Figure from Weapons Of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, Report of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, p.36.

Andrew Lichterman

“So long as any state has nuclear weapons, others will want them. So long as any such weapons remain, there is a risk that they will one day be used, by design or accident. And any such use would be catastrophic. The accumulated threat posed by the estimated 27,000 nuclear weapons, in Russia, the United States and the other NPT nuclear-weapon states, merits worldwide concern. However, especially in these five states the view is common that nuclear weapons from the first wave of proliferation somehow are tolerable, while such weapons in the hands of additional states are viewed as dangerous.” Weapons Of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, p.60.

As noted in the previous entry, the Weapons of Mass Destruction Commission, chaired by Hans Blix, released its report, Weapons Of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, at a press conference at the United Nations Thursday (download the full report in pdf here). The Washington Post online ran a Reuters story on the report predictably tracking mainstream Washington’s obsessions and repressions, focusing on Iran (who has no nuclear weapons) and its relationship to Israel (who does). The immense nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia, and those of the other original nuclear weapons states, are an afterthought, relegated to a few paragraphs at the end.

A good place to start in turning this skewed world view right side up is by remembering that nuclear weapons are the true “weapons of mass destruction.” And it is worth contemplating the magnitude of the danger presented by the arsenals of the existing nuclear powers, still big enough to destroy most, perhaps all, of human civilization in a day.

A single U.S. ballistic missile submarine, armed with 12 Trident missiles each capable of carrying up to eight separate nuclear warheads, can deliver as many as 192 nuclear weapons in short order. Independent analysts estimate that the average missile load today is 6 warheads, which means 144 warheads on a single boat. Each of these weapons will have a yield of either 100 or 475 kilotons, depending on which of the two SLBM warheads are employed. The yield of the bomb the United States dropped on Hiroshima was, by comparison, estimated to be at most 15 kilotons– so these modern warheads range from more than 6 to almost 32 times the size of that first city-destroying weapon.

A few years ago, Lynn Eden wrote Whole World on Fire, re-evaluating the effects of nuclear weapons, and perhaps more important, the political and organizational reasons why those effects had been consistently understated by the U.S. war planning bureaucracy. Eden described the effects of a 300 kiloton nuclear warhead detonated 1,500 feet over the Pentagon on a clear day. Everything within a circle between about seven and nine miles in diameter would be incinerated by the blast or burned in the resulting firestorm, likely with no one left alive in the zone of fire. “Average air temperatures in the areas on fire after the attack would be well above the boiling point of water, winds generated by the fire would be hurricane force, and the fire would burn everywhere at this intensity for three to six hours.” Lynn Eden, Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, and Nuclear Weapons Devastation, (2004: Cornell University Press), pp.35-36. Essentially, everyone from somewhere north of Dupont circle to northern Alexandria, Virginia would be dead, with little left besides the ruins of steel, stone, and concrete structures.

The 144 warheads aboard a single submarine are enough to inflict much the same fate on every major city in the United States, and most of its minor ones as well. Washington D.C. and Arlington, Virginia would each have their own warhead. There would be warheads for Dallas, Forth Worth, and Plano, for Boston, Providence, and Worcester, for Phoenix, Mesa, and Scottsdale, for Seattle and Tacoma, for New York, Newark, and Yonkers, for Los Angeles and every one of its surrounding cities with populations over 160,00 or so and for many more towns throughout the United States down to the size of Chatanooga, Tennessee and Vancouver, Washington. In my own region, there would be enough warheads to hit not only San Francisco, but Oakland and San Jose.

The relatively “small” nuclear arsenals of China, England, France, and Israel are on the order of the warheads aboard a single U.S. ballistic missile submarine, numbering in the low hundreds. India and Pakistan each have tens of atomic weapons, although likely of lower (but still hugely destructive) yield. The United States has 13 more ballistic missile submarines, plus thousands more nuclear weapons deliverable by aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Russia has similar numbers to the United States. For a good overview of current nuclear arsenals worldwide, see the data compiled by the Natural Resources Defense Council for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.
Over three and a half decades ago, the United States, the Soviet Union, and England signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in which they promised to negotiate in good faith for the early cessation of the arms race and the elimination of their nuclear arsenals. China and France, the other two original nuclear weapons states, joined the Treaty later. In exchange for this disarmament commitment, along with a promise of access to nuclear technology for peaceful uses, the non-nuclear weapons states forswore nuclear weapons.Yet for decades more of the Cold War, the nuclear weapons states continued to expand their nuclear stockpiles and to develop ever more capable delivery systems. The numbers and nature of nuclear arsenals were driven by a number of factors: ideology, profit, war fighting strategies that grew ever more detached from any reality in which the human species could survive. As General Lee Butler, who commanded U.S. nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, said,

“Deterrence failed completely as a guide in setting rational limits on the size and composition of military forces. To the contrary, its appetite was voracious, its capacity to justify new weapons and larger stocks unrestrained. Deterrence carried the seed, born of an irresolvable internal contradiction, that spurred an insatiable arms race. Nuclear deterrence hinges on the credibility to mount a devastating retaliation under the most extreme conditions of war initiation. Perversely, the redundant and survivable force required to meet this exacting test is readily perceived by a darkly suspicious adversary as capable, even designed, to execute a disarming first strike.” General Lee Butler, “The Risks of Nuclear Deterrence: From Superpowers to Rogue Leaders,” National Press Club, February 2, 1998

The end of the Cold war brought reductions whose starting point was the result of this insane and self-sustaining arms racing. These reductions left numbers, institutions, and attitudes that look “smaller” by contrast, but differ little in their real capacity for destruction. And the insistence of the nuclear weapons states, and the United States above all, on keeping thousands of nuclear weapons and on constantly modernizing their nuclear forces long after the “Cold War” rationale was gone has raised the specter of new arms races, and has severely undermined the nonproliferation regime. As Mohamed Elbaradei, Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said recently, “Nukes breed nukes. As long as some nations continue to insist that nuclear weapons are essential to their security, other nations will want them. There is no way around this simple truth.”

The global scene today increasingly resembles that which brought the devastating world wars of the last century. New powers are emerging, seeking an increased share of the means needed to create wealth for their elites and to raise the standard of living for the rest of their populations sufficiently to avoid unrest. Older powers are determined to hold on to advantages acquired through centuries of war, conquest, and hard-driving forms of technological and economic development that have enabled them to accumulate great economic and military power, but also have rapidly depleted the resources they directly control. In the past, conflicts of this kind have brought wars. These wars, like the economic system that in large part drives them, have become more intense, more total, with both the terrain contested and the energies unleashed encompassing more and more at each turn. This is the context in which we must read the admonition of the WMD Commission that “Governments possessing nuclear weapons can act responsibly or recklessly. Governments may also change over time. Twenty-seven thousand nuclear weapons are not an abstract theory.” Weapons Of Terror: Freeing the World of Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Arms, p.60.

[updated for city populations 12-08]