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Michael Jones is an associate physicist in the physics department at the University of Hawaii-Manoa. The opinions expressed here are his personal views.
Some scientists in the Manhattan Project working on the first nuclear weapons recognized the potential of "a Pearl Harbor disaster repeated in thousand-fold magnification" in major cities and tried to influence U.S. policy before the first test explosion in 1945. The first United Nations resolution in 1946 recommended a commission to make specific proposals "for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction."
Regrettably, the Cold War arms race resulted in about 2,000 test explosions and tens of thousands of weapons. Many citizens' groups, prominent figures like Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell, and some political leaders tried to stop the arms race but little progress was made until the 1960s.
The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated the potential danger not only for the United States and Soviet Union, but for all nations. A series of treaties restricting nuclear testing and attempting to stop proliferation was signed in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most important is the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), which recognizes five nuclear-weapons states and obliges them 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." It forbids other states from acquiring these weapons but allows them to develop "peaceful nuclear technology." Support for the nonproliferation regime has grown since 1970. All but three nations (Israel, India and Pakistan) have signed the NPT; North Korea signed but announced its withdrawal in 2003.
Despite the end of the Cold War and improved relations between the United States and Russia, the nonproliferation regime is in danger of unraveling. Iraq, North Korea, Iran and Libya all violated their NPT commitments and had secret nuclear programs. Israel almost certainly has dozens of nuclear weapons but does not acknowledge them. India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1998 and have probably deployed dozens of weapons. These developments emphasize the importance of a complete ban of nuclear weapons, improved verification and inspection provisions, and enforcement procedures to deal with violations.
The United States and Russia have made some progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals. The Moscow Treaty, signed in 2002, will reduce deployed strategic weapons to 2,200 by the end of 2012. However, the treaty does not require that the undeployed weapons be dismantled, so several thousand could be kept in storage. The 2002 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review proposes maintaining current delivery systems and developing new missiles, bombers and submarines. It also proposes new weapons such as earth-penetrating and low-yield weapons. These programs, plus the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1999 and the current administration's antipathy to international institutions, cast doubt on the U.S. commitment to nonproliferation.
The failure of the NPT Review Conference in May is indicative of the lack of commitment of the United States and some other nations, notably Iran. Review conferences are held every five years to assess the treaty, and there had been some hope that this year's meeting would strengthen verification and inspection provisions. Unfortunately, the conference ended without any substantive agreements.
What can be done? The annual commemorations of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings are important reminders of our personal and collective obligations to the survivors (some of whom live in Hawaii) and our descendants to act so that such horrible weapons are never used again. There are opportunities to act at international, national and grass-roots levels. Some local examples are the youth exchanges between Hiroshima and Honolulu, organized by the YMCA, and educational activities by groups such as the University of Hawaii Matsunaga Institute for Peace, which, in cooperation with Hiroshima City University, will be involved in the observance in Hiroshima this year. Nationally, people should tell members of Congress to stop funding research on new nuclear weapons and new delivery vehicles and to provide more resources for dismantling weapons and securely storing the fissionable material from them. Action at all of these levels was necessary to achieve the existing treaties banning nuclear tests and limiting proliferation. More needs to be done to achieve a ban on nuclear weapons to complement the treaties banning chemical and biological weapons. To reach this goal, we need the involvement not only of political and military leaders but also of religious leaders, scientists, educators and the general public -- especially young people.
Fifty years ago the Russell-Einstein manifesto highlighted the nuclear threat and need for action. The following quote from Albert Einstein expresses a scientist's perspective that I share:
"We scientists, whose tragic destiny it has been to help make the methods of annihilation ever more gruesome and more effective, must consider it our solemn and transcendent duty to do all in our power to prevent these weapons from being used for the brutal purpose for which they were invented."