Global Ethics Corner: The Irony of Nuclear Weapons?

Friday, April 16, 2010

The new START agreement between the U.S. and Russia reduces nuclear weapons to 1550 on each side, which still remains enough to destroy the world many times over.

The Nuclear Security Summit is an attempt to implement controls on radioactive material from industrial, medical, or energy waste. This fissile material is much more accessible than the weapons of the nine-plus nuclear states.

Terrorist acquisition of one tactical nuclear weapon, small enough to fit in a suitcase, is frightening. Terrorist possession of fissile material, wrapped around conventional explosives to make a dirty bomb, is terrifying.

The curse of nuclear weapons and fissile material is the vast destruction and death they threaten.

The ironic blessing, at least of weapons, is deterrence—armed peace. Deterrence in the Cold War meant living on the brink of Armageddon, but also avoided warfare with the Soviet Union. Similarly, India and Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons and have had fewer border clashes, while Israel's assumed nuclear weapons are an existential guarantee. Some countries, like North Korea and Iran, seek them.

Intellectually, the genie is out of the bottle. The processes for building a weapon are known and replicable. The fissile waste is with us for centuries. At best, we can control the number of weapons, the spread of the process, and access to the material.

What is our nuclear future: resignedly living within a world of deterrence, endlessly attempting to restrict weapons and materials, or idealistically creating a world free of nuclear threats? What do you think?

By William Vocke


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