The Nuclear Age

The Nuclear Age began on a quiet stretch of desert in Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Robert Oppenheimer, a principal scientist in the effort to create the atomic bomb, is reported to have recalled this line from the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the shatterer of worlds.” Just three weeks after the first test, a second atomic bomb was exploded, this time over the city of Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, Hiroshima became death. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, Nagasaki became death. Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists were, indeed, shatterers of worlds.

The Nuclear Age was conceived in fear and born with destructive impulse. The atom bomb was developed to protect its creators; it was used to destroy their enemies. It remains to be seen whether it will also destroy its creators. For the first time in history, humankind had created a tool powerful enough to destroy itself. Thus, we should be sobered by our own invention, and warned by Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But as a species we seem to be neither sufficiently sobered nor warned.

In the name of national security, a mad race to develop nuclear arsenals took place between the United States and the former Soviet Union. It drained the treasuries of these countries, and cast a dark shadow on the souls of their inhabitants. With scientific genius, these so-called superpowers (and ethical weaklings) improved the power and efficiency of their nuclear devices. Their leaders believed that national security justified threatening to kill hundreds of millions of innocent people that were called “the enemy.”

On each side, the strategy of Mutual Assured Destruction was pursued with intensity of purpose. This is the atmosphere into which most of the world’s people now living have been born and raised. This is the Nuclear Age.

Einstein warned that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” How are we to respond? How are we to change our thinking? How are we to avoid the catastrophes that lurk not only in the shadows of the Nuclear Age, but in our Congresses, our Parliaments, our Diets, our Dumas, our very hearts?

The Nuclear Age was born from the destruction of World War II. The atomic bombs were the final exclamation points on a world crazed with killing. From this same frenzy and turmoil of war came other creations more hopeful. From the ashes of World War II came the United Nations, an organization dedicated to preventing the “scourge of war,” which twice in the lifetimes of the U.N.’s creators had brought “untold sorrow to mankind.” The United Nations was viewed as a place where representatives of nations could gather to resolve the world’s problems with civility rather than bombs. On occasion, it has succeeded in dramatic and more subtle ways, but on many other occasions it has failed to prevent wars from erupting.

It is a great irony of history that in the three-day period between the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, representatives of the U.S., U.K., USSR and France met in London to sign the treaty establishing the International Military Tribunal to hold Nazi leaders accountable for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. At this Tribunal held in Nuremberg and at other international tribunals, the principle of individual accountability was upheld against the leaders of the defeated Axis powers. The concept of individual accountability under international law was given broad support by the United Nations General Assembly, but it has taken root in the succeeding half century far more slowly than its dangerous sibling, the bomb.

In the Nuclear Age, there has been a fearful acceleration of the struggle between the forces of violence and the forces of reason, between brutality and civility, that have been woven through human history. But the tools have changed as have the stakes of the outcome. In the Nuclear Age, the most awesome tools of violence, nuclear weapons, threaten the continuation of our species. The forces of reason include a place of global dialogue, the United Nations, and the concept that all individuals, even national leaders, must be held accountable for acts constituting crimes under international law. The struggle continues. The outcome remains uncertain.

The Past Decade

The world has changed dramatically since the mid-1980s. As 1985 began, the nuclear arms race was at its zenith. The U.S. under President Reagan was pressing ahead with development of Star Wars, a space-based missile defense system. It appeared that the U.S. and USSR were on the verge of entering an even more dangerous chapter of the nuclear arms race in which costly new defensive systems would stimulate the deployment of even more lethal offensive systems. The nuclear weapons states seemed fully committed to pursuing their nuclear weapons programs no matter what the cost.

In the midst of those dark days, a bright light of sanity appeared. Some, like Helen Caldicott, have described it as a miracle. Mikhail Gorbachev, the new leader of the Communist Party of the USSR, declared a moratorium on all nuclear tests on August 6, 1985, the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. He invited the U.S. to join in the moratorium, but the U.S. continued to test.

The year 1985 ended with the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. Accepting the award for IPPNW, its

co-founder, Dr. Bernard Lown, stated, “Combatting the nuclear threat has been our exclusive preoccupation, since we are dedicated to the proposition that to insure the conditions of life, we must prevent the conditions of death. Ultimately, we believe people must come to terms with the fact that the struggle is not between different national destinies, between opposing ideologies, but rather between catastrophe and survival. All nations share a linked destiny; nuclear weapons are the shared enemy.”

Early in 1986 Mikhail Gorbachev called for the abolition of all nuclear weapons by the year 2000. His dramatic proposal was not met with particular interest by the other nuclear weapons states.

In the Spring of 1986 an accident occurred at Reactor 4 at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, which spewed some 50 million curies of radiation into the environment. The Chernobyl accident demonstrated an often overlooked facet of the Nuclear Age: it is not only our warlike technologies that threaten humanity; our so-called peaceful technologies can also cause devastation to life and property.

In the Fall of 1986 Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit meeting in Reykjavik, Iceland. The two presidents seriously discussed the possibility of abolishing nuclear weapons, but the talks ultimately failed due to Reagan’s refusal to abandon his plans to develop a space-based missile defense system. The utterly impractical plan to provide a shield against missile attack prevented agreement on creating a nuclear weapons free world. The nuclear arms race between the U.S. and USSR continued, but with less intensity. Gorbachev had challenged the West to end the dangerous nuclear arms race, and there was growing pressure in the West to respond.

In 1987 the U.S. and USSR entered into an agreement to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers, providing a direct communications link that would be used to exchange information on ballistic missile tests and other matters. Reagan and Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty in December 1987, eliminating all land-based missiles held by the two countries with ranges between 300 and 3,400 miles. For the first time in the Nuclear Age an entire class of nuclear weapons was eliminated. This Treaty entered into force on June 1, 1988.

By Fall 1990 the last Pershing II missiles were removed from Germany. By mid-1991 the new American President George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the first Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START I), providing for the elimination of almost 50 percent of the strategic nuclear warheads carried by ballistic missiles. In 1991 both Bush and Gorbachev were making promises of further unilateral reductions in their nuclear arsenals. Bush announced the cancellation of controversial nuclear weapons programs, and the withdrawal of all remaining army and navy tactical nuclear weapons worldwide. Gorbachev announced the elimination or reduction of a range of tactical nuclear weapons on land, sea and air, and promised to exceed the START I requirements by reducing the number of Soviet strategic warheads to 5,000 within seven years. He also initiated a new moratorium on nuclear testing.

While nuclear arms negotiations were proceeding, a sea change in international politics was occurring. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. The Soviet Union was disintegrating, and would cease to exist by Christmas 1991 when Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the USSR, ending nearly 75 years of communist rule. The nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union ended up in the control of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. It would be necessary to reach agreements with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus with regard to control of the nuclear warheads left on their territories. All subsequently agreed to transfer their nuclear arsenals to Russia and join the NPT as non-nuclear weapons states.

In 1992 George Bush and Boris Yeltsin reached an agreement on a second Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), this one calling for a reduction by each side to 3,000-3,500 strategic nuclear warheads by the year 2003. Bush stated, “The nuclear nightmare recedes more and more.” Yeltsin, addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress said that nuclear weapons and the Cold War “turned out to be obsolete and unnecessary to mankind, and it is now simply a matter of calculating the best way and the best time schedule for destroying them and getting rid of them.”

