Sandia LabNews

National study sponsored by Sandia shows public believes US still faces nuclear threats

Continuing support for US nuclear arsenal revealed

The Cold War has been over for more than seven years, but most Americans continue to believe the US remains at risk of nuclear conflict, and they support maintenance of a stockpile of nuclear weapons to ensure the safety of the country.

These were among the many findings of a recently completed study of attitudes about nuclear weapons and national security. The study, Public Perspectives on Nuclear Security: US National Security Surveys 1993�1997, was conducted for Sandia by researchers at the University of New Mexico�s Institute for Public Policy. This is the institute�s third study since 1993 about how the public views nuclear weapons.

"Each time we conducted these surveys, we expected to see a decrease in public support for retaining the US arsenal of nuclear weapons, and instead, support has gone up," says Hank Jenkins-Smith, Institute for Public Policy director.

The most recent nationwide surveys of the general public, state legislators, and respected scientists, conducted between June and November 1997, found that people believe the risks of nuclear conflict, nuclear proliferation, and nuclear terrorism remain at significant levels. Furthermore, they revealed continuing public support for maintaining the US nuclear stockpile.

The Institute for Public Policy conducted the initial study of public perceptions of nuclear weapons in 1993, about two years after the fall of the communist Soviet Union.

"We created a baseline early in the post-Cold War era so we could measure how attitudes change over time," Jenkins-Smith says. "The early discussions immediately after the Cold War seemed na�ve, suggesting that the need for nuclear weapons had been eliminated because the Cold War was over. Results of the 1993, 1995, and 1997 surveys all show that the US public has a very different view."

Sandia commissioned the three studies, consisting of seven national surveys, to better understand public attitudes about nuclear weapons policies and to identify trends in public perceptions of post-Cold War security.

The scientific surveys provide valuable data about what different segments of the American public think about nuclear weapons � views that are sometimes partially obscured by relatively small but vocal groups.

"We believe it is important to understand the views of the general public, because they provide the broader foundation and legitimacy on which long-range security policies must be constructed and sustained," says VP for National Security Programs (5000) Roger Hagengruber. "We at Sandia want to make sure we are on the right track."

Three groups surveyed
The 1997 study surveyed three groups, including the general public, legislators from all 50 states, and members of American Men and Women of Science, an elite group of scientists. The 1,639 randomly selected survey participants from the general public were interviewed by phone, while the 1,212 scientists and 603 state legislators from throughout the US responded to written questionnaires by mail.

"We felt it was important to include the scientists and legislators in the survey," says Kerry Herron of the Institute for Public Policy, who co-authored the study with Jenkins-Smith. "The scientists have extensive technical training and expertise, and the legislators reflect state and local concerns and views about national priorities."

Perceptions of nuclear weapons risks
The survey addressed public perceptions of the complex array of nuclear weapons risks to Americans that have existed since the early years of the Cold War. They include risks from nuclear weapons possessed by those outside the US (external nuclear weapons risks) and risks to the US associated with our own nuclear weapons and how they are managed, safeguarded, and employed (domestic nuclear weapons risks).

Results indicated that 64 percent of participating scientists and 54 percent of participating legislators considered the breakup of the Soviet Union to have decreased the chances that the US will become involved in a nuclear conflict. However, opinion was more divided among the general public, with 42 percent considering the risks of nuclear war to have decreased and 43 percent considering risks to have increased since the Soviet Union�s breakup.

Also, the study indicated that the general public, as well as the other two groups, felt Chinese nuclear weapons posed more of a threat to the US today and for the foreseeable future than Russian nuclear weapons, and that threats of nuclear terrorism over the next 10 years were real possibilities. Another key dimension of nuclear risk perceptions consists of views about risks associated with developing and maintaining the US nuclear weapons stockpile. On average, the scientists rated overall domestic risks from the US nuclear arsenal lowest, followed by the legislators. The general public perceived somewhat higher risks, but less than those reported in 1993.

Perceptions of nuclear weapons benefits
Besides risks, the survey addressed benefits people saw in nuclear weapons for achieving US national interests and for domestic economic reasons. Respondents from all three groups in 1997, and previous studies done in 1993 and 1995, placed the importance of US nuclear weapons above mid-scale on average. "We would not have been surprised to find a gradual decline in perceived value of nuclear weapons for US influence and status in the post-Cold War environment," Herron says. "However, we have found no decrease thus far. Respondents from the general public samples in 1995 and 1997 assigned the same or higher levels of importance to US nuclear weapons than participants reported in the 1993 baseline measure."

Arms control
Debate about the future of nuclear weapons and prospects for their reduction or elimination has intensified since the end of the Cold War. A number of respected experts have suggested the post-Cold War security environment provides an unprecedented opportunity to significantly reduce levels of nuclear armaments or even rid the world of all nuclear weapons. However, a majority of all three groups in 1997 considered the elimination of all nuclear weapons worldwide within the next 25 years not to be feasible. Very large majorities of each group agreed that if nuclear weapons were eventually eliminated, it would be extremely difficult to prevent others from rebuilding nuclear arsenals. (Note: All surveys in these studies were conducted prior to the recent Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests.)

One of the most telling sections of the study deals with how the three groups felt about arms reductions. The groups were told that recent public reports estimate that the US and Russia each have about 7,000 strategic warheads deployed today. They were then asked, if mutual reductions in the number of US and Russian warheads were verifiable, to what minimum level would they be willing to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons. The legislator group reported a median range of 3,000 to 2,500, while the median range for the general public was 2,000 to 1,500, and the scientists 1,500 to 1,000. One in five respondents from the general public and fewer than one in ten participating scientists and legislators considered it acceptable to completely eliminate US nuclear weapons.

When asked to rate the importance of retaining US nuclear weapons on a scale where zero meant not at all important and ten meant extremely important, all three groups rated the importance of retaining US nuclear weapons above seven on average.

Nuclear weapons investments
Though the three groups were willing to reduce the number of US nuclear weapons under verifiable arms control arrangements, strong support was found among all groups for investments in tasks related to stockpile stewardship, such as safety, reliability, and training. However, very little support was found for developing and testing new nuclear weapons. Time comparisons indicated that support for investments in stockpile stewardship has grown significantly since first measured in 1993.

"These views among the general public about investments in nuclear weapons infrastructure are particularly revealing, for they indicate a trend running counter to that expected," Herron says. "We hypothesized that public support for spending associated with maintaining the ability to develop and improve nuclear weapons in the future would decline as the post-Cold War era evolves. To date, we have documented a clear trend in the opposite direction."

In 1993 only 38 percent of respondents from the general public indicated a willingness to increase such investments. Two years later, that measure grew significantly to 46 percent. And two years after that, the 1997 study reflected a 53 percent majority supporting an increase in such funding.

US and Russian scientific cooperation
The surveys asked whether US scientists should work with Russian scientists to help secure Russian nuclear assets, dispose of nuclear materials from dismantled Russian warheads, and convert Russia�s nuclear weapons infrastructure to other purposes.

Very strong support was reported among all three groups for providing technical assistance and scientific cooperation. Support among participating scientists remained high when they were asked if the US should help pay for such activities in Russia, but support was more equivocal among legislators and the general public for helping to provide funding.

Sustained research
Jenkins-Smith says the three studies provide "unique data and unique insights."

"No one else has done this level of sustained research into public attitudes about nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War," he notes. "Much of the debate about national security in the 21st century will be about the viability of nuclear weapons. This research provides valuable information to policy makers so they can be aware of how general and elite publics view these important issues."