How to Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons

Article excerpt

The Vancouver Institute is famous in the world for bringing together both experts and the general public to discuss problems of great importance to all of us. The subject of my talk this evening, I think, is also of great importance to everybody. The actual theme of my lecture is HOW to get rid of nuclear weapons; but before we talk about the HOW, I think we should say a few words about the WHY.

Why should we get rid of nuclear weapons? For many people, including I guess the majority of this audience, the answer is obvious. But there are many others for whom the answer is not obvious and, among those, are the five nuclear weapons states who tenaciously cling to their nuclear arsenals. The bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the first, and so far the last, in which nuclear weapons were used in combat. But during the cold war both sides accumulated enormous arsenals of nuclear weapons. At one stage the stockpile of the United States alone was equivalent, in its destructive power, to more than one million Hiroshima bombs. I want you to ponder this for awhile. A million Hiroshimas. Enough to destroy not only our civilization but also to wipe out the human race completely. Indeed it is the characteristic of the nuclear age that for the first time in our civilization we have acquired the means to extinguish the human race in a single act.

Once again I ask you to ponder this fact. Many people have not believed it. Indeed, the scientists who worked on the bomb in the earliest days, 1939-1940, including myself, had a pretty good idea about the destructive power of the bomb. We knew about the blast effect, the heat wave, even about the radioactive fallout. But we did not for one moment imagine that however destructive it was, it could bring the human race to an end. We did not think about this because we knew that to achieve this one would need a very large number of these nuclear weapons, maybe a hundred thousand. Even in our worst scenarios we did not believe that human society would be so stupid - or so mad - as to acquire such a large number of weapons for which we could see no purpose. But as it turned out, human society was that stupid. Within a short time we had accumulated that number of nuclear weapons. On several occasions we came very close to their actual use. It is much more by good luck than by good management that we have so far been able to avoid this ultimate catastrophe.

The danger has somewhat abated by now. We have now begun the process of gradual dismantling of nuclear arsenals. There is an agreement between the United States and Russia which comes under the name of the START Program (START I and II - START stands for strategic arms reduction) and you see in Figure 1 the programs for START I AND START II. This lists the number of strategic weapons (there are also other ones) and the numbers for the United States and for Russia. You see from this that by the year 2003 - the year in which the START program is to be implemented - the arsenals are to be reduced by a factor of three. However even when START II is implemented - or rather IF it is implemented, because the Russians have so far not ratified START II and they may not do it unless the problem of the expansion of NATO is resolved - we would still be left, at that time, with 22,000 nuclear warheads. The warheads include not only strategic ones but also tactical ones and ones in reserve. At present there is no talk of further reductions.

Worse than this is the fact that nuclear powers still believe that nuclear weapons are necessary for their security. As long as this belief is held, the nuclear weapons will stay in their arsenals. If they stay, they may be used; and we may again start up a nuclear arms race and return to the dangerous situation in which we lived for several decades. The threat to humankind will exist as long as nuclear weapons exist.

To the man in the street, nuclear weapons have always been something abhorrent. …