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US nuke policy rethink prompts physicist protest

Boffins against the bomb

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Almost 500 physicists in the US have signed a petition protesting a proposed change in government policy that would allow the US to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear countries. The proposed change in policy was reported in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

The petition's instigators, both professors of physics at The University of California, San Diego, said that they felt an obligation to take a stand because of the role physics played in developing the weapons in the first place.

The change in policy would undermine the long-standing nuclear non-proliferation treaty, professors Jorge Hirsch and Kim Griest argue in the petition.

They write:

The underlying principle of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is that in exchange for other countries forgoing the development of nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states will pursue nuclear disarmament. Instead, this new U.S. policy conveys a clear message to the 182 non-nuclear weapon states that the United States is moving strongly away from disarmament, and is in fact prepared to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear adversaries.

The professors go on to suggest that if the change in policy is adopted, it could lead to many countries abandoning the NPT and beginning nuclear weapons programmes of their own.

In a statement on the university's website, Hirsch said: "While it has long been a US policy to use nuclear weapons in order to respond to a nuclear attack, the new policy allows the U.S. to use nuclear weapons against states that do not have nuclear weapons and for a host of new reasons."

This would include rapid termination of a conflict on US terms, to ensure success of the US forces, or to demonstrate US intent and capability to use nuclear weapons as a deterrent, he added.

"This new US policy dramatically increases the risk of nuclear proliferation and, ultimately, the risk that regional conflicts will explode into all-out nuclear war, with the potential to destroy our civilization," Hirsch concludes.

Over 470 physicists have already signed up, including seven Nobel winners and two past presidents of the American Physical Society (APS).

Hirsch and Griest say they hope more people will sign ahead of a meeting of the executive board of the APS on 18 November and a meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency on 24 November. ®

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