Poison Control

Why can't we get rid of nukes the same way we got rid of chemical weapons?

Last Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons "for its extensive efforts to eliminate chemical weapons." I suppose the OPCW's role in averting 72 hours of airstrikes against Syria didn't hurt its chances.

The OPCW has been doing worthy work for more than a decade. The Nobel press release makes the point that the committee, having awarded "numerous prizes" to strengthen efforts to eliminate nuclear weapons, now was "seeking to contribute to the elimination of chemical weapons."

So the Norwegian Nobel Committee wanted to share the love. I am glad. There are plenty of people toiling away under gray skies in Den Haag who deserve a moment of sunshine.

There is, however, an implicit criticism in the award. After all, what does the committee have to show for those "numerous prizes" intended to eliminate nuclear weapons? Despite eight different Nobels to nine individuals and three organizations, nuclear weapons remain at the core of our security policies. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, are very close to being a thing of the past.

Those of us interested in reducing the danger from nuclear weapons might well ask how the world made so much progress when it comes to chemical weapons. We might learn something.

The widespread abhorrence of chemical weapons, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, dates to the horrors of the First World War. It seems fashionable to dismiss our aversion to poison gas on the basis that all kinds of awful things happen in war. It helps to read first-person accounts of gas attacks or even the fictionalized account in All Quiet on the Western Front. (Erich Maria Remarque had served in the German army during the war but was not, so far as I know, gassed.)

Six years after the end of the war, the ill-fated League of Nations held a conference that resulted in the 1925 Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, better known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use, but not the possession, of chemical weapons. Most of the major powers, particularly the combatants in the First World War, acceded to the Geneva Protocol in relatively short order -- France in 1926, the Soviet Union in 1928, Germany in 1929, the United Kingdom in 1930. Many signed with reservations, such as warning that the protocol would cease to be binding with regards to enemies that did not observe it. This was deterrence before Hiroshima.

The United States did not sign until 1975. (The State Department has a whiny little fact narrative that points out the United States accepted a similar prohibition on chemical weapons in the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, then blames the French for rejecting that treaty over its submarine limits. Charles Evans Hughes surely spat out his freedom toast.)

Despite the hold-outs and reservations, norms and some measure of deterrence (largely) kept chemical weapons from being used on the battlefield during the Second World War -- although let's not pat ourselves on the back when it comes to the subject of poison gas and fascism. Over time, though, we've come to regard chemical weapons as basically awful. The post-war leaders that have used chemical weapons reads like a who's who of nutjobs -- Muammar al-Qaddafi against Chad, Saddam Hussein against Iran, and now Bashar al-Assad against his own people. There are other disputed cases, but they don't change the fundamental fact that chemical weapons use is popular largely with the world's worst countries.

Eventually, the international community negotiated the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention. The CWC expanded the 1925 Geneva Protocol's prohibition on the use of chemical weapons into a verifiable ban on the development, stockpiling, and use of chemical weapons, and it created the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to help implement the convention.

Syria's accession to the CWC leaves only a handful of countries outside the treaty -- charming little garden spots like Angola, Egypt, South Sudan, and North Korea. (Israel and Myanmar have signed, but not ratified.) Although the United States and Russia are, as the Norwegian Nobel Committee notes, lagging on CW destruction, the delays relate to funding and local opposition by environmental groups. Neither country retains an operational chemical weapons stockpile. It's taken nearly 90 years since the 1925 Geneva Protocol, but the end of chemical weapons is more or less in sight. The norm against chemical weapons is so strong President Obama ad libbed a military threat against Syria before realizing he didn't really mean it. There is a deep, visceral disgust toward chemical weapons.

Which brings us to nuclear weapons.

We hear a lot about the elimination of nuclear weapons. President Obama is for eliminating nuclear weapons, although he doesn't think it will happen in his lifetime. Global Zero and other disarmament groups want a treaty that sets a time-frame for elimination.

Well, I don't know how long Barack Obama is going to live. (What's the life expectancy for a 52-year-old smoker, anyway?) But this process is going to take longer than 20 years -- particularly if we keep going about it the same way.