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review and Extension Conference

Despite these achievements, ridding the world of nuclear weapons has proven to be more difficult than President Yeltsin suggested. Three major events that occurred in 1995 demonstrate the problems involved. The first of these major events was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review and Extension Conference, which was held in April and May at the United Nations in New York. This Conference was called for in the 1970 Treaty to decide whether the Treaty should be extended indefinitely or for a fixed period or periods. Four of the five declared nuclear weapons states (U.S., U.K., France, and Russia), argued for indefinite extension of the Treaty. With indefinite extension, other states would remain obligated indefinitely not to develop nuclear arsenals, while the nuclear weapons states would continue their special status of possessing nuclear weapons. The U.S. lobbied particularly hard for this, beginning its lobbying efforts nearly two years in advance of the Conference. The fifth declared nuclear weapons state, China, adopted a more neutral posture that was more conciliatory to non-nuclear weapons states. China indicated its willingness to eliminate its nuclear arsenal, contingent upon all other nuclear weapons states doing so.

In advance of the Conference, a number of citizen action groups, including the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, lobbied for extension of the Treaty for a series of fixed periods that would be tied to a commitment by the nuclear weapons states to the total elimination of their nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework. We argued that the nuclear weapons states had promised in the NPT to “pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” The Treaty had entered into force in 1970, but during the following 25-year period the nuclear weapons states had increased rather than decreased the size of their nuclear arsenals, as well as substantially improving them qualitatively. Therefore, an indefinite extension of the Treaty would be the equivalent to giving a blank check to states that had not fulfilled their past promises.1

A group of non-aligned countries held out against an indefinite extension of the Treaty, but in the end the nuclear weapons states prevailed and the Treaty was extended indefinitely. However, the price for achieving this was the adoption of a set of Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. Among these were:

“(a) The completion by the Conference on Disarmament of the negotiations on a universal and internationally and effectively verifiable Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty no later than 1996. Pending the entry into force of a Comprehensive-Test-Ban Treaty, the nuclear-weapon States should exercise utmost restraint;

“(b) The immediate commencement and early conclusion of negotiations on a non-discriminatory and universally applicable convention banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in accordance with the statement of the Special Coordinator of the Conference on Disarmament and the mandate contained therein;

“(c) The determined pursuit by the nuclear-weapon States of systematic and progressive efforts to reduce nuclear weapons globally, with the ultimate goal of eliminating those weapons, and by all States of general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.”2

These commitments were non-binding, but they set clear standards by which the behavior of the nuclear weapons states could be measured. Yet, within days of making these commitments, the Chinese conducted a nuclear weapons test, and just over a month later French President Jacques Chirac announced that the French would conduct a series of eight nuclear weapons tests in the South Pacific.

French Testing

French testing was the second of the major events in 1995 related to the struggle to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Despite protests from throughout the world and in France, where over 60 percent of the population opposed the tests, the French conducted six nuclear weapons tests on the atolls of Moruroa and Fangataufa. The most important lesson to be drawn from the French testing is that one leader of a nuclear weapons state can set his will against the people of the world, including his own people. On this occasion, Jacques Chirac unilaterally led the French government in a series of nuclear tests. In the future, a leader of a nuclear weapons state may decide, against the will of the people, to use nuclear weapons as a means of attack. This is a reality of the Nuclear Age. The decision to use nuclear weapons is not subject to a democratic process. The weapons themselves are an obscene concentration of power that undermine democracy.

French testing also showed the extent of opposition to nuclear weapons throughout the world. Protests came not only from citizens groups, but from many governments. As a direct result of their anger over French testing, the Australian government established the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons. In announcing the formation of the Commission, the then Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, said, “Some years ago a commission of this type would have been a theoretical exercise. But the end of the Cold War means that we can seriously envisage a concrete program to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons.”3

For the first time a country in the Western alliance was taking steps at the government level to promote the abolition of nuclear weapons. The Canberra Commission, composed of 17 eminent government leaders, scientists, disarmament experts, and military strategists from throughout the world, held its first of four meetings in January 1996. The Commission’s members included British Field Marshal Michael Carver, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and former French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

The Commission released its report on August 14, 1996. It found “that immediate and determined efforts need to be made to rid the world of nuclear weapons and the threat they pose to it.” The Report continued, “The proposition that nuclear weapons can be retained in perpetuity and never used defies credibility. The only complete defense is the elimination of nuclear weapons and assurance that they will never be produced again.” The Committee called for an unequivocal commitment by the nuclear weapons states to a nuclear weapons free world and the following immediate steps:

  • Take nuclear forces off alert
  • Remove warheads from delivery vehicles
  • End deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons
  • End nuclear testing
  • Initiate negotiations to further reduce United States and Russian nuclear arsenals

Achieve agreement amongst the nuclear weapons states of reciprocal no first use undertakings, and of a non-use undertaking by them in relation to the non-nuclear weapon states. 4

World Court Opinion on the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons

The third event in 1995 related to ridding the world of nuclear weapons was the oral arguments at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. At these hearings, which were initiated at the request of the World Health Organization and the United Nations General Assembly, the nuclear weapons states argued that the threat or use of nuclear weapons was a political rather than a legal question and, therefore, the Court should not issue an advisory opinion. The nuclear weapons states went further, and argued that if the Court did decide to issue an advisory opinion it should find that the weapons themselves were not inherently illegal. The majority of states presenting positions to the Court argued that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is illegal under international law.

The Court issued its advisory opinion on July 8, 1996.5 It found that the threat or use of nuclear weapons was generally illegal under international law and that the nuclear weapons states were obligated to complete negotiations on nuclear disarmament. The Court was unable to reach a conclusion on whether or not the threat of use of nuclear weapons for self-defense would be legal in the extreme circumstance when the survival of the state was at stake.

The decision of the Court will have far-reaching effects for the future of nuclear weapons and for the future of humanity. The opinion that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal under international law gives strong support to the advocates of a nuclear weapons free world and puts the governments of the nuclear weapons states under increased pressure to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

In December 1995, Joseph Rotblat, a former Manhattan Project scientist, and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs shared the Nobel Peace Prize. In his Nobel Lecture, Professor Rotblat stated, “As for the assertion that nuclear weapons prevent wars, how many more wars are needed to refute this argument? Tens of millions have died in the many wars that have taken place since 1945. In a number of them nuclear states were directly involved. In two they were actually defeated. Having nuclear weapons was of no use to them. To sum up, there is no evidence that a world without nuclear weapons would be a more dangerous world. On the contrary, it would be a safer world.”6

Also in December 1995 the nations of Southeast Asia created a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone throughout Southeast Asia.

The year 1995 ended with the United Nations General Assembly passing a resolution calling for the elimination of all nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework. The resolution called upon the nuclear weapons states “to undertake step-by-step reduction of the nuclear threat and a phased programme of progressive and balanced deep reductions of nuclear weapons, and to carry out effective nuclear disarmament measures with a view to the total elimination of these weapons within a time-bound framework.”7 The resolution was opposed by the same nuclear weapons states and their allies that had fought so hard at the NPT Review and Extension Conference for an indefinite extension of that Treaty.

In April 1996 the Treaty of Pelindaba was signed creating an African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. With the signing of this treaty nearly the entire Southern hemisphere had designated itself as nuclear weapons free.

The Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva drafted a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. The CD, however, was unable to reach consensus on the Treaty due to India’s demand that the nuclear weapons states make a commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals within a time-bound framework.

Australia took the draft CTBT to the U.N. General Assembly, and in special session on September 10, 1996, the General Assembly adopted the Treaty by a vote of 158 to 3 with 5 abstentions and 19 members absent. The Treaty was opened for signatures on September 24, 1996. All five declared nuclear weapons states have signed the Treaty. However, to enter into force the Treaty requires the signatures and ratifications of all 44 nuclear capable countries, including India. India has made it clear that it will neither sign nor ratify the Treaty until the nuclear weapons states have made the commitment to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

The Twenty-First Century

As we approach the twenty-first century, the struggle continues between those who would rely upon nuclear weapons to provide for their national security and those who would abolish these weapons of indiscriminate mass murder. More than anything else, the issue seems to be one of privilege within the international system. The nuclear weapons states are comfortable with their privileges in the current two-tier system of nuclear “haves” and “have nots.” The “haves” appear willing to cut back their arsenals, to eliminate underground nuclear tests (but not laboratory testing), and to make promises about “the ultimate goal” of eliminating nuclear weapons. They appear unwilling, however, to make a commitment to eliminating their nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework.

