“Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.”

– George Stephanopolous
ABC News
January 1, 2005
Arms Control Today

The Oppenheimer Legacy

September 2023

The film Oppenheimer, about the physicist who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, landed in theaters at an apt moment. After two decades during which many people thought the nuclear weapons genie had been tamed, the risks seem graver than ever and the public, at least for the time being, is engaged. Russian President Vladimir Putin, having launched a full-scale war against Ukraine, also has threatened to actually use nuclear weapons against states that might intervene in the conflict. Putin and the film have provoked a new debate with endless permutations. In the collection of essays below, Stephen J. Cimbala explores the ambiguities of nuclear weapons, Chantell L. Murphy remembers the human beings erased by the film and Lisbeth Gronlund recalls the physicists who worked to limit the catastrophic weapons that their colleagues unleashed. This is a teachable moment if people can be made to understand the enduring danger of the nuclear weapons that J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team created and the need to restrain, and ultimately, eliminate them.—CAROL GIACOMO

The film Oppenheimer, about the physicist who spearheaded the Manhattan Project, landed in theaters at an apt moment.

Atoms and Ambiguity

September 2023
By Stephen J. Cimbala

The release of Christopher Nolan’s film Oppenheimer, about the physicist who created the first atomic bomb, takes viewers back to the origins of the first nuclear age and to the moral and political conundrums faced by politicians, scientists, and military planners ever since.

Image labeled ‘0.053 Sec’ of the first nuclear test, codenamed ‘Trinity’, conducted by Los Alamos National Laboratory at Alamogordo, New Mexico, July 16, 1945. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images)The two-sided character of atomic and nuclear weapons, in terms of their impacts on strategy and history, were not immediately clear to government officials in the latter 1940s and early 1950s. Some felt that the atomic bomb and, later, thermonuclear weapons should be used just as any other explosive device for military purposes. As arsenals grew and the implications of massive nuclear use became clearer, the concept of employing nuclear weapons primarily or exclusively for deterrence as a means of war prevention took hold. Nuclear deterrence could be made reliable and stable if states possessed a secure second-strike capability, guaranteed to inflict unacceptable retaliatory damage against the forces and society of the attacker.

If fired in anger, nuclear weapons would cause unprecedented and morally repugnant levels of destruction to military and civilian targets. On the other hand, nuclear or large-scale conventional war could be avoided if deterrence was effective. To make deterrence effective, however, a state had to make clear its willingness to inflict unprecedented and unacceptable damage in retaliation once having been attacked. This moral and strategic ambivalence with respect to nuclear weapons continued throughout the Cold War. The United States and the Soviet Union deployed many thousands of nuclear weapons of various ranges and yields, but these weapons were used for deterrence of nuclear or large-scale conventional warfare and for coercive diplomacy and bargaining over various political matters.

The two Cold War nuclear superpowers came closest to an actual nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, yet this dispute also was resolved without crossing the line from nuclear threat to actual use. Dangerous as they were, nuclear weapons helped to stabilize the Cold War by avoiding egregious military missteps that would have created not only a nuclear war, but also a large-scale conventional war in Europe or Asia with casualties in the hundreds of thousands and the potential to go nuclear.

During the Korean War, some U.S. political leaders and military professionals called for the use of atomic weapons against North Korea and, if necessary, China in order to reverse adverse conditions on the battlefield. The United States did not take this step for a number of reasons, including the fact that its intervention in this conflict was a limited war for limited political objectives. The use of atomic bombs in Korea could have led to vertical and horizontal escalation on the part of China and the Soviet Union, prolonging the war and making it more costly in terms of military and civilian lives lost. By 1949, the Soviet Union also had tested successfully its own atomic bomb.

The demise of the Soviet Union left post-Cold War Russia with an abundance of nuclear weapons, and these weapons have served to keep Russia in the military superpower class along with the United States. Yet, Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine beginning in February 2022 illustrates the two-sided nature of nuclear armaments. On one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened repeatedly to use nuclear weapons if the vital interests of Russia, as he defines them, are threatened. On the other hand, Russia recognizes that the first use of nuclear weapons in wartime since the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be a world-changing event, not just a tactical maneuver.

Even if Russian first use of nuclear weapons took place on the territory of Ukraine and avoided any targets on the territory of a NATO member state, the alliance immediately would be engaged in a competition in risk-taking that would have no obvious endpoint. In other words, the actual use of nuclear weapons would devalue their prior utility as deterrents and open the door to a potential World War III in Europe with globally catastrophic consequences.

Going forward, the question is how long states can play the game of nuclear political coercion but remain short of actual nuclear war. In part, this depends on the rate at which nuclear weapons spread and to whom. States dissatisfied with the existing international order or new members of the nuclear club with grievances against neighbors are obvious candidates for nuclear mischief. In addition, states ruled by impetuous, unrestrained dictators, such as North Korea, or governments caught up in a conflict spiral with inadequate skills in crisis management, as in the case of the great powers immediately prior to World War I, could unbottle the genie. Even experienced nuclear powers, thus far restrained, could fall prey to seductive sirens of controlled or limited nuclear war, entertaining nuclear first use as a means to “escalate to deescalate” an ongoing conventional war.

If J. Robert Oppenheimer were still alive, what would he say about his legacy? Perhaps, “I left you with a Faustian bargain, and it’s worked so far. Deal with it.”

The good news is that, since Oppenheimer passed from the scene, the world has witnessed less nuclear proliferation than pessimists feared.

The bad news is that this is no guarantee for the future. The two-sided nature of nuclear danger is not unlike that posed by the maturing of artificial intelligence: will we work smarter or outsmart ourselves?

Stephen J. Cimbala is distinguished professor of political science at Penn State Brandywine.

If J. Robert Oppenheimer were still alive, what would he say about his legacy?

The People the Oppenheimer Film Erased

September 2023
By Chantell L. Murphy

Not a single ponderosa pine can be found in the new film Oppenheimer, about physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The locations chosen for the Manhattan Project that he led played a pivotal role in the story of the atomic bomb. Not casting the landscape accurately erases an important detail from the film’s portrayal of the development of the world’s most lethal weapon.

This first aerial photograph of Los Alamos, N.M., in 1949 shows old and new housing developments at the city, secretly created by the U.S. government to accommodate 6,000 scientists and other people involved in the Manhattan Project. The project forced native New Mexican families around Los Alamos from their land and subjected generations to cancer and other health problems, which the new film Oppenheimer failed to address. (Photo By The Denver Post via Getty Images)Scientists designed and built the world’s first atomic weapon in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Los Alamos sits on the Pajarito Plateau on the eastern edge of a volcanic complex1 called the Jemez Mountains at an elevation of about 7,500 feet. This is where ponderosa pines tower over Gambel oak and juniper and where the land dramatically drops off into steep basalt cliffs that roll into the Rio Grande River valley below.

