Why Scientists Need to Stay Engaged in the Nuclear Threat

January 12, 2022
Jake Roche/UCS
Dr. Peter Somssich
Retired Physicist and New Hampshire State Representative

I recently joined residents in New Hampshire, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., in calling on national security advisor Jake Sullivan – who has called all three places home – to remind President Biden of his campaign pledges to reform US nuclear weapons policy by declaring a “No First Use” policy and eliminating plans for unnecessary nuclear weapons.

Even if you once believed we needed nuclear weapons, I would suggest to you that today we do not. I say this even though I was a refugee from Hungary in 1956, when it was under Soviet Union control during the Cold War. In the 1950s and ‘60s most of the world was still living under the ominous cloud of a possible nuclear war. 

It was common to have nuclear drills at school, which involved students hiding under desks for protection, while adults installed nuclear bomb shelters in homes and public buildings. Many teenagers of that generation had such a pessimistic view of the future of the world that getting married and having children seemed irresponsible. This is how some young people feel today about the issue of climate change (“Climate Anxiety ”).

In graduate school, I encountered several German professors who underscored to us the responsibility that scientists have both for the invention or creation of new products and for the way these new inventions are used. This is especially true for nuclear weapons.

Now, along with many of my fellow scientific colleagues, I have concluded that nuclear weapons are a big waste of effort and money, with the primary reason for their existence being bragging rights and as a vanity project of politicians. And of course, President Eisenhower’s “military industrial complex” also continues to benefit from them.

The United States spends $65,000 per minute on these weapons. To now consider spending another $1 trillion over 30 years to upgrade them is a huge waste of money. Economists would view nuclear weapons as dead capital: They are costly and unproductive since no nation would actually want to use them as designed. Isn’t it shocking that some senators in Washington think spending $2 trillion for “human infrastructure” such as childcare, community college, and climate change issues is unnecessary, but huge Pentagon spending on nuclear weapons is acceptable and unquestioned?

The United States already has the most powerful conventional military in the world, more than adequate to protect our interests. Building new nuclear weapons also encourages spending by our adversaries on their own weapons, making the world less safe.

Meanwhile, nuclear weapons are effectively useless when dealing with the modern conflicts or domestic and foreign terrorist threats. That is why now might be the right moment for all nations to consider permanently abolishing nuclear weapons worldwide.

It is so important to engage the public (and especially the younger generation) on nuclear weapons. Yes, climate change is a very serious threat, however, several nuclear weapons could change the climate in 10 days instead of 10 years. This threat should be addressed with the same level of urgency by our country and the world. That is why the “Back from the Brink ” campaign is of such great importance.

As scientists, we are obligated to ensure that important scientific issues and facts are placed in front of the public and policymakers for consideration and engage in the political process. Scientists should not disparage involvement in politics, believing that somehow it is a dirty business that they wish to avoid.

Without politics and government there probably would be much less science for the public good. Certainly, big undertakings such as the moon landing, climate change research, and sustainable and renewable energy research would be unthinkable without political support to fund such efforts.

But science public policies are often made not by scientists but politicians. That is why scientists need to stay engaged in both climate change and the nuclear threat.

Fortunately, we still have quite a lot of credibility as a profession and the younger generation seems very excited about the opportunity to help resolve climate change challenges, promote more renewable energy and energy efficiency, and protect the environment for all of us. Politics determines science policies good and bad, so scientists need to be at the table.

Dr. Peter Somssich is a Retired Physicist and New Hampshire State Representative, and serves as a Ranking Member of NH House Science Technology & Energy Committee