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Lights, Camera, Deterrence: What Oppenheimer tells us about nuclear security

The premiere of Oppenheimer has created a buzz and not just because of its double billing with Barbie. The highest grossing WW2 film to date, the story of the “father of the atomic bomb” has created widespread discussions around the complexities of international nuclear security, disarmament, and the shadow of the Cold War. Dr Christopher Watterson, an expert in nuclear weapons, offers some insights into the far-reaching implications of Oppenheimer's story, the interplay between scientific advancement and regulation, and the modern challenges in averting catastrophe considering the current geopolitical landscape.

What has been the lasting impact of the Manhattan project and the development of the atomic bomb on international security?

Christopher: The lasting impact of nuclear weapons for international security is contested. Some claim that nuclear weapons have improved international security. In particular, many credit nuclear weapons with preventing the outbreak of major wars, demonstrated most conspicuously by the absence of superpower conflict during the Cold War. Despite four decades of intense geopolitical rivalry, the US and Soviet Union never entered into direct military conflict with one another, likely due to the threat of mutual nuclear annihilation.

While the deterrent value of nuclear weapons is widely acknowledged, many argue that, on the whole, the existence of nuclear weapons actually degrades international security. For example, while states may be deterred from using nuclear weapons for fear of massive retaliation, more nuclear weapons mean more opportunities for them to be used accidentally. For example, on 26 September 1983 the Soviet Union almost launched a massive nuclear strike against the US following Moscow’s detection of an incoming US missile strike, only to realise at the last minute that there was no US missile strike but instead their computers had malfunctioned.

Others contend that, while nuclear weapons may prevent major wars between the great powers, it also emboldens nuclear-armed states to pursue more aggressive foreign policies as their nuclear weapons will protect them from retaliation. For example, it is unlikely that Russia would have launched such an egregious military operation against Ukraine unless it was confident that it could contain escalation by NATO through the threat of nuclear use.

The film highlights the guilt of Oppenheimer and those involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, with Oppenheimer famously stating, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ What responsibility does the scientific community hold in ensuring that nuclear arms are not used for mass destruction?

Christopher: Scientists are under no formal obligation to oppose the development, testing, or even use of nuclear weapons. There is no equivalent of a Hippocratic Oath for scientists, and even if there was, the potential for harm of nuclear weapons is not clear-cut, as I discuss above. Many scientists involved in nuclear weapons development, both current and historical, are intensely proud of the work that they do and are leading proponents of nuclear weapons development in their countries. Ultimately, it’s down to individual scientists to decide what their responsibilities are vis-à-vis nuclear weapons.

Those scientists that have taken a stand against nuclear weapons use various strategies to leverage their specialist knowledge and good offices to reduce the potential for nuclear harm, including lobbying governments for anti-nuclear policies, educating the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons, and developing alternatives to nuclear weapons testing and use. For example, recent developments in computer-based nuclear weapons simulations and modelling have offset the need for explosive testing.

One of the central themes in the film is the tension between scientific advancement and the need for regulation. After seeing the devastation of the atomic bomb and fearing a nuclear arms race, Oppenheimer and other scientists involved in the bomb’s creation called for controls on the development and deployment of nuclear weapons. Can you tell us what regulations are currently in place to prevent a catastrophic nuclear war occurring, and what are the main issues involved in negotiating and enforcing these regulations on a global scale?

Christopher: There exists an elaborate regime of regulations governing how nuclear weapons are developed, deployed, tested, and used. These regulations are formalised in various bi- and multi-lateral instruments such as the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Nuclear Weapons Free Zones agreements, and arms control treaties. In one way or another, these regulations are all designed to prevent the outbreak of nuclear war. Ostensibly they have been effective, as we haven’t seen an offensive use of nuclear weapons since 1945 (though arguably we’ve had some close calls). However, the evolution of this regulatory regime has been, and continues to be a slow and painful process.

First, international regulations on nuclear weapons are notoriously difficult to negotiate. States develop nuclear weapons to bolster their national security and are thus generally reticent to negotiate away their capabilities, especially if they feel that such regulations are ‘imbalanced’ in favour of other states. And even when mutually agreeable regulations can be enacted, compliance is difficult to maintain. Nuclear weapons development is highly secretive, limiting opportunities for states to verify one another’s compliance. And even when noncompliance is detected, entry into these agreements is typically voluntary, leaving states little recourse to punish violations.

Another consequence of the voluntary nature of these regulatory regimes is that many nuclear-armed states simply choose not to participate or participate only when it is strategically expedient to do so. For example, earlier this year Russian President Vladimir Putin unilaterally suspended Russia’s participation in the New Start agreement with Washington, the most significant nuclear arms control agreement between the two historical antagonists, simply to improve his bargaining position in Ukraine, demonstrating how tenuous arms control commitments can be.

Two years after the creation of the atomic bomb Albert Einstein created the Doomsday Clock with the Chicago scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb. It has become a widely recognised indicator of the world’s vulnerability to manmade technologies and in January this year, due to Russia’s threat to use nuclear arms in the war in Ukraine, it moved forward to signify that we have moved closer to global catastrophe. Do you think that existing initiatives and agreements are sufficient for averting global catastrophe and addressing emerging challenges in nuclear non-proliferation and security?

Christopher: It’s hard to say. Certainly, something is going right, as we haven’t seen offensive nuclear weapons use for nearly 80 years. Whether that’s due to international regulations on nuclear weapons, or some other force such as the strategic or normative costs of nuclear weapons use, is up for debate. Undoubtedly, however, this 80-year peace is under strain. New nuclear flashpoints are emerging, for example in Ukraine and the South China Sea; more states are acquiring nuclear weapons; and new tactical nuclear weapons deployments as well as developments in nuclear counterforce capabilities are reducing the threshold for nuclear weapons use. The abovementioned failure of New Start, as well as the fact that many nuclear-armed states do not observe formal multilateral arms control commitments, does not inspire confidence that a ‘business as usual’ approach to the international regulation of nuclear weapons will, on its own, be sufficient for averting global catastrophe.

Dr Christopher Watterson is a member of the Centre for Science & Security Studies (CSSS). 

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Christopher Watterson

Research Fellow

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