The movie exceeds expectations with its captivating retelling of the events that led to the atomic bomb, including Oppenheimer’s desire for the project to be situated in Los Alamos, but the film failed to capture the reality of the environment and culture that so appealed to him. Director Christopher Nolan and production designer Ruth De Jong made an artistic choice to film exterior scenes at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico instead of Los Alamos to make it look like the “middle of nowhere with nothing around.”2 Instead of pine forest, the Los Alamos scenes are filled with panoramas of open desert, multicolored mesas, and sweeping grasslands.

This decision matters because while beautiful and vast, Ghost Ranch evokes an entirely different feel than the lusher forests around Los Alamos. The environments of Ghost Ranch, drenched in blazing sun and littered with chollas, evoke feelings of exposure and desolation. The film’s landscapes allow the audience to believe that these areas were uninhabited, but in fact, generations of Indigenous and land-based communities have lived on and cultivated Los Alamos for centuries. Selecting Los Alamos as the Manhattan Project site in 1942 forced about 30 native New Mexican families from their land without fair compensation, and many had to abandon their farming equipment, livestock, and animals.3 In Nolan’s portrayal of a singular narrative, the film concealed the environmental and cultural richness of New Mexico that was irrevocably altered by the Manhattan Project through inequitable displacement and the erasure of native voices and culture. Most perniciously, numerous incidences of cancer caused by exposure to radiation from the Trinity Test have persisted over generations and forever have linked New Mexico to the nuclear weapons complex.

When I started working in nuclear nonproliferation at Los Alamos in 2010 as a graduate research assistant, we did not learn about the history of the local and Indigenous communities. We learned about the brilliant male scientists, the excitement of the race to push applied physics to the limit, and the building of massive secret cities across the United States during World War II to create the most powerful weapon humanity
has ever seen.4 The story we were told about the bomb was about impossibility, glory, and terror, which the movie spectacularly recounted.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, protagonist of the new movie of the same name, is often called "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in the Manhattan Project, which developed the first nuclear weapon, and detonated it in the Trinity test on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico. (Photo by History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images) Yet, for all its focus on the characters in that story, the film fails to truly humanize them. If it displayed a beautiful sun-dappled forest in which the audience could imagine itself walking, then maybe viewers could feel a slight connection to Oppenheimer, and he would not seem like such an enigma. If the film depicted the native New Mexicans and Indigenous people who did housework in the homes of the scientists and performed janitorial services at the lab, then maybe filmgoers could relate more to the sacrifice that these Americans endured to make this weapon a reality.

The bomb and humanity became lost in the plot about politics, ego, and deception. Viewers were left feeling angry at Lewis Strauss rather than at the decision to proceed with the Trinity Test despite the proximity to communities in the Tularosa Basin that were not warned about the risk and today still struggle with cancer and other health problems caused by proximity to the bomb blast.5 Viewers were left feeling sorry for Oppenheimer for being cast aside by the government he served and not for the victims of the bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima. By failing to capture the New Mexico that Oppenheimer loved or present realistic narratives about the women and native people who were integral to the project,6 the film contributes to the abstract and idealized notion of nuclear weapons.

The film concludes with a foreboding message as Oppenheimer laments to Albert Einstein about setting off a chain reaction that would destroy the entire universe. Yet, there was a sign of hope in the movie with the mention of the need for international control of fissile material and for monitoring the peaceful use of nuclear energy. The International Atomic Energy Agency probably did not expect the subtle shoutouts from this huge summer blockbuster. By bringing fresh attention to the dangers of nuclear weapons, the film has created a moment for action, including the need to strengthen the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to assist New Mexico’s Downwinders population, which for too long has been excluded from the acknowledgment and benefits that other communities exposed to nuclear testing and uranium mining have received since 1990.7



1. Tewa Women United, “Oppenheimer - and the Other Side of the Story,” July 18, 2023, https://tewawomenunited.org/2023/07/oppenheimer-and-the-other-side-of-the-story.

2. Grace Jidoun, “Where Was Oppenheimer Filmed? Discover Christopher Nolan’s Authentic Shoot Locations,” NBC, July 28, 2023,

3. Myrriah Gómez, Nuclear Nuevo México: Colonialism and the Effects of the Nuclear Industrial Complex on Nuevomexicanos (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 2022).

4. Los Alamos National Laboratory, “The Town That Never Was,” 1980 (20-minute film), https://youtu.be/DGWmFTqXHoY?si=WqA7U4QuCeBeZbpR.

5. Karin Brulliard and Samuel Gilbert, “No ‘Oppenheimer’ Fanfare for Those Caught in First Atomic Bomb’s Fallout,” The Washington Post, July 29, 2023

6. Radhika Seth, “Justice for the Women of Oppenheimer,” Vogue, July 22, 2023.

7. Griffin Rushton, “Senate Approves New Mexico Downwinders’ Inclusion in RECA Amendment,” KOB 4, July 30, 2023, https://www.kob.com/new-mexico/senate-approves-new-mexico-downwinders-inclusion-in-reca-amendment/.

Chantell L. Murphy is a nuclear nonproliferation expert developing ethical artificial intelligence frameworks for international nuclear safeguards and founder of Atomsphere LC, an organization promoting nuclear awareness in the outdoors.

By omitting realistic narratives about the women and native people who were integral to the Manhattan Project, the film contributes to abstract, idealized notions of nuclear weapons.

Physicists Built the Bomb, Urged Restraint Too

September 2023
By Lisbeth Gronlund

As the film Oppenheimer documented, many Manhattan Project scientists were concerned that use of the weapons they built would lead to a U.S.-Soviet arms race. J. Robert Oppenheimer, who headed the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, and his scientist colleagues repeatedly argued that the U.S. nuclear weapons monopoly gave the United States a unique opportunity to prevent a world-threatening outcome by briefing Soviet scientists and policymakers on their work and proposing a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons. On July 17, 1945, Leo Szilard and 68 other members of the Manhattan Project Chicago laboratory petitioned President Harry Truman directly, making the case against using these weapons on Japan because doing so would make the United States responsible for “opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.”1

University of Chicago professor Leo Szilard, shown testifying before the U.S. Congress in 1945, joined 68 other Manhattan Project scientists in writing to President Harry Truman to argue against dropping the first atomic bomb on Japan during World War II. (Photo from Bettmann Archives via Getty Images).Although none of these early efforts to influence the government was successful, during the Cold War and afterward, Soviet and U.S. physicists and other scientists, sometimes working together, repeatedly made a positive impact on international and national policies. Two cases in particular highlight the essential role of scientists: achieving limits on nuclear explosive testing and working to keep defenses against long-range nuclear-armed ballistic missiles from triggering an arms race. Academic physicists were particularly active and remain concerned about and engaged with nuclear weapons-related issues today.

