How does one keep a society safe at a national level?
In the past, city-states would build walls to protect the population. As technologies advanced, nations rushed to develop deadlier weapons than their enemies so that the threat of loss was greater than the reward of taking territory.
Those technologies have now developed into nuclear weapons. The destructive power of a nuclear weapon is just one threat to consider. The radioactive fallout from such a weapon can cause long-term consequences for a population that was close to the explosion. Radiated soil, weapon debris, and radioactive particles falling from the sky are all threats that must be taken seriously, which means a nation with nuclear weapons provides a great threat to a potential invader.
If enough nuclear weapons are launched and allowed to detonate, however, then life as we know it on our planet will cease to exist. Any survivors would be forced to endure unthinkable conditions.
Here are the essential pros and cons of nuclear weapons to consider.
The Pros of Nuclear Weapons
1. It is a deterrent for starting a major conflict.
Only a handful of nations are armed with nuclear weapons. The US and Russia have the most weapons, but France, China, the United Kingdom, and Pakistan all have more than 100 weapons. The presence of these weapons and their immense destructive capabilities is a major deterrent for starting a major conflict, like the two world wars that are fought in the first half of the 20th century. Even when both nations have nuclear weapons, their mutually assured destruction is enough to cause diplomacy to rule the day.
2. It reinforces national borders.
Our society is becoming ever-more global. Because of the internet, communications improvements, and other technological advances, we can talk with anyone, anywhere, with a simple data connection. New transportation technologies are in development that can provide long-distance transportation at speeds which were unthinkable just a generation ago. By reinforcing national borders, a global society of cooperation can be built through negotiation and diplomacy instead of warfare.
3. It changes the power and status of a nation.
Countries with nuclear weapons are treated different on the global stage than countries without those weapons. North Korea may only have a dozen or so nuclear weapons at best estimate, but their demands are taken with an extra level of seriousness and scrutiny because they have developed rudimentary nuclear weapon technology. Because there is a desire to avoid such a devastating conflict, most nations with nuclear weapons can generally get what they want on-demand.
4. They can be fired without a direct threat to personnel.
The nuclear weapons dropped in Japan were carried by bombers, staffed with a flight crew. Rockets can be fired remotely from stations and intercontinental ballistic technologies can let someone manage the weapon from thousands of miles away. Nuclear weapons do not require a battlefield presence in the same way a conventional weapon may require.
5. Nuclear weapons can be positioned in a variety of locations.
Submarines and naval craft can be outfitted with nuclear weapons so that they can be fired from any ocean-based location on the planet. Storage silos, buried underground, can fire ICBM-outfitted nuclear weapons. They can be fired from remote trucks, put into aircraft missiles, or still be dropped by bombers like they were in the 1940s. The versatility of positioning that a nuclear weapon offers is quite profound.
6. They provide the foundations for other technologies.
The technologies that have helped to create nuclear weapons have fostered other technologies that have benefited society in many ways. Nuclear power provides a relatively clean source of energy that is used to power hundreds of thousands of homes around the world. Nuclear reactors have been used to build naval vessels. Many types of nuclear-powered propulsion have been proposed for future spacecraft.
7. It is a highly reliable technology.
As a power source, nuclear energy can run uninterrupted for more than a year without disruption, even during difficult weather conditions. The refinement of a nuclear weapon is similar to this advantage. Once installed, the delivery platform reliability of the weapon is strong. Even if the warheads are not modernized, the surety of the weapon and its readiness make it a consistent threat that cannot be ignored.
The Cons of Nuclear Weapons
1. They have added development and maintenance costs.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the United States spends an estimated $34.8 billion per year to maintain, operate, and upgrade its nuclear weapons arsenal. Estimates from Nuclear Threat Initiative suggest the figures may be a little lower, but still costing the US up to $25 billion per year. To put that in perspective, an investment into food products at that level would provide up to 75 billion meals for those living in poverty.
2. Detonation has a major ethical impact.
Only two cities have ever been directly affected by nuclear weapons in history. Both were in Japan: Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just two bombs caused the death of over 129,000 people, with many of them being civilians. Acute effects from the bombs may have contributed to the deaths of over 250,000 additional people in the following decades. Even if military complexes are struck with a nuclear weapon, there will be civilian casualties.
3. There are environmental concerns which must be considered with a detonation.
Since 1945, the testing of nuclear weapons has caused more than 2,100 detonations that have happened around the globe. Some have occurred underwater, while others have occurred underground. Every detonation creates radiation that, if someone were exposed to it, could create grave consequences. The threat of multiple simultaneous nuclear detonations could create a prolonged winter that would ravage the planet and potentially cause all life to cease.
4. It provides a major terror threat.
The size of a nuclear weapon is relatively small. With terrorism on the rise around the world, the threat of a “dirty bomb” cannot be ignored. A terrorist group with a nuclear weapon could cause immense and immediate damage that could change the path of an entire society. The Patriot Act of 2001 was in response to airplanes being flown into buildings. Imagine would the aftermath of a nuclear explosion could be.
5. Waste from the development of nuclear weapons must be stored somewhere.
The challenges of storing nuclear waste are evident at the Hanford Site in Washington State. It was the location of the world’s first plutonium production reactor. Up to 9 nuclear reactors and 5 plutonium processors were operating at once, creating 60,000 weapons for the US nuclear arsenal. Now the radioactive waste is stored in 177 storage tanks. Breaches and leaks are still a very real threat, despite the lack of production that occurs there today.
6. It is a non-renewable resource.
Nuclear fuels are plutonium and uranium, which are radioactive metals. This means it is a resource that is non-renewable. Even if the all the nuclear energy from weapons was transitioned into usable energy that wouldn’t produce carbon dioxide, any accident could create a threat to human health that could potentially last for thousands of years. In many ways, nuclear technologies are much like fossil fuels, but with a different threat to the environment.
7. A nuclear weapon can fail because of a degraded delivery system.
Even if the nuclear weapon is viable, the delivery system for the weapon may not be viable. Many nuclear weapons are being maintained with delivery systems that have not been modernized. In the US, the current stock of ICBM nuclear weapons is expected to remain in service until 2032. Submarine-based nuclear weapons are expected to remain in service until 2042. Unless delivery systems are upgraded and maintained in the same way as their weapon counterparts, they may not be an effective deterrent.
8. They require a skilled workforce to operate.
Although nuclear weapons can be operated from a distance, a skilled workforce is required to make them a useful tool. Scientists, engineers, and operators are critical to the viability of any nuclear weapon. Without a skilled workforce in support, the safety and security of the nuclear weapons becomes doubtful and that doubt can be enough to make the weapons less of a deterrent.
9. Testing must require a detonation at some point.
Computer simulations can show the effects of a nuclear weapon and what an expected fallout happens to be. To determine if the technology is viable, however, an actual detonation must take place. Since July 1945, the United States has fired over 1,100 nuclear weapon as part of the testing process. No tests have been conducted, however, since September 1992.
The pros and cons of nuclear weapons show that they can serve as a deterrent and support “positive” technologies. There is just one question that continues to remain unanswered: what will happen if someone finally calls the bluff and attacks a nation with nuclear capabilities? It is the potential answer to that questions which should cause everyone to pause and consider the continued need for these weapons.