The Nuclear Dilemma
ATOP a spindly tower in the predawn New Mexico desert hung the chunky metal sphere the men called Gadget. In bunkers five and a half miles [9 km] away, the physicists, chemists, mathematicians, and soldiers fidgeted, looked at their watches, and wondered if Gadget would really work.
It did. At 15 seconds before 5:30 a.m., Gadget exploded, releasing its nuclear energy in a millionth of a second. It whipped up a fireball that could have been seen from another planet and generated a blast that was heard 200 miles [300 km] away. The heat of Gadget’s explosion—hotter at its center than the center of the sun—fused the desert sand into a half-mile ring of jade-colored radioactive glass [nearly a kilometer across]. Some swore that the sun rose twice that day.
On August 6, 1945, 21 days later, the second atom bomb shattered the Japanese city of Hiroshima, eventually causing the death of an estimated 148,000 people. The nuclear age had begun.
That was 43 years ago. Weapons up to 4,000 times more powerful have since been tested. The combined power of all the world’s warheads is estimated to equal 20 billion tons of TNT—over a million times the killing power of the Hiroshima bomb!
Call for Elimination
According to a 1983 World Health Organization study, a full-scale nuclear war would kill a billion people outright. A second billion would die later because of the blast, fire, and radiation. Recent studies are even more pessimistic. Understandably, then, a cry has arisen for the total elimination of nuclear weapons.
Not all calls for their elimination are on purely humanitarian grounds, however. Some argue that nuclear weapons simply have little or no value in actual warfare. Because of their awesome destructive power, only the most extreme provocation could ever justify their use. Thus, the United States did not use them in Korea or Viet Nam, the British did not use them in the Falklands, nor did the Soviets use them in Afghanistan. Says former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara: “Nuclear weapons serve no military purpose whatsoever. They are totally useless—except only to deter one’s opponent from using them.”
Similarly, nuclear weapons are not of much use as a diplomatic stick for threatening or influencing other nations. The superpowers are mutually vulnerable. And as for nonnuclear powers, they are often emboldened to stand up to the superpowers with little fear of nuclear retaliation.
Finally, there is the cost. According to a study published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, during the years 1945-85 the United States alone produced about 60,000 nuclear warheads.* The cost? Almost $82,000,000,000—a lot of money for something they hope never to use.
The Bomb as a Deterrent
The concept of deterrence is probably as old as the history of conflict. But in the nuclear age, deterrence has taken on new dimensions. Any nation contemplating nuclear attack is assured of swift and devastating nuclear retaliation.
General B. L. Davis, commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, thus says: “A convincing case can be made that nuclear weapons . . . have made the world a safer place. They have by no means ended warfare; thousands continue to die every year in conflicts that are by no means minor to the nations involved. But superpower involvement in such conflicts is carefully calculated to avoid direct confrontation due to the potential for escalation into a major conflagration—nuclear or conventional.”
In any household with loaded guns, though, there is always the risk that somebody will be shot by mistake. The same principle holds true in a world full of nuclear weapons. Nuclear war could thus erupt under the following circumstances:
(1) A computer error or a mechanical malfunction that makes a country think it is under nuclear attack. The response would be a nuclear counterattack.
(2) Nuclear weapons could be acquired by an extremist or terrorist power that would be less restrained from using them than are the present nuclear powers.
(3) The escalation of a small war in an area where the interests of the superpowers are involved—such as the Persian Gulf.
Despite such dangers, the nations have thus far maintained a policy of security through deterrence. Yet, in a world bristling with nuclear weapons, people do not feel secure. The balance of power is really a balance of terror, a suicide pact to which the world’s billions are involuntary signatories. If nuclear weapons are like the Damoclean sword, deterrence is the strand of hair that keeps it in check. But what if deterrence fails? The answer is too horrible to contemplate.
Because nuclear materials degrade, aging weapons have to be replaced by new ones.
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THE POWER OF A ONE-MEGATON BOMB
Thermal Radiation (Light and Heat): A nuclear blast creates an intense flash of light that blinds or dazzles people far from the point of explosion—up to 13 miles [21 km] in daytime and 53 miles [85 km] at night in a one-megaton blast.
At or near ground zero (the point directly under the exploding bomb), the intense heat of the fireball vaporizes humans. Farther away (up to 11 miles [18 km]), people suffer second- and third-degree burns on exposed skin. Clothing catches fire. Carpets and furniture ignite. Under certain conditions, a superheated fire storm develops, enveloping people in an inferno.
Air Blast: The nuclear blast generates hurricane-force winds. Near ground zero, destruction is total. Farther away, people in buildings are crushed by falling ceilings or walls; others are injured or killed by flying debris and furniture. Still others are suffocated by the dense dust of crushed mortar or brick. Wind overpressure causes eardrum rupture or hemorrhaging of the lungs.
Radiation: An intense burst of neutrons and gamma rays is emitted. Moderate exposure causes sickness characterized by nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Damage to blood cells lowers resistance to infection and delays the healing of injuries. High exposure to radiation causes convulsions, tremor, ataxia, and lethargy. Death follows within one to 48 hours.
Irradiated survivors are susceptible to cancer. They are also more likely to pass on hereditary defects to their offspring, including lowered fertility, spontaneous abortion, malformed or stillborn children, and nonspecific constitutional weaknesses.
Source: Comprehensive Study on Nuclear Weapons, printed by the United Nations.