Nuclear Explosive Testing

All five of the established nuclear powers (China, France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States) started out testing nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, releasing large amounts of radiation that spread around the globe and fell to the ground. Beginning in 1954, when the United States tested a very powerful hydrogen bomb—the 15-megaton Castle Bravo test that was equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT—in the South Pacific, there was an international outcry about the environmental and human effects. The Soviet Union and the United States, however, continued testing with abandon.

The UK physicist Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds after Germany was defeated, began researching the radioactive effects of nuclear testing in 1954. His calculations showed that the United States greatly understated the radioactivity released by these nuclear tests. Widespread media coverage of his findings increased public outrage.

Nevertheless, the Soviet Union, the UK, and the United States continued atmospheric testing until 1963, when they negotiated and signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty, banning all but underground tests. Neither China nor France signed the treaty, and their last atmospheric tests were in 1980 and 1974, respectively. In 1957, chemist Linus Pauling started a scientists’ appeal for a complete ban on nuclear testing.2 Within two weeks, 2,000 U.S. scientists, including Albert Einstein, had signed. Within a few months, the list had grown to 11,000 scientists around the globe. Many U.S. scientists actively promoted the test ban. They engaged the public, met with their government representatives, spoke to the media, and several years later, could share in the treaty’s success.

Another significant development was the founding, also in 1957, of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (named after Pugwash, Nova Scotia, where the first conference was held) by Joseph Rotblat and the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell. These international conferences continued until 2020 and brought together scientists, including some who advised their governments, and other experts.

They were the first contemporary Track 2 meetings, where participants interacted as individuals, not as representatives of their governments. In this Cold War environment, they could have open, frank discussions. These meetings influenced many international treaties and agreements, including laying the groundwork for the Limited Test Ban Treaty. They also facilitated strong personal relationships between Soviet and U.S. scientists and, eventually, Chinese and U.S. scientists, which proved essential to progress on arms control.

The Limited Test Ban Treaty was followed in 1974 by the Soviet-U.S. Threshold Test Ban Treaty, limiting the yield of underground nuclear tests to no more than 150 kilotons. Concerns about verification stalled ratification until 1990 because the two nations did not agree on the means for verifying the treaty. The Soviet Union insisted that remote seismic measurements could determine the yield of a test explosion. The United States insisted on using an on-site method that required placing a cable in a shaft near the shaft to be used for the nuclear weapons test, which would measure the shock wave at close range.

In the late 1980s, a group of Soviet and U.S. physicists—Frank von Hippel at Princeton University; Evgeny Velikhov, director of the Kurchatov Institute; Roald Sagdeev, director of the Space Research Institute; and especially Tom Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council—were responsible for breaking the deadlock. They proposed that each country conduct a nuclear test whose yield would be measured by teams of scientists from both nations, with both teams using both methods of estimating the yield.

The governments agreed, and in 1988 they conducted the “Joint Verification Experiment,” which demonstrated that seismic verification was effective. The two countries subsequently ratified the treaty with verification provided by seismic monitoring and hydrodynamic monitoring under certain circumstances. It is not an overstatement that the efforts of a few scientists were responsible for ratification.

In 1994, negotiations began on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits all nuclear explosive testing. Verification again stood in the way. It is more difficult to verify a yield of zero than one of 150 kilotons. Some U.S. opponents of the CTBT argued that countries could cheat by testing a small-yield explosive inside a large underground cavity, which would reduce the seismic signal by decoupling the explosion from the surrounding rock.

U.S. chemist Linus Pauling, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the Nobel Peace Prize, poses with his alpha-helix model in front of a chalkboard at the Linus Pauling Institute, Menlo Park, Calif., in 1983. In 1957, he started a scientists’ appeal for a complete ban on nuclear testing. (Photo by Janet Fries/Getty Images)Many U.S. scientists, especially seismologists, became involved in this debate. They debunked the large cavity argument and, as in previous cases, influenced opinion by engaging the public, policymakers, administration officials, and the media.

Finally in 1995, a study by the JASON group of high-level scientists that advises the U.S. government played an important role in resolving the CTBT debate. At that time, JASON members were mainly physicists. They considered the technical details relevant to the CTBT and concluded that there were no reasons that the United States should not sign a treaty of enduring duration, provided it included the standard statement that a nation could withdraw in the event that a nuclear explosive test was necessary to protect its “supreme national interest.”

This study had a large effect on President Bill Clinton’s decision to sign the CTBT in 1996. Although the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, the United States and 186 other signatories have continued to abide by it.

Long-Range Ballistic Missile Defenses

Throughout history, people have built defenses against armaments, so it is not surprising that the Soviet Union and the United States sought to protect their populations from nuclear weapons. Beginning in the late 1950s, the two nations deployed nuclear-armed intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, which hurl their warheads into space, which then fall to the ground under the influence of gravity. Shortly thereafter, both countries began deploying anti-ballistic missile interceptors. In 1962, the Soviet Union began placing such interceptors around Moscow. Because the interceptors were not accurate enough to destroy warheads with conventional explosives, they were armed with nuclear weapons.

In the late 1960s, the United States began preparations to deploy the Sentinel anti-ballistic missile system, which was billed as a limited defense against an accidental Soviet or Chinese attack, despite the fact that China had no nuclear-armed intercontinental-range missiles and would not for decades. The Sentinel interceptors carried megaton-level nuclear warheads. The Army’s decision to place 13 of the 17 planned interceptor sites near major cities enraged local populations, leading to large demonstrations in some areas.

After scientists at Argonne National Laboratory learned that one of the Sentinel sites was to be built near Chicago, they engaged very effectively with activists, providing fact sheets and other materials, giving numerous presentations, and talking to the media. When Department of Defense officials subsequently came to brief the local public about the project, they found an angry audience armed with facts and arguments provided by the Argonne scientists. These officials regarded the meetings as a disaster. Similar efforts took place in other cities, and in many cases, physicists played major roles in the opposition. Because of this widespread opposition, the Sentinel program was canceled in March 1969, after only 18 months.

Beginning in the 1960s, some U.S. physicists and other scientists understood that missile defenses against nuclear weapons were a terrible idea because building defenses would prompt an adversary to build more missiles and lead to a destabilizing arms race. Limits on offensive weapons would be possible only if defenses also were limited.

Initially, Soviet scientists did not embrace this logic. Their eventual acceptance was partly a consequence of meetings of the Soviet-American Defense Study group, which spun off from the Pugwash meetings in 1964 and consisted of a smaller select group of Soviet and U.S. scientists, some of whom advised their governments.

