The Nuclear Threat

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Seventy years ago, the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed roughly 200,000 people. For most Americans that’s ancient history.

Still, the anniversary should remind us that we continue to face an existential threat from nuclear weapons. If climate change threatens us over decades, our nuclear arsenal can destroy the planet in an afternoon.

Long after the Cold War’s end, the U.S. arsenal alone is roughly 150,000 times more destructive than the Hiroshima bomb. And between the U.S. and Russia, 1,800 of those weapons are maintained on a launch-on-warning basis, ready to go in minutes, every single day.

This makes perfect sense if you believe that people are infallible or that technology is flawless. Or if you’re willing to overlook the dozens of accidents and near launches that have already occurred.

Some argue that deterrence has worked so there’s nothing to worry about, but deterrence is a ”theory” in the sense of pure conjecture. The basic idea is that because we haven’t killed hundreds of millions of people yet, then all must be good. It’s as if I successfully drove home drunk and concluded it was perfectly safe behavior.


Those best positioned to understand the risk are rightfully alarmed. Marine General James Cartwright commanded our nuclear forces from 2004 to 2007. Today, he is campaigning to de-alert them. Cartwright warns that we live in an era where security breaches are a weekly event. Last month, Chrysler recalled thousands of cars because their onboard navigation could be hacked. But with nuclear weapons, no such recall effort is afoot and no software “patch” will eliminate the risk.

This recklessness doesn’t come cheap either. Over the next decade, the U.S. is projected to spend $1 trillion on nuclear weapons. That’s roughly what it would cost to provide free public college tuition to every American student for 16 years.

On the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we should honestly confront the reality of nuclear weapons in the 21st Century. If they ever were a source of security, they are nothing but a liability today.

With a Perspective, I’m Peter Ferenbach.

Peter Ferenbach has written extensively on nuclear weapons issues for 30 years. He lives in the East Bay.