Should we really abolish nuclear weapons?

It is shameful to admit that the best way we have found to keep peace has been to threaten each other with nuclear weapons

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Michael Flood answers the questions we're all afraid to ask
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EDMONTON, AB, Feb 24, 2015/ Troy Media/ – July 16th will mark the 70th anniversary of a technological triumph and the beginning of a new nightmare: the Trinity Test. At 5:30 a.m. local time near Alamagordo, New Mexico, scientists from Los Alamos turned a few kilograms of plutonium into a fireball of light and heat equivalent to 21 kilotons of TNT. A month later the U.S. Air Force would use similar bombs to destroy Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing Japan to the negotiating table and ending Second World War.

Discussions about how to control nuclear weapons and even how to ultimately abolish them from stockpiles around the world have continued ever since. With renewed tensions between Russia and the West, North Korea’s continued belligerence and sabre rattling, and fears that terrorist groups (perhaps even the Islamic State) could get their hands on nuclear weapons, it’s a question we need to start answering. U.S. President Barack Obama, Henry Kissinger, and other political notables have advocated the complete abolition of nuclear weapons. Ought we to do so?

Knowledge on making nuclear weapons can be lost

There are grounds for assuming we ultimately could. Despite “genie out of the bottle” myths about technology – that once something has been invented it cannot be uninvented – knowledge can be lost. In 2006, for example, the United States National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) was upgrading and refurbishing stockpiled nuclear warheads when they hit a snag: they no longer knew how to manufacture a vital component of the bombs. The component, so secret it is known publicly only by its codename, FOGBANK, was created by a small group of nuclear weapon engineers who kept few records. When they retired, knowledge of how to make it was lost.

nuclear weapons
Unfortunately, nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrence against aggression

Though the NNSA eventually figured out how to manufacture FOGBANK again (at a cost of tens of millions of dollars) the story indicates that both the weapons themselves and the knowledge of how to manufacture them can fall into disuse. If the nuclear powers merely stopped refurbishing their bombs we could, within a few decades, live in a nuclear weapons free world.

Returning to the main question: assuming we could, ought we to abolish them? The answer would seem to be yes – with both their potential for massive destruction and the lingering poison of radioactive fallout, they surpass any moral person’s definition of a just and proportionate weapon. No conception of a just war includes the mass murder of your opponent’s population and the practically permanent poisoning of their land and water. That’s even before we contemplate the nightmare of a war between two opponents who both possess nuclear weapons.

There remains the fact, however, that nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrence against aggression. There is a strong case to be made that their existence prevented a Third World War between the United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century. Though both sides came close to war too many times, both backed down because they understood the consequences – worldwide devastation. Without the threat of nuclear war it is hard to see how NATO could have contained Soviet aggression through the Cold War. They are likely playing a role in containing Russia’s ambitions even now. Nuclear weapons have been a force for peace in the world these past 70 years and it hard to imagine the world situation changing so radically that they will no longer have a role.

We should seek to reduce stockpiles of nuclear weapons

That being said, it doesn’t mean that the great (and minor) powers of the world need to maintain their current stockpiles or keep them on high-alert. Sixty to seventy modern nuclear weapons, mounted on ICBMs, are sufficient to completely devastate even the largest and most populous countries in the world. Placing them on submarines, where they give a country an unbeatable Second Strike capability (that is, the ability to respond to a nuclear attack without having to shoot first), increases their deterrent power. The risk of accidental nuclear war could be further deterred by storing the warheads separately from the missiles that carry them, attaching them only during a time of heightened tension. Humanity may not be able to abandon nuclear weapons, but we certainly do not need so many.

It is a shameful thing to admit that the best way we humans have found to keep peace has been to threaten each other with mutually assured destruction, but it remains a fact. Rather than advocate an unattainable goal of total disarmament, arms control thinking should seek minimal stockpiles to minimize risk.

Michael Flood holds an MA in Philosophy from the University of Alberta.

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