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Nuclear weapons and the potential disasters

By Tahir Abdullah Lone


‘Arms control’ is a term used for international restrictions upon the development, production, stockpiling, proliferation, and usage of small armsconventional weapons, and weapons of mass destruction. Arms control is typically exercised through the use of diplomacy which seeks to impose such limitations upon consenting participants through international treaties and agreements, although it may also comprise efforts by a nation or group of nations to enforce limitations upon a non-consenting country. Whereas disarmament is the act of reducing, limiting, or abolishing weapons, it generally refers to a country’s military or specific type of weaponry. Disarmament is often taken to mean total elimination of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear arms. A global halt to nuclear weapons testing was first proposed in 1954 by the Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a step towards ending the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear proliferation. A ban on nuclear testing has been a key national security objective of the United States since the late 1950s, when the US President Dwight D. Eisenhower initiated US-UK-USSR comprehensive test ban negotiations.

Currently, nine countries together possess around 15,000 nuclear weapons. The US and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status – ready to be launched within minutes of a warning. Most of these weapons are many times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades.

The failure of the nuclear powers to disarm has heightened the risk that other countries might acquire nuclear weapons. The only guarantee against the spread and use of nuclear weapons is to eliminate them without delay. Although the leaders of some nuclear-armed nations have expressed their vision for a nuclear-weapon-free world, they have failed to develop any detailed plans to eliminate their arsenals. Instead, they are modernizing them.

Nuclear disarmament initiatives

The initiatives for disarmament was laid before the Second World War or first nuclear explosion. For instance, in February 1932, the League of Nations Disarmament Conference began at Geneva. Sixty countries took part, including the USA and the Soviet Union. The League wanted all countries to give up aggression. Hitler withdrew from the Disarmament Conference and also from the League of Nations in October 1933. The failure of the League of Nations culminated in the deadly Second World War. It also encouraged states to detonate nuclear weapons in order to become a superpower. However, such machismo resulted in thousands of deaths when atomic bombs were dropped on Japan without any warning.

The first nuclear explosion was conducted by the US in New Mexico on 16 July, 1945. In less than three weeks, the world changed. On August 6, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It killed or wounded nearly 130,000 people. Three days later, the US bombed Nagasaki. Of the 286, 000 people living there at the time of the blast, 74,000 were killed and another 75,000 sustained severe injuries. Thereafter, Japan agreed to an unconditional surrender on August 14, 1945. This also resulted in the end of Second World War.

In the subsequent years, the US, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom conducted several nuclear weapons tests. These nuclear weapon tests worried many newly emerging states like India. In 1954, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called for a ban on nuclear testing. It was the first large-scale initiative to ban using nuclear technology for mass destruction. In 1958, nearly 10,000 scientists presented a petition to the United Nations Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, which stated, “We deem it imperative that immediate action be taken to effect an international agreement to stop testing of all nuclear weapons.” However, France exploded its first nuclear device in 1960 and China entered the ‘nuclear arms club’ in October 1964 when it conducted its first nuclear test.

Before Chinese nuclear explosion on 5 August, 1963, representatives of the United States, Soviet Union, and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater or in the atmosphere. Between 1962 and 1963, President John F. Kennedy pursued comprehensive test ban talks with Russia, but the two sides could not agree on the number of on-site inspections. Instead, the two sides agreed to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited nuclear test explosions in the atmosphere, outer space, and underwater. Since the late 1960s, the conclusion of a comprehensive ban against nuclear testing has also been understood to be an essential part of the commitment of nuclear weapon states to fulfill their Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Article VI of nuclear disarmament.

Soon after the Chinese entry into the nuclear club, the US, Soviet Union, and some sixty other countries signed a treaty to seek the end of the nuclear arms race and promote disarmament on July 1, 1968. The treaty barred nuclear weapons states from propagating weapons to other states and prohibited states without nuclear weapons to develop or acquire nuclear arsenal. It permitted the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. It entered into force in 1970 and was extended indefinitely and unconditionally on May 11, 1995.

