Preventing the Nuclear Apocalypse

Preventing the Nuclear Apocalypse

The US’s nuclear arsenal has no necessary military mission anymore. But their existence continues to provoke the proliferation of weapons programs abroad.


Fukushima reminds us that nuclear technology is inherently dangerous, whether in a reactor or in a bomb.  There are 443 nuclear reactors in operation around the world; there are 22,000 weapons.  The reactors have some justification; the bombs have none.  Like a doomsday machine that no one has yet turned off, thousands of nuclear bombs still sit atop missiles ready to launch within minutes. Thousands more are stacked in reserve, dangerously vulnerable to theft or accident. 

None of these weapons, each capable of killing hundreds of thousands of innocents in an instant, has a necessary military mission today.  US officials admit that the 200 or so hydrogen bombs we keep in Europe are “purely symbolic” and do not figure into any operational plan.   Nor would a US president ever need to push the button that would drop 100 bombs each on Moscow, St. Petersburg and dozens of other Russian cities.  But these weapons still trigger fierce debate in Washington, with conservative politicians arguing against any efforts to cut their number like Japanese soldiers lost in the jungle, fighting on long after the war has ended. 

Worse, their existence and continued enshrinement in national security strategies provoke and justify weapons programs by others. Tad Daley takes this issue head on in his new book Apocalypse Never: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World.

Unsustainable Policy

Daley says, “perpetual possession means perpetual proliferation.”  Every time the United States goes on a diplomatic mission it brings with it the baggage of over 2,000 operational nuclear warheads.  It is an avoidable hypocrisy that undermines our efforts to check the spread of nuclear weapons around the world.  Ambassador Celso Amorim, former minister of External Relations in Brazil, made this point clear at a Washington conference in March. Brazil had a nuclear program in the 1980s, abandoned it, and has been a champion against nuclear weapons since.  But its partnership is not guaranteed.  “I honestly don’t see how Brazil will take further steps in relation to nonproliferation,” said Amorim, “before seeing some steps being taken on disarmament.”

Daley hammers away at this enduring strategic reality, but does not go into detail on timelines for the elimination of these weapons. Many others do. This month, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov in The International Herald Tribune jointly applauded the approval of the US-Russian New START agreement to cut nuclear arms.  No time to rest on our laurels, though.  “We should build on this momentum and take new actions” to accelerate the implementation of New START reductions, forge ahead with new negotiations for deeper cuts in all categories of nuclear arms and take unilateral measures to cut weapons and reduce state secrecy.”

Transparency is one of the keys to further reductions.  It can reduce suspicions, increase mutual confidence and dispel some of the nuclear mystique. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon indicated last month the administration might move more in this direction: “As a first step, we would like to increase transparency on a reciprocal basis concerning the numbers, locations, and types of nonstrategic forces in Europe.”  This could build towards the type of rigorous inspection system that Daley and others say will be necessary to eliminate all weapons.

Less Bang, More Bucks

One need not be a nuclear abolitionist to see that a policy that reduces their number pays not just security dividends but financial ones. Buried in this year’s budget are funds for the development of the next generation of nuclear-armed submarine, bombers, and missiles. If carried out, the replacement programs would cost $300 billion over the next ten years.

These are weapons that we do not need, built to counter a threat that no longer exists, with money that we no longer have. A growing bipartisan consensus is coming to appreciate this reality.  As Republican financier Peter G. Peterson wrote, “We should reduce the size of the arsenal and limit funding for nuclear research.”

Normalization of Zero

Can we?  Daley thinks so: “If people believe that elimination of nuclear weapons is possible, they will actively work to bring it about.”  I agree. In fact, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that we can and must, including Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Colin Powell, Bill Perry and Sam Nunn.  

This consensus has yet to fully reach Washington, although the bipartisan approval of the New START treaty last December (with 13 Republican votes) was encouraging. Normalizing the goal of zero nuclear weapons will put us on the path to a safer world—one in which citizens do not live under the shadow of impending annihilation and terrorists have no access to the world’s deadliest weapons.  Daley’s book is a worthy contribution to this effort.


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