The Cold War is all but forgotten, but major powers still maintain large nuclear arsenals nearly on hair-trigger alert. California has played a prominent role in the design and development of the U. S. nuclear arsenal, and it can expect to continue doing so as the nation faces new security challenges in the 21st century.
The University of California has managed the nation's two nuclear device laboratories since their creation: the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the Bay Area. With their work backed by government support, the scientists and engineers at these laboratories have contributed to the nation's security.
These contributions are much broader than designing, building and maintaining safe and reliable nuclear weapons. Importantly, they include efforts to prevent the proliferation of such weapons around the world, as well as the preparation of means to respond to attack and diminish the damage as practicable. As long-time advisers and reviewers of the laboratories' programs, and fully mindful of several well-publicized management and security failures, we can say that these scientists and engineers can be proud of their record of achievements. So can the University of California, whose high academic and scientific standards have been uniquely important to the labs' ability to create and sustain outstanding centers of excellence.
Looking ahead, the 21st century presents the United States and like- minded nations with major new challenges. Particularly troubling is the spread of dangerous technologies that can empower terrorists and other rogue entities whose behavior is not restricted by what are recognized as civilized norms. These challenges have also defined new missions for the laboratories: to address new threats of terrorism with enhanced means of prevention and to be able to respond to such attacks when they occur. Laboratory technology has also been put to work identifying activities leading to terrorists' actions against the United States and its interests around the world.
We are now at a time for public debate as to what changes are called for in U.S. nuclear policy and in our arsenal. The one feature of the U.S. arsenal on which all technical analyses agree is that we have far too many nuclear weapons; we simply do not need so large an arsenal. Indeed, the current plan is to reduce its size.
New missions are also being considered for a modernized U. S. nuclear arsenal to be designed by the Los Alamos and Livermore laboratories. These missions suggest a fundamental shift in our nation's nuclear policy, and deserve much broader public discussion before being implemented. Key among these is the administration's proposal, sustained by a hotly debated congressional vote, to initiate development of specialized nuclear weapons for limited military strikes.
In support of the request to develop low-yield weapons, for example, is the argument that deterrence is enhanced by offering the president more options -- in principle making nuclear weapons more usable by virtue of their causing reduced, albeit still devastating, collateral damage.
It is this very issue of supposedly "usable" nuclear weapons that needs public dialogue. Does it threaten to undermine the key idea on which U.S. nuclear-weapons policy is based? That idea, forged during the dark days of the Cold War with the former Soviet Union, is that our nuclear weapons -- unique in their capability for mass destruction, and with explosive energies millions of times larger than previous weapons -- have but one rational purpose: to deter nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and to provide the means of responding appropriately to such a strike. These were and remain weapons of defensive last resort.
Aside from technical questions about the practical limits on the military effectiveness of new specialty weapons, there are two fundamental issues:
-- Do we really want to advance the worldview that nuclear weapons are more usable?
-- Do we thereby also weaken our own strong and largely successful anti- proliferation efforts?
These issues are of gravest concern to the nation and the world. To California, they have special resonance. We are the home of the Livermore laboratory, a key to implementing whatever decision is made, and of the University of California, which may well be called upon to continue managing the two nuclear laboratories' programs. We therefore bear a special burden to examine all aspects -- ethical as well as technological -- of these proposed weapons. They warrant deep and informed debate in our democratic process.
Sidney Drell, a physicist, and Raymond Jeanloz a geophysicist, are on the faculties of Stanford University and the University of California at Berkeley, respectively. Drell's new book (with James Goodby), is "The Gravest Danger: Nuclear Weapons," (Hoover Institution Press, 2003).
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle