The Danish Peace Academy

The Overlooked Threat of Nuclear Weapons

By John Avery

During the Cold War, and especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the threat of a massive thermonuclear exchange between the two superpowers caused grave public concern. There was a risk that a third world war fought with hydrogen bombs could cause not only hundreds of millions of civilian deaths in the combatant countries, but also, through fallout, additional millions of deaths in neutral countries.

It is understandable that at the end of the Cold War the European public (with a sigh of relief) put the unpleasant subject of nuclear weapons out of their minds. However, the problem has not really gone away. Although the danger of an all-out war between America and Russia has diminished, the danger of nuclear proliferation has increased.

Since 1940, more than 3,000 metric tons (3,000,000 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been produced - enough for 230,000 nuclear weapons. Of this, roughly a million kilograms are in Russia, inadequately guarded, in establishments where the technicians are poorly paid and vulnerable to the temptations of bribery. There is a continuing danger that these fissile materials will fall into the hands of terrorists, or organized criminals, or irresponsible governments. Russia has offered its surplus fissile materials for sale, but the program for buying and disposing of these enormously dangerous materials is proceeding with incredible slowness, and the program needs European support.

We must remember the remark of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan after the 9/11/2001 attacks on theWorld Trade Center. He said, “This time it was not a nuclear explosion”. The meaning of his remark is clear: If the world does not take strong steps to eliminate fissionable materials and nuclear weapons, it will only be a matter of time before they will be used in terrorist attacks on major cities. Neither terrorists nor organized criminals can be deterred by the threat of nuclear retaliation, since they have no territory against which such retaliation could be directed. They blend invisibly into the general population. Nor can a “missile defense system” prevent terrorists from using nuclear weapons, since the weapons can be brought into a port in any one of the hundreds of thousands of containers that enter on ships each year, a number far too large to be checked exhaustively.

A number of international treaties attempting to reduce the global nuclear peril have been painfully achieved. Among these, the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) has special importance. The NPT was designed 1) to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons beyond the five nations that already had them - the US, UK, USSR, China and France, 2) to provide assurance that “peaceful” nuclear activities of non-nuclear-weapon states would not be used to produce such weapons, 3) to promote peaceful use of nuclear energy to the greatest extent consistent with non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and 4) to ensure that definite steps towards complete nuclear disarmament would be taken by all states, as well steps towards comprehensive control of conventional armaments (Article VI).

The non-nuclear-weapon states insisted that Article VI be included in the treaty as a price for giving up their own ambitions. The full text of Article VI is as follows: “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a Treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict international control.”

The NPT has now been signed by 187 countries and has been in force as international law since 1970. However, Israel, India, Pakistan, and Cuba have refused to sign, and North Korea, after signing the treaty, withdrew from it in 1993. Israel began producing nuclear weapons in the late 1960’s (with the help of a reactor provided by France) and the country is now believed to possess 100-150 of them, including neutron bombs. Israel’s policy is one of “nuclear opacity” - i.e., visibly possessing nuclear weapons while denying their existence. South Africa, with the help of Israel and France, also produced nuclear weapons, which it tested in the Indian Ocean in 1979. In 1991 however, South Africa signed the NPT and destroyed its nuclear weapons.

India produced what it described as a “peaceful nuclear explosion” in 1974. By 1989 Indian scientists were making efforts to purify the lithium-6 isotope, a key component of the much more powerful thermonuclear bombs. In 1998, India conducted underground tests of nuclear weapons, and is now believed to have roughly 60 warheads, constructed from plutonium produced in “peaceful” reactors.

Pakistan’s efforts to obtain nuclear weapons were spurred by India’s 1974 “peaceful nuclear explosion”. Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, who initiated Pakistan’s program, first as Minister of Fuel, Power and Natural Resources, and later as President and Prime Minister, declared: “There is a Christian Bomb, a Jewish Bomb and a Hindu Bomb. There must be an Islamic Bomb! We will get it even if we have to starve - even if we have to eat grass!” With the help of China, Pakistan was ready to test five nuclear weapons in 1998. The Indian and Pakistani nuclear bomb tests, conducted in rapid succession, presented the world with the threat that these devastating weapons would be used in the conflict over Kashmir. Indeed, Pakistan announced that if a war broke out using conventional weapons, Pakistan’s nuclear weapons would be used “at an early stage”. What is the present status of the NPT? Article VIII of the treaty provides for a conference to be held every five years to make sure that the NPT is operating as intended. In the 1995 NPT Review Conference, the lifetime of the treaty was extended indefinitely, despite the general dissatisfaction with the bad faith of the nuclear weapon states: They had dismantled some of their warheads but had taken no significant steps towards complete nuclear disarmament.

The 2000 NPT Review Conference made it clear that the nuclear weapons states could not postpone indefinitely their commitment to nuclear disarmament by linking it to general and complete disarmament, since these are separate and independent goals of Article VI. The Final Document of the conference also contained 13 Practical Steps for Nuclear Disarmament, including ratification of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty, the preservation and strengthening of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, greater transparency with regard to nuclear arsenals, and making irreversibility a principle of nuclear reductions. Another review conference is scheduled for 2005, a year that marks the 50th anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Meanwhile, the United States election of 2000 brought to power a group of neoconservatives who have since exhibited a general contempt for international laws, treaties and norms. In 2002, the Bush Administration published its Nuclear Posture Review paper, a document that totally undermines not only the Non-Proliferation Treaty but also the signed but not yet ratified Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).

The 2002 Nuclear Posture Review paper declared that US nuclear weapons should target seven countries - Russia, China, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Situations in which the weapons might be used included war in the Middle East, conflict between China and Taiwan, North Korean invasion of South Korea, or responding to “surprising military developments”, a vague phrase that could include many things. Furthermore, the Bush Administration’s 2002 paper called for the development of small and “usable” nuclear weapons, for example a “robust earth penetrator” that could be used to destroy deeply buried concrete bunkers. Such new nuclear weapons would need testing, and thus a program to develop them would undermine the CTBT. The development of low-yield nuclear weapons would trivialize and legitimize them, thus eroding the taboo that has prevented nuclear tragedies during the half century since the the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is a danger that the NPT will be fatally weakened by the Bush Administration’s new policies. The signatories are already skeptical because of the nuclear weapon states’ bad faith regarding their own promise of nuclear disarmament. They will now ask, “If the nation with most conventional armaments, a nation whose military expenditures exceed those of all others combined, feels that it needs more nuclear weapons to be secure, do we not need them as well?” The danger of a new nuclear arms race provoked by the Bush Administration’s policies is very real.

In this dangerous situation, what can Denmark do? What can Europe do? First of all, we can make it clear to the United States that the policies outlined in the Bush Administration’s Nuclear Posture Review paper are entirely unacceptable, since they violate international law. In addition to violating the NPT, these policies also violate the Advisory Opinion on Nuclear Weapons given in 1996 by the International Court of Justice in the Hague. In this historic decision, the Court ruled that “the threat and use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and particularly the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” The only possible exception to this general rule might be “an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a state would be at stake”. But the Court refused to say that even in this extreme circumstance the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be legal. It left the exceptional case undecided. The background for the Court’s historic decision was the indiscriminate nature of nuclear weapons: They kill enormous numbers of people without any regard whatever for guilt or innocence.

Not only in the opinion of the International Court of Justice, but also in the opinion of the majority of the citizens of the world, the threat or use of nuclear weapons is a crime against humanity, - a crime on the same extremely low level as genocide, torture or slavery. Nuclear weapons have no place in a civilized society. Therefore, in addition to making our disapproval clear to the Bush Administration, we ought perhaps also to ask ourselves about NATO policy, and about the policy of a possible European Defense Force. Would we allow NATO to use torture as a routine method? If not, why do we allow NATO forces to maintain nuclear weapons? Why are these weapons stationed on European soil?

The European Union also might play a more active role in the important work of protecting (and ultimately eliminating) fissile materials. On November 3, 2003, Mohamed El Baradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, made a speech to the United Nations in which he called for “limiting the processing of weapon-usable material (separated plutonium and high enriched uranium) in civilian nuclear programmes - as well as the production of new material through reprocessing and enrichment - by agreeing to restrict these operations exclusively to facilities under international control.” It is almost incredible, considering the danger of nuclear proliferation, that such restrictions were not imposed long ago. Nuclear reactors used for “peaceful” purposes unfortunately also generate fissionable isotopes of plutonium, neptunium and americium, and these isotopes can be used in bombs. Thus all nuclear reactors must be regarded as ambiguous in function, and all must be put under strict international control. One might ask, in fact, whether globally widespread use of nuclear energy is worth the danger that it entails.

When Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed half a century ago, the French existentialist author Albert Camus wrote: “Our technical civilization has just reached its greatest level of savagery. We will have to choose, in the more or less near future, between collective suicide and the intelligent use of our scientific conquests. Before the terrifying prospects now available to humanity, we see even more clearly that peace is the only battle worth waging. This is no longer a prayer, but a demand to be made by all peoples to their governments - a demand to choose definitively between hell and reason.” Nuclear weapons cannot be disinvented. The nuclear genie, once released, will not go back into the bottle. The only alternative is for the world to try to achieve a degree of ethical and political maturity that will match its constantly accelerating scientific progress.

See also in the Internet


URLs for selected recent Holdren arms-control publications and related bibliographies


BCSIA Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program (STPP) home page:

BCSIA Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program Publications:

INDIVIDUAL DOCUMENTS (inverse chronological order)

Matthew Bunn, Anthony Wier, and John P. Holdren, Controlling Nuclear Warheads and Materials: A Report Card and Action Plan, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and The Nuclear Threat Initiative, Washington, DC, March 2003, 231 pp.

John P. Holdren and Nikolai P. Laverov, “Letter Report from the Co-Chairs of the Joint Committee on U.S.-Russian Cooperation on Nuclear Non-Proliferation”, The US National Academies and the Russian Academy of Sciences, February 2003, 8 pp.

John P. Holdren, “Beyond the Moscow Treaty”, invited testimony for the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, 12 September 2002, 12 pp.

John P. Holdren (Chair) and 10 others, Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, Report of the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Technical Issues Related to Ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, National Academy Press, June 2002, 84 pp.

Matthew Bunn, John P. Holdren, and Anthony Wier, Securing Nuclear Weapons and Materials: Seven Steps for Immediate Action, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2002, 78 pp.

John P. Holdren (chair), John Ahearne, Allison Macfarlane, Marvin Miller, Albert Narath, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, Report of the Committee to Review the Spent Fuel Standard for Disposition of Excess Weapon Plutonium, National Academy of Sciences; Office of International Affairs of the NAS. December 2000.

Jennifer Weeks and John P. Holdren, “Energy’s Secrets: Finding the Balance”, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2000, pp 20-21, 76-78.

Richard Meserve (co-chair), John McTague (co-chair), Ruth M. Davis, John H. Gibbons, John P. Holdren, Michael M. May, and Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, Balancing Scientific Openness and National Security Controls at the National Weapons Laboratories, Report of a Committee of the National Research Council; . Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 1999.

John P. Holdren, “Getting to Zero: Is Pursuing a Nuclear-Weapon-Free World Too Difficult? Too Dangerous? Too Distracting?” Chapter 4 (pp 33-56) in The Force of Reason: Eliminating Nuclear Weapons and Ending War. Essays in Honor of Joseph Rotblat. Maxwell Bruce and Tom Milne, eds. MacMillan, Basingstoke, UK. 1999, and Chapter 1 (pp 13-45) in A Nuclear Weapon-Free World: Steps Along the Way, Frank Blackaby and Tom Milne, eds., MacMillan, Basingstoke, UK. 2000.

David Albright and Kevin O'Neill (eds.), Challenges of Fissile Material Control. (Washington, DC: Institute for Science and International Security Press, 1999). ISBN 0-9669467-0-7.

John P. Holdren, “Nuclear Proliferation and U.S. Responsibilities”, Chicago Tribune, Op-Ed, 2 June 1998.

William F. Burns (Study Chair), John P. Holdren (Committee Chair), John Steinbruner (Committee Vice Chair), Jo Husbands (Staff Study Director), Paul Doty, Steve Fetter, Al Flax, Richard Garwin, Rose Gottemoller, Spurgeon Keeny, Joshua Lederberg, Matthew Meselson, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, Kumar Patel, Jonathan Pollack, and Robert Wertheim (Committee on International Security and Arms Control, U.S. National Academy of Sciences), The Future of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 1997. 100 pp.

Matthew Bunn and John P. Holdren, “Managing Military Uranium and Plutonium in the United States and the Former Soviet Union”, Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, vol. 22, 1997, pp 403-486.

John P. Holdren (U.S. Co-Chair), Evgeniy P. Velikhov (Russian Co-Chair), John F. Ahearne, Matthew Bunn, Richard L. Garwin, Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky, John Taylor, Alexei Makarov, Fedor Mitenkov, Nikolai Ponomarev-Stepnoi, Fedor Reshetnikov, and Dmitri Tsourikov, Final Report of the Independent Bilateral Scientific Commission on Plutonium Disposition, Washington, DC: President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology, The White House, and Russian Academy of Sciences. June 1997:

John P. Holdren, "Arms Limitation and Peace Building in the Post-Cold-War World" (Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture on behalf of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs), Les Prix Nobel 1995, Nobel Foundation, Stockholm, 1996. (Also published in Pugwash Newsletter, vol. 33, no. 3, January 1996, pp 123-128.)

John P. Holdren (Panel Chair), Matthew Bunn (Study Director), John Ahearne, Robert Budnitz, Richard Garwin, Michael May, Thomas Pigford, and John Taylor (Panel on Reactor-Related Options for the Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, Committee on International Security and Arms Control, U.S. National Academy of Sciences), Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium: Reactor-Related Options, National Academy Press, 1995, 418 pp.

Wolfgang K. H. Panofsky (Study Chair), John P. Holdren (Committee Chair), Matthew Bunn (Study Director), John Baldeschwieler, Paul Doty, Al Flax, Richard Garwin, David Jones, Spurgeon Keeny, Catherine Kelleher, Joshua Lederberg, Michael May, Kumar Patel, Jonathan Pollack, John Steinbruner, and Robert Wertheim (Committee on International Security and Arms Control, U.S. National Academy of Sciences), Management and Disposition of Excess Weapons Plutonium, National Academy Press, 1994, 275 pp.


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