Why Nuclear Proliferation Poses an Ever-Increasing Threat

In Environment, Human rights, Justice, Nuclear abolition, Nuclear Guardianship, Nuclear Policy, Peace on April 23, 2016 at 7:48 am


Right after watching the apocalyptic nuclear war film The Day After, President Reagan wrote in his diary that it was “very effective” and left him “greatly depressed.” He would eventually push nuclear disarmament to the top of his agenda midway through his presidency. With the same goal in mind, the Tribeca Film Festival will premiere Command and Control in the hope of engaging viewers in a debate about the future use of nuclear weapons. This high-stakes documentary thriller—based on Eric Schlosser’s 2013 book of the same name and directed by Robert Kenner (who brought us Food, Inc.)—offers a distressing account of the imminent risks posed by nuclear weapons. The author, an investigative journalist, questions their safety and believes that the world is at risk of experiencing a nuclear catastrophe, whether intended or not.

If our fears around nuclear weapons have dissipated, it could possibly be attributed to the doctrine of “mutual assured destruction.” Throughout the Cold War nuclear, proliferation fueled political instability and diplomatic tensions. At the time, the fear of nuclear warfare sparked worldwide demonstrations, drawing hundreds of thousands of anti-nuclear protestors to the streets of American cities. The doctrine of mutual assured destruction (otherwise known as the MAD scenario)—whereby two states with a second strike nuclear capability would never engage in nuclear warfare to prevent their mutual demise—prevailed, and the fear of nuclear weapons seems to have waned slightly in the Western hemisphere. Schlosser argues we have become complacent about nuclear weapons by forgetting how close we have been to nuclear war in the past.

And yet, in the words of famous anti-nuclear activist Dr. Helen Caldicott, “nuclear proliferation is a threat as great as climate change.” On the surface, progress has been made in regard to nuclear disarmament in the last decades. As the International Atomic Energy Agency contends, if not for the Non-Proliferation Treaty (an international treaty that was established to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology), 35 to 40 states would have successful nuclear programs by now. Only nine do. This includes the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States (parties to the Non-Proliferation Treaty)—along with India, Pakistan, and North Korea (who never signed the treaty). Several countries such as Brazil, South Korea, and Argentina initiated nuclear efforts before renouncing them altogether. The international community has suspected proliferation activity in Iraq and Iran. Finally, South Africa, Libya, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Belarus have dismantled their nuclear arsenals.

But if we take a closer look, it’s evident that the international community and more directly the five nuclear powers have been unable to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Nuclear proliferation, therefore, continues to drive profound geopolitical instability, as illustrated by the UN Security Council’s relentless efforts to reach an agreement with Iran on the future of its nuclear program. These negotiations should serve as a pressing reminder that governments have, at the push of a button, the firepower to wipe out entire cities.

What’s even more alarming is that most conflicts today are triggered by non-state actors. And according to Michael Horowitz of the University of Pennsylvania, leaders with revolutionary pasts have a greater propensity toward seeking nuclear capability. In North Korea, for instance, Kim Jong-Un has pursued a nuclear program at the expense of the country’s ailing economy. He approved the country’s fourth nuclear test in January 2015 in defiance of UN sanctions and just last week attempted the launch of an intermediate-range ballistic missile.

Non-state actors are not the only concern. The miniaturization of nuclear equipment and other technological advances have facilitated the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorist groups, organized crime networks, and rebel movements. Nuclear weapons of all kinds were abandoned across a staggering landmass roughly the size of Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union, leaving a thriving black market in Eastern Europe. This has arguably been the most serious consequence of nuclear proliferation, as terrorist groups, including ISIS, actively seek radioactive materials to produce “dirty bombs.”
While attention has been paid to the potential threat that terrorists equipped with nuclear weapons could pose, there has been less discussion of the possible scenario of a terrorist attack on nuclear sites. A strike on a nuclear power plant would unleash a wave of highly toxic radiation. An article in the New York Times suggests that several nuclear sites across Europe remain vulnerable, including several in Belgium and France, where ISIS recently perpetrated devastating attacks.

In Command and Control, Schlosser not only calls attention to the potential global threats posed by nuclear weapons but also highlights the very real and present danger of nuclear accidents. In the course of the film, he sheds light on a nuclear incident that up until the publication of his book had been concealed from the general public. In 1980, during a routine maintenance check on a warhead buried deep underground in Damascus, Arkansas, one of the nuclear technicians accidentally dropped a socket, which fell deep into the belly of the silo where the warhead was housed, knocking a hole in its side. The damage caused a leak of toxic and potentially explosive fuel that could have set the bomb itself off. The movie features chilling testimonies from military experts and missile technicians who expose the shortcomings of the American nuclear management system that led to the accident.

For Schlosser, our current nuclear technology leaves no room for human error, yet as First Lieutenant Allan Childers notes in the film, “when you’re working on a weapon of mass destruction, you’re counting on everything to work perfect all the time—and things just don’t work perfect all the time.”

Much has been done in the United States to raise awareness about the dangers of nuclear proliferation but the perception that nuclear weapons make us safer is still widespread. The Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit public-policy institute recently published a report outlining a series of rational arguments to counter our fear of the potential security threats posed by disarmament. The report presents empirical evidence of the link between proliferation and nuclear accidents rather than citing the moral obligation of the United States to disarm. The 25-page paper contends that the continuous threat of terrorism has made Americans anxious over the issue of nuclear proliferation and keen to preserve the “ultimate weapon.” Similar to people who support our Second Amendment right to bear arms, proponents of nuclear weapons view them as a deterrent against other nuclear weapons. Ultimately, a reframing of this debate must entail a clear understanding that nuclear weapons are a threat in and of themselves.

The feedback loop, in which instability promotes proliferation, brings into sharp focus the need to promote nuclear disarmament. As Peter Maurer, the president of the Red Cross, put it in a 2015 speech: “Nuclear weapons are often presented as promoting security, particularly during times of international instability. But weapons that risk catastrophic and irreversible humanitarian consequences cannot seriously be viewed as protecting civilians or humanity as a whole.”

Much like Reagan’s presidency in 1981, Obama’s was still in its infancy when he resolved to foster a world of peace and security, free of nuclear weapons. Additionally, he recently hosted 50 world leaders and four international organizations for the 2016 Nuclear Security Summit held in Washington, which mainly dealt with preventing global nuclear terrorism. In his closing statement, President Obama lauded efforts by the international community to remove and secure “all the highly enriched uranium and plutonium from more than fifty facilities in thirty countries”. He recognized, however, that the United States and Russia were not showing enough leadership in the disarmament process and warned against rivalrous nuclear escalation between India and Pakistan.

It’s clear that the road to disarmament will be paved with obstacles, but if there is one thing that Command and Control leaves the viewer with, it is a lasting understanding of the ever present danger caused by the mere existence of these powerful weapons.

VICE is a supporting editorial partner of the Tribeca Film Festival and invites you to experience the bomb.


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