Threat of Nuclear Armageddon still a reality

Threat of Nuclear Armageddon still a reality

06 Aug 2008

Dr Christopher Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Age on 6 August 2008.

The threat of nuclear Armageddon did not die at the end of the Cold War.

In the early 1980s, with the nuclear arms race in full swing and the Doomsday Clock rushing ever closer to midnight, a story began to circulate around my home town of Hobart that the safest place in the world in the event of a nuclear winter was Tasmania.

To be precise, the town of Margate, just south of Hobart, was deemed to be the best place to be if ever the Cold War should turn hot. Margate's plentiful supply of clean water, abundant forests and rich soils, combined with the microclimate and air currents afforded by the surrounding mountains, would, according to the story, afford the ideal place to sit out nuclear Armageddon.

This news was received with a degree of what now seems misplaced pride. When you have to summon the spectre of nuclear war to highlight the virtues of where you live, something is seriously awry.

While it seems strange now, vying for the dubious honour of "Town Most Likely to Survive a Nuclear War" was a measure of just how much the threat of nuclear weapons haunted the lives of those who grew up in its shadow.

The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 seemed to be the end of the nuclear nightmare. While comment continues about the prospects of terrorists getting their hands on a "dirty bomb" and Iran's efforts to join the nuclear club, the threat of nuclear war has largely receded from day-to-day life.

While it may no longer capture the popular imagination, we are living in a fool's paradise if we think we're out of the nuclear shadow. The fact is that The Bomb is still very much with us.

The March/April issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists estimates that the United States possesses 5400 nuclear warheads. Of these, the majority - 4075 warheads - are defined as operational. While there are plans to reduce this number by 15% by 2012, this would still leave the US with about 4600 weapons.

According to Joseph Siracusa, professor of global studies at RMIT University, in his recently published book Nuclear Weapons: A Very Short Introduction, about 2000 of the US's weapons are ready to be launched with 15 minutes' warning. More disturbingly still, the power to order a nuclear strike is in the hands of the president alone and need only be justified by considerations of the US's national interest.

The US nuclear stockpile isn't the only menace. Russia's nuclear arsenal alone is large enough to wipe out humanity 29 times. The Nuclear Club's other members include the United Kingdom, China, France, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. Then there are the countries such as Iran, whose applications are pending.

The uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons isn't simply the stuff of Hollywood action films. According to Siracusa, since 1993 the International Atomic Energy Agency has reported 220 cases of nuclear smuggling.

Moreover, those advocating the use of nuclear power to combat global climate change might also be advocating the spread of nuclear weapons. And it's not just peaceniks and anti-nuclear power campaigners who are saying so.

Commenting on the shortcomings of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in an article in Foreign Affairs last year, Republican presidential nominee John McCain warned against "the mistaken assumption . . . that nuclear technology can spread without nuclear weapons eventually following".

Against this bleak backdrop, there are signs of hope. In January 2008 former US secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, and former defence secretary William Perry and former Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sam Nunn, repeated a call they had made a year earlier for the US to lead a new era of nuclear disarmament.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal, the former Cold War warriors argued that the threat posed by terrorism and the end of the conditions that gave mutually assured destruction the semblance of logic made the case for the elimination of nuclear weapons all the more urgent.

More recently, Democrat presidential nominee Barack Obama took up a similar theme in a speech to foreign policy experts at Purdue University in Indiana. Obama promised to make the elimination of nuclear weapons the centrepiece of his administration's nuclear policy.

However, Obama insisted that the US would retain weapons as a deterrent as long as other states possess nuclear weapons. While it's understandable that the US wouldn't want to give up its nuclear weapons as long as other states have them, this stance does seriously qualify the US's leadership on this issue.

With this kind of leadership, Margate is looking like an attractive place in which to buy.

Hiroshima Day today is a wake-up call against the view that nuclear weapons are a 20th century problem. Words are not enough. What the world needs now is serious and committed leadership by the nuclear club to eliminate nuclear weapons.

Christopher Scanlon teaches in the journalism program.

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