'Tis the season to get rid of nukes? In an effort to achieve world peace and lessen the growing threat of nuclear power, a nascent group including the likes of former President Jimmy Carter, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa this week launched a campaign calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.

The new organization, Global Zero, is planning a grassroots effort to spur world powers to rid the planet of nukes over the next 25 years. Meeting yesterday and Monday in Paris, 100 past and current world leaders signed a declaration imploring the U.S. and Russia to slash their nuclear arsenals and for a system to be created to verify that countries are complying with non-proliferation treaties, according to the Associated Press.
The campaign follows media accounts of two new books due out next month about the state of the world's nuclear arsenal 63 years after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The good news, according to yesterday's New York Times: nuclear weapons did not proliferate as quickly as physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer — scientific director of the World War II-era Manhattan Project between the U.S., the UK and Canada to develop a nuclear bomb — had feared they might.

Nine countries — the U.S., Russia, United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel — have admitted or are widely believed to have nuclear weapons. There could have been more. Stephen Younger, former head of nukes at Los Alamos, writes in The Bomb: A New History, that "Sweden, Switzerland, Argentina and Brazil all flirted with nuclear programs, and all decided to abandon them," according to the Times.

But the spread wasn’t for lack of trying. The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and its Proliferation asserts that China secretly aided France, Pakistan, Algeria and North Korea in crafting nuclear technology and that France covertly helped Israel make bombs, according to the Times' account of the book. Thomas Reed, a former thermonuclear weapons scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, and Danny Stillman, former director of intelligence at Los Alamos, are its authors. (A Times diagram of the relationships explains which countries were helping each other.)

Several nuclear experts contacted by ScientificAmerican.com say some of that information is new or had been rumored. Now, there are details, they say. 

The assertion that China aided France and North Korea is new, though it is well known that China helped Pakistan and Algeria and that France assisted Israel in its quest for nuclear power, says Frank von Hippel, co-chair of the International Panel on Fissile Materials. (Algeria has denied that it wants to build nuclear weapons, according to the Times diagram.)

"What has been revealed in those two books reviewed [in the Times] appears to be plausible," says Won-Young Kim, a senior research scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University. Kim and his colleague, Paul Richards, wrote an article set to appear in the March 2009 issue of Scientific American, arguing that nuclear monitoring is good enough for the U.S. to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which bars nuclear explosions on Earth.

China and France refused to sign the 1963 partial test ban treaty, which forbids testing nukes above ground, underwater or in space; Israel has never admitted to testing or harboring a nuclear bomb, but is widely believed to have it. Both China and France in 1992 signed the non-nuclear proliferation treaty — 24 years after it was first negotiated — which forbids them from assisting other states in developing nuclear arms. Their aid to the other countries as described in the Times was decades before they became signatories.

The CTBT may come up for ratification under President-elect Barack Obama. In a Q&A in this month's Arms Control Today (first published online in September), Obama says that he would "reach out to the Senate to secure the ratification of the CTBT at the earliest practical date and will then launch a diplomatic effort to bring onboard other states whose ratifications are required for the treaty to enter into force."

The New Yorker takes a quirkier look at atomic history in this week's issue, profiling a trucker whose 2003 self-published book, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man, may be more accurate than previous historical accounts of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. John Coster-Mullen, who spent more than a decade performing "nuclear archeology," requested — and got — government documents about the bomb, interviewed scientists who worked on it, and by measuring imitations of them at museums, ultimately came up with detailed replicas. Coster-Mullen's account has been praised by the National Resources Defense Council's nuclear historian, Robert Norris, who wrote in a 2004 review in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, "Nothing else in the Manhattan Project literature comes close to his exacting breakdown of the bomb’s parts."

That Coster-Mullen unearthed secrets that others didn’t, The New Yorker's David Samuels writes, "makes clear that our belief in the secrecy of the bomb is a theological construct, adopted in no small part to shield ourselves from the idea that someone might use an atomic bomb against us."
Coster-Mullen told him: "The secret of the atomic bomb is how easy they are to make."

Image of Nagasaki bombing via Wikimedia Commons