Nuclear Past, Present and Future Project

In making its general case for shifting from deterrence to reassurance as the central principle of global security policy, CISSM has proposed ways to address the unwarranted risks that the United States and Russia still run by maintaining large nuclear arsenals and active alert postures with short decision times. These risks could essentially be eliminated in the near term by systematically reducing to zero the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons, storing all non-operational warheads in secure locations separated from delivery vehicles and under continuous international monitoring, and reducing total stored national stockpiles significantly below the asymptotic limit of mass social destruction. The most pressing proliferation problems, including North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and potential terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction, could all be more effectively addressed if the leading nuclear weapon states were willing to make tighter managerial control and systematic reassurance the norm for all nuclear programs.

Ensuring nuclear security in the coming decades, though, will also require nations to adapt their policies in response to the challenges posed by global warming. Policymakers, research organizations, and the public are beginning to consider how climate change could cause civil violence, resource wars, refugee crises, and other conflicts. A major expansion of global nuclear power has been proposed as one strategy to ameliorate climate change, but a large-scale expansion based on current reactor designs and international control arrangements could create more security challenges than it solves.

CISSM research suggests that allowing the global economy to continue expanding enough so that relative deprivation and endemic austerity do not generate widespread civil violence, while holding carbon emissions to levels deemed prudent by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would require a five- to fifteen-fold increase in the carbon-free energy supply by 2050. Even using optimistic assumptions about the contributions that could be made by other carbon-free energy sources during this period, it is very difficult to see how this goal could be met without increasing global nuclear capacity by a factor of three to eight during this time period. Any serious program to avert catastrophic climate change without increasing nuclear risks will need to include much more fundamental changes to both military and civilian nuclear programs than is being considered at the moment. CISSM is pursuing three particularly powerful security implications of a nuclear energy expansion:

  • Making rapid enough technical and political progress on a program that avoids both catastrophic climate change and nuclear disaster requires the major powers to make fundamental changes in their security policies and relationships on a more urgent timetable than is recognized by those who are focused only on avoiding global warming or on envisioning a world free of nuclear weapons.
  • The only truly proliferation-proof arrangement for a large-scale global nuclear expansion would involve centralizing all dangerous civilian nuclear activities (fuel fabrication and spent fuel management) in a small number of internationally operated nuclear energy parks that would fuel small, sealed reactors, transport them where needed, then return the unopened "nuclear battery" to the energy park at the end of its 20- to 40-year lifetime.
  • Any comprehensive international arrangement to foster the widespread use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes while protecting against proliferation can only be successfully adopted and implemented if all countries renounce the right to have nuclear weapons and dismantle existing arsenals. 

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