A-Bomb Dome is seen near Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on August 5, 2010 in Hiroshima, Japan,. (Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images)
By Daryl G. Kimball
Since the devastating U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 69 years ago this week, the catastrophic effects of nuclear weapons have motivated ordinary citizens to push their leaders to pursue arms control and disarmament measures to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons use.
For decades, it has been well understood that the direct effects of a large-scale nuclear conflict could result in several hundred million human fatalities, while the indirect effects would be far greater, leading to the loss of billions of lives.
An April 1979 U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency report found that an exchange of U.S. and Soviet nuclear forces involving a total of approximately 18,000 strategic warheads would kill 25-100 million people in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Under the scenario examined, the population centers would not be targeted but would be within the range of effects of the weapons targeted against military and industrial targets. As a result, the 200 largest cities in each country would be destroyed and 80 percent of all cities with 25,000 people or more would be attacked by at least one nuclear weapon.
Since the end of the Cold War–and with strong public pressure for the conclusion of effective U.S.-Russian nuclear risk reduction and disarmament measures–the threat of a U.S.-Russian conflict has decreased, but the risk of a nuclear war remains.
In 2001, the United States and Russia formally adopted a policy of cooperation against common threats. On Nov. 13, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared, “[t]he United States and Russia have overcome the legacy of the Cold War. Neither country regards the other as an enemy or threat.”
Unfortunately, the United States and Russia are not exactly friends and their nuclear arsenals and strategy are still sized and oriented to engage in a protracted nuclear exchange that would devastate the other, many times over.
Clearly, current U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals far exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack from being launched in the first place. Today, the U.S. and Russian strategic and tactical nuclear weapons stockpiles (not including warheads awaiting dismantlement) each exceed 5,000 nuclear bombs, any one of which could devastate Washington or Moscow.
As of March 1, 2014, the United States deployed 1,585 strategic nuclear warheads on 778 strategic bombers, land-based missiles, and submarine-based missiles, while Russia deployed 1,512 strategic warheads on 498 strategic delivery vehicles. Under the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), by the year 2018, each country is allowed to deploy no more than 1,550 strategic nuclear weapons on 700 missiles and bombers.
While further U.S.-Russian nuclear reductions are clearly in order, President Putin rebuffed President Obama’s June 2013 proposal to slash U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear stockpiles by another one-third below New START ceilings—to nearly 1,000 deployed strategic warheads.
On Dec. 25, Mikhail Ulyanov, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s security and disarmament department said, “[n]ow is the most inauspicious moment in the past 10-15 years to talk about further reductions.”
Actually, the United States and Russia need effective nuclear risk reduction measures now, more than ever.
While U.S. and Russian nuclear forces remain primed for prompt launch, renewed tensions between the two nuclear superpowers over Russia’s ongoing meddling in Ukraine raises the specter of a military conflict that could escalate into a catastrophic nuclear confrontation. Just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine—loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads—could kill millions.
A 2001 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) details the effects of a “precision” nuclear attack on nuclear forces in Russia. NRDC’s nuclear war simulation demonstrates that 8 to 12 million people would die in a U.S. attack on Russia’s nuclear forces, and more would die if other targets were included, such as military and political leadership and war-supporting infrastructure.
This map shows how radioactive fallout would spread across the Russian landmass, creating lethal conditions over an area exceeding 300,000 square miles—larger in size than France and the United Kingdom. NRDC’s nuclear war simulation demonstrates that between 8 and 12 million people would die in a U.S. attack on Russia’s nuclear forces; more would die if other targets, including military and leadership; war-supporting infrastructure were also included in the nuclear strike. (Source: “The U.S. War Plan: A Time for Change,” June 2001.)
In other regions of the world, the number of nuclear weapons has slowly increased and the threat of nuclear annihilation has grown.
China has an estimated 240-300 nuclear weapons, no more than 50 of which are on intercontinental-range ballistic missiles. France has fewer than 300 operational nuclear warheads. The United Kingdom has fewer than 160 deployed strategic warheads and a total stockpile of up to 225 nuclear warheads. India is estimated to have about 100 nuclear warheads and Pakistan is estimated to have as many as 90 nuclear warheads. Israel, which has not officially acknowledged its nuclear arsenal, is believed to have between 75 to 200 nuclear warheads. North Korea’s arsenal is limited in size (it has enough fissile material for about 10 bombs) and range.