The World’s Most Dangerous Technology: Nuclear Weapons with Dr. Kennette Benedict

Kennette Benedict | The University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy

On this episode of the Burn Bag, we speak with Dr. Kennette Benedict, current Senior Advisor and former Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, about nuclear weapons and the geopolitical policy challenges surrounding the “world’s most dangerous technology.” Dr. Benedict begins the conversation by giving us an overview of the origins of the atomic bomb, its usage against Japan, and how it affected war-fighting strategy and whether leaders ever actively thought about deploying the bomb after World War II. We then discuss what exactly a nuclear weapon is, and what U.S. nuclear capabilities look like in the present day. Dr. Benedict also provides us with her take on the how real the threat of nuclear war is today, and why substantial denuclearization is possible.

You can check out more of Dr. Benedict’s work here.

HIGHLIGHTS

Did the United States anticipate a Cold War with their usage of the atomic bombing?

“When President Roosevelt was president, he understood that the Soviets—while they were an ally, during World War II—also could pose a threat to the United States after the end of World War II. Joseph Stalin was not seen as a great peacemaker, really. And so, they understood that the bomb could be used, if that came to us, as a standoff between the two countries. And then in the Truman administration, the same thing, many people understood that this would be something that could be used against the Soviets.”

On using nuclear weapons:

“The way that nuclear weapons changed the calculus was that there is no defense against nuclear weapons. Previously, the defense always had the edge, because it was always more expensive to try and overcome the defenses of a country. And so it was, deterrence was relatively simple. You just built up a huge defense, nuclear weapons are so terrible and one bomb getting through defenses causes so much damage, that there really is no defense against nuclear weapons.”

“it was all about getting back at somebody who came at you with nuclear weapons. So as you suggest, that did change military strategy. It also changed the way we thought about weapons. And it led to an extraordinary arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States. You always needed to have just a few more weapons to ensure that you had a second-strike capability against the enemy who was going to send nuclear weapons over first. So if you built more nuclear weapons for the second strike capability, the other country needed to build even more to overcome your second strike capability. And you can see this dynamic led to an ever-increasing number of nuclear weapons and the arms race of the Cold War.”

On a historical record of world leaders thinking of using the bomb:

“When we look back at the historical record, nearly every single US president has considered using nuclear weapons. This, I think, comes as a surprise to many people, because we haven’t really heard that much about it. It wasn’t always public. But through intermediaries through Secretaries of State through various measures, every president starting with President Truman, after the first dropping of the atomic bomb, has threatened use of nuclear weapons.”

“The United States has actively been threatening to use nuclear weapons since the very beginning. So it’s not a question of the kind of just deterrence. I mean, if you think of, against the Soviets, it’s deterrence in many situations, using both strategic nuclear weapons, but many times tactical, relatively small nuclear weapons in a region of the world.”

On defining a nuclear weapon:

“It’s the most dangerous technology on Earth.”

“There’s a chemical explosion chemical reaction, which ignites a reaction efficient reaction, which then causes tremendous power and x-rays that then pause a fusion reaction in a thermonuclear bomb.”

“It’s just an extraordinary amount of destructive power.”

On the threat of building nuclear bombs:

“The most plausible, other way of these weapons getting around is if a government state decides that it wants to have a nuclear weapons capability. And yeah, this information is well known to scientists all over the world, even nuclear engineers. So that, you know, North Korea was able to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Many countries have that capability. South Africa had a nuclear weapons program, Libya, had a nuclear weapons program, these two were countries that eventually gave them up with the help of international players and international community. But yes, it’s possible for any, any country to develop a nuclear weapons program. And so that’s why we’re all pretty interested in nonproliferation, preventing the proliferation of weapons, and even talking about disarmament.”

On proliferation and disarmament:

“Many thought that at the end of the Cold War, conditions were right where they were. the Soviet Union was gone. There was no presumed threat of an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States. So it seemed like that would be a perfect time to talk about really reducing drastically reducing and even getting rid of nuclear weapons altogether. That didn’t happen.”

On nuclear capabilities and policy:

“The US and Russia still have the vast majority of nuclear weapons. And what I think is probably the most significant, at least from my point of view, is that the US and Russia have these weapons on a very high launch status.”

“But at this point, having such a high state of launch readiness can be the source of accidents, and also blunders wandering into a nuclear exchange, which would really spell doom.”

On the U.S.’s relationship with China:

“I don’t see right now, anyway, any particular threat from China’s nuclear weapons. As I said, they may have as many as 3 to 4, maybe as many as 500. They still enjoyed a policy of decoupling their warheads from their missiles, so that it will take, you know, a few hours, maybe as long as a day for them to be able to launch their nuclear weapons.”

On infrastructure and cyberattacks:

“I think many people have been worried about the command-and-control system, and I have been trying to have been pretty good at defending against it. As you probably understand, any defense against a cyber-attack really is an offensive game, you need to take out essentially the cyber attacker. You need to disable their capability in order to preserve your own safety. So yeah, I think that’s one of the big issues of the day, and some people are beginning to pay much more attention to it.”

“I want to keep coming back to this because there really is no need to have our weapons so ready to go. There just is no need for that. And if there ever was, and certainly not now, what we’re doing is really putting ourselves in the path of much more danger, either through blundering into a war through a cyber-attack, or through some kind of accidental launch, just from human error from the people who are down in those silos watching over the weapons.”

On an accidental nuclear war:

“There are often tensions between states. And when you have weapons and exercises going on, at a fairly consistent level, there are human beings involved. And we know there is something called human error, and miscommunication. There’s always the possibility that we could actually end up in a nuclear exchange. Hopefully one that can be stopped fairly quickly. But that’s not entirely clear.”

“The war plans that the US has suggested is that if nuclear weapons are used, the military would be quite able and willing and perhaps even eager to use our nuclear weapons in such an incident.”

“I think there are quite a number of possibilities. And so that’s why it’s so important to think about how we reduce the launch readiness and reduce the number of nuclear weapons that we have.”

On U.S. nuclear policy:

“For instance, if there were a cyber-attack against the United States, we now say that we are willing to use nuclear weapons in retaliation. If there’s a chemical weapons attack, we say that we would use nuclear weapons in that case.”

On the possibility of a suitcase nuke:

“A suitcase nuclear weapon could actually have the destructive power of a Hiroshima or Nagasaki sized bomb. It doesn’t take a lot of plutonium, I mean, or to make a nuclear bomb, nuclear weapon, it takes a few other things, the mechanics of it and some of the chemical explosives.”

On the prospects of substantial denuclearization:

“If you negotiate in good faith, and you have the right, the right inspection regime, it can happen. Now, the bigger question, of course, is can we get to even fewer numbers of nuclear weapons in the world. The treaty that was just ratified in January to prohibit nuclear weapons was a step in the direction of trying to say what international law says, which is these nuclear weapons are really are not lawful weapons. They are weapons of genocide. They are weapons of mass slaughter.”

“I think there are examples around the world where people have decided that these certainly are not worth it. And so I am hopeful that some time, someday, they will begin to understand these weapons as the weapons of slaughter that they are, and begin to understand that for our civilizations to continue, we need to get rid of them, reduce them, make them far less important than they are.”

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