more, in other years, less. Looking back, we see situations and events which, had they gone differently, might have led to nuclear war. But in all cases it is human choice that has determined the outcome. We have not wanted for “chance” events that might have triggered nuclear war if people had responded to them as automatons might have.

      If and when we achieve nuclear abolition, the threat of nuclear war will not have been abolished, but only pushed back. Further political, moral, and intellectual development will be needed to push it back as far as possible. The threat that arises from within us, given the technology that we will have until our civilization collapses, can never be truly “negligible,” and there is no excuse for failing to bury it as deeply as we possibly can.

      For myself, for my children, and for all the Earth, I am deeply offended by the notion that “we are going to fight” nuclear wars that will be “survivable” and “rare.” That sort of thinking is what keeps the nightmare alive; it is part of the process that pushes toward the hideous end which we have managed to avoid through so many dangerous years now — not because of some mythological quantity which none can control, but because of the human will to survive and the heroism of those who always sought a way out instead of succumbing to the madness of hideous machines that men had built in cold fear and blindness.

      All arguments against abolition are bankrupt. It is coming.

    • bob (History)

      A quick rebuttal to Mark’s glib “snarkism.”

      Where exactly did John claim that he believed there were ‘fixed dynamics’ which determine a probability of nuclear war?

      As to your penultimate paragraph, I am sure it sounds much better inside your head. Perhaps you imagine yourself delivering it as you receive your Nobel peace prize?

      Armscontrol is realpolitik.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Here are a number of thoughts. If the probability of nuclear war is 1% a year, we can expect to survive without nuclear war for about one century. If there are no nuclear weapons, and if probability of break-out is 1% a year, the break-out will not be as bad as a full-scale nuclear war, though it would be disadvantageous to those who kept to a nuclear-zero treaty.

      One could try a middle point with substantially reduced number of nukes, and less incentive for additional break-out. For example, 50 nukes per nuclear-armed country. However, even 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear explosions will cause a climate-cooling effect for about 10 years, leading to massive crop failures. This in turn is estimated to result in 1-2 billion deaths from starvation and very high food prices for the rest of us. This will be survivable for the human race, and perhaps even for modern civilization, but cannot be permitted once per century–it would be over 10 times more deadly than World Wars I and II put together.

      Suppose it takes arms control efforts 50 years to get from where we are now to the middle point of 50 nukes per nuclear-armed country. In the meantime, there is 1-(.99)^50 = 39.5% chance of nuclear war that will kill a billion people. Suppose after reaching the middle point, there is a 2% chance per year of moving to nuclear zero. That would imply an additional 33.3% chance of nuclear war before we get to nuclear zero. Combined, there is 59.7% chance of nuclear war before we reach nuclear zero.

      We can vary these numbers a bit and get different odds, but reasonable numbers tell us nuclear war can happen in the here and now, but nuclear zero only happens in the hereafter. Between the gap, there is a significant chance of nuclear war — assuming human behavior remains unchanged, that wars continue to happen, and eventually there will be a major war between nuclear-armed states.

      So how does one limit the damage from a nuclear war? One way is to re-think how a nuclear war should be fought — if it would be fought. I have suggested elsewhere that in a nuclear-armed conflict one can substitute orders for evacuation for nuclear explosions. If the evacuations are performed as required, there is substantial inconvenience to both sides, but no nuclear explosions, no nuclear winter, no property damage, no radiation, and no deaths from nuclear weapons. After negotiations to end the war on whatever terms, the evacuations are ended and life returns to normal.

  2. Mark Gubrud (History)

    Some thoughts of my own:

    The choice is between nuclear weapons abolition and nuclear holocaust. There is no middle. We are always moving toward one or the other, sometimes both simulataneously (in different ways).

    The illusion of a middle way is a syndrome of the elites of established and comfortable powers, which conceive themselves as in control.

    However, they are not in control at the periphery, which encompasses not only the Pakistans and North Koreas of the world, but also the unannounced rocket launches, the shootdowns in the midst of nuclear crises, the millions of lines of code where a fatal error may be embedded, and the minds of madmen or those driven to madness by insane logic, circumstance or violence.

    Their zones of control are divided by fault lines across which there is no control. The elites of this and that nation, party or company may meet and dine together, but they are not able to heal the wounds or stop the slippage.

    Have we not observed how the once-powerful elites discover anxiety and become proponents of disarmament in retirement? Yet their successors still seem to inherit the illusion of control.

    Because those wishing to steer a middle course and maintain the status quo are not ultimately in control, there is no long-term stability.