It is worth noting that it took 70 years to go from a prohibition on the use of chemical weapons to a verifiable regime that bans their development, production, and stockpiling as well. It took so long because many people continued to believe that chemical weapons had military or political uses, that our chemical weapons were necessary to deter their chemical weapons, and that you couldn't "un-invent" a technology that was commonplace. Of course, these weren't the real barriers. We didn't ultimately get the Chemical Weapons Convention because of a breakthrough in verification technology or because we'd solved all the problems that led people to arm themselves in the first place. We got the Chemical Weapons Convention because we, collectively, decided to eliminate chemical weapons. It took 70 years to convince ourselves, collectively, that we didn't want to live with poison gas anymore.

By contrast, we haven't even started that process with regard to nuclear weapons. Disarmament proposals are clever, but they leave intact the possibility that we might use nuclear weapons for one goal or another. In 1961, Mort Halperin wrote a proposal to ban the use of nuclear weapons. This proposal had all the hallmarks of a good idea ahead of its time, including falling on deaf ears. We needed nuclear weapons -- to keep the Red Army in its barracks, to keep Soviet missiles out of Cuba, to keep Taiwan and South Korea free ... well, non-communist at any rate. Those rationales ended with the Cold War, but we kept saying nuclear weapons are useful, to the point that you'll get a nice little homily from any U.S. or U.K. official involved in the nuclear business about how we "use" nuclear weapons every day. (I actually jab a pen in my hand to avoid rolling my eyes when I hear that hoary old chestnut.)

Even our disarmament talk pays homage to the continuing utility of nuclear weapons. We spend a lot of time talking about how the vision of elimination is necessary to create the political will to take more modest steps, or how we can work to create the political conditions that will allow elimination. But we won't say what we said about chemical weapons in 1925: that their use "has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world" and that "this prohibition shall be universally accepted ... binding alike the conscience and the practice of nations."

And that's why we haven't banned them. Instead, we are willing to say that we would use nuclear weapons only in extreme circumstances or circumstances that are extremely remote. But if, for example, you state that we should never again use nuclear weapons "under any circumstances," you can hear the lawyers sucking in air through their teeth. Even the International Court of Justice, in its 1996 advisory opinion on the legality of the use of nuclear weapons, punted, noting that while the use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal, there might be exceptions.

If we really believe that nuclear deterrence cannot go on forever, that relying on nuclear weapons for our security is at some level ultimately unsustainable, the place to start is by observing that nuclear weapons belong in the same category as chemical weapons. I suspect that our reluctance to do so explains in large part why nuclear weapons are still with us, nearly 70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There is now a growing interest among some observers to start building the consensus against the use of nuclear weapons. The Nonproliferation and Disarmament Initiative -- a group of 12 countries including Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Nigeria, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates -- is pressing the United States and other nuclear-weapons states to face up to the human cost of a nuclear war. In March, Norway hosted a conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The United States and the other nuclear-weapons states skipped it. (Maybe Oslo's famous $20 beers were too rich for TDY. Norway totally should have held it in a casino. What? Too soon?)

The conference was, I am told, a smashing success. (Mexico will host a follow-on conference next February in Nayarit.) Afterward, 80 countries, including some important U.S. allies, sponsored a statement on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. More than 80 countries! It's harder than it should be, getting 80 countries to say that using a nuclear weapon would be unwelcome from a humanitarian standpoint. The trouble was this line: "It is in the interest of the very survival of humanity that nuclear weapons are never used again, under any circumstances." It's a reasonable sentiment, not so far off from Reagan's common-sense observation that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.

But that phrase -- "any circumstances." That phrase caused a lot of heartburn, especially among Japanese lawyers who worried that the language might be inconsistent with U.S. nuclear policy and, therefore, U.S. security guarantees to Japan. Japan was not one of the 80 signatories. The Japanese public, on the other hand, is well aware of the human toll at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They don't seem to have a lot of time for the hypothetical concerns of lawyers. They know that nuclear bombs are a bad thing for the people getting bombed and don't mind saying so. Under political pressure, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now decided to sign the statement. Abe has also invited world leaders to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to "to witness first-hand the impact that could be inflicted by the use of such weapons."

