Friday, August 06, 2010

Another year

Time moves on. Memories dim. Awareness fades. The number who were there decreases. Other concerns, other events, fill our attention.

But the reality remains. Undimmed, unfaded, undecreased.

Today, August 6, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. And while you'd be forgiven for thinking that the only nuclear weapons-related issue in the world today is whether or not Iran will get them, the fact is that there are, today, over 25,000 nuclear weapons in the world, including, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists, nearly 8,000 deployed weapons of which over 2,200 are on alert, ready for use in as little as minutes.

Here's the good news:
By the end of 2012, the United States plans to reduce its deployed long-range weapons to 2,200; Russia plans to reduce to approximately 2,000. These reductions meet the terms of the Treaty Between the United States of America and the Russian Federation on Strategic Offensive Reductions, more commonly known as SORT or the Moscow Treaty.
SORT was to expire at the end of 2012, but in April the US and Russia came to a new SALT agreement, covering not only numbers of deployed weapons but verification protocols. The agreement provides for a further reduction over time in the number of US and Russian deployed strategic nuclear weapons to 1,550 each, a 30% reduction below the SORT numbers.

Meanwhile, also in April the US issued a new nuclear posture review, making what the Friends Committee on National Legislation called "a modest incremental step in the right direction," one which turned out better than it might have due to the direct intervention of Barack Obama. (See? He can do some good things! And yes, I can admit it.)

Okay, now the bad news:
Most of the nuclear weapons deployed today would explode with a force roughly 8 to 100 times larger than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (which averaged the equivalent of 18,000 tons of TNT). The deployed warheads are primarily on long-range land- or submarine-based ballistic missiles that can deliver the warheads thousands of miles with great accuracy.
And remember, there are nearly 8,000 of them.

At least eight and perhaps nine nations possess nuclear weapons and somewhere between 10 and 20 more are "nuclear capable," meaning they have the technology and industrial base to produce nuclear weapons within five years. (Interestingly, despite what the news, parroting the official line, would have you believe, Iran is not on that list.) Treaties like SALT and SORT apply only to the US and Russia; no other nation ever has had or now has its nuclear arsenal limited by treaty.

Then there are the little-noted "undeclared nuclear powers," those nations that have or have access to nukes but aren't called nuclear powers. (Some still include Israel in this category since it does not formally admit to having nuclear weapons, but its possession of them is so widely known and accepted that most just call it a nuclear state.) The significant undeclared powers are Turkey, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands and Italy, all of which nations are home to US nuclear weapons and all of which have planes capable of delivering those weapons to a target and the pilots and crews trained to do so. They avoid being called nuclear powers because the weapons themselves are technically under the control of the US, but the fact is they function as an extension of the US nuclear arsenal.

We may have forgotten nuclear weapons, we may have allowed ourselves (with relief) to be convinced they are no longer an issue. But they have not forgotten us. And they will not as long as they continue to exist.

A Footnote: Five years ago I wrote about some little-known history about the development and use of The Bomb. It began this way:
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. During the week there will be, if past experience is any guide, a few news stories recalling the events, a few photographs of paper cranes showered over the monument in Hiroshima's Peace Park, and a few "it must not happen again" editorials all expressing with appropriate regret the "necessity" of the bombings. It will, in short, be a week of comforting, reinforcing, oft-told tales - that is, of myths.

That is perhaps more fitting than we realize, because the nuclear weapons age was born in a myth....
I think you'd find it interesting reading. And you may want to follow it up with this short post, which was a footnote to that one.

Another Footnote: That nuclear posture review also said the US rejects the development of "new" nuclear weapons. That might be another good thing but what constitutes a "new" weapon can be a slippery matter. During the Reagan administration, a good deal of effort went into arguing that "modernization" of weapons, making them more accurate, more powerful, more destructive, even adding additional warheads in some cases, did not constitute a "new" weapon. Attention is still required.

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