Problems with Nuclear Weapons: An Everlasting Cold War?

Megan Moutsatsos, Queens University.

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Historically wars have been fought with swords, guns, and explosives. These weapons have undergone intensive development throughout history. The bomb in particular has arguably undergone the most significant change, for it inspired what would soon become known as the atomic bomb — a powerful nuclear weapon capable of mass destruction.

Atomic bombs produce their enormous explosive energy through fission, a nuclear reaction in which an atom’s nucleus breaks apart into smaller pieces. From the atomic bomb, the hydrogen bomb was born. In addition to relying on fission, the hydrogen bomb also makes use of fusion, in which two separate atoms combine to form a third. More nuclear energy is released during the fusion blast, resulting in a more powerful explosion, making the hydrogen bomb fundamentally more destructive than the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have evidently come a long way, but they weren’t always around — and perhaps for the better.

The technology for nuclear weapons was first developed by the United States during the Second World War. In 1945, the first atomic bomb was set off in an event named the Trinity Test, creating an enormous mushroom cloud over 40,000 feet high. This successful test paved the way for the United States to drop the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing 80,000 people on impact, and creating lethal radiation that took tens of thousands more lives in the weeks to come. Three days later, the United States dropped the second, and final, atomic bomb on Japan’s Nagasaki, thus ending the war by forcing Japan’s surrender.

Nuclear weapons also played a tremendous role in the Cold War. In the years following the Second World War, the United States was the only country in possession of nuclear weapons; the Soviet Union lacked the knowledge and raw materials to produce them. This balance of power shifted when Soviet spies gained fission-style bomb blueprints. Nuclear testing and research, now the focus of several countries, namely the United States and the Soviet Union, began the Cold War. After years of paranoia and fear, the five countries in possession of nuclear weapons at the time — the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, France, and China — signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to restore peace between the nations. The eventual goal of the treaty remains total disarmament of nuclear weapons. Most treaties however, are flawed, and the NPT is no exception. Firstly, the treaty does not actually strip nations with nuclear power of their right to continue producing nuclear weapons. Secondly, some countries never signed it — India, Pakistan, Israel, and South Sudan among them — and North Korea even withdrew from the treaty in 2003 to pursue nuclear production. Some even believe particular countries are using their signing of the NPT to conceal their efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

Despite the positive goal of the NPT, the threat of nuclear weapons is still ever prominent. Nine countries are currently known to produce them — including the United States, Russia, Pakistan, and North Korea — and both Russia and the United States have thousands stockpiled. The remaining threat of nuclear weapons has naturally led to a plethora of issues, such as the way they serve as vehicles of intimation. For instance, in 2019, a North Korean official ominously announced that North Korea would be gifting the United States with a “Christmas gift”. Observers predicted the “gift” would be an intercontinental ballistic missile test, their first since 2017, which would mark increased tensions between North Korea and the United States. On Christmas Day, however, North Korea issued no such test — in fact, nothing happened. Regardless, North Korea’s ominous statement did its damage: it stirred up fear and anxiety in the United States. Mintaro Oba, a former U.S. State Department official, even stated, “It tried to heighten the fear of increased tension in a language Americans would latch onto.” The “language” likely referred to the paranoia North Korea knew would emerge at the threat of a nuclear attack.

Nuclear weapons have the potential to intimidate nations for one main reason: they are dangerous. The United States, for instance, is currently in possession of a hydrogen bomb called “B83” — and it is 75 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. If dropped on London, the bomb would kill approximately 700,000 people. Up to eleven kilometres from the site, people and animals would suffer third degree burns. Up to twelve kilometres from the site, windows would shatter. And the lethal radiation would slowly slaughter hundreds of thousands more.

Thankfully, the international community is working to reduce the number of nuclear weapons present in the world. They are witnessing some success: the number of nuclear weapons on Earth fell from 14,465 in 2018 to around 13,885 in 2019. Additionally, the United Nations introduced the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017. While the treaty has yet to come into play, it seeks to eliminate the arsenal of nuclear weapons. There are even organizations, such as Peace Action in the United States, advocating for the global abolition of nuclear weapons.

While nuclear weapons function as excellent deterrents, testaments to a nation’s strength and thus their ability to successfully retaliate if attacked, their presence is ultimately more harmful to society than it is beneficial. They ignite intense fear and paranoia within citizens, as evident from the rallying efforts of antinuclear organizations such as Peace Action, and from the American public’s response to North Korea’s proposed “Christmas gift”. Most importantly, nuclear weapons are lethal. They have the power to destroy hundreds of thousands of lives upon impact, and millions more with time. As more and more nuclear weapons are stockpiled, with nations endeavouring to produce the most powerful weapons, paranoia hangs in the air, and an everlasting Cold War is fuelled. In unlikely scenarios, if a terrorist group were to obtain a nuclear weapon, or if Third World War broke out, the world would be in trouble. After all, if one nuclear weapon is dropped, it will likely be a chain reaction:  more will follow.

In order to ensure the world’s protection from mass destruction, to reduce the festering paranoia surrounding nuclear warfare, the threat of nuclear weapons must be eliminated. The stockpiles must deplete, the rapid production and relentless experimentation must come to a halt, and the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons must be successfully implemented. In fact, the Treaty might be our last hope for a world without nuclear weapons.

For a world that is much, much safer.

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