However, India conducted its first nuclear test in 1974: a subterranean explosion of a nuclear device (not weapon). India declared it to be a “peaceful” test, but it announced to the world that India had the scientific know-how to build a bomb. Many experts argue that the nuclear explosion was military in character. India did not sign the NPT because of its discriminatory nature. At that time, the five declared nuclear weapons states were the US, USSR, the UK, France, and China.

President Jimmy Carter again sought to negotiate a comprehensive test ban treaty with Russia from 1977-1980, but that effort also fell short as US-Soviet relations soured after Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan. In 1991, the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev announced a unilateral nuclear test moratorium. Later that year, a legislation was introduced in the US Congress for a reciprocal test moratorium. The legislation, which became law in 1992, mandated a 9-month moratorium on nuclear weapon test explosions. In July 1993, President Bill Clinton decided to extend the US test moratorium.

During this period, North Korea was dreaming to go nuclear. In December 1986, the South Pacific Nuclear Weapon Free Zone was put into effect. American and North Korean delegations met in Geneva in autumn 1994 to establish a framework to resolve nuclear issues in the Korean peninsula. Under the agreement, North Korea would sign a treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in exchange for US support in building safe nuclear energy facilities and formal assurance against the threat or use of nuclear weapons by the US against North Korea. Both sides agreed to take steps towards better political and economic relations. In subsequent years, South Korea and Japan have invested billions to help build safe nuclear energy plants in North Korea. However, by 2003, North Korea cancelled this and all other international agreements on non-proliferation.

On 12 December, 1995, the United Nations decreed an immediate ban on all nuclear testing and urged disarmament with the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons. Later that month, ten Southeast Asian countries signed the Bangkok Treaty, establishing the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. In spring 1996, 43 African nations signed the Pelindaba Treaty establishing the African Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. From 1994-96, nations came together to negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibited all nuclear test explosions and was intended to help curb the spread of nuclear weapons and impede nuclear arms competition. On 10 September, 1996, the United Nations, in a landslide vote, adopted the CTBT and, two weeks later, the United States was the first to sign it. The US Senate, however, rejected the treaty three years later.

It was apparent that due to the flawed policies of the declared nuclear states, new states which happened to be underdeveloped also went nuclear proclaiming several reasons. For instance, on 11 May 1998, India shocked the world by exploding three nuclear devices amounting to about six times the destructive power of the American bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The next day, it conducted two more nuclear explosions. The world was stunned when Pakistan responded with six nuclear arsenal tests of its own. The world leaders admonished the two long-time adversaries for breaking the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Both India and Pakistan, however, declined to sign the CTBT in 1996 due to its discriminatory nature. India stated that the CTBT like NPT did not talk about the vertical proliferation, as it allowed the declared nuclear states to hold and upgrade their nuclear arsenals. Interestingly, the U.S. imposed strict economic sanctions against both countries and lobbied to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and other countries to do the same. The sanctions were lifted in 2001 when the U.S. needed Pakistan and India’s support to fight al-Qaeda and other terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

In 1998, North Korea alarmed Japan by test-firing a medium-range missile (without weapons) over the Japanese mainland. The missile’s apparent range, some 1,000 kilometers or 600 miles, meant that any part of Japan – and by default any part of South Korea – was within the range of North Korean weaponry. Japan is the only country ever to have been attacked by nuclear weapons and anti-nuclear sentiment runs particularly deep.

In 2002, American President George W. Bush named Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as the Axis of Evil (Rogue state), in part due to U.S. suspicion of those countries having weapons of mass destruction. Later that year, unofficial reports suggested that North Korea had confirmed the existence of nuclear arsenals, and intelligence reports indicated that North Korea might have enough plutonium to build five or six nuclear bombs by May 2003.

On October 9, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon with the approximated power of the Hiroshima bomb. North Korea announced to the world that it had become the world’s eighth nuclear weapons state. Its missiles have the range to hit targets in South Korea, Japan as well as the US, Chinese, and Russian territories. The United States is the only known country to have missiles with a range to attack any target on earth. Over thirty countries have unmanned planes that are undetected by missile defense systems, and can carry nuclear, biological or other weapons of mass destruction.

