Nuclear weapons are considered to be some of the world’s most dangerous armaments. Categorized as weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), they have the capability of leveling cities, killing millions, and destroying the environment for generations to come due to the extreme heat, blast wave, and ionizing radiation they release. Evidence of their horrors is paramount in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where the first and last nuclear attacks in history took place.
In Hiroshima 80,000 people were killed instantly, with an additional 40,000 dying in Nagasaki, and 100,000 more in the following months due to radiation poisoning. The consequences continued to persist for decades, and continue to do so today. Over seven decades later, victims continue to suffer the cost of paranoia and belligerence.
According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC),
As of March 2014 the Japanese government officially recognized 192,719 living persons as atomic bomb survivors or “hibakusha”. Of these 119,169 were directly exposed at the time of the atomic bombings, 45,260 were exposed by entering the cities in the following weeks, 20,939 risked exposure through relief, burial and similar activities and 7,351 were unborn children at the time of the exposure of their parents (from the types of exposure just listed).
Studies showed that of those who survived, many (mainly children) have faced various forms of cancer at higher rates throughout their lives, including forms of leukemia that are generally prevalent in elder people. According to ICRC, “This is attributed to exposure of the entire body to radiation at the time of the bombing, causing damage to stem cells in multiple organs which in turn can produce abnormal cells that become cancerous.” There is even the possibility of “second generation” effects, as the children of those exposed to radiation may, through radiation-damaged genes, develop cancer in the age range that is highly responsive to the disease.
Aside from physical health issues, psychological health issues also abound. Studies enacted in 1995 that incorporated the World Health Organization methodologies found that many survivors had long-lasting psychological instability, such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. People who either lost family members or themselves suffered from radiation sickness are particularly unstable.
The ICRC warns that in general, “The effects of nuclear weapons on the populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were exposed to radiation produced a massive medical caseload that was difficult to treat before the rebuilding of the health infrastructure in post-war Japan.” Many nations cannot provide necessary and sufficient aid required in treating large numbers of victims of nuclear explosions, and neither can the Red Cross. It is unattainable on the international scope, which markedly increases the dangers of nuclear weapons.
Despite the harrowing consequences of a nuclear explosion and the grim expectations of post-deployment aid, nuclear weapons continue to occupy a central position in both domestic and international affairs. Eight states are currently known to have operational nuclear weapons capabilities. Of the eight, five—China, the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and Russia—are recognized as Nuclear-Weapon States (NWS), a designation that marks the states that are officially recognized as nuclear weapons holders under the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). NPT legitimates these nations’ use and ownership of nuclear weapons, yet prevents, and in so doing, attempts to limit, the perpetual creation and spread of nuclear technology and armaments. The other three states—Pakistan, India, and North Korea—are not officially recognized; their illegitimate ownership and use of nuclear weapons makes them highly dangerous to the international world.
Between the five NWS states, China is approximated to have 260 total warheads, and France, 300. Russia, according to the Arms Control Association, has “1,735 strategic warheads deployed on 521 ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles), SLBMs (submarine- launched ballistic missiles), and strategic bombers” and “roughly 2,700 non-deployed strategic and deployed and non-deployed tactical warheads. And 3,200 additional warheads awaiting dismantlement.” The UK has roughly 120 strategic warheads, and of those 120, at most 40 at any given time are deployed at sea on nuclear ballistic missile submarines (of which it has four). Its entire stockpile is estimated to be about 215 warheads. The U.S. has “1,481 strategic nuclear warheads deployed on 741 ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers” with “2,570 non-deployed strategic warheads and 500 deployed and non-deployed tactical warheads.” As of September 30, 2015, the United States has 4,571 active and inactive nuclear warheads, and as of April 2015, about 2,500 warheads, not included in the 4,571, are awaiting dismantlement.
The numbers are relatively high, yet they pale in comparison to Cold War numbers. According to the ACA, at the conclusion of the first nonproliferation agreement between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1968, “the nuclear stockpiles of both the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia numbered in the tens of thousands.” Continuous revivals of arms limitation treaties, which first went into effect between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. just two years after the NPT, have significantly reduced the stockpiles of the former bipolar powers. Their systems today are significantly more modernized, yet they only “deploy more than 1,500 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles.”
Yet the numbers remain in the higher ranges. As the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs noted, about 22,000 nuclear weapons are reported to be in existence today and over 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted. This is due to the fact that their very existence, while extremely dangerous, is widely accepted as imperative for deterrence in the contemporary global security environment.
Deterrence theory follows the notion that the fear of retaliation dictates the extent to which states will act. Nuclear weapons are the ultimate source of deterrence. They have the capability to obliterate cities and cause mass casualties. With such absolutes in a system (war) characterized by the lack thereof, states are rationally tasked with true consideration. One miscalculation or misinterpretation can create a set of consequences that are near impossible to return from. It is under such conditions that nuclear weapons operate. They are in some ways the ultimate peacekeepers, as they have the ability to instill innate fear in their potential targets. That fear, to a certain extent, is considered valuable in the current security environment.
The emerging security environment, according to a policy released jointly by the Department of Defense and Department of Energy, is characterized by states of concern, violent extremists and non-state actors, and major existing nuclear states outside of NATO. States of concern have or seek to obtain WMDs and their delivery systems. They do not act within the norms of the international community. Violent Extremists and Non-State Actors are organizations outside the state system that use violent means to achieve goals that are against the values of both the United States and the Western world. They too seek WMDs and the resources to deliver these weapons. Major Existing Nuclear States Outside of NATO, like China and Russia pose a significant threat because they continue to develop and modernize their nuclear arsenals, yet the trajectory of their politics is still unknown.
Each characteristic of the modern security environment requires a significant deterrent and, collectively, the need for deterrence is considerably higher. The United States and the world cannot realistically uphold their safety against such threats because the nature of security has fundamentally been altered. Conventional tactics cannot match even a small nuclear arsenal, as even the relatively underdeveloped ones have the power to deliver a devastating blow.
This is significant because the United States and the world at large believed that the end of the Cold War brought about the change needed in order to provide for peace in the security environment without the need of weapons of mass destruction. The problem with this thought process is that, while the Soviet Union and the threat of its arsenal withered away, the knowledge and innovation accrued during the bipolar years, and the general instability of the anarchic system, persisted.
Danger, while taking new form, continues today, and is arguably far worse than that of the Cold War era. Enemies today are no longer simply other states in the system. With the rise of terrorism in the beginning of the 21st century, sub-state actors play a significant role in international security. According to the DoD, their roles are magnified by the fact that, “Some of the most serious non-state actors receive support from states that seek to use extremists and non-state actors as proxies.” Such actors include Hezbollah, who is back by Iran and Syria.
Even the Nonproliferation Treaty itself is flawed and potentially dangerous, as it is incapable of following its own objectives. It lacks the necessary component of complete international cooperation that allows for successful implementation. This shortfall also manifests itself in the actions of the nations who adhere to it, as a number of the participating states have on occasion violated its terms, with the United States itself—an important component and advocate—included. This is because the treaty, at its core, lacks the necessary collective understanding of the imminence of a nuclear threat. True recognition has to be embedded within the treaty’s framework in order for violations and persistent belligerence to come to a halt.
On the one hand the world possesses a latent desire to be free of the moral burden that nuclear capability causes, yet on the other, it is far too underdeveloped in the international sense for the notion of complete disarmament to be anything but a goal of the very distant future.
Yet the cruel reality of the situation is that without the international system, the business of nuclear proliferation would never have existed. The anarchic nature of the international system delineates states’ basic desires—security and, for some, power. The continuous demands to satisfy those desires in turn drive the business of military development, and such development is the source of nuclear capability. The cycle perpetuates itself because states continuously look for new sources of security and, in obtaining them, release a form of danger for other states, which then follow suite.
The implication of this self-perpetuating cycle is that because the source is the international system, it (as well as its consequences), cannot disappear. The system by its nature will, and in theory must, continue its process, which means that solace must be found in the states themselves.
Only through cooperation and control can the United States and other powers, whether they be superpowers, great powers, or just states, actively limit their impact on the world they reside in. Only through controlled production and distribution as well as international cooperation can the consequences of human paranoia and belligerence be mitigated.
United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs:
World Health Organization:
International Committee of the Red Cross:
Arms Control Association:
Department of Defense:
Center for Research on Globalization: