Scientific American - USA (2021-03)

(Antfer) #1

10 Scientific American, March 2021


Illustration by Martin Gee

When Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president on Jan-
uary 20, he inherited major crises, including a raging pandemic,
a planet gripped by escalating climate change, a ravaged econo-
my and a nation riven by hyperpartisanship, worsened by what
amounted to an attempted coup inspired by his predecessor. But
it is an older existential threat, the fearsome power of nuclear
weapons, that should still be the most terrifying. Immediately
after his inauguration, the new president gained official control
over the “nuclear football,” a 20-kilogram satchel containing
launch codes and strike options for unleashing the nation’s vast
atomic arsenal on his sole authority, at a moment’s notice. But
the intricate international web of agreements and strategies used
to restrain this world-destroying power—held by other countries
as well as the U.S.—has become dangerously frayed.
Some 9,500 warheads are currently in military service among
the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, with over 90 percent held
by the U.S. and Russia. Just a minuscule fraction of that alarming
total could bring about millions of deaths, unfathomable suffer-
ing and a new Dark Age from which recovery would not be guar-
anteed. And unlike the most significant impacts of climate change,
which manifest over decades and centuries, the devastation from
nuclear warfare could unfold in mere minutes and hours.
This modern-day sword of Damocles has hung over humani-
ty’s head for generations, held at bay by diplomacy, carefully
orchestrated international agreements and the chilling zero-sum
game of mutually assured destruction. Yet today, after years of
neglect if not outright opposition by those who believe nuclear
warfare can be “winnable,” those intertwined threads of safety are
worn, loose and about to come apart. Treaties to limit the prolifer-
ation and use of nuclear weapons have expired, more nations than
ever before are poised to develop new arsenals, and potential
destabilizing factors such as antiballistic missile defense systems
and novel hypersonic weapons platforms continue to multiply.
The Biden administration can take several steps to tiptoe back
from the brink of disaster while maintaining national security.
The first should be Biden’s fulfillment of his campaign promise
to extend the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START),
the sole remaining arms-control agreement with Russia, set to
expire on February  5. It is a vital component in curtailing each
nation’s existing nuclear forces and the possibility of a new nucle-
ar-arms race. More broadly, extending the treaty should be part of
a much needed attempt to improve the perilous state of U.S.-Russia
relations—exemplified by Russia’s recent, massive cyberattack on
U.S. institutions, including the federal agencies charged with

maintaining the national nuclear stockpile. Such efforts could
serve as a model for dialogues with other nuclear-armed nations,
especially China, which could in turn yield a wider range of solu-
tions to the vexing problem of how to denuclearize North Korea.
And Biden should make good on his promise to reenter the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the Iran nucle-
ar deal, an agreement from which then President Donald Trump
withdrew the U.S. in 2018. The 2015 deal sought to extend Iran’s
“breakout time”—its capability to produce bombs from enriched
fissile material—from a few months to at least a year. But after
Trump reinstated severe sanctions, Iran resumed vigorous ura-
nium enrichment. The assassination of Iran’s top nuclear scien-
tist last November and substantial congressional opposition to
the deal all set high barriers to the U.S. rejoining. Nevertheless,
the consensus view among arms-control experts is that the agree-
ment is the least-worst option for ensuring a nuclear-free Iran.
Yet if such efforts are met with intransigence from Congress—
a not unlikely event—Biden should take unilateral actions de -
signed to reduce risks and bolster international cooperation.
Drawing down the nation’s number of deployed strategic weap-
ons; reevaluating its byzantine “command and control” systems;
and declaring a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons—some-
thing U.S. presidents have so far been unwilling to do—all fall
within his purview. Most consequentially, however, Biden should
order sweeping changes to what is now the president’s sole author-
ity for launching nuclear weapons. He should insist that it be made
in consultation with executive branch officials and congressional
leaders, a step that can be taken without weakening deterrent
ability, arms-control experts say. If this move were eventually for-
malized through federal legislation, it could be the most mean-
ingful act of Biden’s presidency toward ensuring a safer world.

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Biden’s Nuclear


He must take immediate action

to reduce the risk of atomic war

By the Editors

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