A False Urgency


The classy scientific journal Nature is routinely scanned for new items of interest, which the media then presents in pre-digested, sensationalised format for the public.  Perhaps strangely however, items concerning nuclear weapons are rarely taken up, despite their obvious importance.  KPN readers may remember that in the October issue we reported Nature coverage on the proposed new improved nuclear weapon, the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW), which is being put forward as justifying production of a new warhead to replace the ‘ageing’ existing warheads.  Nuclear scientists were saying that the old design could not be relied upon to explode when used in anger, so a new generation of different design was now needed in order to avoid the embarrassment of a dud warhead which failed to kill properly.  None of the usual broadsheets carried this story, nor did any announcement appear on television.


Now Nature (December, issue number 7120) carries another report on nuclear weapons, and once again the media have failed to notice it.  This report is of even greater importance than that in July.  The July report focussed on the reliability of existing warheads, and quoted nuclear scientists as claiming that existing warheads might last only another 40 – 60 years, so justifying immediate work on the RRW.  Now (December) the US National Nuclear Security Administration, which manages the nuclear weapons programme, has released unclassified summaries of two studies that have found that the existing plutonium triggers are more reliable than first thought, and will last for a century, and may well last even longer.  These reports destroy the case for urgent replacement.  Congress must now realise that the nuclear scientists have been trying to give it the bum’s rush, as the colourful American expression has it.


After the recent mid-term elections, both US Houses have Democrat majorities; the political will to pursue an expensive new nuclear weapons programme is not there.  The Nature editorial comments: ‘That’s just as well.  No convincing case has been made for the United States to replace its existing stockpiles.  . . .  The government should give up its desire for new designs and settle on a size and shape for a research programme that fits the less extravagant needs of its existing nuclear weapons stockpile – a stockpile that, with luck, will become obsolete before it needs to be replaced.’


Quite so.  But why is it that only KPN readers are reading of this?  There is clearly now no urgency to replace Trident.  Our parliament, too, is being given the bum’s rush, but at least in America they know it.


Harry Davis