In essence, the nuclear weapons states are resisting giving up what they perceive to be their privileged status within the structure of the international system. Of course, there is a huge blindspot in their strategy of attempting to maintain their special status. In the last analysis, other states will do as the nuclear weapons states do, not as they say. If, as the behavior of the nuclear weapons states demonstrates, nuclear weapons are deployed to provide security in a dangerous world, then other states will eventually turn to this form of security. The result will be an even more dangerous world.

Finding a Way Out

But there is a way out. More than half the world sees it, and has called for the elimination of nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework. Eventually the nuclear weapons states also will be forced to see it. A nuclear weapons free world is in the interests of all people on Earth, and all those who will follow. This includes the interests of the nuclear weapons states. In fact, their reliance on nuclear weapons is the main threat to their own security.

Nuclear weapons are a test for humanity. If we can control and eliminate these and other weapons of mass destruction that threaten our common future, it is possible for humanity to join in common purpose to solve other pressing problems confronting us, such as eliminating poverty, protecting human rights, and safeguarding the environment from pollution and over-exploitation.

In the Nuclear Age, humanity must grow to meet the new responsibilities that it has created for itself. The new way of thinking that Einstein called for is perhaps not so new. It may be as old as the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. It may be as simple as attempting to view the world from an imagined vantage point of a perceived opponent or of future generations. It may be as simple as Joseph Rotblat said in concluding his Nobel Laureate Address, “Remember your duty to humanity.”

But most likely it will not be this simple. Ending the nuclear weapons era will require dedication, sustained effort, and mass education. It will require the commitment of millions of individuals who believe that humanity is worth saving, that the future is worth preserving. It will require an optimism that refuses to give way to despair. It will require hope. It will require friendship. It will require sacrifice.

Between 1985 and the present there has been substantial progress in reducing the world’s nuclear arsenals. It is not too much to hope that we could enter the new millennium with a treaty in place committing the world to the elimination of nuclear weapons within a time-bound framework. It is our challenge to make this vision a reality.

Other Nuclear Age Issues

I have focused attention primarily on nuclear weapons and the need for their abolition. But this is far from the whole story of the Nuclear Age. Nuclear weapons are only the most prominent, dramatic, and dangerous development of the Nuclear Age. There are many other issues that require the attention of society. Without going into detail, I wish to mention some of these.

1. The environmental impacts of nuclear technology. During the Cold War, nuclear weapons were produced with only minimal concern for the environment. Today leaking storage tanks and inadequate methods of waste storage are major problems that need to be remedied. It will require hundreds of billions of dollars to clean up behind the weapons producers.

Many nuclear submarines carrying nuclear weapons have suffered accidents and gone down at sea. Others have been purposefully dumped at sea after their useful life has ended. As the nuclear materials in the sunken reactors and weapons breach their containments, the ocean environment will be threatened.

Even today there is no adequate answer to the question of how to dispose of long-lived radioactive wastes. The best that scientists can suggest at this time is monitored, multi-barrier retrievable storage. This is not a permanent solution. It simply puts off a long-term solution to a later date; it recognizes that we don’t know enough to attempt a permanent solution that will affect thousands of generations in the future. There are hundreds of nuclear power plants scattered throughout the world. Each of these plants produces high level radioactive wastes in the process of boiling water to generate electricity. The costs of attempting to shield these wastes from the environment for thousands of years have not been adequately assessed. Proceeding with the development of nuclear power plants without having an adequate answer to the problem of nuclear waste storage reflects an arrogance almost as great as using the power of the atom to create weapons that place humanity’s future in jeopardy.

