Present Dangers, Positive Steps U.S. Nuclear Policy

U.S. Government policy threatens the lives of its citizens and holds the world hostage to its demands.

At the apex of the Cold War President Reagan recognized the unacceptable threat, and enormous misuse of resources, that vast nuclear weapons arsenals perpetuate. Yet, the passing of the Cold War has bred complacency around the danger of nuclear conflict. Since the early optimism of President Obama’s campaign promises to work toward a nuclear-free world and the negotiation of the New START treaty, the U.S. Government has not only failed to take further steps towards disarmament and nuclear arms control but is actively pursuing a $1.2 trillion dollar “modernization” program (read expansion) in the coming years.

$1.2 Trillion Dollars of Waste

The Pentagon’s commitment to “modernizing” the U.S. nuclear arsenal contradicts the central rationales for critical arms control treaties - reducing the levels of international mistrust and reducing the chance of international and unintended nuclear war. Additionally, the increasing investment in “tactical” nuclear weapons erodes the nuclear taboo and dangerously increases the chances that a nation could attempt to justify a “limited” nuclear war.

But there is no such thing as a “limited” nuclear war, and building more powerful, more technologically proficient, nuclear weapons cannot make us more safe. This massive investment runs directly counter to the interests of citizens across the world and the mutual interest in peace between the United States and its adversaries. To understand more about how the U.S. nuclear arsenal stokes international tensions and leads to escalation and military ambition from its adversaries, and to understand why America cannot arm its way out of current security threats, please read “The New Nuclear World” by PSR intern Orlando Bell.

Rather, the “modernization” program stokes a global nuclear arms race and stymies critical domestic investments that are urgently necessary to alleviate growing problems of inequality, environmental degradation, and climate change in the U.S. The #PeopleOverPentagon initiative demonstrates how just 10% of the U.S. military budget could transform education or social services in the U.S. at no cost to America's security.

Further, the very premise of nuclear spending — that a strong nuclear force increases our nuclear deterrent and reduces the chance of an attack on the United States — is fundamentally flawed.

America's misguided faith in nuclear deterrence

Simply put, nuclear deterrence relies on the theory that the mutual possession of nuclear weapons makes the idea of a nuclear conflict unthinkable because the mutual capacity for civilization destruction removes all incentives for aggressive action. This theory is founded on a series of myths that imperil us all. It is time we reject this rationale for exorbitant spending and nuclear weapons development.


Myth One: The nuclear deterrent maintains global peace and keeps us safe.

  • Nuclear weapons have not prevented catastrophic conflict, genocide, violations of sovereignty, or human rights abuses. In fact, the war in Ukraine highlights how nuclear weapons can make conflict worse as President Putin continues to threaten their use in order to limit NATO’s response to his illegal invasion. Further, our faith in nuclear deterrence places us at greater risk because the insistence on maintaining a “credible threat” keeps nuclear weapons systems on high alert; reducing the avenues for de-escalation and increasing the chance of unintended nuclear war.
  • The non-use of nuclear weapons relates more directly to their utter lack of strategic utility rather than the moral compass of global leaders. Some experts argue nuclear weapons are hard to use, harder to control, and ultimately a poor weapon of war. They render land uninhabitable, their radiation does not respect international borders or the lines of military conflict. If you want to read more about why some people believe nuclear weapons are militarily useless please read Ward Wilson’s book “Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons”.

Myth Two: We can trust global leaders because there is no rational argument for the use of nuclear weapons

  • Deterrence theorists such as Kenneth Waltz believe nuclear weapons will never be used because the folly of doing so is “self-evident” - the existence of second-strike capabilities ensures there is no rational argument to launch a first-strike.
  • But to err is human. Human beings are notoriously irrational, prone to accepting exorbitant costs or seemingly irrational actions in the face of a crisis, a loss of power, or any number of situations they would not normally consider. Further, humans are fallible - prone to mistakes, miscalculations, corruption and a host of other problems that threaten the safety of the world in the face of such civilization-ending force. To read more please read “Human Fallibility: A Critical Hole in Global Faith in Nuclear Security”, written by PSR 2023 intern Orlando Bell.

