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The Tech November 4, 2005

MIT Profs Protest DoD Nuke Proposal

By Brian Keegan

A proposed change in U.S. nuclear weapons policy has exploded into a controversy between the Bush Administration and physicists worldwide. Sixteen faculty members of the MIT physics department have joined over a thousand physicists in signing a petition repudiating a Pentagon proposal that would “foresee pre-emptive nuclear strikes against non-nuclear adversaries.”

Kim Griest and Jorge Hirsch, two UCSD physics professors who started the petition in September, claim a change in the March 2005 Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations “crosses a line … and heightens the probability of future use of nuclear weapons by others.” The petition can be viewed online at http://physics.ucsd.edu/petition/.

“Remember the Greek myth about Cassandra. Before every major disaster, there’s always someone who warns of it and gets ignored,” Professor Max E. Tegmark, a signatory, said in an e-mail. “This has the same feel to it. We scientists clearly have a responsibility to speak up.”

The petition, which has been signed by 1,061 physicists worldwide as of yesterday, includes 2004 Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek, 1990 Nobel Laureate Jerome I. Friedman, and 2005 Wolf Prize Laureate Daniel Kleppner from MIT.

“I believe strongly that the current Administration’s reversals of long-standing agreements and policies regarding nuclear weapons is short-sighted, self-defeating, and incredibly dangerous,” wrote Professor David I. Kaiser, a signatory, historian of science, and physicist, in an e-mail. “It is astonishing to me that after having learned so much about the incredible destructiveness of nuclear weapons over the past sixty years, some politicians today would seriously consider making their pre-emptive use part of this nation’s stated military and political policy.”

Real nuclear option

The Doctrine for Joint Nuclear Operations is the U.S. war plan for conflicts involving nuclear weapons. “It provides guidance for the employment of U.S. nuclear forces, command and control relationships, and weapons effect considerations,” according to GlobalSecurity.org, an organization which “seeks to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons and the risk of their use,” according to its Web site.

Many analysts, even during the Cold War, believed that the U.S. would not be the first to employ nuclear weapons in a conflict, but rather, would only respond with nuclear weapons if first attacked with them. The most recent DJNO, however, describes many scenarios in which nuclear weapons would be used either preemptively or as a response to non-nuclear attacks.

“A great deal of information about these weapons has been available for a long time: they are not a new innovation whose consequences are difficult to discern,” Kaiser said.

DJNO states, in part, that “geographic combatant commanders may request Presidental approval for use of nuclear weapons for a variety of conditions.” The report lists “an adversary using or intending to use WMD against U.S., multinational, or alliance forces or civilian populations; imminent attack from adversary biological weapons that only effects from nuclear weapons can safely destroy; to counter potentially overwhelming adversary conventional forces; for rapid and favorable war termination on U.S. terms; to ensure success of US and multinational operations; to demonstrate U.S. intent and capability to use nuclear weapons to deter adversary use of WMD” as examples of qualifying contingencies.

Some signatories expressed concern about the lack of attention to this issue.

“I was horrified to learn the extent of the changes being proposed,” Professor Scott A. Hughes said in an e-mail.

“I found it very frightening that I had heard so little about the issue outside of the petition,” Professor Joseph A. Formaggio said in an e-mail. “Given people’s reactions to what is happening in Iraq, I think they would raise strong objections, too.”

The DJNO repeatedly states that “no customary or conventional international law prohibits nations from employing nuclear weapons in armed conflict.”

Signatories feel responsibility

Hirsch and Griest call on physicists to take responsibility with both the petition and an October 2005 paper. The petition begins, “As physicists we feel a special responsibility with respect to nuclear weapons; our profession brought them into existence 60 years ago.”

Professor Emeritus Daniel Kleppner said he is motivated by this tradition. “The physicists who created the bomb felt a need to ensure that it was used responsibly,” he said. “I believe it would be a serious mistake for us to develop new nuclear weapons or even include them in our program for military preparedness, but that is exactly what the DoD is proposing,” he added in an e-mail.

While the members of the faculty had strong feelings about nuclear weapons, many were hesitant for MIT to take an official stance.

“When it comes to issues that are more political than scientific, I think it would behoove the Institute to inform rather than take sides in debates,” Physics professor Eric Hudson said.

Tegmark said, “It’s probably good that MIT avoids taking sides politically. However, we scientists clearly have a responsibility to speak up.”

Kaiser said he believed MIT should “take the lead in articulating for a broad public — in clear, accessible ways — some of the dangers (as well as the special promise) associated with scientific and technical developments.”

The leaders of two major nuclear-related groups on campus also reiterated MIT’s independence in policy debates.

Professor June L. Matthews PhD ’67, director of the Laboratory for Nuclear Science and a signatory on the petition, wrote in an e-mail, “LNS does not have an official stance or policy regarding this or any other socio-political issue. Faculty members … who have signed the petition have done so as individuals.”

“The Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, like other MIT departments, rarely takes an official stance or adopts an official policy in respect of specific initiatives,” Professor Ian H. Hutchinson, department head for Nuclear Science and Engineering, said in an e-mail.

Signatories doubt petition success

While most of the signatories were pessimistic about the impact of the petition on the Bush Administration’s final decision, they hoped to raise awareness of the issue.

Kleppner said that he regards petitions as a weak form of protest “because they take no effort to sign.” However, the strength of his conviction on this matter was such that he “felt compelled to sign.”

“A reasonable outcome would be that this petition will spark more widespread discussion of the proposed changes to the U.S. nuclear posture and the consequences that could ensue,” such as the final collapse of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Hughes said.

Other physicists felt that political motivations are limiting debate on the proposed policy.

Given the “low regard in which this administration holds scientists” Hudson said he expects “[the Bush Administration] to completely dismiss” the petition.

“It seemed the policy is being kept as quiet as possible,” Formaggio said. “My main hope for the petition was to raise public awareness to what we were doing.”

Theodore A. Postol ’67, professor of science, technology, and national security policy and an expert on nuclear weapon systems, said he agrees with some of the petition’s claims, although he is not a signatory.

Postol said he believes the new policy “tremendously stimulates” states to develop nuclear weapons. “It will cause countries to reconsider their nuclear status. As the world modernizes, more states will have the ability to develop nuclear capabilities.”

“The only way to prevent preemptive attacks is to develop arms” to deter these attacks, Postol said. He pointed out differences in perception towards attacking Iraq and North Korea as proof that possessing nuclear weapons can deter U.S. preemptive attacks.

Postol said that the U.S. has always been ambiguous about its nuclear first-strike policy because it serves the purpose of a deterrent. “The U.S. has the ability to strike anytime and anywhere. Tony Blair and Kim Jong-Il both know this.” he said.

Copyright 2005, The Tech
This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 52 volume 125. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to [email protected] for additional details.