Nine countries in the world possess a total of 14,900 nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia account for 93 percent of them. Since their peak in the mid-1980’s, global arsenals have shrunk by over two-thirds. More countries have given up weapons and programs in the past 30 years than have tried to acquire them. The direction is positive, but when you are fleeing a forest fire it is not just direction but speed that matters. Ploughshares Fund is committed to reducing nuclear threats before it is too late.
The risk of nuclear weapons or fissile materials falling into the wrong hands has greatly increased since September 11. Stockpiles of nuclear materials are often loosely guarded abroad, and even the most secure nuclear facilities at home have proven to be vulnerable. Over the last two decades numerous attempts at nuclear theft have been documented. Some have come dangerously close to succeeding. The best way to reduce the probability of nuclear terrorism is to steadily eliminate the weapons and the materials used to make them.
People talk about “states like Iran and North Korea.” But there are no states like Iran and North Korea. These nations are the last of their kind. Apart from the eight nations with established nuclear weapons programs, there are no other countries racing to establish the capability to build nuclear bombs. If both programs can be contained, curtailed and ultimately rolled back, it then becomes possible to talk about the end of proliferation, the end of the wave that began 70 years ago with Hiroshima. Ploughshares Fund grantees are working diligently towards that goal.
The Cold War is long gone, but the nuclear threat remains. Though the chance of any nation intentionally launching its nuclear arsenal is low, “the real nuclear threat to America is an accident,” says the deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces. Since inventing the atomic bomb, the U.S. alone has had dozens of nuclear near misses, including dropping two live bombs on North Carolina. In 1995, Russia almost launched its missiles at the U.S. when it thought it was under attack. The longer we keep thousands of nuclear weapons in fallible human hands, the greater the risk becomes of a catastrophe beyond historical experience.
The disputed Kashmir valley between India and Pakistan is one of the most dangerous places on earth. Deadly skirmishes between the two sides are frequent occurrences, and both countries possess nuclear weapons. In a crisis, control of these weapons may be turned over to battlefield commanders, greatly increasing the odds of a nuclear war. Such an exchange would have global impact. The detonation of just one hundred nuclear weapons would engulf the earth in a cloud of dust and smoke that would block sunlight. The ensuing nuclear winter could kill food crops, starving a billion people. To prevent this nightmare scenario we must resolve these conflicts before it is too late.