Albert Einstein, at the request of his friend and fellow physicist, Leo Szilard, sent a letter dated August 2, 1939 to President Franklin Roosevelt, in which he expressed concern about the potential for an atomic weapon and the possibility that the Germans would develop such a weapon. Einstein recommended increased scientific efforts and better funding in the US. This led to the establishment of a low-budget Uranium Project and then, in 1942, to the large-scale Manhattan Engineering Project to develop atomic weapons.
The Nuclear Age began in the summer of 1945 with the first test of a nuclear device at Alamogordo, New Mexico, followed within a month by the destruction of two undefended Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bombings demonstrated the direct effects of nuclear weapons: blast, fires and radiation. Approximately 90,000 people in Hiroshima died immediately and 145,000 by the end of 1945. Approximately 40,000 people in Nagasaki died immediately and 75,000 by the end of 1945. The survivors of these bombings continue to suffer from radiation-related illnesses.
By early 1946 the US had tested nuclear weapons in its Trust Territory, the Marshall Islands. For the next three years, until the Soviets tested their first nuclear weapons, the US engaged in a unilateral nuclear arms race. Between 1946 and 1958, the US conducted 67 nuclear weapons tests in the Marshall Islands with the equivalent explosive power of one-and-a-half Hiroshima bombs each day for 12 years. The Marshall Islanders continue to suffer from radiation-related illnesses.
In 1949, the Soviet Union tested its first nuclear weapon, breaking the US nuclear monopoly and opening the way for a nuclear arms race between the US and Soviet Union.
In 1970, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) entered into force. The parties to the treaty agreed that, in exchange for non-nuclear weapon states committing not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, the nuclear weapon states would engage in good faith negotiations for nuclear disarmament.
At the height of the nuclear arms race, in 1986, there were over 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, with over 97 percent in the arsenals of the US and Soviet Union.
In 1995, 25 years after the NPT entered into force, the parties to the treaty held a Review and Extension Conference, at which they agreed to extend the treaty indefinitely, despite the fact that the nuclear weapon states had made virtually no progress toward fulfilling their nuclear disarmament obligations.
A year later, in 1996, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) issued an Advisory Opinion to the United Nations General Assembly in which they stated, “There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control.”
In 2012, some 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has been reduced, but there remain more than 19,000 of them, 95 percent of which are in the arsenals of the US and Russia, but some of which are in the UK, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
From the beginning of the Nuclear Age to the present, the US alone has spent more than $7.5 trillion on nuclear weapons, their delivery vehicles and their command and control systems. The US is continuing to spend some $50 to $70 billion annually on its nuclear arsenal. All nuclear weapon states, including the US, are engaged in modernizing (qualitatively improving) their nuclear arsenals.
In the 1980s, scientists warned of Nuclear Winter, but their models were not highly sophisticated and were challenged. In the past several years, though, their findings have been validated using more sophisticated models.
Leading atmospheric scientists now warn of nuclear famine from the effects of even a small nuclear war. They modeled a nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan in which each side detonates 50 Hiroshima-size nuclear weapons on the other side’s cities. Smoke from the burning cities would rise into the stratosphere, where it would reduce warming sunlight for up to ten years, dropping temperatures on Earth to the lowest levels in the past 1,000 years and shortening growing seasons across the planet. The result would be crop failures and a nuclear famine, which could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions to a billion people globally.
In the modeled India-Pakistan nuclear exchange, less than one-half of one percent of the explosive power in the deployed nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia would be used. A nuclear war between the US and Russia, in which the cities and industrial areas of the two countries were attacked, could result in lowering global temperatures to those of the last Ice Age 18,000 years ago, leading to the extinction of most or all complex life on the planet.
Launch-ready, land-based nuclear-armed missiles are particularly dangerous, because there would be very little time for decision makers to determine whether an alarm were real or false. The presidents of the US and Russia would have 12 minutes or less to decide whether to launch a retaliatory attack to what could be a false warning.
Nuclear weapons and human fallibility are a dangerous mix, particularly when extinction could be the result of human or technological error.
The possibility of nuclear famine makes nuclear weapons abolition imperative, since the future of human survival on the planet may well depend upon it.
To end the threat of nuclear omnicide (death of all) by means of nuclear famine, a three-step process is needed.
First, a major education program to warn policy makers and the public of the dangers of nuclear famine.
Second, an advocacy program to obtain commitments from the nuclear weapon states of No Use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon states and No First Use of the weapons against other nuclear weapon states. If no country used their nuclear weapons first, they would not be used.
Third, an advocacy program to achieve a new treaty for complete nuclear disarmament, as required by the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice. The new treaty, a Nuclear Weapons Convention, would provide for the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons.
Achieving such a treaty will require leadership from the US, the only country to have used nuclear weapons and the most technologically advanced country on the planet. Pressure from US citizens and from non-nuclear weapon states will be needed in support of US leadership.
To put pressure on the nuclear weapon states to commit to No First Use and a Nuclear Weapons Convention, bold action is needed. At the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, we propose that, if the nuclear weapon states have not already begun negotiations for a Nuclear Weapons Convention by the start of the 2015 Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, the non-nuclear weapon states boycott the Review Conference and initiate a process for negotiating a Nuclear Weapons Convention.
David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and a Councilor on the World Future Council.