Undoing the Nuclear Option: An Interview with Dr. Zia Mian

The Prog’s Chris Russo sat down with Dr. Zia Mian of Princeton’s Program on Science and Security. A physicist by education, Dr. Mian has published books and articles on nuclear non-proliferation, with an emphasis on the science of nuclear technology, His published works to include Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Out of the Nuclear Shadow among others.

CR: In your book Unmaking the Bomb, you talk about how the existence of nuclear energy might enable a country that has disarmed itself to quickly rebuild nuclear weapons using the existing infrastructure of power plants and reactors. Long term, a world without nuclear weapons might necessitate a world without nuclear power. How do you balance the hazard of nuclear weapons with nuclear power as a fairly promising clean energy source?

ZM: The relationship between nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear power for electricity generation is actually as old as the bomb and older than nuclear energy. During the Manhattan Project, and even before, physicists realized that it was possible to try to control the chain reaction so that it could not only be explosive, but could be moderated to produce energy. In the first studies by physicists during World War II, most famously in the Franck report, led by Nobel Prize winning physicist James Franck, it was argued that in a future where nuclear energy is allowed for use by states for peaceful uses, there would be the risk of the diversion of civilian facilities and materials for military use in crisis. This was seen before the first civilian facilities [for energy generation] were even built—all the facilities the U.S. built during World War II were military facilities for a weapons program.

It was realized that any future nuclear structures could be available to states for making weapons. Physicists saw clearly that the technology was transferable and that in some cases materials were transferable—plutonium produced for civilian uses [energy] could be used to make weapons; facilities for enriching uranium to make fuel for nuclear reactors could be used to make material for weapons.

The argument the physicists proposed was that in any future world where nuclear weapons were abolished, civilian nuclear energy should be under international control and not under the control of any particular nation-state. The facilities in a state’s territory would be owned internationally and not by that particular government, making it much more difficult to divert people as well as materials and facilities for weapons purposes.

This effort to try to find a management solution rather than a technological solution to the proliferation risk inherent in the use of nuclear energy failed because of the Cold War. By the 1950s, the U.S. shared and promised to share civilian nuclear technology with other countries in exchange for their loyalty to the West in the Cold War, and the Soviet Union eventually decided to do the same thing.

You have to remember that for the first sixty years of nuclear energy, its advocates never talked about climate change. It’s only as nuclear energy has stalled and gone into decline, as neither claims of its economy or modernity have proven correct—arguments about how nuclear energy is going to be so cheap we won’t have to meter it; it’s so modern it will replace all these fossil fuel-burning technologies—that the nuclear energy community has fastened its hopes [for continued relevance] to climate change.

One can see a clear pattern where countries with a history in nuclear energy and in which energy markets are allowed to shape investment decisions—Germany1 has already given up on nuclear energy. It’s only in states where policy-making has been captured by the nuclear establishments, like in China and India, do you actually see continued significant investment in nuclear energy. You also see countries that come late to nuclear energy making the same arguments about the future of nuclear energy that the U.S. and the U.K. made in the 60s and the 70s. It takes countries twenty years to realize this is not the way the world works.

In fact, for most of the world, economics suggests that large-scale renewable energy is coming in at costs significantly lower than those projected for nuclear energy. You can ramp up investment in solar and wind in ways that third-world societies can actually manage much more effectively in modular ways, and so I think that is where the energy markets are increasingly going around the world. As we make progress in managing grids and storage there really is going to be no case, economic or otherwise, for nuclear energy, regardless of the fact that in comparison to fossil fuels it’s seen to be a low-carbon source of energy.


CR: Realistically, the current administration is not interested in reducing our nuclear stockpile, and Trump has made tweets suggesting that they actually wants to increase it, which is pretty ridiculous, but he’ll only be here for a limited amount of time. What I’m more worried about is how the current administration is not particularly interested in participation in international institutions and agreements, is ostensibly more interested in using force with other countries, and is gutting our diplomatic core. Is the current administration going to weaken the means by which nuclear disarmament and ultimately prohibition would be achieved?

ZM: The Trump administration marks a sharp break from the policies of the Obama administration on arms control and non-proliferation, but prior to the Obama administration, we had the Bush administration for eight years. In 2000, Bush actually had plans for a new generation of nuclear weapons, including deep earth penetrating “bunker busters” and low-yield tactical nuclear weapons, and for a buildup in nuclear capabilities; and they were relatively scornful of international agreements. John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time, argued that you could actually just get rid of most [international institutions]. Seen from this larger historical perspective, many of the positions taken by the Trump administration are quite similar to those taken in the early years of the Bush administration.

The Bush administration was not unique either. Back in the Reagan administration, similar arguments and policies were being put in place: large investments in new nuclear weapons capabilities, new nuclear technologies, and a contempt for international law, the international community, and non-proliferation agreements.

With Reagan and Bush and Trump, you see demands and pressures and sometimes decisions to increase spending on nuclear weapons, for new kinds of nuclear weapons and new postures and roles for nuclear weapons. All of these policies are basically the same—they reflect a strain in Republican thought about the role of nuclear weapons and the role of the U.S. in the world with regard to the international community.

The interesting thing is that after a few years, in response to public pressure and the consequences of its own decisions, the Reagan administration had to sit down and negotiate with the Soviet Union to find some basis for an agreement leading to far reaching arms control treaties. It took a huge amount of effort by the peace movement and by people of good will in Congress and by the international community, especially the Europeans, to get the U.S. leadership to see sense.

