by Daryl G. Kimball
The first nuclear bomb test in July 1945 and the surprise attacks on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9 of that year ignited a global debate about the role, the morality, and the control of nuclear weapons that continues to this day.
Then, as now, some judged that the catastrophic dangers inherent in nuclear weapons outweigh any justification for their existence or at least for large numbers of such weapons, leading them to seek meaningful nuclear restraints. Others considered nuclear weapons to be legitimate military and political instruments that guarantee national security by deterring threats or attacks. In an effort to maintain a technological edge or at least a balance of terror, they argued for an ever increasing array of nuclear capabilities.
Today–67 years after the first atomic bombings–the world is still grappling with the dangers and risks posed by these mass terror weapons.
Though nuclear weapons have not been used in another military attack, the development, production, and testing of nuclear weapons has left a trail of devastation around the world, including: cancer victims from the fallout from more than 2,000 atmospheric and underground nuclear test explosions; contaminated nuclear plant workers; and radioactive and toxic pollution from nuclear weapons production plants and testing sites from New Mexico to Nevada and Washington, from Ohio and Kentucky to Tennessee and South Carolina, all the way to the South Pacific, into Central Asia, across Russia, to Algeria, Australia, and beyond.
Nuclear weapons have also raised the stakes of conflict between states. On a number of occasions, such as the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it was good luck as much as good crisis management that avoided a nuclear exchange.
Since the end of the Cold War, arms control and disarmament initiatives have helped to reduce the overall number of nuclear weapons and the risks of their use. Public awareness and concern about the devastating effects of nuclear weapons has made their potential use increasingly unacceptable for political and military leaders. Nevertheless, the struggle to contain and eliminate the nuclear weapons danger continues.
Today, Russia and the United States still possess nearly 20,000 nuclear bombs–more than 90 percent of the world total. Each deploys approximately 1,500 strategic nuclear weapons, with thousands more in reserve and in storage. In addition to the United States and Russia, there are now seven more nuclear-armed nations: the U.K., France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea.
Though the chances of a bolt-from-blue nuclear attack from Russia or the United States on the other is near zero, many of the weapons and the policies developed to justify their possession and potential use persist.
U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and strategy are still sized and oriented to engage in a protracted nuclear exchange that would devastate the United States and Russia many times over. Current U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals and war plans far exceed what is necessary to deter a nuclear attack being launched in the first place. A large portion of U.S. and Russian nuclear forces remain primed for prompt launch.
President Barack Obama has pledged to reduce the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. nuclear military strategy. His administration’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review states that: “the fundamental role of U.S. nuclear forces is to deter nuclear attacks against the United States and our allies and partners.”
Such an approach should lead the President to discard the Cold War-era strategy of “prevailing ” in a nuclear war and using nuclear weapons to counter conventional military threats.
Shifting to a more realistic, “nuclear deterrence only” strategy would allow for steep reductions in the number of strategic U.S. nuclear warheads (to 1,000 or fewer deployed and nondeployed) and the number of delivery vehicles (to 500 or less). A few hundred deployed strategic warheads would provide more than enough firepower to deter nuclear attack by any current or future adversary. After all, just one U.S. nuclear-armed submarine—loaded with 24 missiles, each armed with four 455-kiloton warheads—could kill millions.
By signaling that the United States is prepared to accelerate reductions and go below the New START treaty ceilings, Washington could induce Moscow to build down its forces. It could also open the way for more serious discussions with other nuclear-armed states to limit their stockpiles.
Unfortunately, President Obama has so far failed to implement the vision set out in the NPR “to end Cold War nuclear thinking” and some members of Congressional “Doomsday Caucus” are seeking to block much needed changes to U.S. nuclear strategy in order to maintain outdated and very costly nuclear forces levels.
The Beleaguered Nuclear Nonproliferation System
Meanwhile, the effort to curb nuclear weapons proliferation is as challenging and complex as ever. For instance, despite recent efforts to improve accounting and security, some nuclear weapons material stocks remain vulnerable to theft or sale to terrorists or criminal gangs. Some states–namely India, Pakistan and North Korea–continue to produce nuclear bomb material, while others including Japan have enormous stockpiles of “civilian” plutonium that could be used for a weapons program.
The risk of a nuclear conflict in South Asia remains all too real as border tensions persist between India and Pakistan and both sides continue to develop a more diverse array of nuclear weapons delivery systems. Recent studies have documented that even a “limited” nuclear exchange could produce catastrophic casualties and a devastating nuclear famine.
Progress on common sense nonproliferation measures remains slow. For instance, a few states–including the United States and China–have not yet ratified the 1996 Comprhensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which bans all nuclear weapon test explosions; global efforts to strengthen the International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards system are hobbled by political rifts and funding shortfalls; and Iran’s nuclear program and its nuclear safeguards violations are a reminder of the substantial risk that additional countries may utilize “peaceful” nuclear energy programs to produce fissile material for bombs.
The cornerstone of all nonproliferation efforts, the 1968 nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has wide support, but key states consistently fail to follow-through on their political commitments to fulfill the 64-point action plan that was negotiated in 2010 to bolster the treaty.
However one feels about nuclear weapons and their role, it is essential that the devastating and horrific effects of just one nuclear detonation are clearly understood and that the experience and lessons of the people affected are not forgotten. Otherwise, the very motivation behind the decades-long effort to reduce and eliminate them, to deter and refrain from their use, and to stop their spread may diminish, and political leaders and military theoreticians may come to believe in the “usability” of these most terrible killing machines.
It is everyone’s task to understand the devastating power and tremendous human, environmental, and financial costs of nuclear weapons. It is everyone’s responsibility–especially the leaders of the world nations–to take action now to reduce and eliminate the chance nuclear weapons are used again.
On the occasion of the 67th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ArmsControlNow presents the following photo essay from the July/August 2005 issue of ACA’s journal Arms Control Today as a reminder of the horrific consequences of nuclear weapons and nuclear war and our common interest in ensuring that they are never again used in combat or tested underwater, underground, or in the atmosphere.