I visited Hiroshima this summer as part of a group convened by the prefectural government. It was a very moving experience, particularly the museum. The hardest part, for me, were the children's school uniforms, with the dark numbers burned out. For a colleague of mine, it was the child's tricycle, its surface bubbled from the intense heat. These objects matter. It's hard for a person to contemplate the enormity of the loss all at once. It's only when you confront a singular instance of tragedy -- the story of the child who wore the uniform or rode the tricycle -- and start to multiply that suffering by a few, then by a score, and then by the thousands, it's only then you start to have trouble breathing. Well, that's how I experienced it, at any rate. It is easy for us to talk about deterrence in a cold, analytical manner that obscures the horror of what it would mean to make good on a threat to use a nuclear weapon. A visit to Hiroshima makes that ugly reality a little harder to push aside.

President Obama really ought to take Abe up on his offer. The president has said he seeks the elimination of nuclear weapons, but I wonder if he's really thought about why we should recoil at the threat of nuclear war. When Obama talks about the destruction of nuclear weapons, he remains as cool and detached as ever. The closest Obama has come to describing the horrors of nuclear war is telling his audience in Prague that the beautiful city would have ceased to exist in a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange. Yet even this observation was prefaced with an odd, false note -- that the destruction would have happened "in a single flash of light."

That's not how it works. The ruin and dying continue after the flash of light, for days. Hence the most depressing comment about the reality of nuclear war -- the survivors would envy the dead. If you visit Hiroshima, you'll find monuments to Marcel Junod, the Red Cross official who visited the city days after bombing, bringing much needed medical supplies.

If Obama were to visit Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he would realize how lucky Hiroshima would have been to have all the death and suffering over in a "flash of light." I have no doubt that the president would find the courage do the right thing. What's holding him back? It isn't as though our allies would be upset. I sometimes hear that "more than 30 countries around the world rely on the U.S. nuclear weapons umbrella." Setting aside my many objections to that claim for the moment, a goodly number of those countries attended the conference in Oslo and signed the statement on humanitarian consequences. These are our allies.

The United States should sign the statement and send a delegation to the conference in Nayarit. This isn't so hard.

Oh, who am I kidding? The United States is going to refuse to sign the statement and skip the next conference, too, just as it refused to sign the Geneva Protocol in 1925. The arc of history may bend toward justice, but good Lord, is it a long arc. It is too bad. President Obama speaks movingly about his commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. If only he knew how! Well, if he's really interested, he has a model in the decades-long fight against chemical weapons. It starts with a recognition that we can't use these weapons, then takes decades of hard work to persuade others to join us. It's a long slog, with plenty of low points and setbacks. But, Mr. President, it's not impossible. Just ask your fellow Nobel laureates at the OPCW.

AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Armageddon 2

The supremely bad U.S.-Russian plan to nuke asteroids.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Russia's State Atomic Energy Organization (ROSATOM) recently signed an agreement that provides for cooperation in a number of areas, including safeguards against nuclear proliferation, nuclear reactors, and defense from asteroids.

Defense from asteroids? What?

Let's be clear about one thing: When DOE and ROSATOM talk about "defense" against asteroids, that means they are going to discuss nuking rocks in space. (What do you think the ATOM stands for anyway?) Recently, a labbie at Los Alamos National Laboratory modeled a one-megaton explosion against an asteroid in space -- about 50 times the size of the device used in Hiroshima. The Russians think it "will take a nuclear device much bigger than one megaton to intercept" the sort of asteroids that interest them, according to Oleg Shubin. He should know: He's ROSATOM's deputy director of the development and testing of nuclear munitions. Boys will be boys.

We can choose between two pop culture references to mock this terrible idea.

One is Michael Bay's 1998 movie Armageddon, a Bruce Willis-Ben Affleck vehicle so terrible that Bay apologized for it. Bay really should also have apologized for the schmaltzy theme song, "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing." I don't know if U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz was reluctant to add asteroid defense to the program of cooperation, but I like to imagine ROSATOM Director Sergei Kirienko down on one knee, belting out the Dianne Warren-penned, Aerosmith-performed power ballad, slowly overcoming Ernie's resistance:

I don't wanna close my eyes,
I don't wanna fall asleep,
'Cause I'd miss you, babe,
And I don't wanna miss a thing.

So, there's that. There is also a crazy Russian cosmonaut character, which now seems sort of prescient.

