Nuclear threat remains long after the Cold War

Q&A with Harold Feiveson

Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- The nation's recently heightened concern about terrorism has renewed the public discussion of nuclear weapons and the need to prevent terrorist groups or hostile nations from obtaining them.

Harold Feiveson


The University's Program on Science and Global Security has been researching technical and policy questions related to nuclear arms control and nonproliferation for 25 years. Harold Feiveson, who co-directs the program with Frank von Hippel, recently spoke with the Weekly Bulletin about current issues related to nuclear weapons.

Feiveson, a senior research scientist, received his Ph.D. in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton in 1972. He also earned a master's degree in theoretical physics from the University of California-Los Angeles. He is the editor of the journal "Science and Global Security" and is a member of the governing board of the Federation of American Scientists.

How safe are we today regarding the threat of nuclear attack compared to the end of the Cold War era?

With respect to U.S. and Soviet/Russian nuclear weapons operations, we are much safer. There are many fewer weapons than there were then. The sense that each side needs to prepare for a surprise, massive attack by the other has disappeared for the most part.

The big exception is that, very anachronistically, the United States and Russia each maintains a couple of thousand nuclear warheads on high alert. These are warheads that can be launched within minutes or tens of minutes of an order to do so. That includes both submarine- and land-based missiles on both sides.

Now I don't think that either side really expects it is ever going to have to do this. If there is some kind of false early warning radar signal -- the kind of thing that concerned people during the Cold War -- one hopes today that no one is going to launch. Nevertheless, to have so many weapons on high alert is really reckless and dangerous.

As far as other threats of nuclear use go, I think it's more dangerous than it was during the Cold War. First of all, since 1998, when India and Pakistan tested nuclear weapons, there exists the real possibility of some kind of nuclear use in South Asia. It's unclear how that would affect the rest of the world, but obviously if that ever happened it would be of great consequence. Secondly, more than ever, I think we need to be alert to terrorist groups getting hold of nuclear weapons. That is the other new, post-Cold War danger that we have to focus on.

What are the chances of a bin Laden type acquiring nuclear weapons?

I think it's extremely unlikely that al Qaeda or any kind of terrorist group would be able to produce its own weapons-usable material -- plutonium or highly enriched uranium. That is almost completely out of the question.

Could they obtain the materials from somewhere else? That's very difficult to say. There have been rumors about people on the black market trying to sell or to buy weapons-usable materials, and everyone's favorite candidate for where such purchases would happen is the former Soviet Union. There is a lot of weapons-usable material there. The Russians believe it is well guarded, but it's something where there has to be eternal vigilance to make sure the security is as strong as possible. The situation has been improving and the United States has been cooperating with Russia to increase the security.

Now, if they got the material, would they be able to make a nuclear device? Even if they got plutonium, it would still be very, very difficult for a terrorist group to make a weapon, but not impossible. It would depend on how much scientific help they could enlist from the rest of the world, but it would not be an easy thing at all. If they got weapons-grade uranium from somewhere, it would be less difficult for a terrorist group to make a nuclear bomb, but how much less is hard to say definitively. It would still take some thinking.

Another possibility is obtaining a whole nuclear warhead from somewhere. Again, the former Soviet Union seems the place where such a possibility is the strongest. The Russians, at some point, had more than 40,000 nuclear warheads, but the Russians assure us that all of them are accounted for. And even if a terrorist group got hold of a warhead produced, say, 20 years ago, the warhead might no longer work, or it may have the Russian equivalent of what we call permissive action links, which would prevent it from being used in unauthorized hands.

I'm not certain how all this plays out, but I am hopeful that terrorist groups do not have access to nuclear weapons or nuclear materials. But we have to be extraordinarily vigilant.

Is deterrence -- the threat that the United States would annihilate a country that used nuclear weapons -- still relevant on an international stage that includes terrorist groups?

Deterrence is still very powerful against nations. It seems much less workable against terrorist groups where they might not have a clear address that you could respond to. Certainly for countries, though, including the so-called rogue countries that the United States worries about, one would think that these countries are deterrable.

