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Should We Pay the Staggering Economic and Human Costs of Nuclear Weapons?


This October, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reported that its estimate of the cost for the planned “modernization” the U.S. nuclear weapons complex over the next three decades has risen to $1,200,000,000,000.00.  For those of you not familiar with such lofty figures, that’s $1.2 trillion.  Furthermore, when adjusted for inflation, the cost of the program―designed to provide new weapons for nuclear warfare on land, in the sea, and in the air, plus upgraded or new facilities to produce them―grows to $1.7 trillion.

That $1.7 trillion could provide an awful lot of healthcare, education, housing, parks, public transportation, roads, public radio, clean water, child nutrition, disability benefits, Social Security, and other public services to improve the lives of Americans.  But, of course, it won’t.  Instead, this enormous economic burden of paying for nuclear weapons will fall heavily upon (or perhaps destroy) whatever is left of such programs after the current Republican administration and Congress finish gutting them through budget cuts.

Much the same incredibly costly nuclear “modernization” is happening today in the eight other nuclear-armed nations, where the welfare of their citizens is being sacrificed on the altar of national military “strength.”

Although, in each country, proponents of this nuclear weapons buildup contend that it makes their citizens safer, the reality is that these countries are arming against one another and, therefore, that their publics will become more endangered than ever.

Take the example of what ready access to nuclear weapons is doing to the relations between the United States and North Korea.  U.S. President Donald Trump certainly appears to believe that the United States is endangered by the advance of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, just as North Korea’s Kim Jong Un apparently feels that North Korea is endangered by the U.S. government’s vastly superior nuclear forces.  And their fears have some validity.  Naturally, the apprehension felt by both men is exacerbated by the reckless threats of nuclear war each has leveled against the other’s country.

Indeed, as the U.S.-North Korean confrontation has heightened, fears have grown that the two nations might be drifting toward a nuclear war.  Speaking recently at the University of Pennsylvania, retired U.S. Navy Admiral James Stavridis, a former allied commander of NATO, estimated that there was at least a 10 percent chance of nuclear war between them.  Discussion of a U.S.-North Korean nuclear war has also grown among U.S. government officials.  Meanwhile, worried members of Congress and the public have begun to rally behind legislation (the Markey-Lieu bill) that would prevent the U.S. President from initiating a nuclear first strike.

Even when nations are led by more rational officials, there are numerous ways that nuclear weapons can be unleashed with horrific consequences.  For example, nuclear weapons might be drawn upon by nuclear-armed nations when a conventional war gradually escalates into a higher level of destructiveness.  Or they might be resorted to by an increasingly desperate nuclear-armed nation when it is losing a conventional war.  Or they might be fired in defense of a nation when an “enemy attack” is mistakenly reported.  Or they might be accidentally launched or dropped.  Or terrorists might steal or purchase them from a national arsenal and employ them in their next jihad.

Any of these scenarios would result in a catastrophe.  A single nuclear weapon, it is estimated, can slaughter hundreds of thousands of people through its enormous blast, fire, and radioactive fallout.  A study cited by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War contends that if only 300 of the weapons in the Russian nuclear arsenal were employed to attack U.S. cities, 90 million Americans would die in the first half hour.  A comparable U.S. nuclear attack on Russia would produce similar devastation.  Furthermore, the destruction of the entire economic, communications, and transportation infrastructure by these attacks would soon lead to the deaths of the vast majority of survivors by disease, exposure, and starvation.  And today there are about 15,000 nuclear weapons in existence, with over 90 percent of them in the arsenals of the U.S. and Russian governments.

Do we really need more?  Or, conversely, wouldn’t the world be better off without them?

Actually, most countries are already moving down the road toward a nuclear weapons-free world.  This past July, the official representatives of most of the world’s nations, meeting in a UN-sponsored conclave, voted 122 to 1 (with 1 abstention) for an international treaty prohibiting countries from developing, testing, manufacturing, possessing, transferring, or threatening to use nuclear weapons.  However, the nine nuclear-armed nations boycotted the conference and are not among the countries backing this Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons―at least not yet.

Given the staggering economic and human costs of nuclear weapons, isn’t it time that the nuclear nations got on board?

Lawrence Wittner (http://www.lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).

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