Various endeavors undertaken to lower the size of nuclear arsenals of two major nuclear powers ie the U.S. and Russia notwithstanding, the danger of nuclear catastrophe still looms large in view of present stockpile of atomic weapons. Some experts on nuclear proliferation have suggested that the likelihood of a nuclear bomb detonating and killing tens of thousands or even millions of people is not totally ruled out.
Nuclear disarmament analysts seem to present varying number of nuclear weapons that are stored in arsenals of both acknowledged nuclear powers like the U.S., Russia, France, UK and China plus others which are even outside the nuclear non-proliferation regime. Accusing the regime of promoting nuclear apartheid Israel, India and Pakistan have exploded nuclear devices and thus have become de facto nuclear weapons capable states.
There are strong indications that Iran is close to manufacturing nuclear weapons under the coverage of its peaceful nuclear energy programs. North Korea, albeit legally a member of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), has detonated nuclear bombs twice in 2006 and 2009 despite widespread condemnation.
The current number of nuclear weapons, considered to be catastrophic in terms of radiation effects as demonstrated in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings in 1945, is in the range of 20,000 or above although the most recent U.S.-Russia bilateral nuclear arms reduction treaty of 2010 intends to reduce the number of their nuclear weapons by one-third.
Despite wrangling between the signatories focused on the issue of missile defense, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) has already been endorsed by the U.S. Senate and is readied for implementation. In winning the Senate ratification of the above treaty president Obama has been deservedly credited with success, whose ambitious goal of reducing all odds of nuclear catastrophe globally is far from being realized.
Ominously, Matthew Bunn, an expert on nuclear proliferation has stated “a 10-kiloton nuclear bomb and somewhat smaller than the one dropped on Hiroshima—if detonated in Midtown Manhattan could kill a half a million people and result in $ 1 trillion in direct economic damage”.
Considering above possibility Samuel Berger and Steve Anderson contend that nuclear threat reduction should be a vital interest for America, which is also the largest possessor of nuclear weapons. They believe that U.S. security policy in the decade following disastrous September 11, 2001 attacks has been predominantly shaped by deep and bipartisan concern that a terrorist group might acquire the means to strike again perhaps with nuclear weapons.
Both of them further state that the first decade of new millennium in which the American security policy is marked by dominations of al Qaeda, Iraq and Afghanistan has ended and any future course of action will probably be influenced by other factors. Now the situation has altered significantly with Osama’s killing and its domino effect on the morale of his radical followers. Furthermore, the U.S. has withdrawn from Iraq and is planning to hand over all security-related responsibilities to Afghan security personnel by 2014. Consequent upon these events the American administration is constrained to continue the older policy on security.
In the opinion of Samuel Berger and Steve Anderson the U.S. president faces a number of new set of challenges and he has to deal with the issue of nuclear non-proliferation taking into account new risks including that of accidental/mistaken use of nuclear weapons. They enumerate these challenges as follows: Reducing Pakistan’s instability; Vulnerabilities of global and U.S. economy; Advancing U.S.-China relationship; Preparation of global energy and climate policy; Enhancing cyber security; Managing risks and opportunities of Arab Spring.
Of them the latest diplomatic row between Israel and Egypt owing to violence in Israeli embassy compound in Cairo has presented newer challenge to the U.S. which has traditionally been a midwife between them. One need not repeat that the first peace treaty signed between the Arabs and the Israelis in 1979 was the culmination of years of American diplomatic efforts under the leadership of former president Carter, which even won the Nobel Peace Prize for him and the then Egyptian and the Israeli presidents, Sadat and Begin.
Regarding president Obama’s historic declaration to rid the world of all nuclear weapons, concerns are being expressed now that in next year’s presidential election bipartisan support for denuclearization may erode. Such anxieties are understandable in consideration of the urgency to tackle economic slowdown that has affected most of the developed economies of the world including American and that of Euro zone.
In April 2009 when Obama made the historic speech persuading for the abolition of nuclear weapons, he had been influenced by the famous Wall Street Journal articles on nuclear disarmament contributed jointly by four wise men viz William Perry, George P. Shultz, Henry A. Kissinger and Sam Nunn, who had been associated with previous U.S. administrations with higher responsibilities of crafting the security policy of the country.
Obama’s emphasis on nonproliferation is akin to pursuing global efforts by taking practical steps to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons. This conforms to his administration’s new Nuclear Posture Review unveiled last year through which he wanted to limit the circumstances of the use of nuclear weapons. Moreover, his initiative of hosting an important conference on nuclear security in April 2010 was commendable as spread of nuclear weapons and their know-how continues unhindered particularly in North-East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
The issue of possible stealing of reprocessed plutonium and enriched uranium with double use technologies utilized both for peaceful and military purposes has become very serious to stem the proliferation of nuclear weapons. In this connection Graham Allison of Belfar Center for Security and International Affairs in Harvard believes that locking down all nuclear weapons and materials as “securely as gold in Fort Knox” can reduce the chance of “nuclear 9/11” to almost zero.
As nonproliferation drive fails to gather desired momentum and security of nuclear weapons and related materials remains as serious a problem as ever, Martin Hellman, Professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford, estimates that the odds of using nuclear weapons at 1% per year is going forward, which means that a baby born today with an expected life time of 80 years, faces a greater than 50-50 chance that a nuclear weapons attack will occur unless the number of weapons and available weapons-grade materials is radically reduced.
To prove him wrong the world leaders need to redouble efforts to drastically cut down the number of existing nuclear weapons and facilitate the path, though difficult to the realization of a nuclear-free world.