Thursday, March 8, 2007

An Impassioned Plea for Nuclear Reason

In this photo, the sage physicist Sid Drell concludes his look at the reasons (or more precisely the lack of reasons) behind the size of the US nuclear weapons stockpile.

In a talk that was more emotionally engaging than most at the March meeting, Sid pondered whether we really need thousands of nuclear warheads in the post cold war world. Perhaps only a few hundred would be enough to dissuade anyone with the capacity to threaten us militarily to think twice before making a move.

Officially, the US and Russia are seeking to eliminate nuclear weapons stockpiles completely. Just when that might happen isn't clear, but it won't be soon. The next milestone for both countries is to get total numbers of weapons down to about 2000 or so.

In the meantime, the US is on the verge of completing plans for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW). Although it sounds scary, Sid and the other speakers in Session H7: Nuclear Weapon Missions in the 21st Century made the RRW seem pretty reasonable. As I understand it, the RRW is intended to be a more robust replacement for aging warheads, and will be built with an eye toward cleaner production, as well as safer and more stable weapons systems. In addition, the cold war era demand for the largest possible explosive yield in every bomb is being dropped, according to speaker General Kehler of Strategic Command. Many of our older nuclear warheads were fine tuned for maximum yield, which makes them delicate, expensive, and high maintenance devices.

The whole idea of the RRW seemed pretty reasonable, even to a left leaning peacenik like me. But I'm glad we have folks like Sid around who encourage us, and more importantly our politicians and military brass, to stop and think about what we're really trying to accomplish with something as potentially devastating to life on Earth as nuclear firepower.

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