By Mendelsohn, Jack
Issues in Science and Technology , Vol. 22, No. 3
The most urgent national security issue facing the United States is the possibility that a nuclear weapon might be used against this nation as an instrument of war or terror. If we are to avoid such a catastrophe and its unprecedented environmental, economic, and social effects, this threat must be addressed vigorously and soon.
Facing up to the threat will require more than tracking down terrorists or warning rogue states that they will be held accountable for their actions. It will require delegitimizing nuclear weapons as usable instruments of warfare and relegating them to a deterrent role or, in certain cases, to weapons of last resort. This policy change will be difficult to adopt, because the nation's leaders as well as the general public have lost sight of the devastating power of nuclear weapons and tend to disregard the political and moral taboos surrounding their use.
A nuclear weapon has not been detonated in war since 1945. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis is ancient history for anyone under 50. There have been less than a handful of nuclear tests during the past decade, and the vast majority of nuclear tests between 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty came into effect, and 1996 were conducted underground, literally and figuratively burying the "shock and awe" effects of a nuclear explosion. In the meantime, presidents and politicians have come to view nuclear weapons as a seamless extension of the nation's military capabilities and the threat of their potential use as an acceptable part of its political rhetoric.
This nuclear amnesia is critically dangerous for several reasons. First, nuclear weapons are enormously more destructive than conventional explosives. During 10 months of air raids on Britain in 1940-1941, the German Luftwaffe dropped bombs with the equivalent of 18.8 kilotons and killed more than 43,000 people. At Hiroshima, one bomb with an estimated yield of 15 kilotons killed 70,000 in one day, with the toll reaching 140,000 by the end of 1945 because of subsequent deaths from injuries and radiation exposure.
Second, despite efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to equate the dangers of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons by lumping them together as weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons are the only ones that could devastate the United States, irreparably altering the lives its citizens. Chemical weapons (CWs) tend to be localized in their effects and difficult to deliver over large areas. They can be detected by sensors and their effects mitigated by protective measures. Biological weapons (BWs) are a more serious threat, but they can be tricky to produce, difficult to disseminate, and unpredictable in their effects. Against unprepared civilians, BWs could be devastating, although the severity of an attack could be attenuated by vaccinations, masks, antidotes, protective clothing, quarantines, and small-scale evacuations. On the other hand, there might be no discernable sign of the launch of a BW attack, in which case those responsible might be impossible to identify.
The devastating efforts of nuclear weapons as compared with CWs and BWs are indicated in a comparative lethality risk model developed by the now-defunct congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA). The release of 300 kilograms of sarin nerve gas would create a .22-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 60 to 200 deaths. The release of 30 kilograms of anthrax spores would create a 10-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 30,000 to 100,000 deaths. But the explosion of a hydrogen bomb with a 1-megaton yield would create a 190-square-kilometer lethal area and cause 570,000 to 1,900,000 deaths.
Third, the public is generally unaware of the large numbers of nuclear weapons around the world. About 27,000 are believed to exist in eight known and one suspected (North Korea) countries. Most of these weapons (26,000) are in U.S. or Russian arsenals. Weapons that are deployed and ready to be used on short notice generally are secure from theft or diversion. …