Emma Sarron Webster, TEENVOGUE, March 22, 2017
In late January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the “Doomsday Clock” 30 seconds closer to midnight. The clock is symbolic, with midnight representing the end of the world; the group moves the minute and second hands based on its analysis of various threats to humanity. Now, at two and a half minutes to midnight, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand is closer to the catastrophic hour than it’s been since 1953. The decision to move it was in part because of Trump’s recent comments on nuclear arms, as well as nuclear tests by North Korea and new ballistics missiles being built by Russia.
Right now, nearly 15,000 nuclear weapons are estimated to exist in the world (that’s down from the 70,000-plus that existed in the Cold War era), with the U.S. and Russia owning approximately 93% of those. The remaining 7% is owned by six other countries: France, China, the United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, and Israel.
Here’s what you need to know about nuclear weapons.
What are nuclear weapons and proliferation?
Nuclear weapons are explosive devices that derive their destructive force from a combination of chemical explosives and nuclear reactions. They can be fired using airplanes, submarines, or missiles launched from silos. They can destroy entire cities, wipe out millions of people, and cause long-term, devastating effects to the environment and to human health.
The first nuclear weapons were developed during World War II, and they’ve only been used in warfare twice, when the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Since then, other countries have acquired nuclear weapons, and more than 2,000 nuclear tests have been conducted.
Under the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), the term “nuclear proliferation” refers to the spread of nuclear weapons (including weapon material, information, and technology) to states that don’t already have them, while nonproliferation refers to preventing such a spread.
What is the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and why is it important?
The Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is an international agreement covering three pillars: disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The core of the NPT states that “countries with nuclear weapons will move towards disarmament; countries without nuclear weapons will not acquire them; and all countries can access peaceful nuclear technology.”
The NPT was developed in the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis (when the U.S. and the Soviet Union teetered on the brink of nuclear war following the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba) and has been in effect since 1970. There are 190 countries that are signatories to the NPT, including five nuclear states: the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, and China. North Korea signed the NPT in 1985 but withdrew in 2003. India, Israel, and Pakistan have never signed the agreement.
“This treaty is just a piece of paper, but it has done a great deal in terms of limiting the creation of new nuclear capable states and fostering international cooperation,” Angelica Gheen, a radiation-health physicist at a large research university, tells Teen Vogue. Along with nonproliferation, “this has led to an environment of global cooperation on nuclear security…and it allowed for [South Africa] to successfully disarm with international resources,” a process that took place from 1989 to 1991, culminating in South Africa joining the NPT in ’91.
Some believe that nuclear proliferation can actually prevent war, with the dangerous weapons acting as deterrents to countries considering attacks. However, some studies state otherwise. Research has also shown that the closer a country is to acquiring nuclear weapons, the more likely it is to be attacked.
What are the main concerns with nuclear weapons?
Despite treaties and presumptions of deterrence, the fear that nuclear weapons could end up in the wrong hands or that existing nuclear states could choose to attack is real. “Terrorists are working every day to try to get their hands on weapons-grade materials that they could use in a bomb,” John Tierney, executive director at the Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization “dedicated to enhancing peace and security” through policy analysis and research, tells Teen Vogue.
There are also concerns associated with nuclear states that aren’t bound by the NPT, like North Korea, which has conducted several nuclear weapons tests over the years, as well as India and Pakistan, which have both conducted nuclear tests and are pursuing new nuclear delivery systems.
Though Syria and Iran don’t currently have nuclear weapons, both are believed to have taken steps toward proliferation, in violation of the treaty’s terms. (The 2015 Iran nuclear deal among Iran, the U.S., and five other countries was developed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.) And then there are China and Russia. A Chinese state-run newspaper, Global Times, recently called for an increase in nuclear capabilities, and U.S. officials believe that China — North Korea’s only major ally — has supplied nuclear technology and materials to other countries. Russia has also caused concern recently: In 2014, U.S. officials said Russia violated the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by testing a ground-launched cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The treaty bans missiles capable of traveling between 310 miles and 3,400 miles, and experts believed the weapon Russia tested had that capability. And in December 2016, Russian president Vladimir Putin said the country needed to “strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces.”
