Nuclear weapons have the potential to obliterate life on earth as we know it and cause unimaginable damage for many generations to come. Although arsenals have been reduced after the end of the Cold War, more than 20,000 nuclear weapons still remain across the globe with an average explosive yield twenty to thirty times higher than that of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Roughly ten percent of these warheads are maintained on hair-trigger alert, keeping humankind on the constant brink of nuclear warfare. The prolongation of this situation increases the probability of these weapons being used by accident, design or miscalculation. Any such use would cause indiscriminate human suffering on an unimaginable scale and cause catastrophic and irreversible damage to the environment.
The global nuclear weapons complex entails a kaleidoscope of risks, not in the least due to the maintenance of about 2,000 nuclear weapons on high-alert status. As Dr. Bruce Blair Blair, co-founder of Global Zero and former Minuteman ballistic-missile launch-control officer, has noted:
“While the common view was of weapons sitting around in stockpiles, the system is dynamic […] it daily projects threat to any and all potential adversaries. And as a result of this readiness, and constant activity, there are numerous risks inherent in the nuclear weapons regime, including the risks of inadvertent launch, unauthorized launch, launch based on inaccurate information, and possible theft and acquisition by non-state actors.”
Former US Secretary of Defense William Perry has estimated the chance of a nuclear terrorist incident within the next decade to be roughly fifty percent. US Senator Richard Lugar, through a survey of 85 national security experts, found a median estimate of 20 percent for the “probability of an attack involving a nuclear explosion occurring somewhere in the world in the next 10 years.”
Recent research has revealed that even a limited regional nuclear exchange would eject so much debris into the atmosphere that it could cool down the planet to temperatures not felt since the ice ages (“nuclear winter”) and significantly disrupt the global climate for years to come. Huge fires caused by nuclear explosions, in particular from burning cities, would lift massive amounts of dark smoke and aerosol particles into the upper parts of the atmosphere where the absorption of sunlight would further heat the smoke and lift it into the stratosphere. Here the smoke could persist for years and block out much of the sun’s light from reaching the earth’s surface, causing surface temperatures to drop drastically. This would have disastrous implications for agriculture, and threaten the food supply for most of the planet (“nuclear famine”). It has been estimated that as a result up to one billion people could die from starvation. (see www.nucleardarkness.org)
Despite recent political and legal commitments to the goal of a nuclear weapon-free world, nuclear abolition has proved to be an elusive objective. The nuclear-weapon States continue to fail in their disarmament obligations and vertical and horizontal nuclear proliferation persists. As recently noted by Dr. Randy Rydell of the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, there are no concrete plans to achieve nuclear disarmament, nor are there national disarmament agencies or legislation to implement this goal in countries that possess nuclear weapons. Meanwhile, long-term plans are underway to modernize or improve nuclear warheads or their delivery systems in all such countries.