Myth Three: Accidental nuclear war is impossible

  • The opacity that covers the nuclear weapons industry is designed to give the impression of impenetrable nuclear security systems that would make disasters like theft of a nuclear warhead, accidental launch, or misunderstanding impossible. This is a myth.
  • In his remarkable work “Command and Control”, Eric Schlosser highlights that there have been hundreds of close calls that could conceivably have started an accidental or unintended nuclear war. From misread signals nearly leading to armageddon in the Cold War, crashed nuclear-armed planes, stolen equipment, miswiring, and zealous military personnel we have come unacceptably close far too many times. As Scott Sagan argues in “The Limits of Safety” the nuclear taboo has survived through luck not skill.
  • For one stark reminder of how precarious humanity’s existence really is, please read the remarkable story of how Stanislav Petrov’s instincts, working against all protocol and concrete information, saved the world from nuclear war.

Myth Four: Margin for Error

  • It is possible to reject the arguments made above. Many believe deterrence works. To these people, we say, how often? And with what degree of certainty? If that answer is not 100% of the time in the past, now, and for the entirety of humanity’s existence then one day deterrence will fail. There will not be a second chance. It will spell the end for us all. Ask yourself, is that a “safety” system you’re willing to live with? Would you play Russian Roulette every day of your life no matter how small the odds of a bullet being in the chamber? Nuclear weapons will either be dismantled or they will be used. We cannot expect them to stay inert and in stasis forever.

To learn more about deterrence, and its flaws, please read “Deterrence 101: Through the eyes of Generation-Z” by PSR Summer 2022 intern Madeline Berzak.

The Problem of Hair Trigger Alert

Hair-Trigger alert, also known as “Launch-on-Warning”, is a military term that refers to the practice of keeping hundreds of nuclear warheads staffed around the clock and ready to be airborne within ten minutes. Defenders of hair-trigger alert insist it is necessary for America’s ability to rapidly respond to nuclear threats. This is a myth. In reality, every nuclear weapon placed on this high status of alert significantly increases the chance of unintended nuclear conflict and needlessly endangers us all. By allowing such a rapid launch, hair-trigger alert significantly increases the chances of an accidental launch or a deliberate launch in response to a false or misinterpreted signal. In the past, things as diverse as sunlight reflecting off clouds or the misinterpretation of the launch of scientific research rockets conducting tests, have been misinterpreted as the beginnings of a nuclear war. Hair-trigger alert significantly reduces the time for these errors to be detected and therefore massively increases the chances of catastrophe.

Remarkably, the insanity of this policy has been repeatedly recognized by U.S. officials. CIA and NSA directors, President Obama, and President Bush, (both pre-inauguration) have all described hair-trigger as an insane relic of the Cold War. President Obama openly acknowledged it “increases the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculations”.

Yet the U.S. continues to hold approximately 900 silo-based nuclear weapons on this level of alert. Taking warheads off high-alert would reduce the immediate threat posed by nuclear weapons and encourage reciprocity from Russia, further increasing our safety.

No First Use

No First Use (NFU) refers to a policy to never use nuclear weapons unless first attacked with nuclear weapons by an adversary. The United States has repeatedly refused to commit to this position, tacitly accepting the possibility of a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the United States. This would be an extraordinary act of genocide and it is abhorrent that its possibility falls within existing U.S. policy. Furthermore, since 2018 the Nuclear Posture Review has repeatedly lowered the bar for possible justifications for use of “tactical” nuclear weapons in response to non-nuclear attacks. There is no feasible model for de-escalation following a U.S. nuclear first strike, it would cause all-out nuclear war.

The continued possibility of a U.S. nuclear first-strike increases international tensions, and significantly increases the incentive for an adversary to strike against the United States — it incentivizes dangerous “use-it-or-lose-it” thinking that increases the chance of nuclear war. Committing to NFU would significantly reduce tensions in peacetime and crisis, allowing time for rational deliberation, diplomacy, and de-escalation.

An additional problem is the continuation of the U.S. president’s sole authority to order a nuclear attack. There is little check on a president’s power to launch a nuclear strike. Committing to No First Use would essentially remove this dangerous autonomy that makes us vulnerable to irrational or belligerent leaders and increase global security.

Finally, China has been committed to an unconditional no-first-use policy since 1964. Given the impasse in diplomatic communications and arms control between the two countries, a commitment to NFU could form the basis for de-escalatory cooperation long into the future.

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