U.S. nuclear policy goes from MAD to NUTS, Panofsky says

L.A. Cicero Wolfgang Panofsky

Wolfgang Panofsky

More than six decades after the detonation of the atomic bomb, does America need to produce a new generation of nuclear warheads, or are the old ones still reliable? How should we respond to countries such as Iran with perceived nuclear weapons aspirations? Considering global warming, should we revive nuclear energy, or would it generate materials that could be used for terrorism?

"There are very many problems concerning nuclear weapons which are before Congress and the public, but there isn't any overall policy governing the decisions," physicist and arms-control expert Wolfgang K. H. "Pief" Panofsky said March 12 at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) in the auditorium bearing his name. About 200 people had gathered to hear his talk, "Nuclear Weapons: Security or Insecurity?"

"The risk-to-benefits ratio of nuclear weapons has grown to an unacceptably large value today since the end of the Cold War and in my view threatens the survival of civilization," said Panofsky, who consulted for the Manhattan Project from 1943 to 1945. He turns 88 on April 24 and his autobiography, titled Panofsky on Physics, Politics and Peace: Pief Remembers, is due out from Springer Verlag later this year.

Joining Stanford as a physics professor in 1951, Panofsky became founding director of SLAC, the nation's first linear accelerator center, in 1961. He held that position until 1984 and became an emeritus professor in 1989. Retirement never really took with Panofsky, who flew to New York right after his SLAC talk to consult with one of the ambassadors to the United Nations about arms control.

'Deter, assure, dissuade, defeat'

"During the Cold War, the main function of nuclear weapons was to deter the Soviet Union with a nuclear triad—intercontinental ballistic missiles, strategic bombers and sea-launched ballistic missiles from submarines," Panofsky said. The outcome of any nuclear strike then would be MAD—mutually assured destruction.

The Cold War ended in 1991, but current U.S. doctrine governing nuclear policy concerns Panofsky. Officially called "deter, assure, dissuade, defeat," the current doctrine is based on capabilities (we do what we can) rather than demonstrable threats. The United States can preempt with nuclear weapons if necessary, if some real or conjectured opponent is accumulating either chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. "All options are on the table," Panofsky said.

"Current U.S. nuclear weapons policy of 'assure, deter, dissuade and defeat' is an obsolete relic of the Cold War and is insufficient to guide pending decisions," he said. He described America's defense plan as "adaptive," with no fixed list of high-value targets. "I call the current paradigm Nuclear Use Target Selection," Panofsky said, pointing to the acronym "NUTS" on his slide.

At the height of the Cold War, the world's nuclear stockpiles had swollen to 70,000 warheads, with an average destructive power about 20 times that of the weapons that killed a quarter of a million people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Panofsky said.

Today, the world's stockpile has shrunk to 27,000 nuclear warheads, he said. The United States has 10,000 nuclear warheads, and this number will shrink to about 6,000 by 2012. But our conventional power is overwhelming as well.

Dissuasion entails a massive show of power and aims to persuade adversaries not to pursue a military buildup in hopes of equaling or surpassing U.S. power. "That doctrine in my view is destructive, counterproductive and a prescription for a nuclear arms race," Panofsky said.

The fact that the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons did not dissuade North Korea from becoming a nuclear state, he pointed out. Even a small number of nuclear weapons gives a country great power.

Assurance provides security promises to states that do not have nuclear weapons. The United States has pledged to protect Germany, for example, in the event of nuclear attack to prevent Germany from producing its own nuclear weapons. In addition, the United States promises not to retaliate with nuclear weapons against states that attack us but that don't have nuclear weapons—unless those states are allied with a nuclear weapons state.

Defeat is a poor doctrine too, Panofsky said, as nuclear wars have only losers.

"In my view, the only remaining valid mission is to deter an attack with nuclear weapons by others," Panofsky said. Such deterrence requires only a small number of nuclear weapons, he said.

Dual-purpose technologies

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) came into force in 1970 and was ratified by all nations except Israel, India and Pakistan. North Korea signed the treaty but later withdrew. The treaty established nuclear weapons states (NWS)—the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, China and France—and non-nuclear weapons states (NNWS).

Today nine states have nuclear weapons. More than a dozen additional countries had or sought nuclear weapons programs but abandoned them, so proliferation could have been worse, Panofsky said.

Under the treaty, NWS work in good faith toward disarmament, though no timetable is set. NWS do not transfer nuclear weapons or tools to NNWS.

Also under the treaty, NNWS have an "inalienable right" to nuclear power. But technology to enrich uranium for production of nuclear energy can shorten the time to make nuclear bombs.

Having a nuclear energy program does not establish evidence for having a nuclear weapons program, Panofsky said. Iran has installed a few hundred centrifuges to produce low-enriched uranium but would need about 5,000 centrifuges to produce the high-enriched uranium necessary to produce one nuclear bomb per year, he said.

Brazil is more technically capable of becoming a nuclear weapons state than is Iran, he pointed out, but America is more worried about Iran because its intentions are perceived as nefarious. "Intent is in the eye of the beholder," Panofsky said.

Reducing risk

Today a nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia is inconceivable, Panofsky said. Yet nuclear risks remain in the post-Cold War world. Nuclear weapons could detonate, either deliberately or accidentally. Misinformation could play a tragic role. Panofsky cited diminished satellite coverage leading to a false alarm spurred by a Norwegian research rocket and past accidents that did not lead to nuclear explosions but that dispersed plutonium. Regional conflicts, such as tension between India and Pakistan, could escalate and go nuclear. Nuclear weapons could proliferate, and nuclear terrorism is possible.

"Ultimately, we must create conditions in the world to make feasible a worldwide prohibition of nuclear weapons," Panofsky said. "Prohibition is not elimination." He cited a National Academies study that said the Russians and the Americans could cheat and get away with retaining some nuclear weapons.

The fact that evasions are possible does not mean prohibitions are not useful, Panofsky said. Chemical and biological weapons have been outlawed by international convention, he pointed out, and though violations occur, the world is a safer place with prohibitions than without them. "The fact that there's still murder going on doesn't mean that we should legalize murder," he reasoned.

The United States has the most to gain from such a prohibition and must take leadership toward this end, Panofsky said.

"The United States should do no less, or we will leave a very insecure world to our children."