On Nuclear Alternatives

The UPMC Center for Health Security began its third year of the Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative this week.  To give you a good sense of the program, a description of last year’s class of fellows and the program for last year is here.  This is a very competitive program that provides talented early career professionals with an exposure to important ideas and challenges in biosecurity and brings these professionals together with a range of leaders in the field.  We are honored to lead this program.     

One Fellow in this year’s Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI) program, Dr. Seth Baum, has just published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on nuclear weapons and deterrence.  Dr. Baum is the Executive Director of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, which is a nonprofit think tank focused on threats to human civilization.

In his paper, Dr. Baum describes the horrific, ruinous consequences for the planet should a large numbers of nuclear weapons to be used in war, a scenario commonly known as nuclear winter.  He then proposes a number of alternatives be considered to nuclear deterrents, including the use of non-communicable biological weapons.   

There is no doubt that large scale use of nuclear weapons could cause terrible, perhaps existential dangers to all of humanity.  This prospect should frighten us all.  Many of us have become desensitized to these enormous risks, and I really commend efforts to change that. Existing and new proposals for reducing nuclear stockpiles should be a global priority.        

However, I - and my colleagues at UPMC - do not agree with Dr. Baum’s proposal that non-communicable biological weapons be considered as an alternative to nuclear deterrent.  Biological weapons were the first category of weapons to be banned through an international treaty, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).   Enormous efforts have been invested to establish and maintain this convention.  The normative and legal prohibition against biological weapons by the BTWC should remain firmly in place.  Strengthening that convention should be our goal.   Weakening that convention would not help us diminish the threat of nuclear winter, and it would increase the danger of biological weapons development and use in the world.

One of the virtues of the ELBI program is that it gathers emerging professionals to exchange ideas and experiences.  We have the chance to discuss and debate new issues and ideas over the course of the program.  We know and respect that Fellows in this program bring their own views into this year and will continue to have their own independent assessments in the world this year and beyond.  We are glad to have the opportunity to engage with Dr. Baum over the fellowship year and to have continued dialogue and discussion with all the Fellows that helps inform and strengthen our collective ability to take on biosecurity challenges in the time ahead.