Currently nine states possess nuclear warheads and are busy in upgrading the nuclear arsenals for security, power, status, and pride. All the initiatives for nuclear disarmament were futile in nature which eventually culminated in proliferation of nukes.

List of the nuclear haves in the world

United States The first country to develop nuclear weapons and the only country to have used them in war. It spends more on its nuclear arsenal than all other countries combined. 6,800 warheads
Russia The second country to develop nuclear weapons. It has the largest arsenal of any country and is investing heavily in the modernization of its warheads and delivery systems. 7,000 warheads
United Kingdom It maintains a fleet of four nuclear-armed submarines in Scotland, each carrying 16 Trident missiles. Its parliament voted in 2016 to overhaul its nuclear forces. 215 warheads
France Most of its nuclear warheads are deployed on submarines equipped with M45 and M51 missiles. One boat is on patrol at all times. Some warheads are also deliverable by aircraft. 300 warheads
China It has a much smaller arsenal than the US and Russia. Its warheads are deliverable by air, land, and sea. It appears to be increasing the size of its arsenal at a slow pace. 270 warheads
India It developed nuclear weapons in breach of non-proliferation commitments. It is increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal and enhancing its delivery capabilities. 110–120 warheads
Pakistan It is making substantial improvements to its nuclear arsenal and associated infrastructure. It has increased the size of its nuclear arsenal in recent years. 120-130 warheads
Israel It has a policy of ambiguity in relation to its nuclear arsenal, neither confirming nor denying its existence. As a result, there is little public information or debate about it. 80 warheads
North Korea It has a fledgling nuclear weapons programme. Its arsenal probably comprises fewer than 10 warheads. It is not clear whether it has the capability to deliver them. 10 warheads


Total 14,900 warheads

Category of nations in terms of nuclear weapons

Nations with nuclear weapons United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, North Korea
Nations hosting nuclear weapons Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Turkey
Nations endorsing nuclear weapons Albania, Australia, Belarus, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech, Denmark, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain (plus the five host nations)

Consequences of a nuclear war

Nuclear explosions produce both immediate and delayed destructive effects. Blast, thermal radiation, and prompt ionizing radiation cause significant destruction within seconds or minutes of a nuclear detonation. The delayed effects, such as radioactive fallout and other environmental effects, inflict damage over an extended period ranging from hours to years. Recent scientific studies have found that a war fought with the deployed US and Russian nuclear arsenals would leave the earth virtually uninhabitable.

In fact, NASA computer models have shown that even a ‘successful’ first strike by Washington or Moscow would inflict catastrophic environmental damage that would make agriculture impossible and cause mass starvation. Similarly, in the January 2010 edition of Scientific American, Alan Roebuck and Brian Ton, the foremost experts on the climatic impact of nuclear war, warn that the environmental consequences of a ‘regional’ nuclear war fought between India and Pakistan would cause a global famine that could kill one billion people. Roebuck and Ton predict that the detonation of 100 15-kiloton nuclear weapons in Indian and Pakistani megacities would create urban firestorms that would loft 5 million tons of thick, black smoke above cloud level, which would engulf the entire planet within 10 days. Because the smoke couldn’t be rained out, it would remain in the stratosphere for at least a decade with profoundly disruptive effects. Specifically, the smoke layer would heat the upper atmosphere, and cause massive destruction of protective stratospheric ozone, while simultaneously blocking warming sunlight and creating Ice Age weather conditions on Earth.


This study finds that nuclear weapons are regarded as an important tool for nuclear deterrence, despite the fact that nukes fail to provide total security to nuclear states. The efforts for nuclear disarmament initiatives at the global level are discriminatory in nature. That is why few states went nuclear despite being economically weak. The study concludes that nuclear disarmament initiatives should not be biased and efforts should be made to focus both on vertical and horizontal proliferation. It also understands that nuclear war might happen due to unresolved crisis between the nuclear states which will end with the devastation of the biodiversity.

Photo: India Today

Tahir Abdullah Lone
, Research Scholar, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Career Point University, Kota, Rajasthan, India.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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