The five NPT-recognized nuclear weapon states have failed in their obligation to make serious strides toward disarmament--most notably, the United States and Russia, which still possess 26,000 of the 27,000 nuclear warheads in the world. By far the greatest potential for calamity lies in the readiness of forces in the United States and Russia to fight an all-out nuclear war. Whether by accident or by unauthorized launch, these two countries are able to initiate major strikes in a matter of minutes. Each warhead has the potential destructive force of 8 to 40 times that of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. In that relatively small nuclear explosion, 100,000 people were killed and a city destroyed; 50 of today’s nuclear weapons could kill 200 million people.
While the possibility of launching these powerful weapons may seem remote, experts in Russia and the United States are concerned about command and control systems that depend on complex electronic communications and information. Past incidents suggest that technical failures, misperception, and miscommunication happen in even the best-maintained systems. Such errors could lead to an accidental launch already programmed in the event of attack. Experts have documented four nuclear false alarms--in 1979, 1980, 1983, and 1995--where either the United States or Soviet/Russian forces were placed on the highest alert and missile launch crews were given preliminary launch warnings.
Sixteen years after the end of the Cold War, following substantial reductions in nuclear weapons by the United States and Russia, the two major powers have now stalled in their progress toward deeper reductions in their arsenals. Equally worrisome, the United States, in its 2002 Nuclear Posture Review, declared that nuclear weapons “provide credible military options to deter a wide range of threats,” including chemical and biological weapons, as well as “surprising military developments.” In early 2004, this new concept, which espouses the quick use of even nuclear weapons to destroy “time urgent targets,” was put into operation. That the United States--a nation with unmatched superiority in conventional weapons--would place renewed emphasis on the need for nuclear weapons suggests to other nations that such arsenals are necessary to their security.
In the face of the major powers’ continued reliance on nuclear weapons, other nations are following suit. Since the end of the Cold War, three countries have announced the possession of nuclear weapons--India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Israel possesses weapons but chooses not to declare them. The director of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, believes up to 30 countries have the capacity, and increasingly the motivation, to develop nuclear weapons in a very short time span.
Read the rest at The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists