The potential that came with various discoveries in atomic physics in the early twentieth century had a lasting impact on the face of the world. The discovery of nuclear fission paved the way for the world’s first nuclear weapons experience. The bombing of Japan in World War II resulted in the deaths of approximately 200,000 people and extensive property destruction, serving as a stark reminder of nuclear weapons’ potential. Nuclear weapons have advanced significantly in the seven decades since the bombings, increasing their potential to harm humanity. Nuclear weapons have become a popular topic of discussion in the public sphere. This paper, therefore, seeks to explore the topic in detail with an emphasis on the abolition of nuclear weapons around the world. Despite being a product of scientific innovation and the technology being used to generate electricity, the impact of nuclear weapons has been negative so far with the potential of threatening human existence on the planet.
Historical Perspective of Nuclear Weapons
In the context of nuclear warfare, the most important discovery is arguably nuclear fission. This discovery by Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann in 1938 came close to the start of the Second World War with its potential to make a destructive weapon being a cause for concern for the warring sides. The chain reaction could release significant energy in a fraction of a second thus providing a perfect recipe for a weapon of mass destruction (Schwartz 265). The potential threat posed by this discovery by German scientists was particularly concerning for the United States started the Manhattan Project that was dedicated to atomic study. The progress of the development of the atomic bomb was initially slow with the American government spending billions on the project. The bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese in 1941, however, proved to be the tipping point. The United States entered the war and efforts to create an atomic bomb intensified with research centers across the country working simultaneously to achieve the desired result. Over the course of 3 years, the United States created successful chain reactions and eventually the world’s first nuclear bomb. The successful testing of a test bomb in July 1945 marked the beginning of the atomic age.
After the first atomic test, worries began to emerge even among scientists who participated in the project that man had created a weapon that posed a great threat to the balance of nature. Some Americans even signed petitions against the use of atomic weapons, but the protests were largely ignored. Despite the fact that Germany had surrendered, its ally Japan refused to follow suit despite threats of aerial attacks from President Truman. “The United States first dropped a uranium bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, followed by a similar attack with a plutonium bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945” (Selden and Selden 128). The terror and destruction that followed illustrated the power of nuclear weapons to the world. Total casualties amounted to around 200,000 in two cities that had a total population of 450,000 at the time. The bombs caused total destruction within a mile of the impact with infernos razing property within 3 miles of the impact. Most of those who survived the blast lost their lives to the effects of radiation poisoning. The genetic mutations resulting from exposure to radiation would go on to affect descendants of the survivors of the bombings.
The modern world now has a full understanding of the devastation caused by nuclear weapons with effects spanning across generations. Despite this fact, the proliferation of nuclear weapons has continued over the years with nine countries possessing nuclear weapons amounting to 15,000 in number. Countries such as the United States have more than a thousand nuclear weapons ready for launch within a few minutes. The fact that nuclear weapons today are way more powerful than those used in 1945 means that their existence poses an immense risk to humanity (Gilpin 3).
The Argument for Nuclear Abolition
The presence of nuclear weapons in today’s world is a worrying proposition due to the lack of an obvious threat to any country’s existence. This is unlike in the Second World War and consequently the Cold War. During the latter, research in nuclear weapons intensified with the major players participating in an arms race that essentially involved the proliferation of nuclear arsenal. Then, the proliferation of nuclear weapons was essential to maintaining international security because people perceived proliferation as a means of deterrence. However, after the end of the Cold War that lasted for decades, the intensified adversity between the two antagonizing nations reduced substantially. While deterrence is still important today in quelling foreign threats, the dependence on nuclear weapons to achieve this end is no longer feasible. It is becoming increasingly dangerous, and its effectiveness has also decreased significantly (Shultz et al. 15). The heavy presence of nuclear weapons today means that we are always on the verge of entering an era that will be more dangerous and full of suspicion. The accumulation of nuclear warheads by countries such as North Korea in the recent past has altered the world’s balance by going against actions by the international community aimed at reducing the nuclear stockpile. Besides this, there is also a constant fear that terrorists will get their hands on nuclear weapons in the future. The devastation caused by terrorist groups across the globe since the turn of the century is evident. In this context, nuclear weapons would be the ultimate weapon of destruction due to the potential to target and annihilate millions of people using a single warhead. The possession of nuclear weapons by such groups would, therefore, not be a means of deterrence but rather destruction. This would pose new security challenges for the entire world.
A new age of nuclear proliferation fostered by nations such as North Korea would also have a greater impact than the one evidenced in the Cold War era. Besides being more economically damaging, it would be costlier from a psychological perspective. During the Cold War, both parties agreed on “mutually assured destruction” that set out the rules of engagement thus preventing a potential nuclear crisis. The number of potential nuclear enemies is steadily increasing making it difficult to formulate a similar pact. In addition, the countries new to the nuclear technology have not developed and implemented detailed safeguards as was the case in the Cold War. These safeguards were meant to prevent nuclear accidents, misjudgments or unauthorized launches. The measure put in place meant that decades of the Cold War passed without any accidents regarding nuclear weapons. The strongarm tactics adopted by new nuclear nations mean that the world is unlikely to be as fortunate as it was during the Cold War (Ferguson 86).
