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Verifying Nuclear Disarmament

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Commentators differ on whether nuclear disarmament would be desirable, but many argue that disarmament is impractical because it could not be verified. Three reasons are often offered for such pessimism. First, nuclear weapons are small and difficult to detect, and one could not be sure that a few weapons had not been hidden away. Second, nuclear weapons are so destructive that a mere handful would confer enormous military and political advantages over non-nuclear adversaries. Finally, nuclear know-how cannot be eliminated, and any nation that had dismantled its nuclear weapons would be capable of quickly assembling a new arsenal from scratch or using civilian nuclear materials. Because of the difficulty of verifying that other states had eliminated all their weapons and providing adequate warning of their rearming, it is argued, states would not agree to disarm in the first place. While a degree of skepticism is healthy, recent experiences with nuclear programs in South Africa, Iraq, and North Korea give some hope that disarmament could be verified adequately, partiularly in the sort of international environment in which disarmament was under serious consideration. This paper examines the techniques that could be used to verify that nuclear arsenals had been dismantled and to provide timely warning of any attempt to build nuclear weapons. Although no verification regime could provide absolute assurance that former nuclear-weapon states had not hidden a small number of nuclear weapons or enough nuclear material to build a small stockpile, verification could be good enough to reduce remaining uncertainties to a level that might be tolerable in a more transparent and trusting international environment. And although the possibility of rapid break-out will be ever present in modern industrial society, verification could provide the steady reassurance that would be necessary to dissipate residual fears of cheating. Verification will never be so effective that it can substitute for good relations between nations, but it can play an essential role in consolidating the trust that is necessary to support the ongoing process of reducing nuclear arsenals, perhaps all the way down to zero.

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