How Do You Solve a Problem Like Nukes?

by Ashutosh Jogalekar: As the saying goes, if you believe only fascists guard borders, then you will ensure that only fascists will guard borders. The same principle applies to scientists working on nuclear weapons. If you believe that only Strangelovian warmongers work on nuclear weapons, you run the risk of ensuring that only such characters will do it.

We can therefore be thankful that there are sane scientists with diverse opinions about America’s nuclear weapons who work on these fiendish creations. And we can be doubly thankful that journalist and writer Sarah Scoles has taken the trouble to write about them in her book, “Countdown”. Scoles has an eye for the interesting, the droll and the ironic. She tours the sites where nuclear weapons have been developed and maintained – most notably America’s national labs – and spends ample time with a handful of scientists and engineers who work with them. She talks at length to these patriotic men and women and paints a revealing portrait of people who, apart from their work, are just…well, people. They have families and hobbies and take their kids to soccer and swim practice. They love to chat up their neighbors and drink wine with them. They love to argue and are well aware of both sides of the debate. They are smart and highly skilled at their trades. Most importantly, while they would like to see a world free of nuclear weapons, they know that until that happens, deterrence is our best bet to keep the peace. They have taken it upon themselves to shoulder that grim responsibility. We should be glad that America’s nuclear weapons are in such safe hands.

But deterrence only works when its reliable. That is where the crux of the problem, and the main narrative of Scoles’s book, lies. You can only deter an adversary if you and the adversary believe that the weapons you are using to deter them work and are foolproof. You can only ensure the workings of a weapon if you test it on a regular basis. And since 1992 after the Cold War ended, the United States has not done any full-scale tests of a nuclear weapon. Doing such tests would be a major destabilizing move against Russia and China, still our most important adversaries when it comes to nuclear weapons. But not doing tests risks reducing the reliability of our nuclear weapons and undermines the very idea of deterrence. Therein lies the dilemma.

The scientists featured in Scoles’s book work on…

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