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How Many Nuclear Weapons do We Need?

Posted by Catherine Thomasson, MD on February 28, 2012

The reality is that one nuclear weapon can destroy the core of a city from blast, heat and radiation and kill hundreds of thousands of individuals.  Such a detonation would create a dead zone of radiation making the area uninhabitable for decades or longer.  Many more people would die in panic fleeing or from lack of any medical support. 

The nuclear weapons deployed in only one of our 14 nuclear submarines are enough to annihilate the entire country of Russia-even potentially the world. Even with the upcoming cuts, the U.S. and Russia each are “allowed” to deploy 1550 strategic nuclear weapons negotiated under the George W. Bush-era new START program on up to 700 missiles, bombers and submarines.  All on high alert!  In addition there are plans to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to “modernize” and maintain these levels over the next decades.

The likelihood of the deliberate use of a nuclear weapon by a nuclear weapons state is extremely unlikely.  Stalin may have been willing to risk millions of Russians in retaliation, but Vladimir Putin would not.  In reality there is far greater chance of an accident or theft of nuclear material to create a dirty bomb; or a limited nuclear war with destabilization in south Asia or the Middle East.

This makes reducing our nuclear arsenal a top priority for our safety and that of the entire world.

So how low can we go?  Besides Russia and the United States there is no other country deploying more than 200-300 nuclear weapons (China, France and U.K).  China possesses just 40 to 50 warheads on intercontinental-range missiles.  India, Pakistan and Israel all outside international controls of the Non-proliferation Treaty hold between 60-200 and North Korea less than 10.

Three Air Force analysts concluded in an article written in Strategic Studies Quarterly that a force  of only 311 nuclear weapons would be adequate for deterrence. 

So what is deterrence? It states that a rational state will not engage in hostilities.  So why wouldn’t countries like North Korea, Libya or even Iran desire to have nuclear weapons?  Israel has them, India and Pakistan do too, as does the United States who has been a major aggressor in the last 50 years and indeed longer.  But we don’t want more countries getting them, and worry about the stability of those governments and their ability to safeguard the nuclear weapons.

We should be asking what will make us safe because it is not nuclear weapons.

Given the incredible technology of verification, controls on nuclear material and satellite imagery, the ability to control and eliminate nuclear weapons is better than ever.

Psychologically, militarily, and to reduce risk of accidental or terrorist use, it is better for no state to have nuclear weapons, including the United States.  For those who worry about the U.S. security we all know that the U.S. military outspends nearly all the other military forces in the world combined with weapons that result in nearly the blast force of a nuclear bomb but without the radiation.

But one step at a time.




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