The US, the UK, Russia, China, and France are rebuilding or upgrading their arsenals of nuclear weapons. The other four nuclear states too are 'improving' their arsenals. As we discuss the statistics and strategies of 'nuclear arsenals' and 'nuclear deterrence' it can be hard to keep in mind the reality underlying the abstract discussions. The nine nuclear states have over 10,000 nuclear weapons in their stockpiles 1. This is enough to wipe out the entire population of the planet many times over together with all other life forms. Is this sane? Has the human race lost its senses? A single United States thermonuclear warhead, designated W88, has an estimated 'yield' of 475 kilotons 2. The 'yield' is the destructive power expressed in tons of TNT equivalent. The W88 is over 30 times more destructive than the bomb that wiped out Hiroshima. A single W88 could completely destroy London, Mo scow, or New York. Each bomb on a major city would kill millions of people; women, children, babies, old people, everyone. The suffering would be indescribable and for many would go on for months and years before death. No emergency services could begin to cope. There would be no relief. What sort of people would do such a thing? What kind of human would threaten such an atrocity?
The US government has 5 nuclear submarines on patrol at all times carrying 1000 times the destructive power of the Hiroshima bomb 3. Is it possible to imagine the degree of paranoia represented by such a standing threat? The UK government has started to spend one hundred billion pounds on rebuilding its Trident fleet of nuclear submarines, each one with the capacity to incinerate over 40 million people. This is being done at a time when many citizens are suffering from inadequate defences against flooding and when the social services are being radically cut back.
The situation is being rendered even more insanely dangerous by the US and Russia, which keep 1,800 weapons on high alert atop long-range ballistic missiles that are ready to launch 5 to 15 minutes after receiving an order!
It is ironic that the worst offenders are the five permanent members of the 'Security' Council of the United Nations. They have had 69 years to get rid of their nuclear weapons while all that the citizens of the world hear from them are windy speeches around purported good intentions that never come to fruition.
Citizens of the world have simultaneously become aware that the nuclear states do not intend to get rid of their nuclear weapons and that their existence imposes a permanent and intolerable threat to us all. The existence of nuclear weapons means they could be used by accident, by misunderstanding, or by malicious intent. How can we ever be sure that some deranged psychopath will not gain power in one of the nuclear states and deceive him/herself into believing that it is in their best interests to make a first strike? How can we ever be sure that some terrorist organisations will not hack into the electronic control systems and carry out the launching themselves? And we now know that even a small nuclear exchange could be a lethal threat to everyone on the planet. In a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan 20 million people would die from the nuclear blasts, fires, and radioactive fallout. And the fallout would have global consequences that would kill millions of people, disrupt climate patterns, and threaten global agricultural collapse 4.
Furthermore decent people round the globe know that the existence of nuclear weapons is a brooding evil that undermines the moral integrity of humankind. As the great moral leader Desmond Tutu wrote, "Nuclear weapons are an obscenity. They are the very antithesis of humanity 5 ..."
The only remedy is an enforced world ban on the existence of nuclear weapons. The other weapons of mass destruction have already been banned. It is the turn of the last and most destructive of them all.
And finally there is hope. The huge burgeoning of awareness in the citizens of the world is bearing fruit.
There are 9 nuclear states and there are 183 non-nuclear states. The security of the non-nuclear states is threatened by the irresponsi ble and self-focused behaviour of the 9 others. But these 9 are outnumbered by 20 to one. The non-nuclear majority, which do not feel the need for a lethal 'security' crutch, have decided to take the initiative. And rather than focus on the numbers and 'yields' of the weapons it was wisely decided to concentrate on the effects on humanity of the use of nuclear weapons. The next logical development, as the nuclear states continue to deny their obligations to shed their arsenals, is for the non-nuclear states to proceed independently to enact a treaty outlawing these weapons internationally. By focusing attention on the humanitarian consequences of their use they are well on their way to doing so.
The first International Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons was held in 2013. Humanity owes a great debt to Norway for this initiative.
This ground-breaking and historic conference was attended by delegates from 127 countries and 70 nongovernmental organizations. The nuclear states were invited but declined to attend. It is not easy to face up to the implications of these arsenals, especially if you bear the primary responsibility. India and Pakistan sent observers.