Nuclear Weapons Threaten Us All
by Holly Lindamood
We in the ‘no nukes’ community have been hopeful in many ways over the past decade—we are finally seeing some progress towards a world free from nuclear weapons.
For the first time ever, the 2010 NPT Review Conference final document referenced the humanitarian implications of nuclear weapons, jumpstarting a movement to consider the human cost. Subsequent meetings hosted by Austria, Mexico, and Norway reframed the issue of nuclear weapons as a humanitarian threat, rather than a threat to national security.
And in 2017, countries from around the world came together to ratify a nuclear ban treaty. No nuclear weapons countries signed (or any countries under the U.S. nuclear umbrella), but still, the nuclear ban treaty goes a long way towards strengthening the anti-nuclear norm. The international community has made it clear that nuclear weapons are no longer acceptable. The human cost is too great.
U.S. nuclear policy moving in opposite direction
Trump administration nuclear policies, however, are not in sync with these norms and challenge the past fifty years of progress made in reducing the nuclear threat.
Since taking office, President Trump has withdrawn from both the Iran nuclear agreement and the INF treaty with Russia. He has escalated tensions with North Korea, a nuclear armed state. He withdrew from the Open Skies program, stated a desire to resume nuclear testing (on a moratorium since 1992). The New START treaty expires in 2021 and renegotiation looks unlikely at this time.
I’m sure many of you are asking why should you care about this? Especially right now, in the midst of a global pandemic and domestic turmoil that is manifesting from ongoing police brutality against the black population. These are real, valid challenges our country is facing that affect our everyday lives.
But current U.S. policies present a serious challenge to the existing international arms control regime. Ignoring the threat nuclear weapons pose sets the stage for a new arms race and a bleak future that ignores the lessons of the Cold War. Just the mere existence of nuclear weapons brings the chance for detonation, nuclear terrorism, environmental degradation, and humanitarian and economic catastrophe.
Limited nuclear war can have big consequences
You may be thinking that it is unlikely the U.S. is at risk to be attacked with nuclear weapons. We have such a large arsenal spread out around the globe that retaliation would destroy another country (think MAD during the Cold War). Another country would have to be crazy to attack us.
But what about a limited nuclear war between avowed enemies far across the globe—like India and Pakistan, perhaps.
A 2012 report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility estimates 1 billion deaths from starvation in this scenario due to contaminated food sources and disruptions to the global supply chain. Economies are increasingly interdependent—any exchange of nuclear weapons would have far reaching effects.
We are all now familiar with the challenges that come along with supply chain disruptions—I don’t know about you, but I just found toilet paper in the store for the first time in several months. Even with a surplus in the U.S., disruptions during the pandemic equated to the waste of agricultural product that was unable to be delivered or used in its existing form. The United States is not insulated—it is a key part of the global economy. Any exchange of nuclear weapons would have a devastating impact on the the U.S. economy.
We are not immune to mishaps
Accidental detonation and miscalculation also pose a threat. In 1995, the U.S. and Russia almost came to nuclear blows over a mistake. A Norwegian scientific rocket appeared to be a U.S. Trident missile to Russian forces—what if Russia had retaliated with a nuclear strike before the error was realized?
With waning American influence around the world and ongoing stress to alliances, it is not hard to imagine a similar scenario ending in the exchange of nuclear missiles. U.S. withdrawal from key parts of the nuclear arms control regime sends a signal to both our allies and our foes. It says we are willing to reverse the non-nuclear norm and consider nuclear weapons vital to our security posture.
Declining trust, coupled with growing animosity between the U.S. and Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, puts the world in a powder keg situation where the zero sum nature of nuclear weapons dictates immediate response to any perceived threat.
The mere existence of nuclear weapons threatens humanity
The proliferation of nuclear weapons is also a threat to human security, in terms of both humanitarian and environmental consequences.
Nuclear weapons testing leads to environmental contamination that can alter the ecosystem and increase sickness among the population. Radiation exposure has been linked with a number of illnesses, including rising cancer rates.
In the early days of its nuclear program, the U.S. used the Marshall Islands as a testing venue. Even though it has been more than fifty years since nuclear tests were conducted, there are still extremely high levels of radiation—even more than at Chernobyl—in many of the atolls, leaving them essentially uninhabitable.
Likewise, the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons can be severe. Many countries have assessed their capability to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear attack—spoiler alert, it’s not great. The infrastructure simply does not exist to address the chaos in the wake of a nuclear attack. Widespread destruction, illness and death, and environmental degradation are hard to come back from.
In 1996, the International Court of Justice, in their advisory opinion on the use of nuclear weapons, determined that in pretty much any conceivable scenario, the use of nuclear weapons violates international humanitarian law. Nuclear weapons are not discriminate—they kill and destroy combatants and non-combatants alike. Nor are they humane, causing extreme and superfluous injury. Accounts from survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki detail the grim reality of surviving a nuclear attack.
Reversing nuclear disarmament policies increases potential for nuclear terrorism
Resumption of nuclear testing or a new arms race also increases opportunities for theft, black market sales, and nuclear terrorism. An excellent documentary, Countdown to Zero, spends a fair amount of time detailing the theft and black market sale of uranium—a key ingredient of nuclear weapons, the fissile material that provides the massive explosive power. It is mind-boggling how great the potential is for unsavory actors to access nuclear material.
While it may be less likely that a terrorist group can build an actual nuclear weapon, this does increase the concern of dirty bombs—bombs that don’t have the explosive power of a nuclear weapon, but still leave radioactive material behind.
At the end of the day, nuclear weapons are an anachronistic leftover from the 20th century that have no place in the world today. The extremely limited military utility of these weapons of mass destruction pales in comparison to the risks that their presence poses to humanity. Continued reliance on nuclear weapons as a method of deterrence or as a key pillar of U.S. security policy is short-sighted and threatens global peace and cooperation in a time where it is needed more than ever.