OP-ED: We Need To Talk About Nukes

(Photo: History.com)

          If you watched the 2016 election cycle as closely as I did, you may have noticed the relative absence of one particular topic in the national conversation throughout the entire campaign – nuclear proliferation.  While most candidates had an opinion about whether or not the U.S. should stick to the Obama administration’s proposal to spend up to a trillion dollars over the next 30 years modernizing our delivery systems, (missiles, bombers, submarines, etc.) the questions of our commitments to our various arms reduction agreements and proliferation abroad was largely ignored.  

          In fact, as far as I was able to find, the only candidate whose position on the subject received substantial coverage was now-President Trump who, with varying levels of commitment, indicated that he would support certain countries, such as South Korea and Japan, obtaining nuclear weapons.  Thankfully, so far it appears that those statements were just the product of Trump’s characteristic campaign trail bluster, and not a serious policy stance.  One can only hope it stays that way – if not, the world will become a much more dangerous place.

          However, all of this obscures the fact that, despite the massive progress made towards disarmament between the U.S. and Russia and the widespread adoption of The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (a.k.a.- the Non-Prolifer ation Treaty or NPT) in recent years, the threat of nuclear war remains a constant, if diminished, existential threat to the entire human species.  The foibles and ambitions of everyone’s favorite communist backwater, North Korea, remain as worrying as ever after the rogue state performed two successful detonation tests last year, and as recently as  Feb. 12th, carried out a ballistic missile dry-run.  Their reluctant ally, China, has also been busy over the past decade, quietly expanding their stockpile of warheads and quickly modernizing their delivery systems.

          Perhaps the most disturbing development, however, is the silent arms race being waged between Pakistan and India.  Both countries have more than doubled their respective stockpiles in the past decade, and there’s little to indicate they plan to stop any time soon.  India has been rapidly upgrading its production facilities, and launched its first nuclear-capable submarine in 2014 with more on the way.  In response to the perceived threat from both Pakistan to the west and China to the north-east, the Indian military has also stepped up its research and development efforts in order to expand its strike range.  Pakistan, meanwhile, has begun deploying “tactical” weapons to its southern provinces, near the disputed Kashmir region.

          While the South Asian build up is deeply disconcerting, it is important to note that neither country has of yet developed thermonuclear capability.  Thermonuclear weapons utilize a standard fission reaction to kick-start a far more energetic fusion reaction, and are orders of magnitude more powerful per kilogram of payload than fission-only weapons.  At the moment, neither India nor Pakistan possesses warheads exceeding 40 kilotons of explosive yield, putting them more or less along the lines of the bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945.  

          However, this should bring us little comfort – a 2014 climate model study found that even a small regional conflict between the two countries resulting in a mere 100 15-kiloton detonations (less than 1% of global stockpiles) would kick approximately 5,000,000,000 kilograms of soot into the atmosphere, triggering a nuclear winter which would cut world-wide growing seasons by a month for at least 5 years, and depleting the ozone layer by up to 50% for 10.  The combination of colder global temperatures, shorter crop seasons, and increased ultraviolet radiation from the sun would likely trigger a global famine in which hundreds of millions would starve.

          Clearly, the use of nuclear weapons in any capacity would be morally repugnant, but what is far less clear is how we can for sure stop it from happening.  Deterrence and mutually assured destruction have worked so far, but as philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “You may reasonably expect a man to walk a tightrope safely for ten minutes; it would be unreasonable to do so without accident for two hundred years.”  

          Non-proliferation and disarmament, then, would appear to be the only permanent solution available, but how can we hope to achieve these goals now that the cat has escaped the bag? 

          “How to make nuclear weapons” has been indelibly written into the book of human knowledge, and even if we could get rid of all stockpiles tomorrow, there seems little we could do to prevent some rogue state or terrorist organization from acquiring the know-how 30 years from now.  Even worldwide non-proliferation seems like a distant reality.  I don’t how we could possibly convince rising powers like China and India that they should not pursue nuclear capability while we ourselves hold the second largest stockpile in the world.  But, I also don’t know how we could sleep soundly without them.  

          The terrifying reality of nuclear weapons so far is that so long as someone has them, then nobody is safe without them.  I wish I knew the solution to this problem – I do not – but I do know that we won’t get anywhere without talking about it.

Ford Mulligan Staff Reporter