In Washington, DC, A 10 kiloton nuclear weapon, half the size of the one used in Nagasaki, has just been detonated next to the US Capitol. In less than a second, the Capitol Building, the congressional offices and everything within a quarter mile is enveloped in a fireball measuring at 7,000 degrees centigrade. The blast from the bomb travels in one direction across Massachusetts Avenue towards Union Station demolishing everything in its path. In the other direction it goes towards the Washington Monument. The area between Union Station and the Washington Monument is blanketed in fire. Fifteen thousand people are killed instantly. Soon, 15,000 severely wounded will overwhelm the local hospitals. In the coming months, many of those who did not perish in the initial bombing will succumb to the effects of radiation poisoning.

Good Morning. Thank you for asking me to speak today. My name is Nickolas Roth. I am the Director of Research and Advocacy for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. What you just heard is the scenario that experts have developed if one of the smallest nuclear weapons available today is detonated in Washington, DC.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a tragic chapter in the history of the human race. These bombings not only demonstrate the cruelty that humanity can inflict upon itself, but they also foreshadow a terrifying future if we do not halt nuclear proliferation and embrace nuclear disarmament. It has been 61 years since nuclear weapons were first used in war. I wish I could say that the world has learned the lesson that the survivors, the hibakusha, have been trying to teach us since then: The lesson that humans and nuclear weapons cannot coexist.

Unfortunately, all evidence points to the contrary. The world is a far more dangerous place than it was 61 years ago. The world is a far more dangerous place than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. The likelihood that countries will seek nuclear weapons and the likelihood that countries will use nuclear weapons has increased.

Today, I would like to give a very brief overview of the nuclear threat that we currently face. I will start by describing what would happen if a nuclear missile were detonated over Washington, DC. Then, I will explain how recent policy changes by the United States are putting a strain on arms control efforts. Finally, I will suggest ways the US can help minimize the probability of nuclear weapons use.

To begin, nuclear weapons have become far more lethal since 1945. The 21 kiloton bomb used at Nagasaki is considered miniscule by modern standards. Today, there are thousands of missiles tipped with nuclear warheads hundreds of times more powerful. A full nuclear war would likely bring about the end of the human race. But, even the amount of suffering and destruction that would result from the detonation of just one of these nuclear weapons over a populated area is unprecedented. A book published in 2004, titled Whole World on Fire by Lynn Eden, details the heat and blast effects of a moderate-sized 300 kiloton weapon detonated over the Pentagon.

It would create a fireball more than a mile in diameter producing temperatures of more than 200 million degrees Fahrenheit-about four to five times the temperature at the center of the sun.

In Pentagon City, asphalt and metal would melt, paint would burn. Offices and cars would explode into flames. The blast wave would create 750 mile per hour winds tossing burning cars into the air.

On the edge of the Potomac the fireball would be 5,000 times brighter than a desert sun at noon. It would melt the marble at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. Four seconds after detonation, these structures would collapse from the blast wave that followed.

On Capitol Hill, the House and Senate office buildings would burn. The blast would shatter exterior windows and level surrounding buildings.

Within tens of minutes, everything within approximately three-and-a-half to four-and-a-half miles of the Pentagon would be engulfed in a massive fire. The fire would extinguish all life and destroy almost everything else.

For decades, the international community has tried to prevent countries from causing this level of destruction. The cornerstone of these efforts has always been international agreements that encourage arms control. The most important of these is the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT has three key provisions. It guarantees countries the right to use nuclear energy for peaceful means. It prohibits the passing of nuclear weapons technology to, and the development of nuclear weapons by, non-nuclear weapons states. Most important, it requires countries with nuclear weapons to negotiate nuclear disarmament. The treaty establishes an effective framework discouraging more countries from developing nuclear weapons. When the treaty was signed in 1968, there were five nuclear weapons states. The NPT has not been perfect and currently there are nine, but without it there would likely be more.

Today, the international anti-nuclear framework set forth in the NPT is unraveling. There are countries such as Israel, India and Pakistan that have never signed the treat, and developed large-scale programs. North Korea has broken away from the NPT in order to develop nuclear weapons. Iran may be in the early stages of a weapons program. These countries are endangering themselves and their neighbors, as are the original five nuclear weapons states.