2. The role of science in society. The Manhattan Project to develop a nuclear bomb was the first great project of corporate science put at the disposal of the nation-state. Corporate science and nationalism have proven to be a dangerous combination. They have given us both nuclear weapons and nuclear power plants.

Scientists have been rewarded for their efforts by receiving a special status in modern societies, a status reserved for medicine men, healers, and spiritual leaders in more primitive societies. Alvin Weinberg, a prominent nuclear scientist, has spoken of the need for a “nuclear priesthood” to be the guardians of nuclear materials in the future, and to pass on their knowledge from generation to generation. This is a heady proposition, that society should become beholden to those with special knowledge to protect thousands of future generations from the potential harm of radioactive materials and to keep these materials from the hands of terrorists.

Scientists as a group and as individuals have rarely exercised responsibility for their discoveries. Rather than providing cautious advice, they have often been overly optimistic about society’s ability to manage and control the products of their knowledge. Of course, scientists, like other humans, cannot foresee the ways in which their discoveries might be used. They can, however, draw a line at working on improving or testing weapons of mass destruction or at developing industries that have dangerous waste products that cannot be contained with certainty.

3. Secrecy and democracy. The Nuclear Age brought forth elaborate measures to maintain secrecy with regard to the development and improvement of nuclear weapons. Such measures were believed to be necessary to prevent the spread of knowledge about making nuclear weapons, but they did not succeed. Today the knowledge of how to make a nuclear weapon is widespread. Even undergraduate college students have demonstrated a grasp of this knowledge, which they have been able to discover from scientific literature available to the public. It is widely acknowledged that terrorists would be able to develop nuclear weapons perhaps crude weapons, but nonetheless nuclear weapons if they were able to get their hands on bomb-grade nuclear materials.

Secrecy in the Nuclear Age has expanded beyond technological considerations to encompass policy decisions and information that governments find embarrassing. The revelations, for example, that the U.S. government conducted secret experiments with radioactive materials on hospital patients and prisoners without their consent has come to light decades after the experiments took place.

The real danger of secrecy is that it undermines democracy. Citizens in democracies cannot make intelligent choices about their societies if they are lacking the requisite information. Just as we have accepted that informed consent is necessary in a medical context regarding our bodies, we must apply the same principle to decisions of the body politic.8 If citizens are not informed of government decisions because they are taking place behind a wall of secrecy, then citizens have lost control of their political process and, therefore, of their future.

In the Nuclear Age the only way that individuals in governments can be held accountable for their acts is by transparency: open decisions openly arrived at. Citizens should demand that if government actions cannot be done in full public view, they shouldn’t be done.

4. International cooperation. The power of our technologies, most dramatically represented by nuclear technology, has globalized many of the problems we face. These problems include the transportation and storage of nuclear wastes, the safety of nuclear power plants, the diversion of nuclear materials from the nuclear fuel cycle for weapons, the prevention of nuclear terrorism, and the inspection and verification of disarmament agreements.

National boundaries are largely permeable. National governments cannot prevent people, pollution, projectiles (missiles), or ideas from crossing their borders. Thus, sovereignty is eroding in the face of technological advances. Information travels the world instantaneously. Electronic communications make events anywhere in the world available instantaneously to people everywhere. The spread of pollutants by accident or design, including radioactive pollutants, has a slower migration, but is equally without respect for national borders.

In the Nuclear Age there are problems that can only be solved at the global level. Among these are problems of transboundary pollution, transportation of hazardous wastes, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and protection of the common heritage of humankind (the oceans, the atmosphere and outer space). These problems cannot be solved by any one nation or group of nations; they can only be solved by global cooperation. They force us to recognize our common humanity and our common future. Global cooperation, through the United Nations and its affiliated agencies, is the key to providing for our common security. However, there is much that needs to be done to transform the United Nations into an institution that is democratically empowered to meet the challenges that confront it.

