The World Is Not Ready For Nuclear Disarmament


Last block there were a series of anti-nuclear signs in Worner Campus Center. These signs argued that nuclear weapons are amoral and that the world needs to move urgently toward total nuclear disarmament. The signs had pictures of nuclear explosions next to dire statistics, a picture of Albert Einstein professing his anti-nuclear views, and a quote by Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” saying “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds,” in order to drive home the notion that nuclear weapons are an evil the world must expel.

It’s an argument hard to disagree with. Why would anyone want governments to be capable of destroying countless human lives at the touch of a button? Why should governments be able to end human life on Earth? 

While governments should not have that ability, the existence of nuclear weapons has actually brought about more positives than people realize. Nuclear weapons are the reason war never erupted between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Nuclear technology gives us an alternative to coal, oil, and natural gas as energy sources, which precludes the elimination of nuclear weapons — you cannot have one without the other. 

Illustration by Annabel Driussi

The Cold War was an awful chapter in human history, but one to learn from nonetheless. Why didn’t the United States and the Soviet Union attack each other directly? Primarily because they both had strong nuclear arsenals. Whether it be nuclear defense systems or offensive weapons, nuclear arsenals act as a deterrent force. So long as that deterrence exists, direct conflict will not erupt between nuclear adversaries. This minimized the human toll of the Cold War. Certainly there are visible scars, but it did not erupt into a full-scale World War, all thanks to nuclear weapons. Countries with credible nuclear threats do not attack each other directly. 

But this wasn’t only seen during the Cold War — due to its nuclear weapons program, North Korea is safer from the threat of U.S. attack than it has ever been.

On the flip side, what has happened to countries that have developed nuclear capabilities and subsequently given them up? Libya, led by Muammar Gaddafi, promised to end Libya’s nuclear weapons program in 2003. In 2011, violence broke out in the country, and the U.S. supported forces that opposed, and eventually toppled, Gaddafi. If Libya still had a nuclear program, the U.S. may not have been so gung-ho about openly supporting the rebels. 

Then, Ukraine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine gained its independence but kept its massive Soviet nuclear arsenal, which was the third largest in the world. In 1994, it agreed to sign the Non-Proliferation-Treaty and to disarm its nuclear weapons. Fast-forward to 2014 when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory, Crimea. If Ukraine had kept its nuclear weapons it would have been able to deter Russian aggression in 2014.

Moreover, it isn’t possible to discuss nuclear disarmament without also accepting that in order to completely disarm, nations must also surrender their nuclear energy capabilities. Nuclear energy currently supplies about 20 percent of the United States’ total energy, about 70 percent of France’s, and about 16 percent of Russia’s. Nuclear energy supplied the world, collectively, about 11 percent of its total energy in 2016. 

The world as a whole is not ready for denuclearization so long as so many of us rely on it for energy. Because spent nuclear reactor fuel rods can be refined and reused as weapons, countries cannot get rid of nuclear weapons capabilities without also getting rid of nuclear energy. 

This means that major world leaders, such as China and the United States, will not accept denuclearization. Neither will smaller countries like North Korea. Nuclear weapons were a Pandora’s Box that allowed us to create unimaginable damage and human suffering, but also a significant amount of clean energy. The contents of this box cannot be contained single-handedly.

One might argue that steps have already been taken to move towards disarmament, even while continuing to produce nuclear energy. In 1968, efforts to disarm took form in the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons; in 2016, 191 countries had signed that treaty, with the exceptions of India, Israel, Pakistan, and North Korea. The treaty was absolutely a step forward in relations between nuclear countries because it set guidelines for countries on how to disarm, how to use nuclear energy safely, and how to conduct diplomatic relations with other nuclear countries. But despite being drafted over 50 years ago and signed by 191 countries, including countries like the United States and Russia, nuclear weapons and nuclear tensions still exist. Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but I do not think that bodes well for disarmament as an option.

It’s not that disarmament isn’t a noble pursuit — it’s just a utopia we cannot reach.  

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