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Ending the Existential Risks of the Menace of Nuclear Weapons

By Tariq Rauf*

VIENNA | 20 February 2024 (IDN) — Following the Trinity nuclear test detonation of 16 July 1945, nuclear scientist Leó Szilárd observed: “Almost without exception, all the creative physicists had misgivings about the use of the bomb” and further that “[President] Truman did not understand at all what was involved regarding nuclear weapons”.

These days, the movie Oppenheimer has been popular among Western audiences based on a noteworthy biography of the technical leader of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer. entitled American Prometheus written by historians Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin. Though the movie spares its viewers the horrors of the atomic bombings of Japan, it does reflect the warnings of the early nuclear weapon scientists about the long-term or permanent dangers of a nuclear arms race and associated risks of further nuclear weapons use.

On the other hand, the film overlooks other historical works including A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and its Legacies also by Martin Sherwin, that disputes and negates the US government’s narrative about the necessity of using nuclear weapons twice over civilian targets in Japan and suggests that the decisions were driven mainly by geostrategic and prestige considerations—criteria still in operation today to justify continuing retention of nuclear weapons. Incidentally, historians Bird and Sherwin in entitling their biography of Oppenheimer as American Prometheus, did an injustice by not crediting nuclear scientists Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn as the discoverers of atomic fission in December 1938, in their Berlin laboratory.

Nuclear Divides

Nuclear scientist Leó Szilárd’s observation that President Truman did not understand at all what was involved regarding nuclear weapons, unfortunately still rings true when it comes to the leaders of today’s nuclear-weapon possessor States as well as of most of their diplomats and those of 30-plus countries in military defence arrangements underpinned by nuclear weapons?

Now, why do I say this? From 24 July to 11 August last year, I was an official delegate at meetings in Vienna of States parties to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). After 15 days of debates, consultations and negotiations, the result was precisely—zero, nothing—no agreement on any measures however small to try to reduce the present and continuing anthropogenic existential risks of nuclear weapons.

Last year’s session of the NPT Preparatory Committee overlapped with 6 August and 8 August—the anniversaries of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At a side-event and to some delegates, I had suggested to mark the occasion with a one-minute silence for reflection in the memory of all those affected by nuclear weapons over the past nearly eight decades, but my suggestion was ignored and the diplomats’ blasé discussions continued heartlessly without pause or reflection—blind to the continuing suffering of survivors and victims of nuclear weapons and the NPT’s obligation for nuclear disarmament—such is the disconnect now.

At the NPT PrepCom in August last year, there were several divides, between nuclear-weapon and non-nuclear-weapon States, between nuclear-weapon States and various political and issue-based coalitions. Most remarkable in my view, inter alia, were the astounding statements by the Netherlands, Italy, and Germany—three of the five NATO non-nuclear-weapon States where US nuclear weapons are deployed, and these host non-nuclear-weapon States’ air forces have designated nuclear war-fighting roles—in apparent contradiction with their NPT obligations.

Each of these three States repeated the false claim that “NATO’s nuclear arrangements have always been and continue to be fully consistent with the NPT and were put in place well before the NPT entered into force in 1970. This resulted in seamless integration of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangements into the NPT, which has long been accepted and publicly understood by all States Parties to the NPT….”

When one stops laughing at this ludicrous claim, it is clear that NATO non-nuclear-weapon States hosting nuclear weapons find themselves under increasing pressure and losing credibility. These ill-founded claims did not go unanswered by some other States—though unfortunately several States in the room chose not to engage on this matter to avoid provoking further the detractors and opponents of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

For their part, at last year’s NPT Preparatory Committee, the nuclear-weapon States refused to accept any benchmarks, targets or timelines for nuclear disarmament. The new flavour of the day is the amorphous concept of nuclear risk reduction being advanced by three of the five nuclear-weapon States and most of their allies and some think tanks performing the role of echo chambers of their governments policies.

In response, most of the TPNW and non-aligned States counter that nuclear risk reduction is no substitute for nuclear disarmament, as does the UN Secretary-General.

I am glad that on 25 September 2023, marking the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres clearly stated that, “The only way to eliminate the nuclear risk is to eliminate nuclear weapons” and urged countries to work together to banish these “devices of destruction to the history books, once and for all”.

Reverting to nearly eight decades ago, emerging from the ashes of the Second World War, the very first resolution adopted in 1946 by the newly formed United Nations called for the “elimination of atomic weapons”.

Thus, the first seeds were planted nearly eight decades ago warning about the catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences, and thus existential risks, of the possession and use of atomic weapons and the first call issued to prohibit nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Test Detonations and Consequences

Despite efforts by many scientists to abolish nuclear weapons, other scientists unfortunately were successful in persuading their political leaders to develop thermonuclear weapons with much greater destructive force than simple atomic weapons.

Indeed, in 1958 there even was a short-lived US effort, Project A-119, to detonate a thermonuclear nuclear device on the surface of the Moon. The rationale was to produce a very large mushroom or radioactive cloud and a brilliant super flash of light clearly visible from Earth—that would be an obvious show of strength to the Soviet Union.

Fortunately, the project was cancelled, the Moon was spared and the “Moon Treaty” of 1979 prohibits all types of nuclear tests on the Moon and other celestial bodies.

However, in July 1962, a US detonation in space of a 1.4 megaton nuclear explosive device, Starfish Prime, 500 times as powerful as the one that dropped  on Hiroshima, disabled several satellites from its electro-magnetic pulse (EMP). The Earth’s magnetic field caught ionized radiation from the detonation and created a radiation belt (Starfish belt) that lasted for a decade.

Both the USSR and the US previously have carried out several nuclear detonations in space in the early 1960s. Soviet Project K detonations were conducted from 1961 to 1962, while the US carried out 11 test detonations. (Now there is a report of Russia possibly working on a similar EMP in space device.)

During the next decades, more than 2,060 nuclear test detonations were carried out in all environments: in the atmosphere, on the surface of the Earth, underwater, underground, and even in near space. Nuclear test detonations carried out at national test sites (such as Nevada, Semipalatinsk, Lop Nor, Pokhran, Chagai, and Punggye Ri), and in Australia, Algeria, Kazakhstan, and the South Pacific; led to radiological contamination of vast swaths of lands and seas, as well as long lasting transgenerational genetic damage to humans.

At the first meeting of States parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons held in June 2022, I chaired a session on victim assistance and environmental remediation. The personal testimonies of a Kazakh man without arms and another with jelly bones, a Marshall Islander with trans-generational genetic damage and the young grand daughter of a hibakusha who wore her Nagasaki survivor grandmother’s kimono to the meeting, vividly highlighted the lasting physical and psychological effects of nuclear test detonations, and the nuclear bombing of a city.


It is surprising and deeply disappointing that many of the leaders of the more than 30 “nuclear-dependent States” (and I use the term advisedly) and of nine countries with nuclear weapons—more appropriately the “captive nations” of nuclear deterrence—still continue to downplay the catastrophic risks and devastating effects of nuclear weapons.

The five NPT nuclear-weapon States are not fulfilling the nuclear disarmament obligations of the NPT, and nearly all of the nine nuclear-armed States blatantly reject the TPNW adopted by 122 States pursuant to a UN General Assembly resolution—a treaty now signed by 93 and ratified by 70 States. The TPNW complements the NPT and is an effective measure under Article VI of the NPT—contrary to critics, the TPNW in no way undermines the NPT.

Who can forget the press conference outside the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations on 7 July 2017, where three nuclear-weapon States were admonishing TPNW supporters not to adopt the treaty.

On a positive note, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons entered into force on 22 January 2021 and thereby is in the process of establishing a jus cogens rule (fundamental principle under international law) creating an erga omnes (obligation) for all States to renounce nuclear weapons. In this context we might recall Einstein’s prophetic words that, “Our defence is not in armaments, nor in science…Our defence is in law and order”—something in short supply today at the international level.

Collapse of Nuclear Arms Control

Unfortunately, the vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons is receding as the nuclear arms control architecture patiently built up over the past 50 years is collapsing before our eyes. Nuclear arms control fatigue is increasing and in light of the Ukraine war it even has become controversial.

For the first time, two successive Non-Proliferation Treaty review conferences, in 2015 and 2022, descended into chaos and failed to agree on an outcome document. Last year’s NPT Preparatory Committee session even could not agree on a Chair’s “factual summary”, nor did the working group on the strengthened review process.

The 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) is still not in force, also is under threat of resumption of explosive nuclear testing and re-opening Pandora’s Box of nuclear weapon test explosions. Recent satellite imagery shows activities at the national test sites of China (Lop Nor), Russia (Novaya Zemlya), North Korea (Pyungee-ri) and the United States (Nevada) relevant to resumption of nuclear test detonations.

Last October, Russia “de-ratified” the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty and thus according to Moscow brought Russia at par with the United States (which had rejected ratification in 1999) —and added that Russia would not resume nuclear testing unless another country did so first.

Given the continuing stalemate and non-action on the signature and/or ratification by the remaining nine of the 44 Annex II States which is required to bring the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty into force; the prospects of the CTBT ever entering into force recede with each passing year and the likelihood of this treaty becoming a fossil of nuclear arms control are enhanced. Thus, the future rests on expectations that the voluntary moratoria on nuclear weapon tests can remain in force.

Fissile Material Control

Nuclear weapons require highly-enriched uranium (HEU) and weapons-usable plutonium (WPu) at their core to produce nuclear explosions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the sole competent, independent, international organization (set up in 1957 for verifying States’ treaty-based nuclear non-proliferation obligations) has established that 25 kilogrammes or less of highly-enriched uranium or 8 kilogrammes of weapon-usable plutonium are sufficient for a first-generation nuclear explosive device.

Today, it is estimated that global military stocks of highly-enriched uranium (HEU) are about 1400 tonnes and about 500 tonnes of weapon-usable plutonium (WPu)—a tonne is 1000 kilogrammes (kg)—thus, there is a glut of nearly 2 million kilogrammes of weapons-usable nuclear materials completely outside any independent international accountability and monitoring.

The five nuclear security summits held respectively in 1996 (Moscow), 2010 Washington, 2012 (Seoul), 2014 (The Hague) and 2016 (Washington) addressed only 17% of global nuclear material stocks that are in civilian uses under monitoring and safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but failed to address the remaining 83% in military uses.

A treaty prohibiting production of nuclear-weapon usable material, commonly referred to as the fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT) has been on the books since 1954. But negotiations have been stalled at the Conference on Disarmament (CD) in Geneva over the matter of inclusion of existing stocks of weapon-usable nuclear materials amounting to nearly two million kilogrammes. The CD is the world’s sole multilateral negotiating forum for treaties on nuclear arms control and disarmament.

A fissile material cut-off treaty now that fails to capture and address the massive overhang of nearly 2 million kilogrammes of direct use nuclear material shall have little or no value.

Russia—United States Bilateral Agreements

The only remaining nuclear arms reduction treaty in force between Moscow and Washington—the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START)—was signed on 8 April 2010, entered into force on 5 February 2011, and was extended in February 2021 by five years and shall cease to be in force on 5 February 2026.

This treaty will expire in about 24 months unless extended further through an unprecedented amendment requiring legislative approval or replaced by a new treaty —the prospects of neither option look bright at present. Now Russia and the US, both have “suspended” implementation of this treaty.

The last data exchange on New START provided by the United States from 1 September 2022 showed that Russia had 1549 warheads on 540 deployed launchers and 759 deployed/non-deployed launchers, and the United States had 1420 warheads on 659 deployed launchers and 800 deployed/non-deployed launchers. (In addition, each country has some 5000 nuclear warheads in storage, not covered by New START.)

For the first time in the more than fifty-year history of Soviet/Russian-United States nuclear arms control not only have existing agreements been dismantled but both sides are modernizing nuclear arsenals unchecked and have lowered the threshold of nuclear weapon use in their declaratory and operational policies.

According to recent a report to the US Congress, in the absence of New START, the September 2023 US inventory of 662 deployed strategic launchers with 1419 nuclear warheads could be uploaded to 3570 nuclear warheads on 715 deployed strategic launchers. Russia’s March 2022 inventory of 1458 warheads on 527 deployed strategic launchers could be uploaded to 2629 nuclear warheads on 533 deployed strategic launchers.

Thus, in the absence of New START, if both the United States and Russia were to upload their deployed strategic launchers to field the maximum possible number of existing nuclear warheads, each of the arsenals would approximately double in size.

The United States would field more deployed strategic warheads but Russia would deploy a larger total arsenal of operational nuclear weapons, given its sizable stock of nuclear warheads on non-strategic delivery systems that are not treaty-accountable.

A significant increase in US and Russian deployed nuclear forces has already impelled China to further increase its projected arsenal. Reportedly, China is expanding its strategic nuclear forces that are expected to reach 1000 deployed nuclear warheads by the end of this decade and numerically match Russia and the United States deployed nuclear forces of 1550 by 2035, according to the US defence department.

China’s nuclear buildup will in turn spur an increase in India’s nuclear forces, leading to Pakistan also to increase its nuclear forces.

Over past years and continuing today air and naval forces of NATO and Russia, and the United States and China, have been engaging in dangerous and provocative actions especially in areas adjacent to territorial wars and airspace. Though there are attempts at deconfliction the danger of accidents remains high, especially now in the European, Arctic and Pacific theatres of operations.

It is time to recall the 1958 Surprise Attack Conference and take steps to hold a similar conference as soon as possible.

Existential Risks of Nuclear Weapons

The Elders, former internationally respected world leaders, have warned that, “As long as nuclear weapons remain in existence, it is inevitable that they will someday be used, whether by design, accident or miscalculation”. Contrast this with the continuing NATO doctrine, that NATO shall remain a nuclear alliance as long as nuclear weapons exist.

Tellingly, former United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Jan Elliason has remarked, “There are no right hands for wrong weapons, and Weapons of Mass Destruction are simply wrong”.

Worrisomely, it is the view of many erstwhile defence experts, such as William Perry, former United States defence secretary, among others, that in today’s world the dangers of inadvertent, accidental or even deliberate use of nuclear weapons is higher than it was during the height of the Cold War.

