../ttl.gif (910 bytes)



Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation World Court Project Nuclear Weapons Convention Abolition 2000 Middle Powers Initiative Global Action to Prevent War Nuclear Energy About LCNP Publications
Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation: 

17th Annual General Assembly
International Association of Peace Messenger Cities
September 10, 2004
New Haven, Connecticut


"The Global Threat of Nuclear Weapons"
John Burroughs
Executive Director
Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy, New York City

With a war on Iraq originally justified as aimed at preventing acquisition of nuclear arms, the North Korean nuclear weapons program, Iran's apparent drive to become nuclear weapons capable, and public revelations about a Pakistan-based nuclear proliferation network, the nuclear threat has been much in the news.

What has received much less attention are the ongoing risks posed by arsenals in the hands of the existing nuclear-armed states - the United States, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan.

Today I want to begin by outlining existing arsenals, in this way, I think, helping to recall the Peace Messenger Cities to one of its original purposes, the elimination of nuclear weapons everywhere. I will then turn to the potential spread of nuclear weapons. Preventing that spread, I believe, ultimately turns upon abolishing existing arsenals, in accordance with the obligation of good faith negotiation of disarmament set forth in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Back to basics

On June 3, the Bush administration announced the submission to Congress of a classified plan for the future size of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The bottom line is that in 2012 the United States likely will have more than 6,000 warheads.

Numbers can be numbing, and just one nuclear bomb exploded in a city is an unspeakable catastrophe. Still, given the complacency now reigning, consider:

  • Today the United States has over 10,000 warheads (including bombs), with over 6,000 deployed strategic (long-range) and 800 deployed nonategic warheads.
  • By 2012, after implementation of the 2002 Moscow Treaty, the United States will still have over 6,000 warheads, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council estimate. That includes 2,200 deployed strategic warheads with well more than 2,000 in reserve, and hundreds of deployed and reserve nonategic warheads. The Energy Department says a new plant (the "Modern Pit Facility") to make plutonium cores for warheads will be needed.
  • Russia presently has perhaps 18,000 warheads, with about 5,000 deployed strategic and over 3,000 nonategic warheads, plus many thousands in reserve, storage, or awaiting disassembly. In 2012, under the Moscow Treaty, Russia, like the United States, can have up to 2,200 deployed strategic warheads, plus reserve and nonategic warheads in unlimited numbers.
  • China, France, Britain, Israel, India, and Pakistan all have arsenals in the low hundreds or less. None has made any specific commitment to reduce its arsenal. The total world count of nuclear warheads is in the range of 30,000.

You don't have to be an expert to see that U.S.-Russian reductions are proceeding very slowly, and are readily reversible. A crucial step called for by Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) commitments would be to verify the warhead withdrawals and dismantlements. But the Moscow Treaty contains no such requirement, and so far the Bush administration has resisted Russian requests to discuss the matter. The Bush administration clearly sees the planned reductions more as a matter of efficient reorganization than as compliance with the NPT disarmament obligation.

Aside from the ongoing US-Russian confrontation, India and Pakistan have more than once teetered on the brink of major war that could go nuclear. Other scenarios for use of nuclear arms cannot be ruled out, for example on the Korean peninsula or in a China-United States conflict over Taiwan.

The risks of use of nuclear weapons have been exacerbated by recent trends in U.S. nuclear planning. The United States continues to plan, as it has for decades, for a massive retaliatory or preemptive “counterforce” attack in response to an actual or imminent nuclear attack, and for first use of nuclear weapons against an overwhelming conventional attack.

But the U.S. strategy of counterproliferation and the nuclear planning reflected in the December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review reveal some new trends towards making nuclear arms more usable which run absolutely counter to NPT commitments.

The Nuclear Posture Review states that nuclear weapons will be “integrated with new nonnuclear strategic capabilities” including advanced conventional precision-guided munitions, suggesting a view of nuclear weapons as simply another weapon.

It plans for an enlarged range of circumstances under which nuclear weapons could be used, notably against non-nuclear attacks or threats. It refers to contingency planning for use of nuclear weapons against Russia, China, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Libya, and identifies possible “immediate contingencies” requiring first U.S. nuclear use as “a North Korean attack on South Korea, or a military confrontation over the status of Taiwan.”

The Nuclear Posture Review also states that nuclear weapons “could be employed against targets able to withstand nonnuclear attack, (for example, deep underground bunkers or bio-weapon facilities),” and contemplates their use in response to a biological or chemical attack. Finally, the NPR refers to nuclear use in response to “surprising military developments” and “unexpected contingencies.” Those new catch-all categories, inspired by the September 11 terrorist attacks, are virtually without limit.