On the other hand, the 1979 Atari video game, Asteroids, offers style. The millennials who populate Twitter might not know this, but Asteroids was amazing. (Did you know that you can play Asteroids in your web browser? Really. Go ahead, this article will still be here in a couple of hours.) My pal Arrigo makes a good case for choosing this reference: "Atari, it just sets the mood and carries that aura of passé which is so fitting."

Is someone huffing whippets in the Forrestal Building? Let us start by reviewing the myriad legal agreements that prohibit exploding nuclear weapons in space.

The Outer Space Treaty prohibits placing "any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction" in orbit, on celestial bodies, or "in outer space in any other manner" -- to say nothing of blowing them up. The Limited Test Ban Treaty prohibits nuclear explosions anywhere except underground. That means no explosions in the atmosphere or "beyond its limits, including outer space." The Threshold Test Ban Treaty limits the size of underground nuclear explosions but also has a companion agreement on "peaceful" nuclear explosions that makes clear any such explosions must be underground. The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) did have a clause governing peaceful nuclear explosions, but that clause has to be interpreted now in light of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits any nuclear explosions, full stop. (The United States has signed but not ratified the CTBT.) The states that are party to the CTBT did agree to discuss underground peaceful nuclear explosions at a later date, but space is still off limits.

In other words, a mess of legal obligations stand between us and detonating a nuclear weapon in outer space. It's not entirely clear to me what there is to talk about with ROSATOM beyond how we absolutely, positively cannot do any of the things they are discussing. Who's ready for lunch?

At best, this program is make-work with a couple of junkets to Russia and northern California for bored weaponeers. At worst, it threatens to undermine of the framework of important treaties that help stop the further spread of nuclear weapons.

Now, I don't mind a paper study here or there. Asteroids -- really near-Earth objects (NEOs), of which asteroids are one type -- are a real policy issue, even if a global asteroid catastrophe is the kind of catastrophe that only happens once in a million years or so. Smaller asteroids, which can still do quite a bit of damage, hit the earth more frequently. In February, a meteor exploded over Russia. No one was killed, but lots of people were injured. And the thing about statistics is that very unlikely events are not impossible. Hell, Robin Thicke is famous. (Here is a nice primer on the asteroid threat -- a bit dated, but very well done.)

So, if some labbie wants to simulate a megaton-sized nuclear explosion against an asteroid, I suppose that's fine with me. But a cooperative program of work with ROSATOM seems like a permission slip to start planning things that are neither a good idea nor legal. There is a long and disreputable history of Strangelovian characters like Edward Teller and Lowell Wood using "planetary defense" as a justification for one nuclear weapons scheme or another, long after the demise of what little Cold War rationale might have existed. Convening the Cold War fossils for tea and cookies isn't very reassuring on this point.

Teller is a particularly important, and reviled, figure in this discussion. I.I. Rabi, one of Teller's colleagues on the Manhattan Project, is said to have reflected, "it would have been a better world without Teller." In the 1950s, Teller was talking about a 10,000- megaton bomb -- that's 670,000 Hiroshimas, in case you are counting at home. On his blackboard at Los Alamos, Teller reportedly had a device so large that it would kill everyone on earth. He named it "Backyard," since there would be no need to move it anywhere. (Alex Wellerstein has a wonderful blog post on Teller, from which much of this is drawn, entitled "In Search of a Bigger Boom.")

Teller spent the Cold War as an advocate for lots of things I don't think were good ideas and as an implacable opponent of most everything I think was. By the 1980s, he was promoting "Excalibur," a Strategic Defense Initiative project in which nuclear weapons detonated in space would generate X-ray lasers that would shoot down incoming Soviet ICBMs. (As I have noted before, Reagan administration officials had trouble grasping that the lasers resulted from nuclear explosions in orbit. One exasperated advisor took to telling then-Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger, "It go boom, Cap.")

Teller outlived the Soviet Union, which left him shooting at asteroids. "Late in his life," one colleague wrote, "Teller was a powerful advocate for defending against asteroid impacts." That's a nice way of saying that, after the Cold War, Teller turned to planetary defense as a way to resurrect stupid ideas like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Teller even schlepped his way out to Chelyabinsk-70, now Snezhinsk, one of the closed Soviet nuclear cities, to convince the Russians to join his foolish crusade. I guess it worked.