Perry in his book published in July 2020 entitled, The Button, said “Our nuclear weapons policy is obsolete and dangerous. I know, because I helped to design it, and we have to change it before it is too late.” He warned that the “awesome ability to launch hundreds of thermonuclear weapons in mere minutes” creates grave dangers of blundering into nuclear Armageddon.

In January 2022, UN Secretary General noted that, “The risk that nuclear weapons will be used is higher now than at any point since the duck-and-cover drills and fallout shelters of the Cold War … The nuclear landscape is a tinderbox. One accident or miscalculation could set it alight”.

The Gorbachev-Reagan understanding of December 1987 that a “nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought” and that: (a) they should not fight any war between themselves nuclear or conventional; and (b) for none of the nuclear-weapon States to seek nuclear or military superiority, is no longer in the forefront of the minds of today’s leaders and nuclear war planners.

While recent declarations that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought have been made by leaders of the G7 and G20, in essence these are vacuous statements as they fail to include any measures or steps to reduce or eliminate nuclear threats or nuclear weapons.

While declarations that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought have been made by leaders of the G7 and G20, in essence these are vacuous statements as they fail to include any measures or steps to reduce or eliminate nuclear threats or nuclear weapons.

Ending the Existential Risks of the Menace of Nuclear Weapons

I titled my statements earlier this month in Hiroshima and Tokyo, as well as in Ottawa last October, Ending the Perpetual Menace of Nuclear Weapons, taking my cues from a masterful book by Professor William Walker of St. Andrews University in Edinburgh (Scotland), to mark his retirement, entitled, A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons and International Order.

William Walker took his book’s title from a famous quote of nuclear scientist Niels Bohr’s July 1944 memorandum to US President Franklin Roosevelt in which Bohr advised that “any temporary advantage [of using nuclear weapons], however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security”.

In this context, Professor Walker asked: “Where is the justice for anyone if the maintenance of nuclear forces for the purpose of security results, through accident or intent, in annihilation?

The cover design of Walker’s book is based on the medieval allegory of the ship of fools, in which society is depicted as a ship carrying idiots and reprobates unaware of their plight and pilotless on a choppy sea.

Walker says that the allegorical ship he is referring to “carries the innocent and capable along with the deranged, and, far from being allowed to drift aimlessly, is being [consciously] piloted in acute awareness of mortal danger” [to nuclear annihilation].

Closing in on the centenary in 2045 of the invention and twice use of nuclear weapons, our relentless pursuit of nuclear disarmament must remain a necessary endeavour, even facing seemingly unsurmountable odds.

In light of the deteriorating current international security situation, prospects remain slim to non-existent for breakthroughs in further reducing nuclear weapons; however, interim measures before the situation allows for resumption of nuclear disarmament and arms control dialogue and negotiations could include the following:

  1. No use or threat of use of nuclear weapons;
  2. Continue with the limitations and inspection regime of the New START treaty, pending a successor treaty;
  3. Maintain moratoria on nuclear weapons test detonations by the five nuclear-weapon States along with other States possessing nuclear weapons non-parties to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT);
  4. The five nuclear-weapon States to unconditionally reaffirm UN Security Council Resolutions 255 (1968) and 984 (1995), and nuclear-weapon-free zones’ Protocols on security assurances and remove associated conditionalities;
  5. Prevent and avoid dangerous military activities involving air and naval forces of the nuclear-weapon States and their allies;
  6. Focus on a substantive but concise Factual Summary at the second session of the NPT Preparatory Committee in August this year, that is parsimonious in length but reaffirms the 1995/2000/2010 NPT outcomes avoiding reinterpretations or any watering down of existing commitments on nuclear disarmament;
  7. Reduce tensions over the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and promote convergence between TPNW proponents and opponents on NPT Article VI effective measures leading to full nuclear disarmament; and
  8. End the wars in Ukraine and Gaza in accordance with the principles of the UN Charter and international humanitarian law.

An international order anchored in legal norms and treaties offers the best hopes for survival. In this regard the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and its complementary Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) could establish a “right to nuclear peace” and stop nuclear weapons becoming a “perpetual menace” of existential risks.

*Tariq Rauf, is an independent nuclear arms control specialist in Vienna (Austria) and a Board Director of Atomic Reporters; former Vice Chair of Canadian Pugwash; former member of the Eminent Persons Group for Substantive Advancement of Nuclear Disarmament established by the Foreign Minister of Japan; former Head of Nuclear Verification and Security Policy at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna, Alternate Head of the IAEA Delegation to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) Review Conferences; former Senior Advisor on nuclear disarmament to the Chairs (nuclear disarmament) at the 2015 NPT Review Conference and 2014 NPT PrepCom; long time Expert with Canada’s NPT delegation until 2000. Personal views are expressed here. [IDN-InDepthNews]

Image source: Wallpaper Access

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate

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