    Nuclear deterrence works, like a stone standing on end, stabilized by its own weight against a push from the wind. But it gives rise to hostility, competition and an arms race (horizontal, vertical, and in every dimension of technology) which undermine its stability and occasionally generate shocks that could one day push it over.

    The only safety lies in endless effort to bury this threat as deeply as possible. Abolition is not even an end in itself. Deterrence and abolition are not different strategies; we can hardly imagine abolition being achievable if not for the fact that deterrence will continue to exist right up to, and beyond, the point where the last nuke has been dismantled, and the last gram of fissile material burned or diluted.

    Arms control and abolition are not different strategies; arms control encompasses all steps which progress toward abolition.

    Nuclear arms control is not distinct from arms control of other weapons. We can’t stop the nuclear arms race or abolish nuclear weapons if we fail to stop the space arms race, the naval arms race, the robot arms race, or (most absurdly) the cyber arms race. It is not even possible to cleanly separate these. Not that partial agreements are not possible and necessary (as the only kind of agreements that can ever be made), but ultimately all will fail if any arms race is left unchecked.

    Things are quickening now, after a period of relative stasis (following the Soviet collapse). The crisis we face is nothing new, but on a time scale of decades, it is less stable now than in the previous 20 years. We move toward stronger arms control, placing high obstacles in the path of new arms races (space, robots, missiles) and rolling back to disarmament and nuclear abolition, or we progress toward our Apocalypse, idiotically.

  3. Bradley Laing (History)

    Rising From The Ashes: Miraculous Tale Of Man Who Survived Hiroshima’s Atomic Bomb A Mile From Explosion

    As we commemorate the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, AlterNet interviews Japanese-American author who writes of family’s heartfelt story and offers message of hope


  4. Andrew (History)

    How much have people thought, in the theoretical or policy sense, what a possible breakout after abolition might look like?

    I wonder what the details of the scenario would be. What would the monitoring/verification regime look like after a hypothetical abolition, and how quickly could it detect cheating? As Mark alluded to, would there also be a parallel abolition of delivery systems? After breaking out, what course would that country chart in essentially taking the entire world hostage? How many weapons would the state breakout with, and with the entire conventional arsenal of the world pointed at it, could the arsenal survive? Questions, questions questions…

    • John Schilling (History)

      And another question: Are we also imagining the abolition of civilian nuclear power, and of naval nuclear power? Breakout becomes a much more dangerous prospect if it can tap into an existing nuclear fuel cycle to quickly produce the fissile materials for hundreds of warheads, mated to hundreds of existing strategic delivery systems.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      “How many weapons would the state breakout with, and with the entire conventional arsenal of the world pointed at it, could the arsenal survive?”

      I think a lot would depend on the size of the state which broke out. Is it small (e.g., north Korea), medium (e.g., Iran), or large (e.g., China)? If the state is small, conventional force alone (if its use would be credible) might be sufficient. If the state is large, nuclear re-armament (not war) by other large states would be more reasonable. Trade sanctions against nuclear-armed nations also appear to work, and a nuclear-disarmed world would have very strong incentive to impose sanctions immediately.

      Clearly, the number, yield, and delivery potential of the break-out nukes would also matter. This gets into some seriously technical issues, on how to make such an arrangement both verifiable and stable, where secret break-out does not result in hundreds of nukes that would be promptly deliverable. The cheater must be unable to gain significant advantage. A plan that achieves all this may or may not be technically and politically feasible.

      If we assume there are technical or political reasons for why nuclear zero (plan A) may be infeasible, then we must also ask what are plans B, C, and D? The alternate plans will never be perfect, but these alternates must reduce risk, either by reducing the likelihood of nuclear war, or by reducing the damage from a nuclear war, or both.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      Andrew, I know of two books (there may be others) that address the question of getting to nuclear zero, one element of which is staying there by preventing break-out.

      Abolishing Nuclear Weapons: A Debate, by George Perkovich and James M. Acton, editors (2009). http://carnegieendowment.org/files/abolishing_nuclear_weapons_debate.pdf

      Elements of a Nuclear Disarmament Treaty, by Barry M. Blechman and Alexander K. Bollfrass, editors (2010). http://www.stimson.org/books-reports/elements-of-a-nuclear-disarmament-treaty/

  5. Bradley Lang (History)

    Scores of officers from the Ministry of Defence police are under investigation for allegedly skipping vital security patrols and even taking naps while on duty at a nuclear bomb factory.

    As many as 50 officers are involved in the inquiry, which centres around security failures at a branch of the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Burghfield, Berkshire.

    There are claims that some were even sleeping on the job at the 225-acre complex, where technicians build Trident nuclear warheads.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2523634/MoD-police-took-naps-A-bomb-nuclear-weapons-factory.html#ixzz2nWZinITc
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