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Our Intolerable Risk


In a 2012 Status of World Nuclear Forces report, The Federation of American Scientists (FAS, founded in 1945 by many of the original group of scientists who invented and built the first atomic bombs and who later came to oppose them) estimates that 1,800 Russian and U.S. nuclear warheads are on “high alert,” ready to strike at the push of a button.  This, two decades after the Cold War ended. While it is difficult to ascertain how many nuclear warheads exist in each nation without access to classified information, based on publicly available information, the FAS counts approximately 16,200 stockpiled nuclear warheads, of which almost 4,000 are “operational.”

That this level of risk is holding the people of the world hostage is intolerable. At any moment, a miscalculation, human, electrical, mechanical, or electronic hacking could plunge us into a worldwide nuclear holocaust. The tragic events at Fukushima have clearly demonstrated that we cannot prevent our technology from being overwhelmed by such natural events as an earthquake, or the fires, floods and storms of climate change. The hacking of Iranian nuclear systems by the Stuxnet worm within the last several years suggests that any firewalls against unauthorized launch of missiles could be in question.

If a small fraction (as few as 50, according to the American Geophysical Union) of those 1,800 “high alert” warheads were to detonate on either of our nations, Russia or the U.S., such a detonation would cause a worldwide catastrophe. Target cities and all their contents would be incinerated in minutes. The nuclear fireballs and the following firestorms would lift millions of tons of radioactive soot into the stratosphere, where it would circle the earth, creating a nuclear winter that would catastrophically reduce food crops and cause famine. It would disrupt the ozone layer, allowing stronger rays to reach the surface, injuring eyesight and increasing skin cancers. The radioactive fallout would increase stillbirths, leukemia, cancers and other diseases wherever it settled, on friend and foe alike. Even a relatively small exchange of nuclear weapons would threaten life worldwide, unjustly impacting billions of civilians in countries with no stake in any struggles between the nuclear weapons states.

Do Russians and Americans really want to incinerate each other? These two great nations – clever enough to reach the moon – must act to preserve themselves and all others from the horrors of nuclear war. We have reduced the total number of deployed weapons, yet this intolerable risk remains. There should be no nuclear weapons ready for rapid deployment anywhere on Earth. Now that we are fully aware of the indiscriminate nature of these weapons and their widespread effects, it is a massively costly Crime Against Humanity to “update and modernize” these weapons. The people of the world must demand that all the nuclear weapons states reduce this danger by removing the warheads from their delivery vehicles, and allow international inspection of their delivery systems.

The tragedy is that for some people in the nuclear-equipped nations, this insane behavior is their way of life; they think of themselves as patriots. The sad truth, eloquently detailed in a 2012 Center for International Policy report, “Bombs Versus Budgets: Inside the Nuclear Weapons Lobby,” is that Senators and Representatives, strongly influenced by military-corporate lobbying, are demanding that the nuclear facilities in their states and districts be preserved. The future of life on Earth is jeopardized for the profits of military corporations!

For 67 years we have poured money and lives into nuclear security, only to realize that it is a very costly illusion. Nuclear weapons are suicide weapons. There are no problems that can be solved by indiscriminately incinerating human beings or by gradually destroying the genetic basis of human life with fallout radiation. Taking these warheads off their delivery systems is a first step toward greater security for all people. Surely we humans are clever enough to be rid of this terrible, fruitless risk.

Peter G. Cohen, artist-writer, is the author of the website, a veteran of World War II, and writes for PeaceVoice. 



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