In December 2002, the U.S. National Security Strategy to Combat Weapons of Mass Destruction made clear that “overwhelming force” – a reference to nuclear option – would be used against chemical and biological attacks. It also referred to preemptive attacks, and did not rule out nuclear use in preemptive attacks.

The United States has not been alone in its continued, even intensified, doctrinal emphasis on possible use of nuclear weapons. In 1993, Russia abandoned its policy of renouncing the first use of nuclear arms, and its January 2000 Security Concept stated that they could be used "to repulse armed aggression, if all other means of resolving the crisis have been exhausted." Britain and France continue to retain the option of first use to defend "vital interests". Pakistan expressly holds out the option of first use against conventional attack, and, imitating the United States, India announced possible first nuclear use in response to chemical or biological attacks.

In the United States, the relegitimization of nuclear weapons has not been just on paper; it has been accompanied by increased spending on nuclear weapons. Spending on nuclear weapons research and maintenance is over $6 billion in fiscal year 2004, and the Bush administration requested $6.6 billion for 2005. In constant dollars, this is at or near highest level of U.S. spending, including in Cold War years. If you add in delivery systems and command and control, U.S. spending on nuclear forces is in the range of $25 billion-plus annually.

What is the $6 billion-plus going for? First of all, maintenance of existing weapons types and ongoing research on upgrading them. But also, some items that have, fortunately, come under challenge in Congress - the outcome remains to be seen:

  • $30 million requested for the previously mentioned proposed new facility to manufacture the plutonium cores of nuclear weapons;
  • $28 million requested for ongoing research on high-yield nuclear earth penetrators, to be used against deeply buried and hardened targets;
  • $9 million requested for Advanced Concepts Design Teams to research modified or new nuclear weapons, both "low-yield" and high yield;
  • $30 million requested to reduce the time needed to resume nuclear testing to 18 months.

Risks of use of nuclear weapons

I have sketched states' ongoing reliance on nuclear weapons. But, given that nuclear weapons have not been used in conflict since the United States devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I am often asked whether the risks are as high as the capabilities and declared postures would seem to suggest.

First, the world was extremely lucky that a nuclear war was averted during the Cold War. Should hostility among major powers develop again, we will again be facing that risk. It is commonplace to observe that the Clinton administration lost a great opportunity to end the nuclear nightmare by persisting in a Cold War posture even in the wake of the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But in reality the opportunity still exists, because the world's major powers still interact on a relatively cooperative basis. It is foolhardy in the extreme to count on that to last indefinitely.

Second, as I have already mentioned, there are regional arenas of conflict which carry the potential for nuclear use: the Korean peninsula, South Asia, where some cooling down fortunately seems underway now, Taiwan, perhaps someday the Middle East.

But it also is true that in the United States, and in other countries, the political threshold for nuclear use is higher than the doctrines and capabilities imply. One of the underappreciated benefits of work for disarmament is that it helps to keep that threshold high. Here too, though, one must be realistic. If the United States, or other country, gets into what is perceived as an extreme situation - for example a biological or chemical attack on a U.S. city, or thousands of troops at risk of death - there will be pressure for nuclear use, and it will be increased by the fact that the doctrines and capabilities support such use. One of the many negative aspects of the U.S. doctrine of preventive war is that, if executed beyond Iraq, it increases the chances that the United States will find itself in such an extreme situation.

Proliferation and terrorism

Another possible consequence of states' reliance on nuclear weapons - one known to specialists for decades - has become better known. That is, the risk of their spread to additional states. A related but separate risk is their acquisition by Al Qaeda-like groups which, September 11 indicates, might very well use a nuclear bomb. This is all often lumped together under the label of "proliferation". So let's begin with a brief review of proliferation.

Be clear: proliferation began in 1942 with the Manhattan Project in the United States. Then came Russia, Britain, France, and China, with its 1964 test. Then came India, with its 1974 test. In 1991 the world learned that Iraq had an active nuclear weapons program in the 1980s. Then in 1998 India and Pakistan carried out a series of test explosions. Now North Korea is pursuing nuclear weapons, and according to Pakistan nuclear metallurgist A.Q. Khan already has several nuclear explosive devices. Iran appears to want to be capable of making nuclear weapons should it make the decision to do so, like Japan and many other states.

Recently there were public revelations about a Pakistan-based nuclear proliferation network: Khan plus businesses in several countries, including Germany and Malaysia, and a British businessman, supplied uranium enrichment components, uranium, and bomb designs to Libya, and at least components to Iran and North Korea.

