From Ukraine to India, reminders of the urgency of working for a nuclear-free world

It is a strange paradox that nations seem to be safer with nuclear weapons than without. Political scientist John Mearsheimer noted in 1993 that Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons would expose it to threat from Russia. And if Russia did not have nuclear weapons, World War III might become more likely – currently, Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear war have prevented the erection of a ‘no-fly zone’ – it that is, to shoot down Russian planes.

The North Korean government remains in place and relatively quiet, precisely because of its weapons. Moreover, nuclear weapons have only been used twice by a democracy in times of world war. Thereafter, they remained, in the words of Mao Zedong, paper tigers.

Consider the heated exchange between former US President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Both threatened nuclear extermination but neither followed through, and both forged a strange friendship.

Kim Jong Un walks away from what state media reports is a “new type” of intercontinental ballistic missile in this undated photo released March 24, 2022 by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency. Credit: Reuters

Yet a nuclear-free world would still be a safer world. After all, would Putin have behaved as he did if Russia did not have a nuclear arsenal – larger than the United States? Moreover, the idea that nuclear weapons pose a threat on paper ignores the various times nuclear weapons have come close to being deployed.

There were repeated instances during the Cold War where nuclear weapons were seriously considered. US politician Barry Goldwater, who ran against Democrat Lyndon B Johnson, threatened to use nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and many military strategists were also eager to test nuclear weapons.

Let’s not forget that a Soviet submarine almost launched nuclear torpedoes on the American navy on October 27, 1962. It was thanks to the determination of Vasily Arkhipov that the crisis was averted. The proximity of nuclear destruction during the Cuban Missile Crisis has never been forgotten, but its grip on us is not as great as it should be.

There are many other instances where the world has come close to deploying nuclear weapons, often due to technological or human error. Wikipedia has an entire page devoted to “nuclear close calls” because it euphemistically calls it potential megadeath. Yet the world remains oblivious to the hidden threats imposed by the existence of nuclear weapons, recalling Bertolt Brecht’s war poem “To Those Born After”: “The Man Who Laughs/Just Hasn’t Heard Yet /The terrible news”.

We can wait and “laugh” until it reaches us, kills us, transforms our future generations, making violence slow as part of their daily existence, or we can raise our voices, make our leaders hear the horrors nuclear weapons and force them to abandon such genocidal projects. We have the choice to laugh in the present or to resist for the future life on the planet.

Of course, how can we ignore the very real possibility of a nuclear weapon accidentally detonating. Infamously, nuclear bombs were accidentally dropped by the United States Air Force on the United States.

For example, in 1958 an atomic bomb was dropped on a farm in Mars Bluff, South Carolina – luckily it did not explode. Two hydrogen bombs were dropped on North Carolina on January 23, 1961, which fortunately did not explode.

There have also been more recent incidents. A 2013 CNN headline reads, “Missile doors left open while officer slept.” The full story is even scarier as the doors were left open while a crew member picked up a food delivery. Nuclear weapons are not as well protected as the sedative narratives lead us to believe.

Belief and guns are always bad company and can’t be left to go to bed together. How can we believe in such slippery tales when the past shows a bloody picture, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl?

For much of the 20th century, there was a recurring fear of annihilation, of nuclear apocalypse. Yet, amid the horror of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we have repeatedly heard calls for more nuclear weapons and attempts to normalize the possibility of nuclear war.

In the context of South Asia, there has always been a possible nuclear threat. Given Pakistan’s recurring threat to use nuclear weapons, India’s recent missile misfire could have easily paved the way for retaliatory action. These events should be enough to create greater awareness of the possibility of nuclear wars in the near future.

Yet a society that is guided by and structured on nuclear weapons narratives is as much of a threat to others as it is to its own existence since radiation recognizes no racial or national boundaries. Unlike humans, radioactive radiation can reach all humans, albeit in horrific ways.

From an ecological and global point of view, it goes without saying that fewer nuclear weapons mean less danger and threats. The fewer the weapons, the less the threat of extinction.

But denuclearization should not focus exclusively on nuclear weapons. Nuclear power plants are increasingly threatened by both natural and unnatural disasters of climate change (recall the emergency after Fukushima). The scenes of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant burning from bombardment remind us that war can also trigger accidental nuclear disasters.

Staff work on black plastic bags containing irradiated soil, leaves and debris from the decontamination operation in the town of Tomioka in Fukushima Prefecture, near the tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in February 2015. Credit: Reuters

A nuclear war would be catastrophic, but so would nuclear accidents. While accidents cannot be avoided, imaginations of nuclear power can certainly be erased.

The transition from nuclear energy to denuclearization requires both political and social will. It challenges us to be aware of the horrors of radioactive life, a kind of life in which breathing itself becomes undemocratic and fascist.

At the end of the Cold War, there was a renewed faith in the power of the people: in the dismantling of walls and barriers, and a hope for denuclearization. It may sound naive today, but that doesn’t make it any less urgent.

Every injustice overcome at some point seemed triumphant and impossible to reverse – it was accepted as part of the nature of things. We must not make fun of utopianism, if we want there to be those who are born after.

Aleks Wansbrough teaches at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Australia. He contributes to numerous publications, including The conversation and left green.

Om Prakash Dwivedi is Director of the School of Liberal Arts, Bennett University, Greater Noida, India. He tweets at @opdwivedi82

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