January 2018 and the US president is trolling a rouge regime with nuclear weapons via Twitter: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my Button works!’– Donald Trump January 3rd 2018, Twitter.
The size of a nuclear arsenal is hardly relevant in present times. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists published an article providing a succinct description of what would happen if just one modern nuclear bomb was exploded over a city. After an explosion causing heat five times greater than the centre of the sun, in a 7-mile radius of the blast there would be a “hurricane of fire” so ferocious, at the edges of the fire zone “the winds would be powerful enough to uproot trees three feet in diameter and suck people from outside the fire into it” and flames would burn horizontally along the ground as cool air is sucked into the centre of the furnace. Current military doctrine would target a city with upwards of 8 bombs, with strategically important sites (Washington D.C, Faslane or London for example) with up to 60.
In April 2017, defence secretary Michael Fallon told The Independent; “In the most extreme circumstances, we have made it very clear that you can’t rule out the use of nuclear weapons as a first strike”. Less bombastic in tone but no less shocking in content, considering that carrying out a ‘first strike’ could lead to the extinction of life on planet Earth. What sort of ‘extreme situation’ could justify using nuclear weapons; committing the most grotesque war crime in human history at best or causing the end of human civilisation at worst? The possibility of a ‘first strike’ is a recent development in political rhetoric, previously a strict taboo, and does not refer to a strike launched in self-defence (on a nuclear scale); it is a means of coercion – of forcing an opponent to comply under threat of extreme violence.
There is a disconnect between the reality of nuclear warfare, and the casual way it is discussed by our leaders and media. If we must continue to delay sincere efforts towards multilateral disarmament, at least we should treat these weapons with a respect and caution that is sane and sensible.
In the past decade scientists have shown through advanced computer modelling that even a small-scale exchange involving the detonation of 100 15kt bombs (less than 0.1% of the explosive yield of the current global nuclear arsenal) would cause temperatures to plummet and a world famine killing around 2 billion people. The smoke and ash caused by a full-scale exchange between NATO and Russia would block out 70% of the sun for at least 10 years, cause Ice Age conditions in a matter of weeks, the near total collapse of the ecosystem and the extinction of most forms of life on Earth.
To casually throw threats of nuclear war around, when considered alongside the reality of their power, is not rational, and our acceptance of this behaviour is also not rational.
It is necessary to consider our safety from a global perspective because when one state uses nuclear weaons we all have serious problems. We live in a single ecosystem as well as a global economic system. As a permanent member of the U.N Security Council and a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, our decision in the U.K to retain and illegally upgrade our arsenal affects everyone on the planet. We set a precedent both in terms of proliferation (more countries, will develop their own bombs if we are saying the only way to be safe is to have nuclear bombs) and on the behaviour of current nuclear States (increasing legitimacy for the other nuclear States that are all currently engaged in full scale and illegal modernisation programs).
New States are acquiring nuclear weapons at a rate of around one new State every decade. With each new State, the odds of an accident happening or a crisis escalating increases. Already there have been 13 near-misses, 6 times accidentally and 7 times through political crisis. Human fallibility and technical glitches occur and will continue to occur like clockwork. Whatever strategic advantage there was, will be diluted over time, as more and more states join the nuclear elite. To be safe we all need to disarm.