There are many reasons why nukes are nuts. Here are my top ten:
They are insanely powerful. A single nuclear weapon can destroy a city. A few nuclear weapons can destroy a country. A relatively small regional nuclear war can cause a nuclear famine, taking 2 billion lives globally. An all-out nuclear war could end civilization and cause the extinction of most complex life on the planet.
Nuclear weapons kill indiscriminately. Their effects cannot be contained in time or space. They are an equal-opportunity destroyer, killing and maiming men, women and children. The radioactive materials in nuclear weapons keep killing long after the blast, heat and fire of the explosive force have taken their toll. They are capable of causing genetic mutations and killing or injuring new generations of innocent victims, as was the case with the repeated US atmospheric nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands.
There is no defense against nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are a technological spear against which there is no shield. Without defense, there is only nuclear deterrence, the threat of massive nuclear retaliation against innocent people. But such retaliation is not defense; it is retaliatory vengeance, pure and simple.
Nuclear deterrence requires rational leaders. A rational political leader would be unlikely to use nuclear weapons if he understood that the consequences might be a retaliatory nuclear strike on his country. But not all leaders behave rationally at all times and under all conditions. In fact, some leaders behave irrationally much of the time. Would you gamble on humanity’s future resting solely on the rational behavior of all political leaders of all nuclear-armed countries at all times?
Accidents happen. Human beings are fallible creatures, and their technological creations are not impervious to serious error. Powerful examples of mixing human fallibility with technological imperfection have occurred with accidents at nuclear power plants, including at Three Mile Island in the United States, Chernobyl in the former Soviet Union and Fukushima Dai-ichi in Japan. There have been many false alarms and near disasters with nuclear weapons as well, involving the weapons inadvertently falling from US bombers and being in plane crashes, coming very near to catastrophic nuclear detonations. The Department of Defense has put out a report listing 32 serious nuclear accidents from 1950 to 1980. It confirms that accidents with nuclear weapons do happen and that the world has been very fortunate that such accidents have not resulted in serious nuclear detonations.
Perfection is an impossible standard. The US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force tries to maintain perfection as its standard. As a result, a culture has developed in which young officers cheat on their examinations, take drugs and cover up for the lax standards of other officers. The head of the US ICBM force was recently fired from his post for drunkenness and cavorting with Russian women on an official trip to Moscow.
Possession encourages proliferation. When some countries maintain possession of nuclear weapons and base their military strategies on those weapons, surely that provides an incentive for the proliferation of nuclear weapons to other countries. There are few expert analysts who would argue that nuclear proliferation is a global good (even though some experts would argue for almost anything). The United States, United Kingdom and Soviet Union originally negotiated and promoted the Non-Proliferation Treaty to try to prevent other countries from developing or acquiring nuclear arsenals. In the treaty, though, these nuclear weapon states, and others who later became parties to the treaty (France and China), agreed to level the playing field by pursuing negotiations in good faith for a cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and for nuclear disarmament. Because “an early date” has long since passed and because these countries are continuing to modernize their nuclear arsenals and because there are no multilateral negotiations for nuclear disarmament taking place, many countries believe the five NPT nuclear weapon states are not acting in good faith. These conditions are ripe for nuclear proliferation.
Nuclear arsenals are extremely costly. The nine nuclear weapon states plan to spend more than $1 trillion in the next decade on maintaining and modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The United States alone plans to spend $1 trillion in the next 30 years on its nuclear arsenal. These extraordinarily large sums could be far better used for alleviating poverty in the countries possessing nuclear weapons and throughout the world. Nuclear weapons are Cold War relics that endanger all complex life on the planet and deserve to be dismantled and to rust in peace. Surely, we can put humanity’s resources and brain power to better use than perfecting the means of our own annihilation.
They are a coward’s weapon. Nuclear weapons are long-distance killing devices that make cowards of their possessors. There is nothing about them that is soldierly or brave. They can be used only to threaten annihilation or to cause it. This is a likely contributing factor, along with boredom and lack of career advancement opportunities, to the widely reported low morale among Air Force missile launch officers.
Their threat or use would be a crime against humanity. Under international humanitarian law, there are limitations to what force can be used in warfare. Weapons that kill indiscriminately, cause unnecessary suffering or are disproportionate to a prior attack are prohibited. Committing a crime against humanity is punishable criminally under international law. Just as the Nazi leaders were held to account for crimes against humanity at Nuremberg after World War II, those who threaten or use nuclear weapons should also be subject to criminal accountability.
Given that nukes are nuts, steps should be undertaken urgently to assure that nuclear weapons are never used again – by accident, miscalculation or design. Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and customary international law require the pursuit of negotiations in good faith for nuclear disarmament in all its aspects. These negotiations should commence immediately and take the form of a new international treaty, similar to the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Biological Weapons Convention. It would be a Nuclear Weapons Convention, a treaty to achieve Nuclear Zero by means of the phased, verifiable, irreversible and transparent elimination of nuclear weapons. The sooner such a treaty is negotiated and implemented, the safer all humanity will be.
This article was originally published by Truthout. David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.