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Ernest Moniz: Risk of nuclear attack highest since Cuban Missile Crisis

Moniz (L) and John Kerry testify before Senate Foreign Relations about the Iran nuclear deal. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Ernest Moniz, President Obama's former energy secretary and now CEO of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), believes “the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is now higher than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.”

Driving the news: In a lengthy interview, Moniz told Axios he is particularly concerned about the erosion of the U.S.-Russia arms control regime, which could collapse entirely if the Trump administration declines to renew the New START treaty.

  • Moniz says a move like that would remove the transparency that exists between the nuclear powers. He also says arms control has been “an enormous part of sustaining — even in dark periods — dialogue between the U.S. and the Soviets, and now the U.S. and the Russians.”
  • He raised a frightening scenario: A cyberattack on command and control systems (from either a state or non-state actor) that leads to a false warning of an incoming attack. Given the broken state of U.S.-Russia communications, a president would have just minutes to decide whether to respond, and limited information to act on.
  • Beyond the potential for miscalculation, Moniz said current debates in the U.S. and in Russia are "reviving the idea of nuclear weapons as battlefield weapons" rather than tools for deterrence.

On North Korea, Moniz said that if the Trump administration sticks to its all-or-nothing approach to denuclearization, "the chances of success are miniscule."

  • He said North Korea’s testing freeze does enhance U.S. national security while it lasts, because Kim Jong-un hasn’t demonstrated he can strike the U.S. with an intercontinental ballistic missile.
  • But he added: "We frequently forget that there are ways of delivering nuclear weapons that don’t involve missiles." An example would be "a ship going into a harbor."

Nine countries currently have nuclear weapons, including North Korea. NTI’s long-term goal is the elimination of all nuclear weapons, but Moniz conceded that the nuclear club could actually grow in the next decade or so.

  • He said the primary short-term risk is an arms race following the collapse of the Iran nuclear deal, which he helped negotiate. "That has to be a proliferation concern in the region, with a couple countries being the obvious focus of concern," he said.
  • Moniz said the other area of concern is East Asia: "If some of [North Korea’s] neighbors lose confidence in our military backing for them, then there is a risk there as well."

The bottom line: Moniz cited geopolitical uncertainties, asymmetries in conventional strength between nuclear powers and the introduction of new risks, particularly in the cyber realm, as factors that make a nuclear strike more likely. And he said the behind-the-scenes work to mitigate those risks is falling far short of what is needed.