Taking the finger off the red button: De-escalating the risk of nuclear war

CC by 2.0 maxpixel.net photo-3038098

Below, we publish the contents of a talk given by Medact member Dr. Elizabeth Waterston at an event in Newcastle on 10 May 2018.

There is general concern about the impulsive behaviour of the current President of the USA and this article addresses ways of de-escalating the danger of a nuclear exchange.

The 12 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 caused total obliteration over a distance of 3.2 km, and fires across 11km2. Some 70-80 thousand people or 30% of the population of Hiroshima died either immediately or over the next few weeks of blast, firestorms or radiation.

President Trump is proposing to use a smaller bomb of 5kt as a battlefield weapon. However, such a bomb is not a battlefield weapon but a weapon of mass destruction. In a diameter of 700m all buildings would be destroyed with 100% mortality. In a diameter of 1km, most buildings would collapse, there would be universal injuries and a 50-90% mortality from radiation in the following days/weeks. Over 2km all windows would shatter, as light travels faster than blast. Those drawn to the window by the flash would get a faceful of shattered glass.

The current world nuclear arsenals stand at about 15,000 warheads, 2,000 of which are  targeted and on hair trigger alert and could be activated by unstable leaders, miscommunication, cyber interference or just by accident. They are owned by 9 states: USA, Russia, China, France, UK, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea – all of whom are developing new weapon systems.

Steps to de-escalate the risk of a nuclear exchange
These are actions which could be taken now without cost and just require political will.

  1. De-target the missiles that carry the warheads. This can be done swiftly and simply at the turn of a switch and reversed equally quickly.
  2. De-alert the nuclear weapons by removing the warheads and storing them elsewhere – or by locking down the lids of the launch silos or by pinning down the firing switches.
  3. Adoption of a policy of No First Use (NFU). China and India have such a policy, which states that nuclear weapons can only be used in retaliation to a nuclear attack from another nation. Jeremy Corbyn advocates that UK should have a policy of NFU; currently UK, USA, Russia, France, Israel, Pakistan and N Korea do not have such a policy.
  4. Nuclear Weapon Free Zones (NWFZ). These are geographical areas combining a number of nations protected by a treaty which bans nuclear weapons on their territory and in which the original five nuclear weapons states (USA, Russia, China, UK, France) pledge not to threaten to use nuclear weapons (so called Negative Security Agreements).
    Current NWFZs are Latin America and Caribbean; South Pacific; South East Asia; Africa, and Central Asia.
    International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW) is trying to set up a NWFZ in Europe for the nations that de facto do not have NWs on their territory: i.e. Scandinavia, Austria, Switzerland, and countries of former Eastern Europe. NATO position is that this is not possible because most of the nations are members of NATO.
  5. Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) to come into force. The treaty was agreed and signed at the UN in 1996. Before it can enter into force, all national parliaments must ratify the treaty, and five states have not yet ratified it: the USA, China, Egypt, Iran and Israel. Hence it has not yet been implemented.
  6. Adhere to the commitments of the Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT is a bargain between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states. Under its commitments the nuclear weapons states agree to nuclear disarmament in good faith, in return for non-nuclear weapons states not developing nuclear weapons. Additionally, the nuclear weapons states pledge to assist the non-nuclear weapons states to acquire civilian nuclear power.
    The nuclear weapons states are not adhering to the NPT: all are developing new nuclear weapons systems and as a result, some non-nuclear weapons states are moving to acquire nuclear weapons.
  7. Cut off the supply of fissile material. The fissile materials used to make nuclear weapons are highly enriched uranium and plutonium. In 1993 a Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty was proposed at the UN to prohibit the production and transfer of fissile materials and for fissile material stocks to be put under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This has never been agreed.
  8. Downgrade stocks of highly enriched uranium to low enriched uranium which can be used for nuclear power but not for nuclear weapons.
  9. Treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons (TPNW). In September 2017, the non-nuclear weapons states agreed at the UN a treaty to prohibit the production, deployment, threat of use and use of nuclear weapons. The treaty now has 58 signatures and 9 nations have ratified it. When 55 have ratified the treaty it will enter into force.

Why the nuclear weapons states will not agree to discuss the treaty.

  1. Verification problems: The techniques to verify that nuclear disarmament has occurred and to detect secret caches of NW is in very early stages and underfunded. Were the amount of investment in nuclear weapons renewal be diverted to verification the problems would rapidly be solved.
  2. Deterrence theory holds that possession of nuclear weapons will deter other nations attacking with nuclear weapons through a threat of retaliation and possibly, mutual assured destruction (MAD). This theory has many flaws, including:
    1. that it remains unproven;
    2. failure would be equivalent to mass murder;
    3. requires efficient communication nationally and internationally;
    4. requires rational decision makers;
    5. gives a false sense of security  because useless against modern forms of warfare and is ineffective against threats from non-state actors;
    6. possession of nuclear weapons encourages proliferation in other states;
    7. failure would be catastrophic.
  3. The current world security situation: Even in the 1990s when the world was relatively peaceful, the nuclear weapons states refused to give up their nuclear weapons.
  4. Ego competition: nuclear weapons are needed to hold a space in time before military action occurs for diplomatic action to resolve a dispute between nuclear states.

What you can do

  1. Sign the citizens’ treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons.
  2. Don’t Bank on the Bomb! A number of banks, insurance companies and investment funds use your money to provide funding to private companies involved in maintaining and modernising Trident, including RBS, Barclays, HSBC, Old Mutual and Lloyds. If you do bank with them, tell them to stop, and encourage an institution your affiliated with, such as your workplace, Royal College, or university to do the same.
  3. Ask your MP to sign the Parliamentary Pledge to work toward the signature and ratification of the TPNW.
  4. Send your MP a copy of the Treaty to Prohibit Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).