Nuclear weapons: Is full disarmament possible?
As world leaders convene in Washington for a summit on halting the spread of nuclear weapons, a global debate is rising on the merits – and feasibility – of total nuclear disarmament.
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The four men are fond of using the word "urgent" in arguing for zero nukes. They worry less about a cold-war nuclear missile exchange, and more about jihadists seizing fissile material from, say, an unstable Pakistan, which has of late continued to produce more highly enriched uranium than it needs. Or a possible Middle East nuclear race by Egypt, Syria, or Saudi Arabia in the wake of a bomb made by the Shiite government in Iran. (This is to say nothing of what Israel's reaction might be.)Skip to next paragraph
Yet Nunn and others say the dangers also encompass the possibility of human errors and mistakes by the traditional nuclear powers. US and Russian missiles, for instance, remain on a five-minute "quick launch" timetable, which Nunn calls a situation "bordering on insanity." Plus, as nations turn more to nuclear power as an answer to global energy needs, there will be an exponential increase in the reprocessing of plutonium or uranium, which can be used in making a bomb.
The post-cold-war era has brought the expansion of a global middle class and the comforts of Starbucks, iPods, Facebook, and nonstop sports, weather, and food channels. But the legacy of 20th-century nuclear science hasn't ended, the four say, even if it's often ignored or forgotten.
At the American Academy in Berlin this winter, the gang met with four German "wise men," including former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and former President Richard von Weizsäcker. They cited a new study comparing what would happen if a weapon the size of the one dropped on Hiroshima was placed secretly in London and in downtown Mumbai (Bombay).
The study, by former Foreign Ministers Gareth Evans and Yoriko Kawaguchi (of Australia and Japan, respectively), says that a weapon detonated from inside the back of a large van in London's Trafalgar Square in the middle of a workday would cause an estimated 115,000 fatalities and another 149,000 injuries from a combination of blast, fire, and radiation poisoning; detonated in population-dense central Mumbai, the figures would be more like 481,000 fatalities and 709,000 injuries.
"The danger today is know-how, materials, and weapons gradually spreading," says Richard Burt, part of the US team in Reykjavik, who now advises the international advocacy group Global Zero in Washington. "Some groups would like to get a bomb and use it. What's fundamentally different now is Pakistan, where weapons are held by a state that is in the middle of an insurgency by Islamic extremists. We didn't have that before."