Soviet scientists also were influenced by a prominent 1968 Scientific American article by Hans Bethe, director of the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project, and Richard Garwin, who helped develop the H-bomb.3 It laid out the technical and political arguments against these defenses for the public and experts alike. It also discussed the myriad ways in which defenses could be defeated, making them useless and provocative.

Such activities by scientists led to the first Strategic Arms Limitations Talks treaty, which reduced offensive weapons to 6,000 for each country and was coupled to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The ABM Treaty prohibited essentially all missile defenses, but allowed research on defensive technologies, which ultimately led to its demise.

The beginning of the end came in March 1983 with President Ronald Reagan’s infamous “Star Wars” speech in which he announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) to deploy a defense using satellite-based interceptors and lasers that would render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.” This goal was absurd given the 6,000 intercontinental warheads that treaties allowed the Soviet Union and United States each to maintain.

The program infuriated the physics community, which characterized it as nonsensical. Around the country, physicists again became active and reached out to the public, policymakers, and the media. Their activities were key to creating a small but influential movement against the program.

The Case Against SDI

The case against SDI was first articulated by the influential April 1984 report “Directed Energy Weapons in Space” by Ashton Carter, a physicist working for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment who eventually became secretary of defense under President Barack Obama.4 The case was bolstered by the October 1984 Scientific American article “Space-based Ballistic-missile Defense,” authored by Bethe, Garwin, Kurt Gottfried of Cornell University, and Henry Kendall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the latter two of which had helped found the Union of Concerned Scientists.5

Ashton Carter, who eventually became President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, wrote an influential report against the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1984. (Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)In 1985, SDI began giving grants to academics, declaring that “this office is trying to sell something to Congress. If we can say that this fellow at MIT will get money to do such and such research, it’s something real to sell.” The idea that the program wanted to use scientists to sell the program further enraged the physicists.

In response, physicists at Cornell and the University of Illinois-Urbana wrote a pledge of nonparticipation for scientists and engineers, stating that they would not apply for or accept funding from SDI program and why. By the time the pledge results were released in May 1986, it had been signed by 6,500 academic scientists and engineers around the country.6 The protest received significant media attention and hammered home that scientists believed the program was technically unworkable and unwise. Finally, the professional organization of physicists, the American Physical Society, released an authoritative study in 1987 on the science and technology of directed energy weapons, such as lasers, concluding that SDI was unworkable.

Politically wounded by this surge of expert opposition, SDI was canceled in 1993 by Clinton. The program never progressed beyond research and development, so the ABM Treaty remained intact.

Even so, interest in missile defense continued. Clinton’s Pentagon replaced SDI with the National Missile Defense (NMD) program, which relied on ground-based “hit to kill” interceptor missiles that would destroy an incoming warhead by slamming into it.

In response, the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in April 2000 titled “Countermeasures,” showing that even if this system worked perfectly, it could be defeated in numerous ways. Five months later, Clinton announced that he would not deploy the system, citing, among other issues, its vulnerability to countermeasures.

President George W. Bush changed the name of the program to the Ground-Based Missile Defense program and, to allow its nominal deployment, withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002. Nevertheless, scientists have continued to point out the system’s shortcomings and critique the intercept tests, with the result being that the system’s effectiveness is widely doubted.

Although Russian-U.S. relations are again strained and the only remaining arms control agreement, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), is teetering, the research and activities of these physicists and other scientists who have questioned and criticized U.S. nuclear and missile defense policies have mattered, sometimes quite a lot. For decades, scientists willing to challenge Pentagon programs and Washington orthodoxy helped produce stabilizing outcomes in U.S. nuclear and missile defense policy. There is still a CTBT, for instance, and the United States abides by it. Missile defense deployments are limited and widely viewed as ineffective.

Unfortunately, further progress has been hampered by the continuing U.S. commitment to deploying missile defenses. Some physicists and other scientists have remained actively engaged, but the expert technical analysis and engagement of the wider scientific community are needed more than ever in this time of growing geopolitical tensions.



1. “A Petition to the President of the United States,” https://www.atomicarchive.com/resources/documents/manhattan-project/petition.html (petition dated July 17, 1945).

2. Linus Pauling, “An Appeal by American Scientists to the Governments and People of the World,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 13, No. 7 (May 15, 1957).

3. Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, “Anti-Ballistic-Missile Systems,” Scientific American, Vol. 218, No. 3 (March 1968): 21.

4. Ashton B. Carter, “Directed Energy Missile Defense in Space,” U.S. Office of Technology Assessment, OTA-BP-ISC-26, April 1984, https://www.princeton.edu/~ota/disk3/1984/8410/841001.PDF.

5. Hans A. Bethe et al., “Space-based Ballistic-Missile Defense,” Scientific American, Vol. 251, No. 4 (October 1984): 39-49.

6. Lisbeth Gronlund, et al, “A Status Report on the Boycott of Star Wars Research by Academic Scientists and Engineers,” May 13, 1986, https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/yzojaywaqq84tb0jj0g0a/SDI-Pledge-Report-1986.pdf?rlkey=vfuvznu8rg4buw9g8cx8hlwhr&dl=0

Lisbeth Gronlund is a visiting scholar with the Laboratory for Nuclear Security and Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering.

During the Cold War and afterward, Soviet and U.S. physicists and other scientists repeatedly made a positive impact on international and national nuclear policies.

Clarifying History

September 2023
Barbara Koeppel

George Perkovich’s essay (Daniel Ellsberg: In Memoriam, July/August 2023) is terrific and raises points one doesn’t often read or hear.

But there is one small point he should know: Dan told me (we were close friends for 31 years) that on the drive from Detroit to Denver, where the accident occurred, Dan’s father told his mother he needed to pull over for a quick rest, since he was falling asleep at the wheel. His mother didn’t want to be late for a party her brother was hosting in Denver (where he lived), so she told him to keep driving—not to stop and rest. The result is history: His father fell asleep, hit an embankment and his sister and mother, in the front seat, were thrown from the car and died immediately. Dan only remembers waking up in a hospital, in a large cast. I’m aware that in his book, Dan says he didn’t trust adults because his father fell asleep at the wheel. But in fact, the story is more complicated.

Barbara Koeppel is a Washington, D.C.-based investigative reporter who writes on social, economic, and military issues.


George Perkovich’s essay (Daniel Ellsberg: In Memoriam, July/August 2023) is terrific and raises points one doesn’t often read or hear.

NPT Meeting Underscores Chronic Divisions

September 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández, Jupiter Kaishu Huang, and Daryl Kimball

Despite growing threats to the nonproliferation and disarmament regime, states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) failed to bridge fundamental policy differences during a July 31-Aug. 11 meeting in Vienna.