And though in 2010 the U.S. and Russia signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to further limit nuclear arsenals (requiring each state to limit its number of deployed warheads to 1,550 by February 5, 2018), both countries (as well as China) are undergoing modernization of their nuclear arsenals. But if the goal is to eliminate nuclear weapons, what’s the point of updating them? From the looks of it, some people believe Russia’s modernization is a sign that they’re working on a new bomb and that America’s modernization is in response to that. Then again, the Center for Arms Control states that the U.S. modernization plans are based on maintaining the amount of nuclear weapons (as deterrents) agreed upon under the New START Treaty — and those goals may be necessary, considering some systems still currently exist on floppy disks. “I don’t think anybody would have an objection [to modernization] as long as [the weapons are] serving the purpose of deterrent, and if we’re committed to eventually reducing the numbers and eliminating them, you want them to be safe and secure,” Tierney says. “But if people are using this modernization process as a guise to proliferate [and] to create more dangerous and risky weapons, then that just escalates the risk of a nuclear mistake or a nuclear incident.”
What is the risk of a nuclear mistake or incident?
Which brings us to another important point: Aside from acts of aggression, there’s the very real concern about simple mistakes that could have catastrophic effects. Between 1950 and 2013, there were 32 nuclear weapon accidents, or “broken arrows,” in which weapons were accidentally launched, fired, detonated, stolen, or lost; six lost weapons were never found. Fortunately, those accidents haven’t resulted in a nuclear explosion, but there have been close calls. In 1980, a missile technician dropped a socket from a socket wrench, which fell 70 feet and pierced the side of the underground Titan II missile, causing it to explode, killing one person. But had the incident caused the missile’s nuclear warhead to detonate, it would have wiped out all of Arkansas.
And then there are the close calls that come with making the decision to detonate a nuclear weapon. In 1983, the Soviet Union’s missile-detection systems mistakenly detected an incoming strike from the U.S. that was triggered by the sun’s reflection off of cloud tops. Instead of registering the supposed nuclear attack, the Soviet duty officer, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, acted on a gut feeling and instead registered it as a false alarm, avoiding a nuclear disaster. There have been other close calls with similar outcomes: narrowly avoided catastrophes based on human decisions.
And making that decision is something that has to be done in an incredibly short time frame, given that if a nuclear weapon is on its way, it’s only a matter of minutes before it hits. Thus, the U.S. has weapons that are on “hair-trigger alert,” which enables them to be launched within minutes, but it also means an increased likelihood of accidental launches or launches in response to false alarms.
When an alert happens, the military chain of command has less than 30 minutes to go through the process of assessing the threat, communicating with the president, and launching a retaliation if the president gives the go-ahead. “One of the reasons why these weapons are so dangerous is that unlike sending people to war and having a little bit of process and hopefully a congressional debate, and then a vote about whether or not to go into war, this is a decision that one person is making and in such a short time frame,” Tierney says.
Why is there concern surrounding Donald Trump and nuclear weaponry?
The U.S. has a “first strike” nuclear weapon policy, meaning America can activate weapons against another country without being attacked first. And President Donald Trump has the final say. Though national security advisors can brief him, it’s ultimately up to the president whether or not to attack, a point that came up during the presidential campaign when Hillary Clinton called out Trump’s impulsivity and how it could affect his decisions with the nuclear codes.
And though Trump said that receiving the nuclear codes was “sobering,” his various statements on the topic are cause for concern. Just one month before his inauguration, Trump tweeted that the U.S. should “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” a statement in direct contrast with Obama’s stated policy of nonproliferation. When asked about the tweet, Trump told MSNBC in a statement, “Let it be an arms race.” He seemingly reinforced those views just a few weeks ago, telling Reuters that the U.S. nuclear arsenal should be at the “top of the pack.”
“When Donald Trump tweets casually about the U.S.’s need to ‘strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,’ it drastically undermines all of these efforts and years of work to denormalize the escalation of nuclear weapon proliferation,” Gheen says. She notes that the NPT was already weakened by the loss of North Korea, and if the U.S., one of the two remaining major nuclear powers in the agreement, were to ever withdraw, the NPT would likely be dissolved.
