WASHINGTON — In an era of terrorism and guerrilla wars, are nuclear weapons a realistic option? Do they make us more secure? Nuclear weapons don't deter suicide bombers or guerrilla fighters. They can't be used in war without producing radioactive fallout that circles the globe and threatens the health of innocents. Perhaps they do deter some hostile governments from harboring thoughts of attacking the US, but that could be done at much lower levels of destructive power.
The cold war's two superpowers still possess huge nuclear arsenals - accounting for over 90 percent of the world's nuclear weapons. The United States has 10,000 nuclear bombs and warheads, half deployed on submarines, intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombers, and cruise missiles, and half held in reserve, stored for possible future use. Russia had 7,800 deployed as of 2004 and 9,200 retired or in storage (not all of them secured). Just one could destroy a city.
The nuclear club now has eight members, with North Korea and Iran pounding on the door. Meanwhile, the Bush administration is pressing Congress to fund nuclear "bunker busters" - which could kill up to a million city dwellers, depending on the yield - and new nuclear warheads, even as it insists other countries should just say no to nuclear arms.
For much of Congress, ours is an invisible arsenal, out of sight and out of mind. Rep. Dave Hobson, a conservative Republican from Ohio, is a shining exception. As chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Energy and Water, Mr. Hobson has blocked administration efforts to design a nuclear weapon that could penetrate deep underground bunkers. At the urging of the Defense Department, he spent a day at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska being briefed by the Strategic Air Command. But in a February address to the Arms Control Association, he said, "I was never told of any specific mission requiring the nuclear bunker buster." Yet someone is thinking of how to use nukes to wage war, not just to deter potential attackers. To cover all bets, the Pentagon is also working on a 30,000-pound conventional bomb intended to destroy "multistory buildings with hardened bunkers and tunnel facilities."
Hobson also asserted in his address that "the development of new weapons for ill-defined future requirements is not what the nation needs at this time. What is needed and what is absent to date is leadership and fresh thinking for the 21st century regarding nuclear security and the future of the US stockpile."
Leadership and fresh thinking have indeed been in short supply. The Bush administration's pursuit of new nuclear weapons flouts the spirit of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which obligates signatories to pursue nuclear disarmament. This pursuit also undermines President Bush's insistence that others forgo these arms. Mr. Bush says the chief threat comes from a nuclear weapon in terrorist hands, and he has launched a naval effort to intercept contraband nuclear technology.
But, according to Hobson, we spend more on the newest supercomputer for nuclear weapons than we do to secure the loose nukes in the former Soviet Union. Bush rejects the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban underground nuclear tests that facilitate weapons development. His divided administration failed to engage North Korea in meaningful negotiations before Pyongyang publicly declared it has nuclear arms. The administration leaves it to our European allies to do the heavy lifting in negotiations with Iran. And talk of "regime change" has done little to reassure the nuclear wannabes that the US is interested in arriving at peaceful solutions.
The Bush administration has one agreement to its credit: the Treaty of Moscow. Presidents Putin and Bush accepted weapons levels previously agreed upon by Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin - no more than 2,200 deployed on either side by 2012. But the treaty doesn't limit nuclear weapons held in reserve. This is not nuclear disarmament.
The American public questions the value of keeping nuclear arms. Two-thirds of respondents to an AP-Ipsos poll in March said no nation should have nuclear weapons. While nuclear abolition is on no government's agenda, practical options are available to the US. These could include: reject new nukes; take the ICBMs off alert; speed up the reductions agreed upon with Russia and limit the numbers in reserve; ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; address the professed security concerns of North Korea and Iran when seeking to persuade them to forgo nuclear weapons, and engage the members of the nuclear club in discussions on how far we can move, together, toward the American public's vision of a world free of nuclear arms.
• Sanford Gottlieb worked for nongovernmental arms control organizations from 1960 to 1993. He was executive director of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, and is the author of 'Defense Addiction: Can America Kick the Habit?'