Opinions, arguments and analyses from the editors of Scientific American
What is it? My recent article on the reasoning behind the first new nuclear weapon to be built in 20 years does not touch on the subject. Except to highlight its absence from debate.
To some, nuclear weapons are the core of world peace. "I work on nuclear weapons because I believe they immunize the world against large scale war," says Bruce Goodwin, associate director for defense and nuclear technologies at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. "I like that state of affairs." (Livermore won the recent design competition for the first new warhead.)
To others, nuclear weapons are necessary but in need of a radical re-thinking in light of a changed world. "If we want to develop a new warhead it should be one that is going to reflect a dramatically new role for nuclear weapons," says Ivan Oelrich, vice president for strategic security programs at the Federation of American Scientists (an organization founded by the creators of the original atom bomb and keeping an eye on the world arsenal ever since.) "One of the first missions I wish we would give up is the surprise first strike. The last mission we will give up is to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. If we are going to build a new warhead it should be aimed at that mission. A 20 kiloton bomb attacking specific targets. It doesn't have to be launched off a sub. It doesn't have to be 400 kilotons. It doesn't have to be there in 20 minutes. If we are going to build a warhead build one for that."
To yet others, they have outlived their usefulness. "U.S. leadership will be required to take the world to the next stage--to a solid consensus for reversing reliance on nuclear weapons globally as a vital contribution to preventing their proliferation into potentially dangerous hands, and ultimately ending them as a threat to the world," wrote former government bigwigs George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.
The role of nuclear weapons should be the subject of a wide-ranging debate, along with the future role (and privatization) of the national laboratories (particularly Los Alamos, which has been bemoaned at "Gone Nuclear" and "LANL: The Rest of the Story"), the security of fissile material worldwide, non-proliferation, treaty obligations, etc., etc. Not to mention the fact that the scientists and engineers (and their toys) who created the last generation of nuclear weapons (and witnessed their testing) are aging and their knowledge may need a new weapon to work with in order for it to be transmitted to the next generation (science, in some cases, functions like an oral tradition.)
Yet, that debate is not really happening, at least not in public. Maybe it can happen here? Please share your thoughts on my article, the role of nuclear weapons, tips for future articles, or anything else (nuclear weapon related). But let's try to keep it civil. Nuclear weapons may pacify international relations but they often prove incendiary as the topic of discussion.
[Thanks for the plug, David! Pinky and The Brain]