Interview to Hans M. Kristensen, Nuclear Information Project Director at the Federation of American Scientists

By Matteo Mistretta

Hans M. Kristensen is the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists. He writes the Nuclear Notebook column in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists about nuclear weapon policy.


What is the Nuclear Information Project? How does it work? What are the purposes?

ANSWER: The Nuclear Information Project is a public education project of the Federation of American Scientists that uses publicly available information and documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act requests to analyze the status and trends of the nuclear weapons arsenals of the nine nuclear-armed states. Since nuclear weapons information tends to be secret, the project develops so-called “best estimates” of the number of nuclear warheads in each country’s arsenal and describe weapons modernization programs. The material we develop is use worldwide by journalists, scholars, experts, activists, and even government officials, to debate the status and future of nuclear weapons.

What is the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists? What are the purposes?

ANSWER: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a private magazine that is based in Chicago. It originally was the membership magazine of the Federation of American Scientists but became a separate magazine many years ago. The Bulletin publishes articles about nuclear weapons and climate change effects. Together with my colleague Robert Norris, I publish the FAS Nuclear Notebook column in each Bulletin issue (the magazine is published bi-monthly; 6 issues per year).

What do you think about Non-Proliferation Treaty? In addition, about the “New START” between US and Russia? Are these treaties enough?

ANSWER: The NPT has served an important role to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons to more countries. It has also served as a way for the international community to pressure the five initial nuclear weapon states (USA, Russia, Britain, France and China) that have signed the treaty to reduce their nuclear weapons. But other nuclear-armed states continue to stay outside the treaty (Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea). The New START treaty places modest limits on US and Russian deployed strategic forces and includes an important verification regime. If by “enough” you mean nuclear disarmament (elimination of nuclear weapons), then these two treaties are insufficient. They are steps on the way but not the solution. To move to zero nuclear weapons the nuclear weapons states would have to agree to more treaties and more verification to make it possible.

Why India, Israel, Pakistan and South Sudan did not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty?

ANSWER: South Sudan did not exist before 2011 when it gained independence from Sudan. Sudan has been a party to the NPT since 1968 when the treaty was initially opened for signatures. South Sudan probably is not yet organized sufficiently to have begun the process of signing on to treaties, but that might potentially happen in the future. India and Pakistan have stayed outside the NPT, which they consider to be a discriminating treaty that allows the P5 countries (USA, Russia, Britain, France and China) to have nuclear weapons, but would require India and Pakistan to give up their if then wanted to join the treaty. Israel has stayed outside because it wants to retain its nuclear weapons and avoid inspections of Dimona.

Do you think that nuclear disarmament will be achievable one day?

ANSWER: Perhaps, but it is hard to imagine this happening in the foreseeable future without significant changes to the international security situation. We are till in the draw-down period of the large Cold War arsenals and haven’t really begun to think about what it will take to eliminate nuclear weapons. For example, it is difficult to imagine China and Russia agreeing to give up nuclear weapons as long as the United States and its allies retain large and superior conventional military forces. And it is difficult to imagine the United States and NATO agreeing to limit their conventional forces. For nuclear disarmament to be achieved it will be necessary to also place limitations on conventional forces and reorganize how military force is used internationally, which is a tall order.

What do you think about Putin’s speech about the use of atomic weapons in Crimea? In case of a conflict, do you think States would be able to use atomic weapons?

ANSWER: Putin made a vague remark about being ready to put nuclear weapons on alert over its annexation of Crimea. Russia already has strategic nuclear weapons on alert (in Russian) and Russian nuclear doctrine says that Russia reserves the right to use nuclear weapons if attacked by nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction, and also in case of conventional aggression against Russia when the very existence of the country is at stake. So it is unclear what conditions he was thinking about for Crimea, since the West would not have used nuclear weapons to stopped Russia’s invasion of Crimea or threatened the very existence of Russia over it. Perhaps he was taking about if NATO has sent in conventional forces and gotten into a fight with Russian forces that escalated further to an invasion of Russia. If not, then Putin would seem to be talking about a another mission for Russian nuclear weapons, where Russian conventional forces couldn’t prevent NATO from pushing it back from Crimea and Russia therefore would threaten use non-strategic nuclear weapons to force NATO to back down. Again, this is all very unclear, but the fact that Putin makes any reference to nuclear weapons in the context of the Crimea invasion is frankly amazing and deeply troubling.

Like Russia, the United States reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in a serious conflict under certain conditions. But Ukraine is not a member of NATO and unless Russia attacked NATO with nuclear weapons I do not see a situation in which the United States would use nuclear weapons against Russia. If, however, the United States begins to arm Ukraine, Russia increases its direct military involvement in the civil war, and the United States further increases its involvement with American troops on the ground, then we could get direct Russia-US combat operations and potentially see escalation that under the worst of circumstances could potentially result in nuclear weapons being involved. But, and I wish to emphasize, that is a very hypothetical and worst-case scenario.

Why U.S. put its nuclear weapons in Europe? What is the position of Italy?

ANSWER: The United States deployed nuclear weapons in Europe in the 1950s to deter and if necessary defeat a massive Soviet conventional attack on NATO. Another mission was to target facilities inside Russia. Today the weapons in Europe are not on alert and not normally targeted against specific facilities. For the past two decades NATO have said that the weapons don’t have a military mission but a political mission to demonstrate US commitment to defend NATO. After the Ukrainian crisis, however, US military leaders have again started talking about the weapons in Europe serving to deter aggression against NATO. And US strategic bombers are now again linked to NATO regional exercises. So it is possible that the reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the growing mistrust and military posturing between NATO and Russia could slowly increase the military mission of the US bombs deployed in Europe, including those deployed in Italy.


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