Safeguards agreements and additional protocols were the focus of one side event at the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) meeting at The Hague on July 31-Aug. 11. Panelists included, from left, Takeshi Hikihara, the Japanese ambassador to the UN International Organizations in Vienna; Massimo Aparo, deputy director-general at the International Atomic Energy Agency; Levent Eler, Turkish ambassador to the UN International Organizations in Vienna; and Susan Pickett, head of the IAEA Safeguards Training Section. (Photo by Dean Calma/IAEA)The results of the first preparatory committee meeting for the 11th NPT Review Conference underscored deep fissures over the implementation of key treaty obligations, differences between nuclear-weapon states and non-nuclear-weapon states over disarmament and deterrence, and simmering disputes about nuclear weapons sharing arrangements.

Ideally, NPT preparatory committee meetings should end with a formal agreement on the draft rules of procedure and provisional agenda that is reflected in a formal summary and the chair’s recommendations for the review conference. But increasing geopolitical tensions are making it difficult to reach an agreement on even some of the most fundamental matters.

Due to the objections of various delegations, the Vienna meeting collapsed without the chair issuing a formal summary. That document is meant to put on record what states discussed during the meeting and serve as a blueprint for further discussion. (See ACT, September 2022.)

Instead, the chair’s recommendations to strengthen the preparatory process for the next review conference were issued as a working paper, which has become a common outcome.

Under the NPT, the 191 states-parties are obligated “to pursue good faith measures to the cessation of an arms race at an early date and to disarmament,” while non-nuclear-weapon states are committed to forgo acquiring or developing nuclear weapons and to pursue peaceful uses of nuclear energy under safeguards.

Preparatory committee meetings are intended to review and promote the full implementation of the NPT and forward findings to the review conferences, which are scheduled to take place every five years. (See ACT, July/August 2023.) As with the NPT review conferences, preparatory meetings operate on the basis of consensus.


At the Vienna meeting, numerous states-parties expressed support for implementation of the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which restricts the size of the U.S. and Russian strategic arsenals and is the last remaining arms control agreement between them. (See ACT, April 2023.)

“Countries with the largest nuclear arsenals must continue to fulfill their special and primary responsibilities for nuclear disarmament, effectively implement…New START…and further significantly and substantially reduce their nuclear arsenals in a verifiable, irreversible, and legally binding manner,” the Chinese delegation said in a statement.

Beijing and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) stressed the importance of Russia and the United States furthering the disarmament process by committing to deeper reductions in their arsenals.

Many states, including Australia, France, Japan, Norway, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden, and the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), comprising Brazil, Egypt, Mexico, New Zealand, and South Africa, expressed concern about Russia’s suspension of its implementation of New START. Some countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Hungary Norway, Poland, Slovenia, South Korea, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States, called on Russia to return to full compliance with New START.

In a statement on Aug. 3, the Russian delegation insisted that Russia “continue[s] to adhere to the central quantitative limits stipulated in…New START…, inform the United States of launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles and submarine-launched ballistic missiles through an exchange of relevant notifications, and observe a unilateral moratorium on the deployment of ground launched intermediate- and shorter-range missiles until similar U.S.-made weapons emerge in relevant regions.” (See ACT, March 2023.)

In addition to urging Russia and the United States to resume a bilateral arms control dialogue, China, the NAC, and the NAM called for sustained engagement in multilateral formats on NPT Article VI by the five states authorized to possess nuclear weapons under the NPT (China, France, Russia, the UK, and the United States).

The U.S. delegation reported that it had organized a working-level expert meeting with the four other nuclear-weapon states on Aug. 2 in Vienna to discuss strategic risk reduction measures.

Nuclear Sharing

States-parties clashed over nuclear sharing agreements. This discussion was spurred by Russia’s announcement in March that it planned to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus and prompted states belonging to the NAC and the NAM to broaden criticism of nuclear sharing practices.

“[A]ny horizontal proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear-weapon-sharing by states-parties constitutes a clear violation of non-proliferation obligations undertaken” under the NPT, the NAM said in a statement Aug. 4. “The [NAM], therefore, urges these states-parties to put an end to nuclear weapon-sharing with other states under any circumstances and any kind of security arrangements in times of peace or in times of war, including in the framework of military alliances.”

The NAC previously criticized nuclear sharing practices in a working paper issued on June 31. On July 2, China called for a “withdrawal of nuclear weapons deployed overseas.” This marked a shift from the 10th NPT Review Conference in 2022, when Beijing criticized nuclear- sharing arrangements more generally and noted that they “run counter to the provisions of the NPT and increase the risks of nuclear proliferation and nuclear conflicts.”

Nuclear Deterrence

The Vienna meeting also highlighted deep divisions over disarmament and the role of nuclear deterrence. “We cannot rely with any degree of certainty that nuclear deterrence is or will be effective, but we know for sure that nuclear deterrence can fail,” the Austrian delegation said in an Aug. 10 statement.

The Polish delegation responded by asserting that nuclear deterrence is essential for the security of some states under prevailing security circumstances and that the security of states cannot be diminished in the pursuit of the goals of the NPT.

Brazil on Aug. 3 criticized attempts by various delegations to distinguish between “responsible” and “irresponsible” nuclear-armed states, arguing that the concept of “responsible” possession of weapons of mass destruction is an oxymoron. “Responsibility is not binary,” said Flávio Soares Damico, Brazil’s representative to the meeting. “Neither are behaviors. Nuclear deterrence doctrines, even the most defensive in nature, always rest upon a credible threat of use of nuclear weapons.”

Nuclear Propulsion

Some states-parties raised nonproliferation concerns about the AUKUS agreement by which the UK and the United States will supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines fueled by highly enriched uranium. (See ACT, July/August 2022.) Delegates from China, Iran, and Russia described the agreement as a challenge to the nonproliferation regime while other states took a less confrontational approach. “Discussions regarding nuclear naval propulsion should be aimed at strengthening safeguards verification mechanism under the [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] framework in a transparent, inclusive, and accountable manner,” the Indonesian delegation said.

The UK and the United States stressed that their arrangement would be done in cooperation with the IAEA and conform with safeguards arrangements. The Australian, UK, and U.S. leaders “have made clear that the provision of conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarines to Australia will be carried out in a manner that sets the highest nonproliferation standard and strengthens the global nonproliferation regime,” according to a U.S. statement on Aug. 3.