Teller said his interest was in planetary defense, but it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see it was about his shrinking target base. It just took an astronomer: David Morrison.

Morrison -- who is best-known for patiently dealing with all the 2012 Mayan doomsday morons -- knows more about detecting asteroids and what to do about them than just about anyone. (He wrote the primer referenced above.) Morrison knew Teller and seems to have liked him well enough. That hasn't stopped Morrison, however, from telling stories that illustrate Teller's less appealing side. After Teller's death, Morrison described a 1992 meeting of Teller, Lowell Wood, and other nuclear weaponeers at Los Alamos that Morrison and few other astronomers attended.

Morrison and another well-known scientist, Clark Chapman, have written an account of the meeting that is much too long to reproduce here. (Still, it is worth reading in full.) The short version is that the astronomers present noticed that the asteroid scenarios promoted by Teller, Wood, and other weaponeers just happened to require nuclear weapons like "Backyard" and "Excalibur." Morrison and the other astronomers were also struck by how little debate occurred among the weaponeers, who simply followed Teller and Wood's advocacy of artificial scenarios that required nuclear solutions. Morrison and Chapman are perhaps too polite to say so directly, but their account leaves the impression that Teller and Wood let their enthusiasm for certain nuclear weapons projects drive their analysis of the asteroid problem, rather than the other way around.

Excuse me, anyone seen an asteroid that might need a gigaton worth of yield?

Morrison and Chapman's account emphasizes the differences in perspective between weaponeers and astronomers, ending with a comparison of Teller's demeanor to that of the easy-going, well-liked, and equally eminent astronomer Gene Shoemaker. (Shoemaker as in "Shoemaker-Levy 9.")

The distinction between weaponeers and astronomers is relevant here -- after all, DOE and ROSATOM are largely weaponeers. And there is a good case to be made that, for now at least, the threat posed by asteroids is really an astronomy problem.

There are, of course, some hypothetical scenarios in which a nuclear explosive might be the best solution to an asteroid barreling toward our little planet. (That's the thing about hypothetical scenarios.) But the likelihood of a very large asteroid impact is extraordinarily small to begin with, and the scenarios in which a nuclear explosive would be necessary are those in which we would see the asteroid in time to act, but not with so much time that we could fashion a non-nuclear response. This is a vanishingly small subset of an already unlikely class of threats. 

The real problems are the asteroids that we won't see until after they hit us. The meteor that exploded over Russia in February struck out of the blue. And a system of nuclear interceptors is of no use against asteroids we can't detect.

Our current efforts to scan the heavens have eliminated, according to Morrison, about 80 percent of the asteroid risk. Being able to deal with the next 10 percent requires much larger investments in space surveillance, particularly new telescopes like the $390-million Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) that the National Science Foundation and DOE are about to start building in Chile. This is an important project -- much more so than funding some boondoggle to sample vodka in Snezhinsk or Sarov. It is also in real budgetary peril because of sequestration. "I've been told we are a high priority for both agencies," U.C. Davis Professor and LSST Director Tony Tyson told Science magazine, "but it's hard to read the political tea leaves."

Hey, Tony, sorry about Chile. But if you want to go see the monastery at Sarov, there's travel money.

I realize that telescopes aren't nearly as sexy as a couple of megatons in space, but improving our detection capabilities can provide plenty of warning, including enough time to sober up the folks at ROSATOM and put them on a plane to Los Alamos or Livermore in the event that Ben Affleck is tied up with freeing hostages in Iran.

As you can tell, I am a little unhappy that DOE is planning some silly conference of weaponeers to talk about asteroid deflection while the LSST is on the sequestration chopping block. We should not undermine the framework of treaties and agreements that support our fight against the very real spread of nuclear weapons in order to reduce a largely hypothetical danger, particularly when we are on the verge of cutting much more useful investments in detection. Having DOE and ROSATOM talking about asteroid defense is a waste of money, and it would be even if we weren't staring at sequestration and a government shutdown.

If the folks at ROSATOM are really that bored, I've got a better idea for just a couple hundred bucks, plus shipping. What will it be: arcade or cocktail style?