5. The power of the individual. The greatest threat to the future of humanity in the Nuclear Age may not be nuclear weapons or nuclear waste. It may be the lack of compassion, commitment and vision of individuals, including our leaders, in the global community. Apathy is disempowering. We must overcome it by education that opens our eyes to the threats that confront us if we fail to take required actions.

There is only one place in the universe that we know of where life exists, and it is our Earth. As far as we know, we humans are life’s fullest expression of intelligence to date. Visitors from another planet, were they to exist and were they to visit us, might not think so. We are not doing so well in managing our planetary home. But we can change this. It is within our power as individuals to do so. We can make the world a better place. We can fulfill our responsibility to future generations to pass on the planet, intact, to the next generation. We must begin from where we are, with an awareness of the dangers and challenges of the Nuclear Age. We must not be silent nor passive. We must stand up and act for a safer and saner world, a better tomorrow. By our actions, we must restore a sense of hopefulness about our common future.

If Gandhi could lead the Indian subcontinent to independence from Britain and Nelson Mandela could spend 27 years in prison and come out to end apartheid in South Africa and become president of that country, each of us can also play a role in changing the world. We may not all be Gandhis or Mandelas, but we can play a role in meeting the challenges of the Nuclear Age. Each of us can make a difference.

Conclusion – Two Ways Out

Knowledge gained cannot be unlearned, but we can manage and control our dangerous technologies. The genie of knowledge may not fit back into the bottle. There is no reason, however, that the most dangerous tools created with that knowledge cannot by agreement be dismantled and systems established to prevent these tools from being recreated. It is within our power to end the nuclear weapons era, if not the Nuclear Age. Whether or not we will succeed will depend upon the clarity of our vision and the steadiness of our commitment.

There are only two ways out of the Nuclear Age. One is by death and destruction, by nuclear conflagration, by Nuclear Winter, by the poisoning of our life support systems. Few would consciously choose this path, but many of our decisions, based on national rather than global priorities, have led us in this direction. There is, however, a second option, and that is to affirm without reservation that the power of life is greater than the power of death. Technology is already breaking down barriers between nations. Education and spiritual grounding in the miracle of Creation must now provide the basis for breaking down the barriers in our minds that separate us. We are one humanity. We share one Earth.

If we awaken to who we truly are not only Americans, not only Russians, not only Japanese, not only Indians, but above all citizens of Earth then our choices will be clear, and we will do everything within our power to preserve this extraordinary planet and its abundant forms of life. Our first step forward on this path will be our absolute commitment to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, the only weapons capable of destroying the future of human life on this planet. In achieving this goal, we will know what we are truly capable of accomplishing, and we will get on with the serious problems of creating cultures that are committed to liberty, justice, human dignity, and ecological integrity.


1. See Krieger, David and Bas Bruyne, “Preventing Proliferation By Nuclear Weapons Abolition, Supporting a Limited Extension of the NPT,” Global Security Study No. 20, Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, September 1994.

2. “Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament,” 1995 Review and Extension conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, NPT/CONF. 1995/L.5, 9 May 1995.

3. “Commission for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World,” Press Release of Australian Government, November 27, 1995.

4. Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, August 14, 1996, p. 4.

5. “Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons,” International Court of Justice, General List No. 95, July 8, 1996.

6. The Nobel Lecture given by The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate 1995 Joseph Rotblat, Oslo, December 10, 1995. Copyright The Nobel Foundation, Stockholm 1995.

7. United Nations General Assembly, A/C.1/50/L.46/Rev.1, 14 November 1995.

8. See Hull, Diana, “Informed Consent: From the Body to the Body Politic,” in Krieger, David and Frank Kelly (Editors), Waging Peace in the Nuclear Age, Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1988

* David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.