Prominent U.S. Physicists Ask Congress
to Forbid Use of Nuclear Weapons Against
Non-Nuclear States

February 1, 2007

By Kim McDonald

Twenty-two of the nation's most prominent physicists asked Congress today to restrict the authority of President Bush to order nuclear strikes against non-nuclear-weapon states.

The physicists include twelve Nobel laureates, the current and three past presidents of the American Physical Society, the nation's preeminent professional society for physicists, and the chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists.

The physicists said their letter was prompted by “the rising tensions with Iran and the potential for military confrontation, as well as the public statement by President Bush on April 18, 2006 , that a nuclear strike against Iran is an option ‘on the table’.”

It was initiated by Jorge Hirsch, a professor of physics at the University of California , San Diego , who last year put together a petition signed by more than 2,000 physicists that repudiated new U.S. nuclear weapons policies that include preemptive use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries (http://physics.ucsd.edu/petition/).

“The very fact that nuclear weapon use is not being ruled out as an option—against a state that does not have nuclear weapons and does not represent a direct or imminent threat to the United States—illustrates the extent to which the Bush administration has changed U.S. nuclear weapons policy,” said Kurt Gottfried, chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The use of such a weapon against deeply buried targets would create massive clouds of radioactive fallout that could spread far from the site of the attack, including to other nations.”

The physicists said in their letter that they “ are firmly convinced that Congress should have a say on which course of action would best serve the American people on the use of the terrible weapons our profession helped create.”

“Under present law, the President has sole authority to order the use of nuclear weapons,” said Hirsch. “We could wake up tomorrow to learn that he has ordered preemptive tactical nuclear strikes against Iran 's underground facilities. By not legislating on this issue, Congress is implicitly condoning and even abetting such a potential action by the Executive.”

The letter, which is available at http://physics.ucsd.edu/petition/physicistslettercongress.html, points out that “in the case of non-nuclear adversaries there is no extreme urgency associated with response or preemption of nuclear attack against our country or our allies.”

“Leaving such a fundamental decision to the executive branch of our government alone, in the absence of imminent danger of nuclear attack, defies common sense,” added Douglas Osheroff, a physics professor at Stanford University and Nobel laureate who signed the letter.

The letter echoes the main objection of last fall’s physicists’ petition to the changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policies, as well as last year's statement by the American Physical Society expressing “deep concern” about the “possible use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states and for pre-emptive counterproliferation purposes.”

It stresses that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be irreversibly damaged by the use of nuclear weapons by a nuclear nation against a non-nuclear one, “with disastrous consequences for the security of the United States and the world.”

“Crossing the nuclear threshold, even with a low-yield weapon, would erase the 60-year old taboo against the use of nuclear weapons and make their use by others more likely,” the physicists pointed out. “ There are no sharp lines between small ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons and large ones, nor between nuclear weapons targeting facilities and those targeting armies or cities.”

“Presumably, Congress would not authorize the use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon countries unless under extraordinarily exceptional circumstances,” said Andrew Sessler, a former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and former president of the American Physical Society who signed the letter. “The passing of such legislation would have a very positive effect in encouraging non-nuclear countries that presently may be considering the development of nuclear weapons to not do so, as well as encouraging nuclear weapons countries with small arsenals to disarm.”

The letter concludes: “ A decision that would have a major impact on the course of history and could ultimately threaten the survival of civilization should not be in the sole hands of the President unless absolutely unavoidable. We urge Congress to pass binding legislation to forbid the use of nuclear weapons by the United States against countries which do not possess nuclear weapons, except with explicit prior Congressional authorization for such action.”

The 22 physicists who coauthored the letter are: Philip Anderson, professor of physics at Princeton University and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Michael Fisher, professor of physics at the Institute for Physical Science and Technology, University of Maryland and Wolf Laureate in Physics; Jerome Friedman, professor of physics at MIT and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Kurt Gottfried, emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and Chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists; David Gross, professor of theoretical physics and director of the Kavli Institute of Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Nobel Laureate in Physics; John Hall, NIST senior fellow at University of Colorado, Boulder and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Jorge Hirsch, professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego; Leo Kadanoff, professor of physics and mathematics at the University of Chicago and National Medal of Science recipient, Physical Sciences; Wolfgang Ketterle, professor of physics at MIT and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Daniel Kleppner, professor of physics at MIT and Wolf Laureate in Physics; Walter Kohn, emeritus professor of physics at University of California Santa Barbara and Nobel Laureate in Chemistry; Joel Lebowitz, professor of mathematics and physics at Rutgers University and Boltzmann Medalist; Anthony Leggett, professor of physics at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Eugen Merzbacher, emeritus professor of physics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and former president, of the American Physical Society; Douglas Osheroff, professor of physics and applied physics at Stanford University and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Norman Ramsey, emeritus professor of physics at Harvard University and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Edwin Salpeter, emeritus professor of physics at Cornell University and Dirac Medalist; Andrew Sessler, former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and former president of the American Physical Society; Jack Steinberg er, member of the European Center for Nuclear Research and Nobel Laureate in Physics; George Trilling, emeritus professor of physics at University of California, Berkeley, and former president of the American Physical Society; Steven Weinberg, professor of physics at University of Texas at Austin and Nobel Laureate in Physics; Frank Wilczek, professor of physics at MIT and Nobel Laureate in Physics.

The physicists are submitting their letter to each of the 535 members of the 110th Congress.

 

Media Contact: Kim McDonald, (858) 534-7572
Comment: Jorge Hirsch, (858) 534-3931


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