Similarly, there was a lot of pushback against Bush administration’s nuclear weapons policies. Midway into that administration, the Moscow agreement reduced the number of deployed nuclear weapons and weapons in reserves. It’s possible we will see a similar unfolding in the Trump administration. If the Democrats take control of Congress in 2018, funding for these programs becomes something of significant policy dispute and Congress can prevent the runaway policies that the Trump administration is trying to put in place.

The international community also plays an important role in eventually getting the U.S. to see sense. No matter what the U.S. wants to do, eventually it does need some kind of support and cooperation and legitimacy for its policies from other countries. A simple example: what can be done about North Korea or Iran?

The Trump administration wants to undo the Iranian Nuclear deal that was made under the Obama administration. This deal also has as parties Russia, China, and the European Union. These are the same powers the administration needs for support in dealing with North Korea. Without them, there is no basis for the U.S. to get U.N. approval for new sanctions, new policies, new support, and new restrictions. They have already been telling the White House that they will not support this effort to roll back the Iran agreement. The increasing isolation of the U.S. from key players in the international community, and the loss of legitimacy that brings, makes it harder for the U.S. to get support and traction for all the other policies it does need approval for.

I think that’s the process of learning that takes place in administrations. The harsh light of reality starts to teach people lessons about how the world works. I think this is the lesson the Trump administration will learn. It’s a lesson that requires a lot of effort from everybody else to teach the White House and it doesn’t happen by itself. It’s going to require a lot of determination and leadership from countries around the world and by American citizens choosing sides about what country they want to be and what kind of policy they want their government to pursue. The struggle is on. It is a struggle, but the Trump administration is not going to get its way by sheer force of will.


CR: In Unmaking the Bomb, you talk about how we need to understand ourselves as global citizens and hold our governments responsible as members of the international community and accountable to the international agreements to which they are parties to achieve nuclear disarmament. Seeing the rise of xenophobia, populism, and nationalism in the West and elsewhere, do you think this task will be more difficult?

ZM: Support for right wing nationalism, which is often xenophobic, if not directly racist, is in fact a response to the globalization and growing cosmopolitanism that has spread around the world, especially since the end of the Cold War. One should not overstate the significance of this backlash. These people are minorities; history is not on their side, and when one looks forward, there is no undoing the fact that you now have this integration of people and societies and economies and a sensibility of one planet that we share.

Secondly, a really interesting generation gap has opened up. All the evidence seems to suggest that younger people who have grown up in this period of global integration are much more sympathetic to a set of values where they see a common humanity and a common planet in terms of issues of environmental sensitivity and sustainability, of the need to address poverty, of the equality of all human beings. This seems to indicate that the next generation will actually pick up this process and move forward with it with a new sensitivity about how to deal with these reactionary sensibilities that have been stirred by right wing forces in some of these countries.

Scientists have played a fundamental role in this, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons issues. In the 1950s, Albert Einstein and the British philosopher Bertrand Russell produced the famous Russell-Einstein manifesto, launching the scientists’ organization Pugwash, which was an attempt to organize themselves to engage with people and citizens around the world about the dangers of nuclear weapons and war more broadly. They had this luminous sentence— “remember your humanity and forget the rest,” This is the necessary condition for continued human existence and well-being in a world of nation-states where nuclear weapons are possible, because if you leave it to nation states who are able to go to war with nuclear weapons, the future of humanity will always be uncertain. I think we have huge strides to make in that direction, but the future is hopeful once we get past the difficult times that we’re in.


CR: What do we do as citizens, scientists, to try to achieve the abolition of nuclear weapons? How do we inform the public about science, about the reality of nuclear weapons and their danger?

ZM: When nuclear weapons were first brought into the world, they were created by scientists as part of a military project run by the U.S. government in secret from its own legislative processes—Congress didn’t know, and the American people didn’t know. It was fundamentally an undemocratic process from the very beginning.

Einstein wrote was that it is only through the informed and insistent action by an aroused humanity that we can deal with the danger of nuclear weapons. In other words, educating people so that they can decide for themselves about how to think about nuclear weapons and allowing the democratic process to play out is necessary.

As scientists, we have two identities—absolutely I am a scientist, but I am a citizen before I am a scientist. The idea of the citizen-scientist is one where you can fulfill your obligations to participate in the decision-making of your society so that your fellow citizens, too, are empowered to participate as fully as they possibly can and wish to do so.  The first thing is to let them know so they can decide for themselves. Secondly, you have an additional obligation on top of just telling other people to put your expertise to make it available to society as a whole for the common good.

The idea that scientists can contribute and have a special responsibility, as scientists have for a long time recognized, is a core value of science, and certainly science in democratic societies. You can make contributions to science, but regardless of that, you rely on society to support you and give you the privilege to be able to devote your life to this enterprise. You owe them for that privilege, and one of the ways to repay this debt is not just to try to help humanity discover truths about ourselves and the world we live in, but to actually help people better navigate our existence in that world so that the world is actually a better place.

1 Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly listed Japan and France along with Germany. According to Dr. Main, “Germany has decided to give up nuclear energy, Japan is considering its nuclear future after the Fukushima accident of 2011 and most reactors are still shut down, while France is reducing its reliance on nuclear energy.”

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