Engaging Physicists on Nuclear Disarmament

 ICTP workshop explores how to re-engage physicists in reducing weapons threat 
Engaging Physicists on Nuclear Disarmament
Charlotte Phillips

Opposition to nuclear weapons has existed in the physics community since their inception, culminating in the focused mobilization of physicists in the late 1980s against the imminent threat of nuclear war. However, interest in nuclear policy waned in the physics community after the end of the Cold War, as the issue slowly disappeared from the public consciousness. Fast-forward to 2023 and a climate in which more nations than ever are developing a nuclear arsenal, and a key question presents itself: can physicists return to the discussion of nuclear policy, and if so, how? 

This week’s ICTP workshop on The Increasing Danger of Nuclear Weapons: How Physicists Can Help Reduce the Threat addresses this question, providing scientists with an opportunity to understand and discuss nuclear policy from all aspects. The three-day workshop is aimed at scientists, including students, and focused on what physicists can do to help reduce the threat of nuclear weapons. Three distinct but interconnected themes will be debated in a range of discussions and break-out groups: 

  • How to inform physicists about nuclear arms issues and engage them in advancing policy change
  • New technical issues affecting nuclear weapons policy, such as cyber and anti-satellite threats, missile defense systems that provoke offensive buildups, the climate impacts of nuclear war, and the effects of new sensors and artificial intelligence on strategic stability
  • Physicists as advocates for policy change.

“The main purpose is to develop ideas on how the physics community can influence the policies and postures of the nations that possess nuclear weapons,” says Stewart Prager of Princeton University, co-organiser of the event. “Physicists have a special relation to nuclear weapons – historically and technically. Thus, physicist’s views - as citizen-scientists, not only as experts - can potentially have an influence. The workshop aims to hold discussions that include physicists from various nations, to learn about the situation in various nations and possibly spark new actions, either domestic or international.”

This focus on open discussion is crucial for physicists looking to learn more about activity in this field. “The workshop is an unusual opportunity for physicists from different nations to discuss this topic,” adds Prager. “We hope that the workshop will produce outcomes that are worth putting into a brief report, and that there will be follow-on activities. One of the goals is to discuss how to inform, engage, and motivate physicists on this issue. There are many possible educational outreach activities to accomplish this.”

“We are moving backwards into a dangerous future right now. It is a critical time for physicists to re-engage in the problem.” – Stewart Prager, Princeton University

This is a pivotal time to highlight the dangers of weapons of mass destruction. "The danger of nuclear weapons is increasing dramatically - the nuclear world is multipolar, we are in a new nuclear arms race, some new technologies are destabilizing, arms control agreements are collapsing,” adds Prager. “We are moving backwards into a dangerous future right now. It is a critical time for physicists to re-engage in the problem. Physicists collectively are not paying attention to this problem. It is off their radar, as it is for the general public.”

There are key things physicists can do to help. “One example is a new organization in the US - The Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction - which informs physicists about the problem (through grassroots efforts) and has formed a national network of physicists as advocates,” says Prager.

The question of exactly what physicists can do about current nuclear policy can be a dissentient issue. “As a nuclear physicist from Pakistan who was the very first to have publicly opposed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, 40 years after my first articulation of dissent I am somewhat unclear what further role physicists like myself can play in slowing down the development of nuclear weapon technologies in South Asia,” says nuclear physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy from the Forman Christian College, Pakistan, who will present on advocacy in the Global South. 

“In the very early times, circa 1940, physicists had a monopoly in knowing about the mysterious forces responsible for fission and fusion, and what could set off these processes. They were the center around which the rest of various nuclear weapons program were built. Today it’s a different matter. Globally available technologies have vastly expanded the palette from which to choose weapon yields and delivery options,” adds Hoodbhoy. “The physicist has been pushed to the periphery. I hope to learn what could be the remaining role of a physicist in a nuclear weapons program.”

The workshop was immediately preceded by a meeting of the Pugwash Council (named after Pugwash, Nova Scotia, Canada, the location of the first meeting, and birthplace of its host, philanthropist Cyrus Eaton). The Council was originally formed over 65 years ago by a group of cofounders including Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell and Joseph Rotblat, with the aim of achieving peace by means of science. Its current mission focusses on bringing scientific insight and reason to the catastrophic threat posed to humanity by nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. 

The Pugwash Council gathers decision-makers, scientists and other entities to discuss relevant problems involving science and society with scientific rationale, bringing knowledge to decision making. The Council was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 due to the dialogue channels it generated during the Cold War. 

 “The world is currently in a very difficult situation, with escalating wars involving countries that have nuclear weapons.” – Karen Hallberg, current Pugwash Council Chair and research director at Centro Atomico Bariloche, Argentina

The 2023 Pugwash Council meeting held at the weekend was the first to be held at ICTP, with several members also attending the ICTP workshop. “The Pugwash Council meeting is independent of the meeting on Nuclear Dangers. However, we aim at the same very important goal of freeing the world of nuclear weapons,” says Karen Hallberg, Pugwash Council Chair and research director at Centro Atomico Bariloche, Argentina. “The Pugwash Council is formed of relevant professionals in a wide range of countries, each with different expertise.”

Some may be unsure of the extent to which physicists can change policy in the current nuclear climate. “While organizations like Pugwash – based on the Einstein-Russell manifesto against nuclear weapons – have an honorable past, the march of science has rendered them less useful in opposing nuclear weapons. Still, to have physicists speaking against nuclear weapons continues to have some residual importance because of the following reasons: 1. Physicists are regarded by the general public as authentic, well-informed voices on nuclear matters. 2. Physicists are still relevant in matters of advanced weapons and delivery systems. They tend to take a bird’s eye view of a complex situation and can narrow this down where needed,” says Hoodbhoy.

Both the Pugwash Council meeting and the workshop aim to call physicists to address the current status of global nuclear policy. “The world is currently in a very difficult situation, with escalating wars involving countries that have nuclear weapons,” adds Hallberg. “The possession and threat of these weapons is extremely dangerous and can lead to severe damage or even to the destruction of humanity and the environment.” 

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