Nuclear Weapons

President’s Message: Reducing Catastrophic Risks: Why FAS Matters

03.05.13 | 4 min read | Text by Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

Senator Sam Nunn has often underscored that humanity is in “a race between cooperation and catastrophe.” As co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, he has urged greater and faster international action on reducing nuclear dangers. He has also joined with former Secretary of State George Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a bipartisan group of senior statesmen, to put forward an agenda for taking the next steps to achieve a nuclear weapon free world. They are making progress in convincing more and more political leaders to support their initiative.

To complement their efforts, we now need a dedicated coalition of scientists, engineers, and other technically trained people to work together and devote their knowledge and skills toward reducing the risks of catastrophes. As the founders of the Federation of American Scientists knew very well from their experience serving in the Manhattan Project, humanity has within its power the capability to destroy itself. Even though there would have been survivors from a massive thermonuclear war during the Cold War, they would have envied the dead (as Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev observed after the Cuban Missile Crisis) because the effects of such a war would have been catastrophic on billions of people worldwide, not just in the countries directly targeted. “Nuclear War is National Suicide,” warns a sticker pinned to my office’s bulletin board. Emblazoned with a mushroom cloud, the sticker was made by FAS more than thirty years ago.

While the likelihood of nuclear war between Russia and the United States has faded with the receding shadow of the Cold War, nuclear dangers have arguably grown even more threatening, with the race to secure vulnerable nuclear materials before they land in the hands of terrorists, the possibility of inadvertent nuclear war between Russia and the United States, the increasing nuclear arsenal of North Korea, the continuing build up of nuclear arms in India and Pakistan, the expanding latent weapons capability of Iran’s nuclear program, and the interest among some non-nuclear weapon states such as Japan and the Republic of Korea to use or continue to use plutonium in nuclear fuels.  Today more than ever, the Federation of American Scientists must redouble its efforts to lessen these threats.

I am pleased to announce that FAS is nearing the conclusion of more than a yearlong strategic planning process to assess its future direction. I am very grateful to all of you who took part in the membership survey and other interviews last year. Your advice was essential to help guide us and refocus our work in what matters. In effect, we are launching a “back to the future” strategy that will replant FAS’s roots from its founding in 1945 to its new beginning in the 21st Century. That is, we will not just counter nuclear threats that stemmed from the Second World War, but we will become the organization that will provide science-based analysis and solutions

to catastrophic risks. I purposely use the word “risks” (defined as probability times consequences) to make clear that FAS will work to reduce the probability of the threats occurring as well as offer ways to mitigate massively destructive or disruptive consequences that these threats can cause.

Catastrophic threats can affect millions or perhaps billions of people through huge numbers of deaths and serious illnesses, massive economic damage, extensive and lasting harm to food, water, and energy supplies, or widespread dislocations of populations. These threats can be human-induced, such as use of biological or nuclear weapons or too much emissions of greenhouse gases, or naturally occurring, such as pandemics, massive earthquakes, tsunamis, or major asteroid collisions with earth. Moreover, new catastrophic threats could emerge with the misuse of cyber technologies, synthetic biology, or robots, to name a few possibilities.

In this renewed mission, FAS has multi-fold audiences: the scientific and engineering communities, policymakers in the executive and legislative branches of the United States and other governments, the public, and the news media. FAS will serve as the bridge between the technical communities and the policymaking community. In the coming months, we will improve our communications to these audiences and communities. For example, we will refresh, which is a treasure trove of tens of thousands of documents, features innovative analysis and tools such as uranium enrichment and nuclear weapon effect calculators, and receives up to one million visitors monthly. But this website needs significant updating and a more user-friendly structure. We will keep you informed of the updates.

With this issue of the Public Interest Report, you will see a new look, which aims to provide a user-friendlier online magazine with articles focused on our renewed mission of science-based analysis and solutions to catastrophic risks. We very much welcome your advice about how to further improve the PIR. FAS can only do its work with members and supporters like you.

Similarly, humanity can only reduce the risks of catastrophes though cooperation. We need to break free of zero-sum mindsets and urgently come together in the spirit of cooperative games. I am heartened that one of the most popular recently released games is PandemicTM in which the players work as a team to cure four diseases before the globe becomes engulfed in a pandemic. One of the team members is a scientist. But the scientist alone does not have enough skills and powers to win the game. She needs an operation officer, a medic, a dispatcher, and a researcher.

The core belief of FAS’s founders is as relevant today as it was in 1945. Scientists and engineers have the ethical obligation to ensure that the fruits of their intellectual labor benefit humankind. I look forward to continue working with you to support that endeavor.

Charles D. Ferguson, Ph.D.

President, FAS