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The U.S.’s Plans to Modernize Nuclear Weapons Are Dangerous and Unnecessary

The U.S. should back away from updating its obsolescent nuclear weapons, in particular silo-launched missiles that needlessly risk catastrophe

Illustration of two hands lifting the top of the U.S. Capitol building, with a rocket placed within in.
Credit:

Adrián Astorgano

This article is part of “The New Nuclear Age,” a special report on a $1.5-trillion effort to remake the American nuclear arsenal.

The U.S. is planning to of land-, sea- and air-based weapons. Perfectly poised to refight the cold war, these overhauled bombs will and threaten life on Earth for the century to come. We should rethink this miserable folly rather than once again squandering our wealth while driving a new arms race.

As detailed in this issue of ݮֱ, this plan to while imperiling the world has been widely . “Russia and the United States have already been through one nuclear arms race. We spent trillions of dollars and took incredible risks in a misguided quest for security,” former U.S. defense secretary William J. Perry as the plans first materialized. “There is only one way to win an arms race: refuse to run.”

Although the Biden administration canceled proposed , the U.S. nuclear arsenal still bristles with , around 1,700 of them deployed for military use and the rest in storage overseen by the Department of Energy. This quantity is —and it is only a fraction of the world's total, leaving out and smaller ones in China and other nations. Lowering the numbers and thus the risks of these weapons is a responsibility the U.S. and the Soviet Union first , and this goal should drive military and political decision-making now.

Instead the U.S. is sleepwalking into of its three-pronged cold war nuclear forces. Meanwhile China is expanding its own arsenal (to one-fourth the size of the U.S.'s). , and , all designed to fit into a military strategy first conceived before the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, will by 2050 leave the dead hand of the past steering us into another century of pointless risks. In this future, a could exterminate humanity, as nearly happened repeatedly throughout the cold war. We are simply fortunate, nothing more, to have survived the hundreds of that rang over those decades.

At the center of the government's proposal is to fill 450 nuclear silos in five inland states with hundreds of new nuclear missiles set to launch on hair triggers. Built before submarine-launched missiles became large, accurate and untraceable, these relics are now justified as to absorb a Russian attack on the U.S. Why plant a $100-billion nuclear “kick me” sign on the country's breadbasket?

We cannot store the nuclear waste we have now, never mind the additional waste that will result from building these missiles. The so-called nuclear sponging mapped in this month’s issue [see “Sacrifice Zones”] would kill up to several million from radiation exposure, with hundreds of millions in North America being at risk of exposure to lethal fallout. Even a limited between India and Pakistan would kill tens of millions worldwide and cause global famine—but how can the U.S. argue for other nations to disarm while burnishing its own nuclear sword in such a heedless fashion?

We aimed this Damoclean sword at ourselves during the cold war when we produced that trigger thermonuclear warhead explosions. Weapons tests of these blasts have left every part of with plutonium, with hotspots such as the Rocky Flats in Colorado and the Hanford sites in Washington State still requiring tens of billions of dollars for cleanup. Faltering to restart pit production for the nuclear-modernization effort have cost $18 billion to $24 billion, much of it wasted, and, by at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, they don't even seem to be immediately necessary.

Why are we risking so much when the lessons of the 20th century are so clear? In the words of the 1991 START Treaty that capped the cold war, “nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity ... it .” Disregarding Russia's inability to turn its nuclear arsenal to military advantage while being bombarded by Ukrainian drones, our political class has fumbled away hard-won wisdom about the deadly futility of the arms race. We are recapitulating the dangers the world turned away from decades ago.

Who today benefits from disinterring the arms race? Only defense-industry shareholders and military contractors near silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. This, in a nation where out of to help lower-income families. Surely it would be cheaper, safer and smarter to build factories or universities or research labs in these places, construct low-cost housing next to new engineering or biomedical campuses there, and watch them boom, in a good way, for the next century at a fraction of the silo-overhaul price tag. The 900 nuclear missiles will meanwhile deter the feared nuclear first strike the obsolescent land missiles were meant to discourage at the dawn of the cold war.

United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said in September. “This is madness. We must reverse course.” We agree. The only real way to use nuclear weapons is never. They should exist only in numbers large enough to deter their use by others, which they already abundantly do, with not one warhead more.

ݮֱ Magazine Vol 329 Issue 5This article was originally published with the title “Modernizing Nuclear Weapons Is Dangerous” in ݮֱ Magazine Vol. 329 No. 5 (), p. 72
doi:10.1038/scientificamerican1223-72