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Global Catastrophic Risks Conference - Abstracts

The Continuing Threat of Nuclear War

Joseph Cirincione

The risks of a global thermonuclear war are small, but they are not zero. In the seven decades of the nuclear agemistakes and miscalculations have brought the world perilously close to Armageddon.

The dangers have continued after the end of Cold War. In 1995, Russian military officials mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for an American nuclear attack and recommend a launch of nuclear missiles. Then-President Boris Yeltstinoverruled the military at the last minute. An unauthorized attack by one Russian nuclear-missile submarine would result in 11-17 million civilian casualties, devastating a region larger than France and the United Kingdom combined. A limited attack in response by a single American submarine would likely result in 30-45 million Russian casualties.

Today, Russia and America possess 96 percent of the world’s estimated 26,000 nuclear weapons. Several thousand are still deployed on hair-trigger alert, ready to launch within 15 minutes with the equivalent explosive firepower of 70,000 Hiroshima bombs. A typical 100-kiloton warhead would kill everyone within the 8.6 km diameter circle of its impact point; firestorms would kill millions more; radioactivity from the blast would kill all exposed within a 10-60 km zone downwind of the explosion.

There is also the possibility of a regional nuclear war between the rival nations of India and Pakistan. Due to high population densities, a regional war using the lower-yield atomic weapons each side possesses would also result in massivecasualties. With short flight times providing little or no warning and dense urban cores to fuel mega-firestorms, a south Asian nuclear warcould result in an estimated 31 million casualties on the subcontinent.

The consequences of nuclear war would be global. Recent calculations of the dust, particulates and smoke thrust into the atmosphere by as few as 100 nuclear weapons indicate that even a regional war could have major impact on the planet’s climate. Enveloped in clouds that would reflect sunlight back into space, the Earth could enter a “nuclear winter” destroying food crops, triggering wide-spread starvation. Climatic anomalies could persist for a decade or more.

Neither these scenarios nor the continued spread of nuclear weapons are inevitable. Fewer countries have nuclear weapons or weapon programmes today than 20 years ago and nuclear arsenals have been cut in half during this period. More countries have given up nuclear weapons or weapons programmes in the past 20 years than have started them. Ballistic missile arsenals have similarly shrunk, resulting in a smaller, though still deadly, threat to the survival of mankind.

New initiatives to prevent nuclear terrorism, block proliferation and accelerate nuclear disarmament have been endorsed by senior conservative and liberal experts and officials, including by leaders of the United Kingdom and several U.S. presidential candidates. These efforts combine deep reductions in U.S. and Russian arsenals, bans on nuclear testing,halting the production of nuclear weapon materials,aggressive programs to secure and eliminate all weapon materials that could fall into terrorist hands and tough, new restrictions on the ability of new nations to acquire these weapons. With increased consensus on nuclear policy among experts and continuing political change in major nuclear powers, the prospects for an effective, comprehensive solution to nuclear weapons threats are better now than they have been for almost 15 years.