What about possible terrorist acquisition? According to a recent report of the Project on Managing the Atom of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, a senior Pakistani nuclear weapons scientist met with Bin Laden and discussed nuclear weapons at length.

The main thrust of the report is that threats to nuclear facilities in Russia from terrorists appear to be growing. Entitled Securing the Bomb: An Agenda for Action, the report says:

  • Russian official sources report four instances of terrorist surveillance of nuclear warheads in 2002 and 2003
  • the October 2002 terrorists who seized hostages at a Moscow theater first considered attacking a Moscow site containing enough highly enriched uranium for dozens of warheads, according to a Russian newspaper
  • a 2003 criminal case revealed that a Russian businessman had been offered $750,000 to obtain plutonium for a foreign client, and had made contact with residents of a closed Russian nuclear city

Current responses to the threat of nuclear weapons

Most of the current activity is aimed at stemming the spread of nuclear weapons - stopping their horizontal proliferation - and preventing their acquisition by terrorists. Little is happening to reduce and eliminate existing arsenals, and to prevent the modernization of existing arsenals - to stop vertical proliferation. To begin with horizontal proliferation:
Initiatives to prevent horizontal proliferation

  1. The U.S.-funded Cooperative Threat Reduction program (also known as Nunn-Lugar) aims to secure nuclear materials, warheads, and expertise, as well as biological and chemical weapons and facilities, in Russia. It still is funded only at Clinton administrative levels, roughly $1 billion.

    a. according to Securing the Bomb, more than half of Russian sites with warheads or materials still need security upgrades

    b. there are 600 metric tons of HEU and plutonium in Russia - much stored in insecure sites; efforts to secure plutonium by making new nuclear fuel (mixed oxide, or MOX) are moving slowly, and misconceived anyway because they perpetuate the fuel cycle

    c. similar efforts are needed in Pakistan and other countries

  2. June 2004 G-8 meeting, Sea Island, Georgia

    a. agreed not to make new arrangements to supply uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing equipment for the next year, and in the meantime to establish new criteria to stop their export to countries not fully in compliance with nonproliferation norms

    b. works towards denying nuclear cooperation to countries which have not adopted the Additional Protocol allowing inspections of all nuclear facilities in a country, declared and undeclared

    c. backed the Proliferation Security Initiative, an ad hoc effort led by the United States to prevent and interdict shipment of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapon related components and materials.

  3. Security Council Resolution 1540 on non-state actors and terrorism, adopted April 28, 2004. It requires all states to criminalize terrorist and other non-state actor (e.g., businesses) acquisition of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and of missiles and drones for their delivery. It also requires all states to establish export controls, methods of accounting and physical protection, and border controls and law enforcement efforts to prevent non-state actor trafficking in such weapons, related materials, and missiles.

Initiatives on arms control, disarmament, and preventing vertical proliferation

There is much less to report on the disarmament side of the ledger.

  1. In 1995, the NPT Review and Extension Conference committed to completion of Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations and to commencement of negotiations on a Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty - that is, an agreement which would ban production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) for use in weapons. In 2000, the Review Conference committed to bringing the CTBT, whose negotiations were completed in 1996, into force and again to beginning talks on an FMCT.

    - But putting the CTBT into effect is now stalled. The Bush administration opposes U.S. ratification, and other important states have also not ratified the treaty, among them India and Pakistan.

    - Just this year, the United States finally agreed to begin negotiations on a fissile materials treaty, after China dropped its insistence that negotiations also begin on a treaty to prevent weaponization of outer space. But the United States now says that a fissile materials agreement cannot be verified - a position absolutely contrary to solid international understandings about the treaty and to the previous U.S. stance.

  2. Aside from the fissile materials treaty, there are no multilateral talks in sight on control and elimination of nuclear forces, nor talks among the eight nuclear-armed states. This is contrary to commitments made at the 2000 NPT Review Conference, which called among other things for discussions to begin on complete nuclear disarmament in the Conference on Disarmament.

  3. As I have already described, the United States and Russia agreed to the 2002 Moscow Treaty. It requires each state to deploy no more than 2200 long-range strategic nuclear warheads and bombs by the year 2012. But unlike previous bilateral agreements, it contains no provisions whatever for verification, transparency, and irreversible dismantlement and destruction in relation to the warheads and delivery systems removed from deployment. That is why, as I said earlier, in 2012 the United States will have more than 6,000 nuclear warheads, with many hundreds of the reserve warheads ready for redeployment in weeks or months. Of course, when the world talks about possible warheads in North Korea, nice distinctions are not made between "operationally deployed" and "reserve" forces. I heard one diplomat from a non-nuclear weapon state call the Moscow Treaty, accurately, a "confidence-building measure" - not a true arms control agreement. No further bilateral negotiations are planned between Russia and United States, though obviously there is much to work on: verification of agreed reductions; reduction and elimination of nonategic warheads; further reduction of strategic warheads.

