Nuclear War—Who Are the Threats?
“The possibility of nuclear extinction is real. It exists today, . . . despite the fact that the Cold War ended more than a decade ago.”—Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, professor of international relations at Watson Institute for International Studies.
IN 1991 when the Cold War ended, the minute hand of the famous doomsday clock was set backward to 17 minutes before “midnight.” The doomsday clock is pictured on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists magazine and is a symbol of how close the world supposedly is to nuclear war (midnight). At that time, the minute hand was set farther from midnight than it had ever been since the clock’s introduction in 1947. However, since that time, the minute hand has begun to move forward again. For example, in February 2002, the time on the clock was moved forward to seven minutes before midnight, which was the third advance since the end of the Cold War.
Why did the publishers of that scientific magazine feel the need to move the clock forward? Why do they feel that nuclear war is still a threat? And who is a threat to peace?
A Secret in “Reduction”
“More than 31,000 nuclear weapons are still maintained,” explains the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It continues: “Ninety-five percent of these weapons are in the United States and Russia, and more than 16,000 are operationally deployed.” Some may notice the seeming contradiction in the number of existing nuclear warheads. Did not these nuclear superpowers already declare that they had reduced their warheads to 6,000 each?
Here lies the secret of the “reduction.” A report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explains: “The figure of 6,000 accountable warheads uses specific accounting rules agreed to under the START [Strategic Arms Reduction Talks] treaty. Both nations will retain thousands of additional tactical and reserve weapons.” (Italics ours.) According to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “many if not most of the U.S. warheads removed from the active stockpile will be placed in storage (along with some 5,000 warheads already held in reserve) rather than dismantled.”
So in addition to the thousands of ready-to-use strategic nuclear weapons still in reserve—which are capable of being launched from one continent to another directly—there are thousands of other nuclear warheads as well as other tactical nuclear weapons designed to attack closer targets. Unquestionably, the two nuclear superpowers still hold ample nuclear weaponry in their arsenals to destroy the entire world population several times over! Maintaining such a large number of dangerous weapons invites yet another threat—the accidental launching of nuclear missiles.
Accidental Nuclear War
“U.S. nuclear forces have been controlled by a ‘launch on warning’ strategy,” according to Robert S. McNamara and James G. Blight, quoted earlier. What does this imply? “Our warheads stand ready to be launched while Russian warheads are in flight,” they explain, adding: “No more than 15 minutes can elapse, under the policy, from the time of first warning of a Russian attack and the launching of our missiles.” According to one former U.S. strategic nuclear missile launch officer, “virtually all missiles on land are ready for launch in two minutes.”
This hair-trigger alert presents the danger of an accidental missile launch caused by a false warning. “In more than one instance,” explains an article in U.S.News & World Report, “real launch orders have been transmitted by mistake during American nuclear training exercises.” Similar false warnings have occurred in Russia too. When a Norwegian research rocket triggered a false alarm in 1995, the Russian president began the process of activating the launch codes of nuclear missiles.
This ready-to-launch strategy puts enormous pressure on those in the line of decision making. Fortunately, in the past, commanders have realized that warnings were false, and thus far, nuclear war has been prevented. Concerning an incident in 1979, a researcher explained: “What stopped American missiles [from being launched] were our early-warning satellites, which showed there were no Soviet missiles in the air.” However, in time, such early-warning satellite systems deteriorate. Researchers and analysts are concerned that “most of Russia’s early-warning satellites have stopped functioning or wandered out of their assigned orbits.” Therefore, as a retired U.S. vice admiral stated several years ago, “the chance of a pre-emptive strike or a missile launch because of misunderstanding, misplaced authority or accident, is as great today as at any time in the past.”
New Members of the Nuclear Club
Although the major nuclear arsenals belong to the two nuclear superpowers, there are other nuclear powers such as China, France, and Great Britain. These declared nuclear powers, called the nuclear club, recently took on India and Pakistan as new members. Besides these countries, several others, including Israel, are often described as countries seeking—or perhaps already possessing—nuclear weapons.
Political conflict involving any of the nuclear club members, including the new members, could be a trigger to nuclear hostilities. “The crisis between India and Pakistan . . . marks the closest two states have come to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis,” explains the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Seeing the intensified situation during early 2002, the fear of nuclear attack became very real to many people.
