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Join the Conversation on Nuclear Weapons

Lesson created by Theresa Shaffer using

Video from Physicians for Social Responsibility YouTube Channel

Let’s Begin…

We know that nuclear weapons create big mushroom clouds when they detonate, but how much do we really know about them? Take a look at this video to find out. WARNING: You might be surprised at what you are about to hear. 
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From the video, you saw that the United States has made some mistakes with nuclear weapons. In fact, just between the years of 1950 - 1968, the U.S. was involved in 78 mishaps involving nuclear weapons - the most notable being the Greensboro incident on January 24, 1961. Two nuclear weapons fell out of a B-52 plane as it spiraled out of control, and as one bomb fell out, the arming wires were yanked out, which started the bomb on a multi-step detonation sequence. Only one "safe" switch in the cockpit prevented a nuclear detonation over North Carolina. 

                                                           Map of Nuclear Mishaps

If the United States has had so many close calls with its nuclear arsenal, imagine what it must be like in countries such as Pakistan, where nuclear weapons and material could be vulnerable to terrorist organizations, or North Korea, which is ruled by an unstable dictator.

According to the American Physical Society, there's enough weapons-grade nuclear material in the world to make 100,000 nuclear weapons - and not all of that radiological material is properly secured. There's no doubt that the terrorist organization ISIS would love to get their hands on nuclear material or a nuclear weapon, and although the odds of that are small, they are not zero.  


You might be asking yourself,  "If nuclear weapons are really as bad as they seem, why isn't there a process in place to ensure that they're never used?" 

Well, technically, there is. There are several international agreements which attempt to limit nuclear weapons. However, after 70 years there are still 15,695 nuclear weapons in the world held by nine countries. There is no agreement which totally prevents their use and none which can prevent an accidental nuclear war. However, one important agreement frequently referenced is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Article VI of this treaty states that all signatories to the treaty must pursue negotiations in good faith towards nuclear disarmament and pursue a treaty on general and complete disarmament. The United States is a signatory, along with four other nuclear weapon states (Russia, China, France, United Kingdom.) 

This treaty entered into force in 1970, and review conferences have been held every five years since then. Yet year after year there seems to be less progress being made toward nuclear disarmament. This past year, countries weren't even able to agree on a final outcome document, which is typically agreed upon after every conference. Perhaps the biggest problem is that the  countries who possess nuclear weapons are the ones in charge of getting rid of them. 

Tim Wright, a regional director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, uses a perfect analogy. He compares the NPT process to people smoking in public places. "We would never expect the smoking community to initiate and lead efforts to impose a ban on smoking in public places. In fact, we would expect them stridently to resist it. The non-smoking community (the majority)—who wish to live and work in a healthy environment—must be the driving force. Similarly, it is the non-nuclear-weapon states on whom we must depend to drive a process to ban nuclear weapons, to stigmatize them, to make them socially and politically unacceptable, to make it harder for nations to get away with possessing and upgrading them, and to help the nuclear-weapon states overcome this awful, debilitating addiction."

This explains the rationale behind the movement for a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapon states aren't leading this effort for a treaty to ban nuclear weapons - they're opposing it. It's the majority of the world - over 140 non-nuclear weapon states - that are leading the effort to prohibit nuclear weapons. All other weapons of mass destruction have been banned except for nuclear weapons - the most destructive of them all. 

report by Physicians for Social Responsibility found that even a limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan, using less than 1% of the world's nuclear arsenal, would cause climate change that would disrupt agriculture and put over 2 billion people at risk of starvation around the world. Confirming earlier studies by Carl Sagan and others, new data shows that a nuclear war between the US and Russia would drop global temperatures by 8 degrees C for over a decade, wiping out all agricultural production and producing a "nuclear winter" that would in all likelihood lead to the extermination of the human race.

We've also already seen the devastation caused by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to deaths of over 200,000 people. International organizations such as the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) have repeatedly stated that there can be no adequate response to even a single nuclear weapon detonation.This has led to a series of international conferences on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, where governments explored the dangers posed by current nuclear arsenals and the indiscriminate destruction nuclear weapons cause.  One hundred and fifty nine nations have called for their total elimination as the only way to ensure that nuclear weapons are never used again.   

In the meantime, there are many concrete steps that the United States and Russia can take to reduce their nuclear arsenals:

The U.S. and Russia can create more treaties such as the New START treaty in order to bilaterally reduce their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. and Russia can cancel plans to modernize their nuclear arsenals. The United States alone plans to spend $348 billion over the next 10 years to modernize its arsenal. The United States Senate could ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which prohibits nuclear explosions on Earth, signed by the U.S. in 1996 and awaiting ratification. The U.S. could lead efforts to create a Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone in the Middle East. (This would be tricky since Israel has an estimated 80+ nuclear weapons.) The U.S. and Russia could fund nuclear non-proliferation programs rather than funding nuclear weapons. (In recent years, U.S. funding to keep nuclear material safe and secure from terrorists has been cut by the millions, while funding to modernize the nuclear arsenal has increased by the billions.) South Africa should serve as an example of how a country can eliminate its nuclear arsenal. Similarly, the Iran deal can serve as an example of how to prevent future nuclear weapon states. The U.S. could take nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert - a U.S. military policy that enables the rapid launch of nuclear weapons within a matter of minutes. 

There are many more issues related to nuclear weapons, and ways to take action to make a difference. Check out these websites for more information: 

Join the Conversation is a program started by PSR to encourage Millennials to join the movement to ban and eliminate nuclear weapons. By signing up, you'll receive emails about ways to take action on campus. 

Physicians For Social Responsibility is an organization working to promote the ban treaty in the United States. 

Student PSR is the student body of Physicians for Social Responsibility. Want to start your own student group on campus? Sign up and we'll get you started!  

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is an organization of 424 partner organizations in 95 countries working to eliminate nuclear weapons worldwide. 

Goodbye Nukes is a website that provides more information about the ban treaty, how it would work, and ways to take action. 

Avatar for Theresa Shaffer
Lesson Creator
, District of Columbia, United States
So far, over 140 countries have endorsed the "Humanitarian Pledge" which seeks to fill the legal gap to prohibit nuclear weapons under international law. All other weapons of mass destruction have been banned except for nuclear weapons - the most destructive of them all. Do you think the United States should support a treaty that would ban nuclear weapons? Explain why or why not.
12/03/2015 • 
 2 Responses
 / 2 Updates

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