Limiting nuclear weapons: Diplomacy and dialogue

As diplomats seek a negotiated solution to Iran’s nuclear program, another crucial dialogue has escaped notice. The need remains for further dialogue in the U.S. to limit the stockpiling of nuclear weapons at home. Twenty years after the Cold War, the United States maintains a nuclear arsenal that far exceeds any strategic requirement.

The U.S. still has 8,000 nuclear weapons while only 300 warheads would annihilate our entire population. With changing global realities, it’s time the United States eliminated the nuclear stockpiles that cost billions, do nothing to address 21st Century security challenges, and instead only pose a great security risk to U.S. citizens.

Nuclear weapons cause more damage than can be imagined and kill indiscriminately. A twenty megaton bomb vaporizes all living things within a two mile radius with temperatures higher than the surface of the sun; the explosive force in a four mile radius flattens everything in sight including underground structures, and causes spontaneous fires from flammable materials for a 16 mile radius.  There is no “acceptable” level of nuclear weapons that is consistent with the ultimate survival of civilization.

Under agreements such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty of 1996, many countries have agreed to limit the testing and detonation of nuclear weapons with the goal of achieving total nuclear disarmament. The UN provides a necessary forum for multilateral diplomacy and cooperation - but progress isn’t being made fast enough.

The need for diplomacy and dialogue is evident at all levels of those involved with nuclear weapons, even within our armed forces. In Eric Schlosser’s latest book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, the dangers of the nuclear age are examined by highlighting mistakes and misinterpretations that nearly caused nuclear detonation during the cold war. On at least five occasions since 1979, Washington or Moscow prepared to launch a nuclear war in the mistaken belief that they were themselves under attack.

Nuclear detonation affects those most vulnerable around the world. Up to two billion people are at risk of starvation if even a limited nuclear conflict were to occur between India and Pakistan, according to a recently released report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. The drop in temperature and precipitation would result in a 10-20 percent crop loss in rice, soy and corn in many areas. This would also affect the United States. There were serious corn crop losses due to drought from climate change in 2012. Now imagine if the crops are further reduced by a nuclear conflict.

Nuclear weapons pose a threat to the entire world. Addressing this threat will require leadership from the United States – leadership by example. A good start would be eliminating the excess and dangerous stockpiles of Cold War nuclear weapons. The U.S. has the strongest military in the world, so why would we want to waste money on new delivery systems and weapons we don’t want to use?

The conversation about reducing the U.S. nuclear stockpile must happen now. This is an urgent threat, a threat that cannot be ignored while we attempt to eliminate other proliferation risks. As former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger and former Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) recently wrote “The continuing risk posed by nuclear weapons remains an overarching strategic problem, but the pace of work doesn't now match the urgency of the threat.”

“Our age has stolen fire from the gods. Can we confine this awesome power to peaceful purposes before it consumes us?” the distinguished statesmen asked. It appears we cannot, as India and Pakistan continue to build new nuclear weapons.

As long as there are arsenals of nuclear weapons, we are living on borrowed time. We owe it to ourselves and future generations to eliminate from the world weapons that destroy not only those we consider the enemy, but also ourselves. 

Thomasson, M.D. is executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

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