On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to do away with the Iran nuclear deal, though his more recent lack of comments on the deal give the impression that he may keep the agreement intact. Even if he does try to renegotiate or withdraw from the deal — which, Tierney says, has already been a success — he’ll likely face pushback from U.S. officials and other countries that support it. “The fact of the matter is … [the deal] has worked,” Tierney says. “It’s done what it was intended to do: It’s put us in a much less risky situation, and the other [nations] that were partners in negotiating this…they want it to stay.”
Not long after that tweet, Trump took to Twitter again, in response to North Korea’s recent missile test, dismissing the country’s claims that it is developing a weapon capable of hitting the U.S. Some experts, however, believe it’s only a matter of time before North Korea develops such a weapon. “With an unpredictable Kim Jong Un [North Korea’s leader]…it is time for a very delicate diplomacy,” Gheen says. “With Donald Trump tweeting without thought for consequence, you have a scenario with two prideful, impulsive, nuclear-armed leaders. Add China into the mix, which is pretty much DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea]’s only ally and [a nation that] has nuclear capabilities, and [there’s] a growing anxiety over Donald Trump.”
Part of that also has to do with Trump’s hiring — and firing — decisions. The president nominated former Texas governor Rick Perry to lead the Department of Energy (DOE), which oversees the country’s nuclear programs. But unlike his predecessors, like MIT nuclear physicist Ernest Moniz, Perry — who once advocated for abolishing the DOE — has minimal education or experience in the field. During his confirmation hearings, Perry gave vague responses to questions about the U.S. nuclear warheads program, and it turns out he may not have been clear on what his role would be when he accepted the offer. Tierney noted that between Trump and Perry, “there’s concern that there’s a lack of technical knowledge [and] a lack of appreciation for the complexity and for the risk involved.”
And those concerns are heightened when you consider the fact that aside from his one-off tweets and eyebrow-raising statements, Trump hasn’t really shared a clear vision for the future of nuclear arms. “Effective nuclear and radiological emergency response, detection, and prevention requires a well-coordinated national effort,” Gheen says. “A unified national message is essential to maintain funding and efficacy of these programs…. The Trump transition team [showed] little interest in making the continuation of these programs a priority.”
Clearly, the issue of nuclear weaponry and proliferation is a sensitive and dangerous one. To maintain safety and avoid large-scale destruction, Tierney believes Trump needs to continue President Obama’s efforts in nonproliferation, and that he and Perry need to hire experts in the DOE and the administration who have significant knowledge and understanding of nuclear weapons necessary to advise the president and the secretary of energy.
As for the weapons themselves, Tierney and others believe the U.S. needs to take weapons off high alert and work with Russia to do the same. “No matter who’s the president, it’s almost too huge a task to expect anybody to encumber and have 100% accuracy all the time,” Tierney says. “If you’ve only got about 30 to 45 minutes to make a decision as monumental as that, that clearly isn’t enough time in most instances for somebody to have a full appreciation of all the facts that are going on and to make good judgment.” Multiple leaders as well as scientists have called for weapons to be taken off high alert.
And in January, Democratic senator Ed Markey and congressman Ted Lieu introduced legislation to restrict the “first use” policy and prohibit Trump from launching a nuclear first strike without a declaration of war from Congress.
Ultimately, Gheen says, Trump and the U.S. need to continue to partner with other countries, particularly nuclear states, to help avoid a disaster. “There is a great tradition of international nuclear cooperation, especially within organizations like the International Atomic Energy Agency, an international organization that promotes “safe, secure, and peaceful uses of nuclear science and technology,” she says. “Together we can propose creative solutions for [nuclear] issues.”
Tierney notes, though, that this is something that may also require a grassroots effort. “We need to get a public movement in gear again to understand that these risks are out there, and as frightful as they are, they can be dealt with,” he says. “We’ve had success in the past and we need to get people together, but it’s [going to] take a voice of people, a movement, to get people to speak up loudly enough that the people who make these decisions in the capitals of various countries react as they did in the ’80s and start taking action to stop the proliferation of these weapons and eventually keep on decreasing them, and put us in a safer environment.”