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The Human Cost of Nuclear Weapons

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The McClatchy newspaper group has just released a disturbing series about the long-term harm to workers’ health from the nuclear endeavor across the country, including at the Idaho National Laboratory. The Center for Public Integrity also revealed wrenching personal impacts and the efforts to obtain appropriate federal compensation that underscore the urgency of the Alliance’s work to limit everyone’s exposure to nuclear materials. More important, the reports show that secrecy and denial do not serve national security, the public and workers, or even the nuclear industry.

What the McClatchy series does not provide is a view of what the future will bring regarding our nuclear arsenal and how our pattern of chemical and nuclear contamination might change. Big things are on the horizon.

Tomorrow’s Trouble

Here is a look forward. We live in a world where nine countries have nuclear weapons: the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. Among them, they have more than 16,000 nuclear warheads, two million pounds of weapons grade uranium, and one million pounds of weapons grade plutonium.

In December 2015, William J. Perry, former US Secretary of Defense (1994 to 1997), warned, “We are facing nuclear dangers today that are in fact more likely to erupt into a nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.”

There are some rays of hope, but first let’s look at the nuclear landscape that supports Mr. Perry’s grim assessment.

Efforts to reduce the number of nuclear weapons in the world have slowed.

The United States and Russia now have 93 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world. The two countries signed the New START Treaty in 2010. The treaty’s fairly modest arms reduction goals are currently being met, but further disarmament efforts have lost steam. In fact, Russian and US stockpiles are decreasing at a much slower rate than in the five years before the treaty was signed. Furthermore, there has been no follow-on treaty nor has the arms control process expanded to include more countries.

Every country with nuclear weapons is modernizing its arsenal.

Though the number of nuclear weapons in the world may diminish, we are moving towards a new race to make nuclear arms more “usable” and more lethal. In ten years time, global nuclear stockpiles could be at least as dangerous as at the height of the Cold War.

Britain is planning on shrinking its arsenal, but it is also planning to build a new class of three to four submarines equipped with “improved” ballistic missiles leased from the United States.

China is expanding its arsenal, but very slowly. It is deploying new delivery systems for land, sea, and air.

France will extend its nuclear arsenal’s life into the 2050s. It has already deployed a new air-launched nuclear cruise missile with a longer range. It is in the midst of deploying new nuclear ballistic missiles on its submarines that have greater range, payload, and accuracy.

India is expanding its weapons material production complex with a new plutonium production reactor and inadequately safeguarded fast breeder reactors. It is also developing longer-range nuclear missiles focused on targeting China.

Israel may be lengthening the range of its land-based nuclear missiles and might have added nuclear capability to cruise missiles on its new attack submarines.

North Korea announced it had developed a nuclear bomb in 2009. Not much is known about its program. Though its recent claim to have developed a hydrogen bomb was met with a good deal of skepticism, no one doubts North Korea is working on its nuclear arsenal.

Pakistan is expanding its nuclear arsenal quite quickly, including a new short-range missile. Furthermore, with the addition of two new plutonium production reactors and upgrades to its uranium enrichment and spent fuel reprocessing facilities, Pakistan has bolstered its infrastructure to produce the material to make nuclear bombs.

Russia will, within the decade, reduce the number of nuclear bombs in its arsenal but replace every outdated Soviet-era weapons system with a new one. That means new land- , sea- and air-based missiles; eight new ballistic missile submarines; and upgraded and new bombers.

The United States has reaffirmed its commitment to maintaining a triad of nuclear-armed land, sea, and air forces on hair-trigger alert. It plans to spend at least $1 trillion over the next 30 years on every aspect of its nuclear capability. It has already built and has plans for new weapons production facilities. It is developing and deploying new, more lethal weapons systems. The nuclear Navy is designing a new class of ballistic submarines and the Air Force plans new bombers and air-launched cruise missiles.

Rays of Hope

Amidst all the nuts and bolts of an escalating arms race, there is less public dialogue and more inflammatory rhetoric. Unsecured nuclear weapons and material stockpiles may increase the threat of nuclear terrorism. And the tactics of terrorism have given the lie to any notion of the effectiveness of nuclear deterrence.

But there are rays of hope, and as is so often the case, the good news is built on activism. Former Defense Secretary Perry is trying to raise awareness of the deteriorating situation, particularly among young people, through the William J. Perry Project. Pope Francis has given eloquent voice to the fact that the mere possession of nuclear weapons is immoral and has called for their abolition.

There is a new abolition movement focusing on nuclear weapons’ inherent violation of international law and their ongoing humanitarian impacts such as those covered in US media last week. The movement is increasing recognition among individuals and countries that nuclear deterrence is a form of hostage taking and that the consequences of a nuclear exchange are so grave that the only solution is total abolition of nuclear weapons. The Humanitarian Initiative has been endorsed by 80% of the member countries of the United Nations.

Missing from the list of 159 endorsing countries are the Nuclear Nine. But even – or perhaps especially – in some of the nuclear weapons states, activists are trying to initiate a public debate on the growing nuclear threats we’re drifting towards. In the US, grassroots activists have helped stall one new weapon – the “interoperable warhead” for use on both land and sea – and are confronting another, the Long Range Stand Off warhead.

Snake River Alliance members are part of the good news. It is time to consider how our longstanding principles of nuclear accountability, responsibility, worker safety and community right-to-know should be applied in this new world or nuclear arms.

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