Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) can deliver multiple bombs after traveling through the sky for thousands of miles; the latest Russian “Sarmat” carries 12 bombs equivalent to 40 megatons.
The Russian media boasted that the Sarmat is “capable of wiping out parts of the Earth the size of Texas or France.” That means just one ICBM could wipe out all of northern California!
Similarly one of the United States’ Minuteman ICBMs could destroy most of Moscow.
So why does the world need 15,000 nuclear weapons, when just a few will cause physical damage to huge swaths of land and the resulting cloud of radioactive material in the Earth’s atmosphere would drastically affect other areas of the globe?
During the so-called “Cold War” (1947-89) between the USSR and countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), nuclear deterrence was the concept that prevented any country from attacking another with a nuclear bomb — i.e., the possession of nuclear weapons prevents the possessor state from being attacked, simply because the opponent fears the response.
It could be argued that the absence of any nuclear catastrophe since 1946 can be attributed to luck rather than anything else. More than once during the Cold War the decision for or against the use of nuclear weapons was in the hands of one man, and one misinterpretation could have started a nuclear war. This dependence on the “finger” of one man remains the case today. NATO and Russia do not adhere to a No First Use policy; either could fire off a nuclear weapon to start a war.
What other aspects of nuclear weapons should give Palo Altans cause for concern? According to Palo Alto resident William J. Perry, who worked on nuclear weapons much of his life — as a defense contractor in Santa Clara County, as the Pentagon official in charge of weapons research during the Carter administration, and as secretary of defense (1994-97) under President Bill Clinton — we should be worrying about the world blundering into a nuclear war, which could happen through false alarms of incoming ICBMs, or errors in computer programs. We should also worry about terrorists accumulating enough fissile material to make a nuclear bomb and setting it off in central Washington, D.C.
Perry’s recent memoir, “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” describes how he became terrified by the current situation with nuclear weapons. Nuclear-security experts say we should worry about India and Pakistan, which have about 60 nuclear weapons each. These two neighboring countries have fought three major wars since they were created in 1947 and are still at loggerheads over the state of Kashmir. That is where the scourges of nuclear weapons and climate change could merge: A glacial melt in disputed Kashmir could destabilize agriculture and prompt conflict over water resources and electric power, which might bring India and Pakistan to a nuclear brink.
So what are the approximately 140 nations who don’t possess nuclear weapons, or aren’t protected by the “nuclear umbrella” of those who do, doing about nuclear weapons? They have considered the 1996 advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular to the principles and rules of humanitarian law.” This advisory opinion is based on the fact that nuclear weapons are by their nature indiscriminate; they don’t distinguish between noncombatants and combatants. Thus the use of nuclear weapons is generally considered to be illegal, and the United Nations General Assembly has started working on a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, declaring that “it will be a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”
The first draft of this most important treaty was released in Geneva, Switzerland, in May. The draft was developed through discussions among 132 nations at the UN headquarters last March. The negotiations resumed June 15 and are expected to continue until July 7.
The world has already banned biological weapons (1972), chemical weapons (1993), land mines (1997) and cluster munitions (2008). Now we must get rid of the worst weapons of all.
What am I doing to support this goal? There are four actions that you can do, too.
• The mission of the international organization Mayors for Peace (MfP) is to raise worldwide public awareness regarding the need to abolish nuclear weapons. MfP members are cities; there are 7,355 MfP member cities in 162 countries; 31 members are in California, including Berkeley, Carmel-by-the-Sea, Oakland, San Francisco and Santa Cruz. But Palo Alto withdrew from Mayors for Peace in 2013. Write to the Palo Alto mayor urging him to rejoin MfP.
• Stand on the corner of El Camino and Embarcadero in Palo Alto from noon to 1 p.m. on Saturday, June 17, to show your support for the UN treaty to ban the bomb.
• Join our local branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom; write to firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how.
• I don’t have enough space in this column to fully explain why Palo Altans should be very worried about nuclear weapons. You can find out more at reachingcriticalwill.org. And to scare you into action like I was scared, I recommend taking the free online course called “Living at the Nuclear Brink: Yesterday and Today,” created by the above-mentioned William J. Perry, available to start anytime by going to tinyurl.com/nuclearbrink17.
To quote Perry: “Today the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.”
Cherrill Spencer is the coordinator of the DISARM/Peace Committee of the Peninsula/Palo Alto Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She can be reached at email@example.com.