Summary Report Debate

According to a brief by Gaukhar Mukhatzhanova, an expert on the NPT review cycle process, NPT states-parties “have never agreed on substantive recommendations, and no factual summary has been adopted by a [preparatory committee] session since 2002. Instead, [the preparatory committee] chairs usually issue draft summaries and recommendations as working papers in their own capacity.” At the Vienna meeting, some states-parties took issue with the chair's summary and argued against including it in the procedural report, while others argued that it should not be included in the documentation of the review cycle altogether.

“A summary should contain facts.… [I]t should not look like the perceptions of the chair,” the Iranian delegation argued on Aug. 11. Indonesia and South Africa, among others, also complained that the factual summary was problematic. “We agree that the text cannot be considered factual,” the South African delegation said on Aug. 11, highlighting how the summary elevated nonproliferation over disarmament issues in the first paragraph.

The chair’s summary said that states-parties reaffirmed the central role of the NPT “as the cornerstone of the nuclear nonproliferation regime and the foundation of the pursuit of nuclear disarmament.” But New Zealand, South Africa, and other countries took issue with the chair's language, which they argued implies a hierarchy of objectives by making disarmament aspirational rather than legally binding.

Iran, backed by Russia and Syria, objected to the summary being listed even as a working paper. The Iranian delegation alleged that the summary negatively singled out Iran and presented a one-sided view of the situation relating to the 2015 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and that the chair had given preference to the Western group of delegations.

As a result, the meeting chair, Jarmo Viinanen, Finnish ambassador for arms control, removed the factual summary altogether from the review cycle documents, a sign of trouble ahead at the next NPT review conference in 2026. The second preparatory committee meeting is set for July 22-Aug. 2, 2024, in Geneva and will be chaired by Akan Rakhmetullin, Kazakhstan’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Fissures over the implementation of key treaty obligations, nuclear deterrence, and nuclear-weapon sharing arrangements dominated the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty gathering.  

U.S. Says Ukraine Gives Cluster Munitions Assurances

September 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

Following months of internal debate, the United States approved the transfer to Ukraine of thousands of cluster munitions worth up to $250 million after Kyiv offered assurances regarding their use.

Firemen try to put out fire at Donetsk University of Economics and Trade in Russian-occupied Donetsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 5. The city’s mayor told reporters that Ukrainian forces used cluster munitions to attack the building. The United States recently provided Ukraine with cluster munitions, which are banned by more than 100 countries. (Photo by Victor/Xinhua via Getty Images)Cluster munitions are banned by more than 100 countries, including many U.S. allies, because they scatter bomblets across battlefields that sometimes fail to explode on impact and can kill or maim combatants and civilians who encounter duds long after the fighting ends.

The agreement between Washington and Kyiv on July 7 is classified. “The Ukrainian government has offered us assurances in writing on the responsible use of [cluster munitions], including that they will not use the rounds in civilian-populated urban environments and that they will record where they use these rounds, which will simplify later demining efforts,” Colin Kahl, U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, told a press conference.

When asked by Arms Control Today about the assurances, a U.S. State Department official referred to a tweet by Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on July 7. The tweet read, “We will not be using cluster munitions in urban areas (cities) to avoid the risks for the civilian populations—these are our people; they are Ukrainians we have a duty to protect. Cluster munitions will be used only in the fields where there is a concentration of Russian military.”

According to another U.S. State Department official on Aug. 3, the assurances cover the batch of Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICM) approved on July 7, but likely would apply to the next batch as a baseline if the United States decided to approve another transfer. These weapons have a rate of unexploded ordnance higher than 1 percent.

Reznikov’s tweet said that cluster munitions would not be used on the internationally recognized territory of Russia and that Ukraine will keep a strict record of the use of these weapons and their locations.

Ukraine is to report such details to its partners to ensure the appropriate standard of transparent reporting and control. Following the expulsion of Russian forces from Ukraine's internationally recognized territories, these territories will be prioritized for demining efforts, according to Reznikov. According to CNN, Ukraine submitted its first report on cluster munitions use, including the rounds fired and the number of Russian targets destroyed, after a U.S. request on Aug. 9. Two weeks later, the Washington Post reported that the United States was satisfied with Kyiv's follow-through.

Asked by Arms Control Today to comment about the possibility of future cluster munitions transfers to Ukraine by allies who are not states-parties to the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), the first State Department official said that the United States would not discourage or encourage such transfers and that such a decision would be a bilateral matter between the ally and Ukraine. But Washington would like allies to establish assurances similar to those already established with Ukraine on how the weapons will be used, the official said.

In January, U.S. allies such as Estonia also were weighing giving Ukraine cluster munitions, according to EER, an Estonian newspaper. Foreign Policy reported that Turkey allegedly sent similar munitions to Ukraine in November 2022, but Turkey and Ukraine denied that transfer. Meanwhile, Lithuania’s defense minister on Aug. 25 suggested that Vilnius should leave the CCM so it can “acquire and use” cluster munitions, the Lithuanian public broadcaster reported.

Ukrainian officials repeatedly have asked the United States for cluster munitions to defend against the Russian invasion. After finally agreeing, the Biden administration said the decision was not taken lightly. It assessed that the current monthly production of U.S. artillery rounds would not meet Ukraine’s needs. (See ACT, January/February 2023; October 2022).

“Ukraine is short on artillery, and being short on artillery, it is vulnerable to Russian counterattacks that could subjugate more Ukrainian civilians. That is the thinking behind our decision,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on July 7.

Kahl said that the cluster munitions delivered to Ukraine will consist only of those with a dud rate of less than 2.35 percent. “Compare that to Russia, which has been using cluster munitions across Ukraine with dud rates of between 30 and 40 percent,” he said.

But The New York Times reported that the cluster munitions sent to Ukraine are generally known to have a failure rate of 14 percent or more under real-world conditions. The newspaper identified the U.S. munitions as 155mm M864 weapons that can deliver 72 dual-purpose grenades to the target area.

During the first year of the war, Russia is estimated to have fired cluster munitions from a range of weapons, expending tens of millions of submunitions, or bomblets, across Ukraine. Ukraine also has used them to defend against Russia’s brutal assault, although far less often than Russia, according to Human Rights Watch.

Russia, Ukraine, and the United States have not joined the CCM, which prohibits states-parties from developing, producing, acquiring, using, transferring, or stockpiling cluster munitions, but 23 NATO members have.

Civil society groups condemned Washington’s decision to provide cluster munitions. “Beyond making the United States a global outlier, acting in contradiction to partner nations’ and NATO allies’ express ban on and statements against the transfer and use of these weapons could hurt the U.S. ability to forge and maintain coalitions that have been so crucial to supporting Ukraine, and undermines the United States’ ability to criticize other governments who use them. It would also harm efforts to promote other arms control agreements,” the U.S. Cluster Munitions Coalition said in a statement on July 7.

Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom reaffirmed support for the CCM. The U.S. cluster munitions transfer and other issues will be discussed Sept. 11-14 in Geneva during the 11th meeting of state-parties to the convention.

The United States transferred the weapons, which are banned in more than 100 countries, after Ukraine said they will be used against Russian forces, not in civilian-populated urban areas. 


Allies Ponder the Future of the CFE Treaty

September 2023
By Gabriela Iveliz Rosa Hernández

NATO allies are increasingly questioning the value of the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty as Russia continues to wage war on Ukraine and destabilize regional security. Some allies already consider the treaty defunct, a senior European official told Arms Control Today.

A Ukrainian soldier prepares 155mm artillery shells as the Ukrainian Army conducts an operation targeting the trenches of Russian forces in August in the Donetsk Oblast during the Russian war on Ukraine. (Photo by Diego Herrera Carcedo/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)Known as the cornerstone of European security, the treaty, together with the Vienna Document and the Open Skies Treaty, constituted a web of interlocking and mutually reinforcing arms control obligations and commitments administered by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

The treaty established verifiable limits on the number of tanks, armored combat vehicles, heavy artillery, combat aircraft, and attack helicopters that NATO and the Warsaw Pact could deploy between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains.

Through unprecedented verification and confidence-building measures such as on-site inspections, the treaty contributed to the destruction of more than 72,000 pieces of treaty-limited military equipment. Losing the treaty would mean losing verifiable insight into the armed forces of countries such as Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Moldova, although NATO members would not be subject to the ceilings
or verification regime.

In an interview July 13, the European official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the treaty no longer corresponded with the realities of the geopolitical environment. The official referred to treaty states-parties that are NATO members and part of a discreet group within the treaty and thus are subject to group sublimits that restrict their equipment amid the remilitarization of Europe.

Alexander Graef of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy in Hamburg told Arms Control Today that “some [c]urrent NATO members like Bulgaria, Romania, and Poland are, for the purpose of the treaty, still considered part of the Warsaw Pact group, but signed the CFE [Treaty] as sovereign states.  The overall [treaty] ceilings are still way beyond the currently available numbers of equipment, despite the changing security situation in the region.”

“Only Poland might become a partial exception in the future, depending on the actual scale of its announced weapon acquisitions,” he said.

Polish Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyńsk reiterated on Aug. 18 that Poland’s goal is a 300,000-member army, including 250,000 active-duty soldiers and 50,000 Territorial Defense Forces personnel. Valery Revenka, who heads the Belarusian defense ministry’s international military cooperation department, noted in an Aug. 23 tweet that the CFE agreement on personnel strength restricts the Polish Army to 234,000 people. He complained that NATO and European leaders who normally advocate compliance with international obligations have been silent on Poland’s plans. Poland announced on March 21 that it would cease to implement certain CFE Treaty articles with regard to Belarus. (See ACT, June 2023.)

Belarusian-Polish border tensions increased after Russia banished the Wagner paramilitary group to Belarus following the group’s one-day mutiny against the Russian Defense Ministry. Wagner’s chief, Yevgeny Prigozhin, was killed in a suspicious plane crash in Russia on Aug. 23.

Russia’s withdrawal from the treaty does not take effect until Nov. 7, but it has failed to implement the agreement since 2007. Formal withdrawal will allow Russia to build up its forces and deploy them closer to its western border although Moscow may remain under treaty limits due to its equipment losses in Ukraine.

Russian ally Belarus shares the status of co-belligerent against Ukraine but remains in the treaty. Treaty states-parties “will have to decide whether to put the 1990 accord to rest, into a coma, or attempt to inject new life into it,” wrote Pal Dunay, former legal adviser of the Hungarian delegation to the 1989-1990 treaty negotiations.

In 1999, states-parties tried to adapt the treaty to reflect the enlargement of NATO because the original treaty had no provision for additional countries to accede to it, but they failed. (See ACT, November 1999.) After Russia ceased abiding by the treaty, the United States and several NATO allies stopped implementing it and imposed countermeasures on Moscow. But they continued implementing the treaty toward all other parties including Belarus, which came to represent Russian interests.

Every year, the State Department reports on CFE Treaty compliance among states-parties. Although a senior State Department official confirmed to Arms Control Today that the United States is in compliance with its treaty obligations, including toward Belarus, the report has not been released publicly. (See ACT, June 2023.) “Due to the unprecedented nature of Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine and its impact on U.S. and allied security, the…report covering the calendar year 2022 is still under review,” the official said.

According to their declarations to the OSCE, Denmark, Hungary, and the Netherlands have continued complying with the CFE Treaty and the Vienna Document. Romania, in its OSCE filing, noted that Romanian teams are actively involved in verification missions in the OSCE region under the treaty and the Vienna Document. Bulgaria reported that it did not conduct inspections under the treaty and did not receive any inspections but participated in Vienna Document activities.

During the summer of 2023, Arms Control Today spoke on background with more than a dozen European officials. All highlighted their support for the OSCE as an organization and for reimagining the OSCE arms control instruments following the emergence of an expected new European security order. Some noted that the OSCE is the only platform where some states could talk to Russia or to other states with whom they may not otherwise have contact.

Even though the CFE Treaty is battered, “[w]e still have the Vienna Document,” OSCE Secretary-General Helga Schmid said July 26 in Washington.

“At some point after trust is built, you will have to come back to conventional arms control and do it in an inclusive manner; and everyone relevant to European security is around the table” at the OSCE, she said.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine dealt a serious blow to the OSCE and its arms control instruments. Since the war began, Russia has opted not to participate in the Vienna Document annual data exchange about its forces and its inspection and verification regime.

Some allies already consider the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty defunct, a high-ranking European official told Arms Control Today.  

Russia Still Awaiting Formal U.S. Arms Control Proposal

September 2023
By Shannon Bugos

Russia said that it still has not received a formal written arms control proposal from the United States, after U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan offered in June for the two countries to hold nuclear risk reduction and arms control talks without preconditions.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, pictured in March, told reporters in July that Moscow still has not received a formal nuclear arms control proposal from the United States. (Photo by Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)“No, we have not received a written proposal,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on July 21. He noted that Moscow “was very clearly aware” of Sullivan’s address outlining the Biden administration’s broader arms control strategy and found it lacking. (See ACT, July/August 2023.)

A U.S. national security spokesperson told Reuters on July 26 that the Biden administration “privately” conveyed the proposal to Russia, but declined to elaborate on when the communication took place or what the proposal contained.

The United States “remains open to discussing nuclear risks and the future of arms control with Russia,” the spokesperson stated. “Unfortunately, the Russian side appears not to share this willingness.”

