Speaking at an APS-sponsored conference in Washington in early November, leading nuclear weapons scientists and policy makers said that despite some troubling areas, the world is a safer place than in past decades, and they expressed cautious optimism that it is continuing in that direction. They warned, however, that despite this progress, crises involving nuclear weapons can still spiral out of control.
Over two days at George Washington University, 24 experts weighed in on an array of nuclear weapons issues, including arms control, enforcement of the test ban treaty, missile defense, combating proliferation, and terrorism. The conference offered a snapshot of what countries around the world either possess or are pursuing nuclear technology, and assessed the danger arising from them.
Closing out the conference, Pierce Corden, a visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science summed up the central question of the weekend.
"Which way is proliferation moving?" Corden asked. "The net vector, and this is my judgment, is sharply down," pointing to large reductions in US and Russian stockpiles.
Arian Pregenzer of Sandia National Laboratories echoed that assessment, saying that few countries were actively pursuing nuclear weapons despite technological improvements making them relatively easy to build. Currently there are eight countries with declared nuclear weapons, plus Israel with an undeclared stockpile.
"It's inescapable, as time goes on you're going to reach a point where all countries that want nuclear weapons can get them," Pregenzer said. "The number of countries that want nuclear weapons seems to have stabilized."
That stability is tenuous in some parts of the world. Robert Gallucci, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, said that two decades of bungled diplomacy led to a nuclear North Korea and the danger of further proliferation.
"US policy over 20 years has failed," Gallucci said. "The North Korea situation is not only worse than it was 20 years ago, but it gets worse every day because they are continuing to build."
He added also South Korea might soon decide it's in their interest to possess their own nuclear weapons as the North continues to arm itself.
Iran is currently pursuing nuclear reactor technology, and likely has a clandestine weapons program as well. After witnessing stops and starts in their weapons program, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security said diplomacy could still work to prevent a nuclear Iran. "There is general agreement that the Iranian regime has not decided to build a nuclear weapon," Albright said.
Analyst Zia Mian of Princeton said that India and Pakistan are the two nations today most likely to attack each other with nuclear weapons. The countries are historic enemies, have had nuclear weapons for over a decade, and are currently locked in an arms race with each other.
David Hafemeister of California Polytechnic State University helped to organize the conference, one of a number of "short courses" he has put together that combine science and public policy. For example, in March of 2011, he organized a conference on the physics of sustainable energy that was hosted at UC Berkeley. The last such conference that focused on nuclear weapons was in 1988."The world has changed a lot since then," he said. "I hope that younger people will consider jobs in public policy."
He added also that one of the most important products of the meetings is the published text of the presentations. After the meetings, the American Institute of Physics publishes their conference proceedings, which serve as an overview of the state of the field.
"The physics libraries will have something to read in these areas," Hafemeister said. "I thought we had both technological and political depth."
The bound edition is due to be published by AIP Publishing in February.