Hurry Up Please It’s Time

According to Robert McNamara, quoted with approval by Joseph Cirincione in his invaluable new book, Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, the continued possession of large nuclear arsenals by the US and its NATO allies is “insane…immoral, militarily unnecessary and destructive of the non-proliferation regime.” Mr. McNamara was referring to the failure of the original nuclear states to abide at this late date by their commitment under the Non-Proliferation Treaty negotiated in 1968 to agree to dispose of their nuclear weapons.

The former secretary of defense speaks with the vehemence of a reformed sinner while Cirincione, who has served as director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and on the professional staff of the House Armed Services Committee, writes as a seasoned Washington observer alert to the hazards of overstatement. His sobriety is both a virtue and a problem for his book, which ought to be read by everyone as a matter of life and death, is not one of those glib, one-theory-fits-all exercises that reside for months on best-seller lists but a tightly reasoned attempt to avert an avoidable apocalypse.

“It is difficult, if not impossible,” he writes, “to convince other states to give up their nuclear weapons ambition or adhere to nonproliferation norms when immensely powerful nuclear weapons states reassert the importance of [these] weapons to their own security.” Thus there “is a real possibility…of a system-wide collapse of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. If this were to occur it could bring the world back to the brink of annihilation for the first time in some twenty years.”

To address this threat Cirincione outlines a series of steps that the original nuclear powers might take, of which the first and by far most urgent is to prevent terrorists and other nations from obtaining the bombs and components scattered throughout the vast, ramshackle nuclear facilities of the former Soviet Union, a process that has been underway in Russia with United States funding since the Soviet collapse. With additional funding, Cirincione writes, this all-important threat reduction program “could be accelerated to secure or eliminate the vast majority of nuclear weapons and materials by 2010.” The Harvard nonproliferation experts Matthew Bunn and Anthony Wier, however, observe that by the end of 2005, “just over 54 percent of the 230 buildings…containing weapons-usable nuclear material” had been made secure.1 The 2007 military budget, moreover, provides only $1.1 billion for this purpose while allocating $11 billion for missile defense and $60 billion for the Iraq war. Graham Allison, another Harvard nonproliferation expert, conjectures that a $10 billion crash program could secure the most vulnerable facilities in a hundred days if President Bush were so inclined.2

Cirincione also proposes a new system controlled by the International Atomic Energy Agency to guarantee a supply of nuclear fuel to countries that need it for civilian use, provided that they agree not to acquire the means to produce their own fuel—whether in the form of enriched uranium or plutonium. Thus Iran,…

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