One of the most dangerous recent developments is in Russia. Russia is currently building up its own nuclear arsenal, in significant part, in response to a US missile shield. Recent articles in the Nation and Foreign Policy magazines have argued that, given the state of Russia’s infrastructure, such a build-up is extremely dangerous. The Russian government is not investing in proper safety mechanisms to prevent catastrophes such as accidental launches. There has already been a near miss. In 1995, the world came within minutes of nuclear Armageddon when the Russian early warning systems confused the launch of a Norwegian weather rocket with a preemptive nuclear attack by the United States. Boris Yeltsin had nuclear launch codes in front of him and would have retaliated had the mistake not been caught at the last minute. Russia’s early warning system has only further deteriorated since then. There are massive holes in its detection capabilities. Russian commanders rely on antiquated radar rather than satellite technology to detect possible launches.

Together, the United States and Russia have 26,300 nuclear weapons. They possess the ability to carry out precision nuclear strikes anywhere in the world. They have hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, pointed at each other, that could be fired in a matter of minutes. An accidental nuclear launch by Russia and the retaliatory response by the United States would result in the deaths of millions of people.

But let’s not forget the biggest nuclear player and the destabilizing effect it has on non-proliferation regimes. In 2002, the United States placed increased emphasis on the role that nuclear weapons play in its foreign policy. The Bush administration’s Nuclear Posture Review states:

  1. Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies, and friends.
  2. Nuclear weapons can be used to achieve political or strategic goals.
  3. US policy now supports preemptive attacks, possibly nuclear, on countries with Weapons of Mass Destruction or hardened targets.

The United States is relying now, more than ever before, on nuclear weapons. It also has lowered the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons. In the past five years, the Bush administration has ignored many important international arms control treaties. It has failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits all forms of nuclear testing. It has withdrawn from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. It has invested billions of dollars into a missile shield program; an action seen by many other countries as an aggressive gesture.

In violation of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, it has attempted to develop nuclear weapons that can be used more readily in combat, such as the “bunker buster.” It has also attempted to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal with the implementation of the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program. Most recently, it has negotiated a “deal” with India that allows the exchange of nuclear technology.

By steering around international treaties that encourage arms control, attempting to build new weapons and then seeking to use them for political or strategic goals, the United States is encouraging other countries to do the same. As more countries go down this road, the likelihood of nuclear weapons use will only increase.

Although the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again is through total disarmament, there are ways to stop proliferation and minimize the risk of nuclear weapons use. In order to be effective, these efforts must have the support of the United States. As the world’s most powerful nation in possession of thousands of nuclear weapons, and as the only country that has used nuclear weapons as an instrument of war, the United States is ethically obligated to pursue non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament. This effort must begin with the following three steps:

  1. Altering US current nuclear policy. The US must de-legitimize the idea that nuclear weapons are an effective way to achieve political or strategic goals by declaring that it will never be the first to use nuclear weapons in war.
  2. Ratifying and complying with the provisions set forth in international treaties such as the Non Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties, and the Strategic Arms Limitations Treaties that promote non-proliferation and disarmament.
  3. Abandoning our policy of preemptive attacks, which further emboldens countries like Iran to pursue nuclear weapons.

Despite the dangers that we now face and despite all that needs to be done to make the world a safer place, I am hopeful. I am hopeful because historically, anti-nuclear activism in the United States has been incredibly effective. Anti-nuclear activism was a significant factor in bringing an end to nuclear testing in the US and around the world. Activism was influential in slowing the nuclear arms build up in the 1980s. History has shown that our government listens to the public about nuclear weapons. If the people of the United States work together to tell our government that the creation and use of nuclear weapons is not acceptable, we can actually change nuclear policy to make the world safer. I strongly encourage you to find a way to get involved in anti-nuclear work.

Nuclear weapons are the most significant threat to the future of the human race. As long as they exist, no human being is safe. Today, more and more countries are adopting dangerous nuclear policies. It is imperative that we pressure our government to bring the world back from potential nuclear anarchy. Only then, can we prevent proliferation and prevent future Hiroshimas and Nagasakis.

Nick Roth is Director of the Washington, DC Office of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation