Students split on nuclear usage

In last week?s survey, Carnegie Mellon students were asked what circumstances justify the United States? use of nuclear force. Results show students are split down the middle: roughly half think there are appropriate uses of nuclear force, and half do not. Of the students who supported nuclear weapon use, 80 percent thought a U.S. nuclear retaliation against another nation would be an appropriate response if that other nation had already used nuclear weapons against the U.S. or one of its allies. Forty percent thought a U.S. nuclear retaliation against a biological or chemical attack was warranted, and only a handful of students were in favor of a nuclear response to eliminate a rogue state?s WMD program or retaliate against a terrorist nuclear attack.

The consensus among students who justified a nuclear response was that the U.S. should maintain a nuclear arsenal of 100?1000 weapons to achieve the goals outlined above. Students who believed there is no appropriate use of nuclear force stated that the U.S. should reserve no weapons to launch a nuclear attack. However, the survey did not ask whether these students thought the U.S. should maintain weapons as a deterrent.

To examine the use of nuclear weapons, it is important to examine their capabilities. The average nuclear weapon in today?s U.S. arsenal has a yield of 200 kilotons (about 10 times the explosive power of the bombs used against Japan) with sizes ranging from 100 kilotons to 1 megatons. The effects of a nuclear detonation can be broken down into three types of damage: complete destruction, severe fires, and intense radiation, all occuring instantaneously. Detonation of the smallest nuclear weapon in America?s arsenal (100 kilotons) would result in seven square miles of complete destruction, 30 square miles of severe fires, and intense radiation over a much larger area.

Nuclear weapons are effective at eliminating their targets, but they also guarantee severe collateral damage. While the effects of biological and chemical weaponry are deadly, they are hard to compare with the effects of a nuclear explosion. Therefore, a nuclear retaliation to a biological or chemical attack could cause a drastic escalation in warfare. Unless this was the desired outcome, it is unlikely the U.S. would respond in such a manner.

U.S. retaliation against a nuclear attack launched by another nation would therefore appear to be a more likely reaction. However, it is difficult to imagine a nation desperate enough to launch a nuclear attack and risk the consequences. Maintaining the U.S. nuclear arsenal would be necessary to prevent unchecked usage of nuclear force by the nations that have weapons against nations that have none.

With terrorists, no such checks exist. If a terrorist group were to come into possession of a nuclear weapon and launch an attack, nuclear force would not be capable of deterring such an act nor could it threaten any sort of retribution against the attackers.

While the U.S. use of nuclear weapons to eliminate a rogue state?s WMD program would be effective, it is by no means necessary, as demonstrated by Israel in 1981. The Israeli government used conventional weapons to destroy Iraq?s Osirak reactor and justified it by stating: ?Under no circumstances will we allow an enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.? Even if a rogue state had a more robust WMD program than that of Iraq in 1981, it is unclear how effective a nuclear attack would be if a WMD program were dispersed. To warrant the use of nuclear force, a government would have to conclude not only that conventional weapons would be ineffective, but also that eliminating the threat was worth the collateral damage.

Unlike 1945, nuclear politics today have transformed into a delicate situation in which the slightest movement forces every other nation to compensate. To exercise nuclear force today would take an extremely well-synchronized act in order to prevent tipping a balanced nuclear society.