ISSN 2330-717X

We Must Abolish Nuclear Weapons – OpEd

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Russia Threatens Nuclear War

In addition to illegally invading Ukraine, Russian leaders have put their nuclear forces on high alert, thus illegally threatening nuclear war. This recent crisis emphasizes the urgent need for the world to somehow rid itself of nuclear weapons before human civilization is destroyed by them, together with much of the biosphere. This will be an extremely difficult task, but we must not fail. It is a matter of life or death.

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The deep and inventive human mind, which has seen into the heart of the atom, must not fail when confronted with the task of establishing global political unity.

Flaws in the Concept of Nuclear Deterrence

Before discussing other defects in the concept of deterrence, it must be said very clearly that the idea of “massive nuclear retaliation” is completely unacceptable from an ethical point of view. The doctrine of retaliation, performed on a massive scale, violates not only the principles of common human decency and common sense, but also the ethical principles of every major religion.

Retaliation is especially contrary to the central commandment of Christianity which tells us to love our neighbor, even if he or she is far away from us, belonging to a different ethnic or political group, and even if our distant neighbor has seriously injured us.

This principle has a fundamental place not only in Christianity but also in Buddhism. “Massive retaliation” completely violates these very central ethical principles, which are not only clearly stated and fundamental but also very practical, since they prevent escalating cycles of revenge and counter-revenge.

Contrast Christian ethics with estimates of the number of deaths that would follow a US nuclear strike against Russia: Several hundred million deaths. These horrifying estimates shock us not only because of the enormous magnitude of the expected mortality, but also because the victims would include people of every kind: women, men, old people, children and infants, completely irrespective of any degree of guilt that they might have. As a result of such an attack, many millions of people in neutral countries would also die. This type of killing has to be classified as genocide.

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When a suspected criminal is tried for a wrongdoing, great efforts are devoted to clarifying the question of guilt or innocence. Punishment only follows if guilt can be proved beyond any reasonable doubt. Contrast this with the totally indiscriminate mass slaughter that results from a nuclear attack!

It might be objected that disregard for the guilt or innocence of victims is a universal characteristic of modern war, since statistics show that, with time, a larger and larger percentage of the victims have been civilians, and especially children. For example, the air attacks on Coventry during World War II, or the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, produced massive casualties which involved all segments of the population with complete disregard for the question of guilt or innocence.  The answer, I think, is that modern war has become generally unacceptable from an ethical point of view, and this unacceptability is epitomized in nuclear weapons.

The enormous and indiscriminate destruction produced by nuclear weapons formed the background for an historic 1996 decision by the International Court of Justice in The Hague. In response to questions put to it by the WHO and the UN General Assembly, the Court ruled that

“the threat and use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and particularly the principles and rules of humanitarian law.”

Having said these important things, we can now turn to some of the other defects in the concept of nuclear deterrence. One important defect is that nuclear war may occur through accident or miscalculation – through technical defects or human failings. This possibility is made greater by the fact that despite the end of the Cold War, thousands of missiles carrying nuclear warheads are still kept on a “hair-trigger” state of alert with a quasi-automatic reaction time measured in minutes.

There is a constant danger that a nuclear war will be triggered by error in evaluating the signal on a radar screen. For example, the BBC reported recently that a group of scientists and military leaders are worried that a small asteroid entering the earth’s atmosphere and  exploding could trigger a nuclear war if mistaken for a missile strike.

A number of prominent political and military figures, many of whom have ample knowledge of the system of deterrence, having been part of it, have expressed concern about the danger of accidental nuclear war. Colin S. Grey (Chairman, National Institute for Public Policy) expressed this concern as follows:

“The problem, indeed the enduring problem, is that we are resting our future upon a nuclear deterrence system concerning which we cannot tolerate even a single malfunction.

General Curtis E. LeMay (Founder and former Commander in Chief of the United States Strategic Air Command) has written,

“In my opinion a general war will grow through a series of political miscalculations and accidents rather than through any deliberate attack by either side.”

Bruce G. Blair (Brookings Institute) has remarked that

It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake.”…  “This system is an accident waiting to happen.”

Close Calls

Incidents in which global disaster is avoided by a hair’s breadth are constantly occurring. For example, on the night of 26 September, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly the screen in front of him turned bright red.

An alarm went off. Its enormous piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, and then a third, fourth and fifth. “The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against us”, Petrov remembered later. His orders were to pass the information up the chain of command to Secretary General Yuri Andropov. Within minutes, a nuclear counterattack would be launched. However, because of certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which indeed it was.

Most of us probably owe our lives to his cool headed decision and knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was on duty only because of the illness of another officer with less knowledge of software, who would have accepted the alarm as real.

Narrow escapes such as this show us clearly how urgently we need to abolish nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Terrorism

Since 1945, more than 3,000 metric tons (3,000,000 kilograms) of highly enriched uranium and plutonium have been produced – enough for several hundred thousand nuclear weapons. Of this, roughly a million kilograms are in Russia, inadequately guarded, in establishments where the technicians are poorly paid and vulnerable to the temptations of bribery. There is a continuing danger that these fissile materials will fall into the hands of terrorists, or organized criminals, or irresponsible governments. Also, an extensive black market for fissile materials, nuclear weapons components etc. has recently been revealed in connection with the confessions of Pakistan’s bomb-maker, Dr. A.Q. Khan.  Furthermore, if Pakistan’s less-than-stable government should be overthrown, complete nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists.