The present administration has put a lot of emphasis on building a national missile defense system on the grounds that maybe in some crisis these countries might not be deterrable in the usual way. But that seems to me a dubious proposition. For Iraq, Iran, North Korea -- whatever country one is worried about -- any use of a nuclear weapon by these countries against the United States would be tantamount to suicide. So you would think that they would be deterred. The administration's emphasis on missile defense seems to me to be somewhat misplaced.

What are examples of research at the Program on Science and Global Security that addresses these questions?

We have done a lot of work looking at ways to increase the security over nuclear material in Russia. We have also worked on ways to help ensure that Russian scientists who know about nuclear weapons don't take their expertise to other countries that might be seeking nuclear weapons. In this latter respect, we have been studying ways to help convert Russia's so-called nuclear cities, where a lot of the Soviet nuclear infrastructure was located, to civilian uses so that there will be sources of employment for the scientists and technicians.

We also continue our longstanding research into civilian nuclear power and how it relates to weapons proliferation. Nuclear power is one of the main carbon-free alternatives to fossil fuels for producing electricity and is therefore being re-examined for its possible role in combating global warming. However, for nuclear power to make a dent in global warming, it would have to grow worldwide about 10-fold over the next half century. A 10-fold increase would give us something like 3,000 to 4,000 reactors worldwide.

Can you make a nuclear power system of that magnitude sufficiently proliferation resistant so there is not leakage of nuclear materials? I think that if such a large system were based on the current technologies, it would be very hard to do so.

If nuclear power is to grow significantly, it would have to be based on designs for more proliferation-resistant reactor types and fuel cycles. We are investigating these possibilities. One thing that seems clear is that you don't want to base nuclear power on so-called breeder reactors that involve separating plutonium from spent fuel and returning it to fresh fuel. If you did that, the safeguards challenge increases exponentially.

We also are studying safe and effective ways to dispose of nuclear materials recovered from dismantled U.S. and Russian warheads.

Lately, another issue has emerged. The Bush administration's recently concluded "Nuclear Posture Review" appeared to encourage ways to make nuclear weapons more useable -- for example, through the design of deep earth-penetrating nuclear weapons that could destroy underground bunkers without causing massive fallout above ground. We are concerned that such initiatives could drastically lower the nuclear threshold and/or lead to renewed testing. As a consequence, we are examining the initiatives called for in the posture review from both technical and political standpoints.

So it sounds like, despite some very real challenges, there is room for optimism.

Well, you know, if you're not optimistic it's not a good field to be in. Optimism is important, but so is being really vigilant and thinking of initiatives we can take to improve our security.

April 8, 2002
Vol. 91, No. 22
previous   archive   next


Page one
Faculty research projects take on new meaning after Sept. 11
Nuclear threat remains long after the Cold War

Time is optimal for publication of comprehensive encyclopedia
Research projects address terrorism from many angles
Two develop interdisciplinary course as Behrman fellows
Two juniors win 2002 Truman Scholarship 

Sportlight, retiring

By the numbers
Nassau Notes
Calendar of events

The Bulletin is published weekly during the academic year, except during University breaks and exam weeks, by the Office of Communications. Second class postage paid at Princeton. Permission is given to adapt, reprint or excerpt material from the Bulletin for use in other media.

Subscriptions. The Bulletin is distributed free to faculty, staff and students. Others may subscribe to the Bulletin for $28 for the academic year (half price for current Princeton parents and people over 65). Send a check to Office of Communications, Stanhope Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544.

Deadline. In general, the copy deadline for each issue is the Friday 10 days in advance of the Monday cover date. The deadline for the Bulletin that covers April 22&endash;28 is Friday, April 12. A complete publication schedule is available at deadlines or by calling (609) 258-3601.

Editor: Ruth Stevens
Calendar editor: Carolyn Geller
Staff writers: Jennifer Greenstein Altmann, Steven Schultz
Contributing writers: Marilyn Marks, Evelyn Tu
Photographer: Denise Applewhite
Design: Mahlon Lovett, Laurel Masten Cantor, Megan Peterson
Web edition: Mahlon Lovett