The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) [the Defense Department’s evaluation of the state of nuclear policy] will soon be made public after numerous delays, apparently caused by deep divisions within the administration on the use of these apocalyptic weapons. Some experts want them drastically reduced, others want to maintain the existing stockpile and the facilities to quickly create new weapons should the need arise.
The Review was ordered by Congress in an effort to evaluate the need for a deep earth-penetrating weapon before authorizing funds the Pentagon had requested. It was courageous to withhold funds for a new weapon that could have stimulated a renewal of the Cold War arms race. When the Review is released, we will see whether it advances President Obama’s prize-winning speech on the abolition of nuclear weapons.
I have been thinking about these weapons for half a century. Nuclear weapons are not just bigger and stronger than other explosives, they are outstandingly unable to discriminate between the military and civilians. They not only obliterate everything in their target area, they also create huge clouds of radioactive material that poison everything downwind, while the finer particles rise into the stratosphere to encircle the Earth. This dark cloud could cause a nuclear winter and wide starvation for several years.
There is another aspect to nuclear weapons that is less discussed. From mining through processing to the fabrication of weapons or fuel rods for reactors, uranium and its products radiate particles that sicken and kill. Heavy doses of radiation kill within days or weeks. Lesser doses are known to create 22 types of cancer, lung and heart disease. The tiniest particle lodged within a person blasts away at the genes directing cell activities and may require decades to result in a detectable disease.
Even more insidious, Beta particles slice through genes in sperm and ovum. These genes have a wonderful ability to repair themselves, but as they reattach the new sequences may not be the same as the originals. This gene scrambling results in birth defects, which we now know can be transmitted from one generation to another. As we attempt to limit climate change by building additional reactors, mining and processing more uranium, we will increase the number of people exposed to radiation and gradually erode our most precious heritage, the human gene pool.
As a nuclear exchange in war or low-level radiation in peace threaten the future of human life, it is irrational for less than a dozen nuclear nations to decide the future of humanity. It seems to me that the reduction and abolition of nuclear weapons is an issue that extends so far beyond nationalism that it should be under the guidance of our most inclusive human organization, the United Nations.
Many farsighted and concerned people have expressed the need to abolish nuclear weapons. Their efforts are circumscribed by the focus of nuclear nations on their own security or even dominance. But the human race as a whole would have a far more secure future if all nuclear weapons were dismantled and their radioactive materials returned to the Earth. Perhaps President Obama will use his outstanding influence to encourage the United Nations to examine the issue of human survival and develop a program that the people of the world can support.
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