The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)

In the 1960s, negotiations were started between countries that possessed nuclear weapons, and others that did not possess them, to establish a treaty that would prevent the spread of these highly dangerous weapons, but which would at the same time encourage cooperation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The resulting treaty has the formal title “Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons” (abbreviated as the NPT). The Treaty also aimed at achieving general and complete disarmament. It was opened for signature in 1968, and it entered into force on the 11th of May, 1970.

The NPT has three main parts or “pillars”:

  1. non-proliferation,
  2. disarmament, and
  3. the right to peaceful use of nuclear technology.

The central bargain of the Treaty is that “the NPT non-nuclear weapon states agree never to acquire nuclear weapons and the NPT nuclear weapon states agree to share the benefits of peaceful use of nuclear technology and to pursue nuclear disarmament aimed at the ultimate elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

Articles I and II of the NPT forbid states that have nuclear weapons to help other nations to acquire them. These Articles were violated, for example, by France, which helped Israel to acquire nuclear weapons, and by China, which helped Pakistan to do the same. They are also violated by the “nuclear sharing” agreements, through which US tactical nuclear weapons will be transferred to several NATO countries in Europe in a crisis situation. It is sometimes argued that in the event of a crisis, the NPT would no longer be valid, but there is nothing in the NPT itself that indicates that it would not hold in all situations.

The most blatantly violated provision of the NPT is Article VI. It requires the member states to pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament”, and negotiations towards a #Treaty on general and complete disarmament”. In other words, the states that possess nuclear weapons agreed to get rid of them. However, during the half century that has passed since the NPT went into force, the nuclear weapon states have shown absolutely no sign of complying with Article VI. There is a danger that the NPT will break down entirely because the majority of countries in the world are so dissatisfied with this long-continued non-compliance.

Looking at the NPT with the benefit of hindsight, we can see the third “pillar”, the “right to peaceful use of nuclear technology”, as a fatal flaw of the treaty. In practice, it has meant encouragement of nuclear power generation, with all the many dangers that go with it.

The enrichment of uranium is linked to reactor use. Many reactors of modern design make use of low enriched uranium as a fuel. Nations operating such a reactor may claim that they need a program for uranium enrichment in order to produce fuel rods. However, by operating their ultracentrifuge a little longer, they can easily produce highly enriched (weapons-usable) uranium. Furthermore, a byproduct of reactor use is weapons-usable plutonium.

Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW)

On July 7, 2017, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was adopted  by an overwhelming majority (122 to 1) at the United Nations General Assembly. Although opposed by all of the nuclear weapon states, the treaty is a great achievement. Here are the first two articles of the treaty:

Article 1, Prohibitions: Each State Party undertakes never under any circumstances to:

(a) Develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;

(b) Transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive  devices  or control  over  such  weapons  or  explosive  devices  directly  or indirectly;

(c) Receive the transfer of or control over nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices directly or indirectly;

(d) Use  or  threaten  to  use  nuclear  weapons  or  other  nuclear  explosive devices;

(e) Assist, encourage or induce, in any way, anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;

(f) Seek or receive any assistance, in any way, from anyone to engage in any activity prohibited to a State Party under this Treaty;

(g) Allow any stationing, installation or deployment of any nuclear weapons or  other  nuclear  explosive devices  in  its  territory  or  at  any  place  under  its jurisdiction or control.

Article 2, Declarations: Each State Party shall submit to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, not  later  than  30  days  after  this  Treaty  enters  into  force  for  that State  Party,  a declaration in which it shall:

(a) Declare whether it owned, possessed or controlled nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices and eliminated its nuclear weapon programme, including the elimination or irreversible conversion of all nuclear weapons-related facilities, prior to the entry into force of this Treaty for that State Party;

(b) Notwithstanding Article 1 (a), declare whether it owns, possesses or controls any nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices;

(c) Notwithstanding  Article  1  (g),  declare  whether  there  are  any  nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices in its territory or in any place under its jurisdiction or control that are owned, possessed or controlled by another State.

Nuclear Weapons Are Criminal! Every War Is a Crime!

War was always madness, always immoral, always the cause of unspeakable suffering, economic waste and widespread destruction, and always a source of poverty, hate, barbarism and endless cycles of revenge and counter-revenge. It has always been a crime for soldiers to kill people, just as it is a crime for murderers in civil society to kill people. No flag has ever been wide enough to cover up atrocities.

But today, the development of all-destroying nuclear weapons has put war completely beyond the bounds of sanity and elementary humanity.

Can we not rid ourselves of both nuclear weapons and the institution of war itself? We must act quickly and resolutely before our beautiful world and everything that we love are reduced to radioactive ashes.

*John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/ This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)

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