The ten worst acts of the Nuclear Age described below have set the tone for our time. They have caused immense death and suffering; been tremendously expensive; have encouraged nuclear proliferation; have opened the door to nuclear terrorism, nuclear accidents and nuclear war; and are leading the world back into a second Cold War. These “ten worst acts” are important information for anyone attempting to understand the time in which we live, and how the nuclear dangers that confront us have been intensified by the leadership and policy choices made by the United States and the other eight nuclear-armed countries.
1. Bombing Hiroshima (August 6, 1945). The first atomic bomb was dropped by the United States on the largely civilian population of Hiroshima, killing some 70,000 people instantly and 140,000 people by the end of 1945. The bombing demonstrated the willingness of the US to use its new weapon of mass destruction on cities.
2. Bombing Nagasaki (August 9, 1945). The second atomic bomb was dropped on the largely civilian population of Nagasaki before Japanese leaders had time to assess the death and injury caused by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima three days earlier. The atomic bombing of Nagasaki took another 70,000 lives by the end of 1945.
3. Pursuing a unilateral nuclear arms race (1945 – 1949). The first nuclear weapon test was conducted by the US on July 16, 1945, just three weeks before the first use of an atomic weapon on Hiroshima. As the only nuclear-armed country in the world in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the US continued to expand its nuclear arsenal and began testing nuclear weapons in 1946 in the Marshall Islands, a trust territory the US was asked to administer on behalf of the United Nations. Altogether the US tested 67 nuclear weapons in the Marshall Islands between 1946 and 1958, with the equivalent explosive power of 1.6 Hiroshima bombs daily for that 12 year period.
4. Initiating Atoms for Peace (1953). President Dwight Eisenhower put forward an Atoms for Peace proposal in a speech delivered on December 8, 1953. This proposal opened the door to the spread of nuclear reactors and nuclear materials for purposes of research and power generation. This resulted in the later proliferation of nuclear weapons to additional countries, including Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan and North Korea.
5. Engaging in a Cold War bilateral nuclear arms race (1949 – 1991). The nuclear arms race became bilateral when the Soviet Union tested its first atomic weapon on August 29, 1949. This bilateral nuclear arms race between the US and USSR reached its apogee in 1986 with some 70,000 nuclear weapons in the world, enough to destroy civilization many times over and possibly result in the extinction of the human species.
6. Atmospheric Nuclear Testing (1945 – 1980). Altogether there have been 528 atmospheric nuclear tests. The US, UK and USSR ceased atmospheric nuclear testing in 1963, when they signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty. France continued atmospheric nuclear testing until 1974 and China continued until 1980. Atmospheric nuclear testing has placed large amounts of radioactive material into the atmosphere, causing cancers and leukemia in human populations.
7. Breaching the disarmament provisions of the NPT (1968 – present). Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) states, “Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament….” The five nuclear weapons-states parties to the NPT (US, Russia, UK, France and China) remain in breach of these obligations. The other four nuclear-armed states (Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea) are in breach of these same obligations under customary international law.
8. Treating nuclear power as an “inalienable right” in the NPT (1968 – present). This language of “inalienable right” contained in Article IV of the NPT encourages the development and spread of nuclear power plants and thereby makes the proliferation of nuclear weapons more likely. Nuclear power plants are also attractive targets for terrorists. As yet, there are no good plans for long-term storage of radioactive wastes created by these plants. Government subsidies for nuclear power plants also take needed funding away from the development of renewable energy sources.
9. Failing to cut a deal with North Korea (1992 to present). During the Clinton administration, the US was close to a deal with North Korea to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. This deal was never fully implemented and negotiations for it were abandoned under the George W. Bush administration. Consequently, North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and conducted its first nuclear weapon test in 2006.
10. Abrogating the ABM Treaty (2002). Under the George W. Bush administration, the US unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This allowed the US, in combination with expanding NATO to the east, to place missile defense installations near the Russian border. It has also led to emplacement of US missile defenses in East Asia. Missile defenses in Europe and East Asia have spurred new nuclear arms races in these regions.
David Krieger is a founder and president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org).