The monsters remain

The North Koreans say they have nukes, the Iranians want them, and US intelligence chief Porter Goss says that a significant amount of Russian nuclear material is missing and might be in the hands of terrorists.

Want more? A.Q. Khan, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, reportedly worked very hard over the last several years trying to put nuclear weapons into the hands of Muslim governments and possibly Muslim terrorists.

Frightening as the wrath of Khan may be, however, the greatest threat to the world is not a terrorist with a nuke in a suitcase or even a rouge nation with a few nuclear warheads. Yes, the crazies are out there and they pose a serious danger, but the greatest threat to humankind remains the vast arsenals of nuclear weapons held by the US and Russia. These two nations alone possess more than 28,000 nuclear warheads.

It was on everyone’s mind back in the 1950s and 1960s, but the fear of a nuclear holocaust faded fast when the Soviet Union fell apart and the Cold War ended. This was understandable somewhat because it truly was a huge step back from the brink of disaster. But we have relaxed far too much. The threat is still there.

The current absence of significant friction between the US and Russia does not mean an accident can’t occur or that tensions won’t arise again. Thousands of nuclear warheads are still ready to fly. They are on a hair trigger, capable of incinerating and poisoning hundreds of millions of people. No place on Earth is beyond the reach of the radioactivity and massive disruption to the ecosystem a series of nuclear detonations would cause. Tucked away in bomb bays, silos and submarines, these weapons are like a loaded gun that an irresponsible parent keeps in a sock drawer on the assumption that a child will never take it out one day and pull the trigger. Even if we make a giant leap of faith and believe that both the US and Russia will always have sane leaders who maintain a friendly posture with each other, the risk of an accidental attack still exists. In 1995, for example, Norway launched a scientific rocket that the Russian military mistook for a US nuclear attack. Aids rushed to Russian President Boris Yeltsin and presented him with attack options for targets in the USA. Had the Russians launched in accordance with their procedures, the US likely would have launched in retaliation and World War III would have been underway. Fortunately it was all figured out in time and the world was not blown up. This post-Cold War incident somehow made it into the media. One can only wonder how many close calls on both sides have been kept secret.

Most people today have no idea how powerful modern nuclear weapons are. If anything, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are their frame of reference. The bombs used on those cities during World War II, however, were firecrackers compared to today’s weapons.

A medium-sized nuclear weapon in the US and Russian arsenal is one megaton (equal to a million tons of TNT). That’s 80 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. It would create a fireball with temperatures above 25 million degrees and vaporize everything within a mile or two. Everyone within six miles would be killed. Radiation would kill more people downwind. As bad as all that is, however, imagine a 15 megaton bomb like the one the US tested in 1954. It was a thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

One person. The only thing scarier than thousands of nuclear weapons out there ready to turn the world’s great cities into craters is the system that would launch them. One person, the president, has all the authority needed for a full-scale nuclear attack capable of destroying not only the target country but also much of the life on Earth when radioactivity and a possible nuclear winter are factored in. Let’s hope that America and Russia always elect sane and cool-headed leaders.

Someone made an interesting proposal during the Cold War to highlight this awesome power in the hands of the American president. The launch codes, he suggested, should not be kept in an aid’s leather bag (‘the football’). Instead, the codes should be placed in a small capsule and surgically implanted into the chest of the aid. Therefore, if a nuclear attack is deemed necessary, the president would have to hack open the aid’s chest with a knife in order to obtain the launch codes. The idea is that the president should be sufficiently committed to his decision that he is willing to literally get blood on his hands before he kills millions of people beyond his view.

A critic of the proposal declared it preposterous: ‘The president of the United States can’t be expected to kill someone!’

It is sad-and dangerous-that most of us have forgotten about the giant stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by the US and Russia. We are the ones who will be burned to death or left to rot on our feet like pathetic zombies in a cheap horror flick. We should care about this and stay informed. It only takes one mistake and a couple of hours of war to erase all that humankind has achieved.

Centuries from now it is possible that nuclear weapons will turn out to be the reason we finally rid ourselves of the prehistoric tribalism that grips us so tightly today. For if nations will not do away with nuclear weapons, then perhaps people will have no choice but to do away with nations. After all, a world without borders would be a world without targets for all those terrible weapons.

World News editor Guy P. Harrison is at [email protected]