In addition, development of other weaponry of mass destruction has produced more possibilities for use of the nuclear bomb. Discussing a secret Pentagon report, The New York Times stated that “the possible use of nuclear arms to destroy enemy stocks of biological weapons, chemical arms and other arms of mass destruction” may have become part of the American nuclear policy.
The terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, awakened the world to yet another nuclear threat. Many now believe that terrorist organizations are attempting to develop—or perhaps already have in their hands—nuclear arms. How is that possible?
Terrorists and “Dirty Nukes”
Is it possible to construct a nuclear bomb using material sold on the black market? According to Time magazine, the answer is yes. The magazine reported on a team that was set up to prevent nuclear terrorism. So far, the team “has assembled more than a dozen” homemade bombs by using “technology found on the shelves of the average electronics store and the type of nuclear fuel sold on the black market.”
Nuclear disarmament and the disassembling of nuclear weapons have expanded the possibility of nuclear theft. “Stripping thousands of Russian nuclear weapons from well-guarded missiles, bombers and submarines and squirreling them away in less secure storage sites will make them tempting targets for ambitious terrorists,” says Time magazine. If disassembled nuclear weapon parts are acquired by a small group of people and reassembled, such a group could soon be part of the nuclear club!
Peace magazine asserts that it is not even necessary to assemble a bomb to join the nuclear club. All that is needed is the acquisition of a sufficient amount of fissile uranium or plutonium. The magazine states: “Terrorists possessing modern weapons-grade uranium would have a good chance of setting off an explosion simply by dropping one half of it onto the other half.” How much enriched nuclear material is needed? According to that magazine, “three kilograms [seven pounds] would be sufficient.” This is almost the same amount of weapons-usable nuclear material as was confiscated from smugglers arrested in 1994 in the Czech Republic!
Nuclear waste can become another form of nuclear armament. “What really worries the experts is the lethal combination of radioactive waste and conventional explosives,” says The American Spectator. Arms of this type, radioactive dispersion devices, are known as dirty nukes or dirty bombs. How hazardous are they? Dirty bombs use “conventional high explosives to scatter highly radioactive materials with the purpose of poisoning targets rather than destroying them with blast and heat,” explains IHT Asahi Shimbun. It continues: “Their effects on people can range from radiation sickness to agonizing, slow death.” Although some say that using easily accessible nuclear waste would not cause too much harm, the existence of enriched nuclear material on the black market worries many. According to a recent worldwide survey, over 60 percent of all respondents feel that nuclear terrorism will occur in the next ten years.
Unquestionably, the nuclear threat is still real to the world. Britain’s Guardian Weekly of January 16-22, 2003, commented: “The possibility that the US will resort to nuclear weapons is greater than at any time since the darkest days of the cold war. . . . The US is progressively lowering the threshold for nuclear war.” Therefore, it is reasonable to ask: Can a nuclear war be avoided? Is there any hope of a world free from the nuclear threat? These questions will be discussed in the following article.
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A Second Nuclear Age?
Writing in The New York Times Magazine, columnist Bill Keller (now the executive editor of The New York Times) expressed the opinion that the nations have entered into the second nuclear age. The first one ran until January 1994, when Ukraine agreed to give up weapons inherited from the former Soviet Union. Why does he speak of a second nuclear age?
Keller writes: “The second nuclear age was heralded by a rumble under the Rajasthani desert in 1998, as India’s newly elected Hindu nationalist government detonated five test blasts. Two weeks later Pakistan followed suit.” What made these tests different from those of the former nuclear age? “These were nuclear weapons with a regional agenda.”
So, can the world feel any safer for having two more active members of the nuclear club? Keller continues: “Each new country that gets nuclear weapons multiplies the potential for a war involving a nuclear state.”—“The Thinkable,” The New York Times Magazine, May 4, 2003, page 50.
The situation is complicated further by the news that North Korea may have “enough plutonium to be within striking distance of building six new nuclear bombs. . . . Each day increases the risk that North Korea will succeed in producing new nuclear weapons, and perhaps even testing one of them to prove its success.”—The New York Times, July 18, 2003.
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A government official displays a mock-up of a “suitcase” nuclear bomb
AP Photo/Dennis Cook
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Old early-warning satellites are deteriorating
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Earth: NASA photo