This op-ed originally appeared in New Jersey Star-Ledger, May 26, 2019.
On May 23rd, the New Jersey General Assembly approved Resolution 230, urging the federal government to pursue a broad range of measures to reduce the danger of nuclear war and to join the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. California and some American cities have already adopted similar resolutions to call for action in Washington on nuclear weapons. Here’s why.
It has been understood since the U.S. destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II that the explosion of a single nuclear weapon can destroy an entire city. One modern U.S. warhead exploding over a large city would on average kill half a million people.
The U.S. has about 4,000 warheads in its operational stockpile, including about 1,000 ready to launch within minutes. Plans include options to use these nuclear weapons first in a conflict. President Barack Obama wanted to declare a no-first-use policy but was told that it was a bad time.
Scientific work has shown that, beyond the already catastrophic scale of death and destruction from blast, fire and radiation at the target, the environmental effects from the soot produced by cities set ablaze by nuclear attack could have global effects lasting for more than a decade. These include destruction of the ozone layer and growing seasons shortened by late and early frosts. Large-scale nuclear war could destroy modern civilization and condemn billions to starvation and death.
Most people assume that if something hasn’t happened, it won’t happen. But that is psychology, not reality. Some of those who have spent their careers managing U.S. nuclear weapons believe that we have been extraordinarily lucky that nuclear weapons have not been used since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The nuclear age has been marked by many crises, close calls, nuclear threats, and faulty warning and command-and-control systems. The U.S. and Russian hair-trigger launch posture in combination with fear, misperception, accident or false warning could trigger a nuclear war.
The future of civilization depends on the unpredictable psychologies of the people commanding the U.S., Russian, United Kingdom, French, Chinese, Israeli, Indian, Pakistani and North Korean nuclear weapons.
In the U.S. system, the president has sole nuclear launch authority. It would take only a moment to issue the order, and a few minutes later, the nuclear missiles would fly.
Hard-won nuclear arms control agreements are being dismantled. In 2002, President George W. Bush quit the 30-year-old ABM treaty that limited ballistic missile defenses in order to avoid a futile and dangerous offense-defense arms race. Last month, the Trump Administration gave six months’ notice that the U.S. will exit the 30-year old Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which eliminated thousands of medium and intermediate-range land-based nuclear missiles.
The last and most important nuclear-arms-control treaty is New START, which limits the long-range missiles and warheads with which Russia and the U.S. can attack each other and allows rigorous on-site inspections to verify those limits. It will expire in 2021. It could be extended for an additional five years by executive agreement but the Trump Administration has not been interested in discussing that option.
The future looks bleak as the U.S. is currently in the beginning stages of a plan to modernize its entire nuclear arsenal. There are to be new long-range land-based nuclear missiles, new ballistic-missile submarines, new bombers and air-launched cruise missiles, modernized warheads and an upgraded nuclear weapons production infrastructure. The Trump Administration is building smaller nuclear warheads that will lower the threshold for use.
This plan is scheduled to be completed in the 2040s. Over these coming 30 years, the cost of modernization, maintenance and operation of these weapons is expected to be at least $1.7 trillion.
Once completed, these programs will ensure nuclear weapons remain at the center of U.S. national security policy for the rest of the century. Most of these programs are just starting, however, so there is time to reconsider before much more money is spent.
It is important to remember that the U.S. is bound by the 1970 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to work in “good faith” for nuclear disarmament and to achieve this goal. Assembly Resolution 230 specifically calls on the U.S. to “actively pursue a verifiable agreement among nuclear-armed states to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.” The U.S. could make an effort to start such talks.
One new road to the goal of ending the nuclear danger was created in July 2017 at the United Nations, when 122 countries agreed to a treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. The new treaty has so far been signed by 70 countries. It offers a set of principles, commitments, and mechanisms for eliminating nuclear weapons. The U.S. has been opposed.
Assembly Resolution 230 seeks to shine a bright light on the need for the United States to pursue alternatives to nuclear modernization and using nuclear weapons first. It also calls for supporting the new prohibition treaty. By such actions, the United States could begin to pursue a less dangerous future and help the effort to free the world from nuclear weapons.