The same day, the U.S. State Department released its annual assessment to Congress on the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START). The report said the treaty continues to enhance U.S. national security despite a dispute with Russia that has halted treaty activities, such as on-site inspections of nuclear weapons-related facilities and daily notifications on the status and the location of treaty-accountable items. (See ACT, April and July/August 2023.)

“The United States continues to assess that there is not a strategic imbalance between the United States and the Russian Federation that endangers the national security interests of the United States, and to assess that the Russian Federation’s violations of the treaty do not currently threaten the national security interests of the United States,” the report concluded.

The State Department also determined that, as of July 1, Russia “has not engaged in significant activity” above New START’s central limits of 1,550 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 700 delivery vehicles.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Joe Biden warned Russian President Vladimir Putin against using nuclear weapons in the war on Ukraine. “Don’t go there,” Biden said on July 13. “I don’t think there’s any real prospect—you never know, but—of Putin using nuclear weapons,” he continued, noting that other countries such as China have warned Putin as well.

The Financial Times reported on July 5 that, during his March visit to Russia, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned Putin against nuclear weapons use. The Kremlin denied the report.

Nonetheless, heightened concerns about Russia employing nuclear weapons against Ukraine persist as Russia purports to transfer tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus. In June, Putin announced that Belarus received the first batch of Russian nuclear warheads. Moscow has declined to disclose how many warheads it plans to send to Minsk.

Russia has said that Putin will retain control over the use of the weapons, but Belarusian President Alexander  Lukashenko claimed on July 6 that “control is carried out perfectly, jointly by Belarusians and Russians.”

“If Russia ever decided to use nuclear weapons, I am sure that it would consult with its closest ally—with us,” he said. In a June address, Lukashenko described the deployment of Russian tactical nuclear weapons as “my firmest initiative,” but assured that “we will never have to use them while they are here.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on June 26 that the United States continues to see “no indication that there’s any intent to use nuclear weapons inside Ukraine.”

Western governments and nuclear experts are debating whether Russia in fact has deployed tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus.

U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency senior officials told CNN on July 21 that they have “no reason to doubt” the deployment. They acknowledged that the weapons, which would be placed in storage rather than forward deployed, are tricky for the intelligence community to track.

UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace told CNN on July 21 that the United Kingdom has “seen signs of this [transfer] progressing,” adding that Putin “doesn’t always lie.”

But a few weeks prior, Western officials speaking anonymously told CNN that Belarus does not appear to have the proper infrastructure for housing the weapons, an assessment shared by Hans Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists.

“Our observations and analyses show no clear observable indicators of construction of the facilities we expect would be needed to support transport and deployment of Russian nuclear weapons into Belarus,” they wrote in a June 30 blog post. “We are underwhelmed by the lack of visual evidence.”

In late June, a one-day mutiny by the Wagner Group, a Russian paramilitary group heavily involved in the invasion of Ukraine, also sparked worries over the custody and security of Russian nuclear weapons, as the group moved within 100 miles during its march to Moscow of two sites that have stored nuclear weapons.

The head of Ukrainian intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, told Reuters in a July 11 interview that Wagner forces reached the Voronezh-45 facility and planned to acquire small Soviet-era nuclear weapons.

But the U.S. National Security Council said that it could not corroborate the report. Reuters also could not independently verify the claim.

Nuclear experts were skeptical that Wagner aimed to obtain Russian nuclear weapons. Korda said it would be “virtually impossible for a non-state actor” to undermine Russian nuclear security.

In addition, operationalizing the weapons would prove difficult for Wagner, said Olga Oliker of the International Crisis Group. “Russian weapons and facilities are under solid control, and there’s no evidence that Wagner or anyone else is looking to capture them.... Not only would they be tremendously difficult to gain use of, there’s no real logic for doing so. ”

Despite Russian comments, a U.S. spokesperson said the Biden administration privately conveyed an arms control proposal announced in June.  

Lawmakers Seek Overdue Justice for Nuclear Victims

September 2023
By Chris Rostampour

Renewed bipartisan efforts are underway to extend and expand a federal program that offers health care benefits and compensation to some victims of U.S. nuclear weapons production and testing.

Tina Cordova (L) and Laura Greenwood of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium demonstrate to call attention to the legacy of the U.S. nuclear testing program and urge federal medical and other compensation for those still suffering the disastrous effects of those tests. (Photo courtesy of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium)On July 27, a group of lawmakers led by U.S. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) secured enough votes to advance legislation that would extend the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) for 19 years and expand its historical and geographical coverage.

The legislation, an amendment to the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), passed the Senate by a 61-37 vote. It still must be approved by a House-Senate conference committee.

RECA originally passed Congress in 1990 with bipartisan support. It aims to provide compensation for some victims exposed to radiation during U.S. atmospheric nuclear testing and employees of the U.S. uranium mining industry. The program, which expires in 2024, has been revised multiple times, but several impacted communities and individuals suffering lingering health effects have never received recognition or assistance despite a decades-long struggle.

Communities that would be eligible for compensation for the first time include individuals in Missouri who were impacted by nuclear waste from the Manhattan Project and the Downwinders in New Mexico, who were affected by the 1945 Trinity Test. In addition, RECA would be amended to recognize new regions in Arizona, Colorado, Guam, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah among those affected by nuclear testing. Coverage also would be expanded to new categories of employees in the U.S. uranium mining industry, including former workers from 1971 to 1990.

Republicans and Democrats advocating for RECA’s expansion are working to keep the usual party politics of the NDAA process from scuttling the amendment.

Luján highlighted this collaboration on Aug. 9 as President Joe Biden visited Belen, N.M., as part of a tour of the U.S. Southwest.

“Mr. President, we’re fighting with everything that we have with members of the Senate and the House across the country in hopes that we can keep this in the National Defense Authorization Act and make sure that these families are seen and get the help that they deserve,” Luján said.

Biden responded that he is “prepared to help in terms of making sure that those folks are taken care of.”

The following day, Hawley issued a statement saying, “Compensating victims of government-caused nuclear contamination and negligence should not be a partisan issue. It’s about justice.”

According to the Justice Department, RECA since its inception has awarded more than $2.6 billion to more than 54,000 claimants.

For decades, advocates have tried to bring attention to the environmental and humanitarian impacts of U.S. nuclear tests, including 216 atmospheric tests at various sites around the country and in the U.S. territories in the Pacific Ocean.

New scientific research released in June revealed that the fallout from the U.S. atmospheric tests was significantly underestimated. The study, from Princeton University’s Program on Science and Global Security, documented how 94 nuclear blasts in New Mexico and Nevada spewed radiation across the entire country and reached beyond the U.S. borders to Canada and Mexico.

Renewed bipartisan efforts are underway to expand a federal program offering health care and compensation to victims of U.S. nuclear weapons testing. 


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