There are currently a couple of myths that revolve around the political aspect of nuclear weapons. One such myth is that there is no problem with some countries possessing nuclear weapons. This suggestion supports the proliferation of such weapons by developed countries. However, it is important to realize that there is no safe custodian when it comes to nuclear weapons. The leadership of a nation is not a constant, and in the future, a leader of one of the purported safe custodians could trigger a confrontation with another nuclear state marking the start of a disaster for the world. It is also important to realize that the power that is associated with the possession of such weapons can is immense and countries without nuclear weapons will always want to possess some. The world will, therefore, remain in a state of suspicion and impending danger as long as some countries have nuclear weapons. This argument also dispels the unfounded belief that nuclear weapons will never be used in war again. Another common myth is that a country can legitimately use nuclear weapons in war. This is a false claim since such use goes against international law regarding human rights. Such use would lead to the loss of the lives of many civilians, in addition to causing long-term harm to the environment.
Besides the political viewpoint, nuclear abolition is also feasible from a humanitarian perspective. The use of nuclear weapons in any form would have disastrous consequences on human beings as was observed during the Second World War. The effects of the explosion of a nuclear weapon on the human body are triggered by the resultant heat, blast waves, and radiation. The generated during an explosion causes heating of the blast’s epicenter to extreme temperatures of about 7,000o C which would cause vaporization of all living things at the site. People up to 3 miles from the epicenter would suffer from severe burns which in some cases extend the full thickness of the skin. The blast waves that follow travel at supersonic speeds sweeping everything in their path leading to the collapse of buildings with people being buried alive and others receiving a wide range of injuries from compound fractures to the rupturing of internal organs. The firestorm that usually accompanies the blast waves would cause multiple explosions and consume all nearby oxygen thus leading to further deaths from asphyxiation (Harwell 230).
Despite the effects of fire and blast waves claiming most lives, members of the general public associate nuclear weapons with the radiation. This could be attributed to the fact that radiation causes not only immediate but also long-term effects on the human body. During the blast, some of the effects of radiation that can be observed are the dysfunction of the central nervous system and the inability of the body to produce new blood cells. Radiation sickness, which persists for weeks or even months, is usually observed in individuals who survive the effects of heat and blast waves. When radioactive particles become incorporated into the atmosphere and spread over vast distances and culminate in falling on the ground in the form of dust, the dynamics of the threat posed changes. This process, known as the nuclear fallout, exposes a larger population to the effects of the nuclear weapon as compared to the other elements. In the long-run exposure to radioactivity may lead to gene mutations. This could not only cause a wide variety of cancer but also lead to children being born with defects (Harwell 232).
Opponents of nuclear abolition argue that health effects are only relevant in the case of an explosion which, as history rightly states, was last experienced in 1945. However, the effects of radiation are not limited to explosion events. Many countries have produced and tested nuclear weapons since then. The effects of exposure of members of the general public are, therefore, ongoing and probably affect many people in the world. The potential harm posed by such activities should inform public policy and act as a motivating factor in the fight to eradicate nuclear weapons.
Nuclear weapons have the potential to obliterate all living forms on earth. This makes them the only human-made devices capable of such a level of destruction. The effect of nuclear weapons on the environment can be evaluated using two approaches: analyzing the potential environmental impact in case of a war and the impact of the continued production of weapons over the years on the environment. Besides the human cost of a nuclear war, there would also be long-lasting effects on the environment. The smoke and dust from a series of nuclear explosions could block off a significant amount of sunshine from reaching the earth thus leading to a drastic drop in global temperatures and consequently a drop in the levels of rainfall across the globe. This would cause the collapse of the agricultural sector leading to a famine that would persist for years thus affecting millions in the world. The environment is also suffering at the moment due to years of weapon production. The process involves the generation of a lot of waste which sometimes ends up in water sources and the soil. Despite the appropriation of billions to clean up such waste and manage its handling, this issue remains a problem in all countries with nuclear weapons (Schwartz 358). If the production and possession of such weapons were to be abolished, we would effectively stop poisoning the environment with materials that will affect future human generations.
The world has not experienced any major confrontation between nuclear states with war being averted throughout the Cold War. Today, however, the greatest threat to world peace is the ensuing tensions tension between the United States and North Korea. This can be attributed to the latter’s activities in pursuit of nuclear proliferation against the demands of the international community. There have been a couple of missile tests and launches over the past few months thus heightening the tension between the two nations. A confrontation between nuclear-armed states poses a great threat to the rest of the world. Firstly, the location of North Korea means that other countries that possess nuclear weapons could also be involved in the confrontation thus officially transforming it into a world war. This time around the implications would be far greater than the other two wars on account of the involvement of more advanced weapons. The current state of affairs justifies nuclear abolition due to the potential destruction of the world by the weapons in question. World leaders are aware of the precarious situation, and there have been moves towards abolition. It is a step in the right direction and countries such as North Korea that go against international agreements should be punished appropriately to deter any efforts that would increase the world’s nuclear stockpile.
Ferguson, Charles D. “The long road to zero: overcoming the obstacles to a nuclear-free world.” Foreign Aff. 89 (2010): 86.
Gilpin, Robert. American scientists and nuclear weapons policy. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Harwell, Mark A. Nuclear winter: the human and environmental consequences of nuclear war. Springer Science & Business Media, 2012.
Schwartz, Stephen I. Atomic audit: the costs and consequences of US nuclear weapons since 1940. Brookings Institution Press, 2011.
Selden, Kyoko Iriye, and Mark Selden. The atomic bomb: Voices from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Routledge, 2015.
Shultz, George P., William J. Perry, Henry A. Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. “A world free of nuclear weapons.” The Wall Street Journal 4.1 (2007): 15-18.