Thirty years after the Cold War ended, we still have too many nukes

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States in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons will meet for the first time June 21-23, 2022, in Vienna.

Three decades ago, at the end of the Cold War, the world had over 55,000 atomic weapons and nuclear Armageddon was thought to be more likely than climate change. Today, there are “only” 13,400 weapons, still enough to destroy life on the planet many times over.

The explosion of even one of these weapons – whether in the form of a “dirty” device or a true explosion, as an act of war or terror or just by accident – would transform the world and international politics in ways we have difficulty imagining.

In an era where the words “existential threat” are overused, nuclear weapons are still the most immediate apocalyptic threat we face. Former Energy Secretary Ernie Moniz has said many times that the world is closer now to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But we have made progress in reducing the nuclear threat. In the years right after the Cold War, the government, collaborating with the academic and the non-profit community, introduced several successful non-proliferation programs. The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Act reduced the likelihood of loose nukes getting into the hands of rogue nations or terrorist organizations.

Dr. Thomas Neff at Harvard and others produced the “megaton to megawatts” program that eliminated highly enriched uranium from the former Soviet Union’s stockpile; over the 20-year life of the program, fuel for 20,000 weapons was used for power plants instead. 

The State Department, working with the non-profit community, has also succeeded in the voluntary return of hundreds of kilograms of highly enriched uranium, from lightly guarded facilities around the globe, that had been provided to Cold War allies in the 1950s.

None of this would have been possible without the efforts of brilliant policymakers and experts, largely funded by foundation grants. The Belfer Center at Harvard, the Nuclear Threat Institute, the Union of Concerned Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility and a few other organizations have carried the threat-reduction torch. People such as George Schultz, former Defense Secretary Bill Perry, former presidential science adviser John Holdren, former Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.)  and Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Ted Turner and others have been at the forefront while marshaling many of the nation’s best defense analysts. The work is hardly complete, but real progress has been made.

Now comes news that the John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation will end their grant making in this area after more than a decade of investing about $100 million. After conducting a formal evaluation, the foundation reported that a “clear line of sight” to change existing political dynamics by 2025 was not evident. The foundation currently supports nearly half of all private efforts worldwide for this threat reduction work, so its decision will have a profound and negative impact.

The foundation is, of course, fully within its rights as an independent entity to make this decision. But advocates still urge a change in heart — the program involves less than 5 percent of the foundation’s annual giving. Because of the international nature of the problem, this threat reduction work cannot be mostly funded by the U.S government. It is ironic but true that any government’s funding would undermine the work’s credibility. 

At the current pace, world governments will spend tens of billions of dollars every year to keep nuclear deterrence alive — despite the additional risks of terror that comes with it. Surely, it is worth $1 billion over that same period to keep the hope for a nuclear-free world alive instead. Robert Oppenheimer’s comment on the Trinity Test – the first nuclear weapon test in 1945 – still ring true today: “the world would not be the same… I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita… ‘I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’”

One can only hope that world business and foundation leaders can work within the United Nations establishment to build an endowed fund to continue the fight against madness, even while the world concentrates on climate change, the current pandemic and many other international crises. We must walk and chew gum at the same time.

Twenty-five years ago, I sat with an open telephone at the Energy Department while colleagues, civilian and military, working with the largest airplane in the world, a Russian model that we rented, carried out my order to remove containers of highly enriched uranium from an unguarded safe in Colombia that could be made directly into nuclear weapons. We brought the material to safety in the United States and beat encroaching insurgents by a few hours. It was the proudest moment of my professional life, to participate in reducing the nuclear threat just a little. We had a “direct line of sight” that night.

My role in this drama has now been reduced to a bit part, mostly as an observer. But with younger generations of my family on the planet, I am fully invested in wanting to see nuclear weapons defused as the global threat that they are.

On the 30th anniversary of the Cold War’s ending, it’s worth repeating yet again: “One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day.”

Thomas P. Grumbly was assistant and under-secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy from 1993-1997 and was responsible for the safety, remediation, and disposition of U.S. nuclear weapons materials. He was awarded the Secretary of States’ Distinguished Honor Award in 1997 for his work in reducing the threat of nuclear weapons. He is currently the chairman of a non-profit research organization focused on food and agriculture.

Tags Arms control Cold War Mutual assured destruction Nuclear proliferation Nuclear Regulatory Commission Nuclear terrorism Nuclear Threat Initiative Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Nunn–Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction
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