What Needs to be Done

There is no doubt that vigorous efforts are needed to stop horizontal proliferation and acquisition of nuclear bombs by terrorists. Here global civil society, I think, should support the initiatives already underway, and see that they are fully funded.

But in the end, stopping the spread of the bomb will depend upon reversing the nearly 60 year old arms race. Here global civil society must breathe life into a stalled process. Fortunately, we do not need to spend time analyzing the appropriate measures. That has been done, in an amazing burst of activity by non-nuclear weapon states and NGOs over the last decade. It is best captured in the 13 steps for systematic and progressive disarmament set forth in the final document of the 2000 NPT Review Conference. To summarize some key points:

  1. Verified, transparent, and irreversible reduction of arsenals, leading to their elimination. The principles of verification, transparency, and irreversibility were affirmed in 2000 but were jettisoned by the 2002 Moscow Treaty. They must be upheld.

  2. "Concrete agreed measures to further reduce the operational status of nuclear weapons systems", often referred to as dealerting. In other words, stand down the nuclear forces, take the warheads off the missiles, take the submarines off patrol, etc. It is absurd and dangerous beyond belief to keep the submarines on patrol and the warheads on the missiles as if the United States and Russia may wage all-out nuclear war at any moment.

  3. "A diminishing role for nuclear weapons in security policies to minimize the risk that these weapons ever be used and to facilitate the process of their total elimination". In other words, stop pretending that you will use nuclear weapons in a wide range of circumstances. Their mere possession, pending elimination, is enough to prevent other states from considering their use. Non-use, indeed, is legally required. As the International Court of Justice found in its 1996 advisory opinion, use of nuclear weapons is generally contrary to international law forbidding the use of weapons which inflict indiscriminate harm, unnecessary suffering, and disproportionate damage to the environment.

  4. Bring the CTBT into force and negotiate a meaningful fissile materials treaty, one that covers all materials that could be used in weapons, that is, all separated plutonium and highly enriched uranium, with no exceptions for civilian reactor use or submarine propulsion. Civilian reactors can be fueled by low enriched uranium. Further, set up a framework for agreement on eventual control and disposal of existing stocks of weapons usable fissile materials, including materials to be removed from warheads.

  5. "The engagement as soon as appropriate of all the nuclear-weapon States in the process leading to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons".

As the comprehensive process envisioned by the 13 steps matures, it will be possible to put into place what the New Agenda General Assembly resolution of 2000 described as the end state. It affirmed that "a nuclear-weapon-free world will ultimately require the underpinnings of a universal and multilaterally negotiated legally binding instrument or a framework encompassing a mutually reinforcing set of instruments." In short, it will be possible to establish a convention or its equivalent for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons comparable to that now in place for chemical weapons. Then the nuclear-armed states, and all states, will finally have complied with the unanimous holding of the International Court of Justice that "there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations on nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."

What role for mayors?

In the wake of September 11, the City of New York has focussed on the prevention of an attack of that scale ever taking place again in the city. It has taken on this task on its own, while of course working with the federal government as well.

After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as September 11 and other large-scale terrorist attacks in Madrid and elsewhere around the world, I am sure that the mayors sitting in this room agree that it is part of their responsibility to work to ensure that a nuclear bomb is never exploded in a city again.

I therefore urge you to work closely with the Mayors for Peace Campaign, which aims to bring many mayors to the important 2005 NPT Review Conference in New York. I also urge you to support and promote the work of local NGO groups - we certainly need encouragement, visibility, and resources. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as experienced politicians, I urge you to work within your national political processes to ensure that the abolition of nuclear weapons is a real and practical priority for your government.

Prevention of use of nuclear weapons, and their abolition, are not humanity's only high-priority goals. But their accomplishment is a necessary component of achievement of a future world in which human rights are respected, the environment preserved, security for all safeguarded, and the rule of law valued.

        Home | Nuclear Disarmament & Non-Proliferation | World Court Project   | Nuclear Weapons Convention  |  Abolition 2000

Middle Powers Initiative | Global Action to Prevent War  | Nuclear Energy | About LCNP  | Publications