- With all the hype about North Korea, we're forgetting
that the world is still staring down the barrels of thousands of US and
- It is difficult to underestimate the problems associated
with North Korea's recent nuclear weapons test. Following a small atomic
explosion in a mountainous area of North Korea of less than one kiloton
-- the Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons -- the U.S. administration is encouraging
draconian economic sanctions to be enacted against a desperately poor country
where millions of people are malnourished and that will further ostracize
a paranoid regime, while the rest of the world looks on with horror as
the nuclear arms race threatens to spiral out of control.
- While lateral proliferation is indeed an incredibly serious
problem as ever-more countries prepare to enter the portals of the nuclear
club, one consistent outstanding nuclear threat that continues to endanger
most planetary species is ignored by the international community.
- In fact, the real "rogue" nations that continue
to hold the world at nuclear ransom are Russia and the United States. Contrary
to popular belief, the threat of a massive nuclear attack -- whether by
accident, human fallibility or malfeasance -- has increased.
- Of the 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, the
United States and Russia possess 96 per cent of them. Of these, Russia
aims most of its 8,200 strategic nuclear warheads at U.S. and Canadian
targets, while the U.S. aims most of its 7,000 offensive strategic hydrogen
bombs on Russian missile silos and command centres. Each of these thermonuclear
warheads has roughly 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped
on Hiroshima, according to a report on nuclear weapons by the National
Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group.
- Of these 7,000 U.S. strategic weapons, 2,500 are deployed
on intercontinental ballistic missiles that are constantly maintained on
hair-trigger alert ready for immediate launching, while the U.S. also maintains
some 2,688 hydrogen bombs on missiles in its 14 Trident submarines, most
ready for instantaneous launching.
- According to the Center for Defense Information, a group
that analyzes U.S. defence policy, in the event of a suspected attack,
the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command has only three minutes
to decide if a nuclear attack warning is valid. He has 10 minutes to locate
the president for a 30-second briefing on attack options, and the president
then has three minutes to decide to launch the warheads and to consider
which pre-set targeting plan to use.
- Once launched, the missiles would take 10 to 30 minutes
to reach their Russian targets.
- An almost identical situation prevails in Russia, except
unlike the combined U.S. and Canadian NORAD early-warning equipment, the
Russian system is decaying rapidly, its early-warning satellites are almost
non-functional and it now relies on a relatively primitive over-the-horizon
radar to warn it of an imminent secret first-strike attack from the United
- The Russian military and political leaders are suitably
paranoid about this extraordinary post-Cold-War situation. So much so that
in January 1995 president Boris Yeltsin came to within 10 seconds of launching
his nuclear armada when the launch of a Norwegian weather satellite was
misinterpreted in Moscow as a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack.
- Most towns and cities with populations over 50,000 on
the North American continent are targeted with at least one hydrogen bomb.
Only 1,000 bombs exploding on 100 cities could induce nuclear winter and
the end of most life on earth. There are fewer than 300 major cities in
the Northern hemisphere.
- Such is the redundancy of nuclear weapons. A U.S. Foreign
Military Studies Office report of January 2002, "Prototypes for Targeting
America, a Soviet Military Assessment," states that New York City,
for example, is the single most important target in the Atlantic region
after major military installations. A U.S. Congressional Office of Technology
Assessment report, commissioned in the 1980s but still relevant, estimated
that Soviet nuclear war plans had two one-megaton bombs aimed at each of
three airports that serve New York, one aimed at each of the major bridges,
two at Wall Street and two at each of four oil refineries. The major rail
centres and power stations were also targeted, along with the port facilities.
- The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that
New York City would be obliterated by nuclear blasts and the resulting
firestorms and fallout.
- Millions of people would die instantly. Survivors would
perish shortly thereafter from burns and exposure to radiation.
- Terrifyingly, the early warning systems of both Russia
and the U.S. register false alarms daily, triggered either by wildfires,
satellite launchings or solar reflections off clouds or oceans. Of more
immediate concern in both the United States and Russia is the threat of
terrorists or hackers entering and disrupting the computerized early warning
systems and command centres.
- Therefore, as the world tries to come to terms with a
possible tiny new entrant into the nuclear club, the U.S. Security Council,
the U.S. administration, the U.S. Congress, the Canadian government and
the Kremlin fail to recognize the most serious danger -- thousands of hydrogen
bombs maintained on tenuous hair-trigger alert.
- What has induced this state of global psychic numbing,
and why are these issues never officially addressed?
- Now that Russia and the U.S. maintain a friendly working
relationship, it is time to reinvigorate the extraordinary precedent established
by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavic in 1988, to urgently
agree to abolish nuclear weapons bilaterally.
- Only then will the nuclear superpowers have the moral
authority to legitimately and actively promote multilateral nuclear disarmament
through the United Nations and to police other countries to discourage
- France and China have already agreed to abolish their
nuclear weapons should the superpowers disarm. Israel, Pakistan and India,
who have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, would need extra pressure.
- Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International
Atomic Energy Agency, has called for a clear road map for nuclear disarmament
to be established.
- Time is not on our side.
- Helen Caldicott is a pediatrician and president of the
Washington-based Nuclear Policy Research Institute. She is the author of
Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.