By Martin Fleck, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Martin Fleck is Security Program Director at Physicians for Social Responsibility. PSR and its international affiliate, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. The views expressed are his own.
The anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima this Wednesday is as good a time as any to remember the ever-present danger of nuclear weapons – and the importance of acting to prevent catastrophe.
The world today is fraught with conflict, but most of us don’t pay much attention to nuclear arsenals – nine nations possess a total of more than 17,000 nuclear weapons, according to Ploughshares Fund, while 94 percent of those nuclear weapons belong to the United States and Russia. These weapons pose a profound health risk to all humans. Indeed, as a recent report from Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War outlined, even a “limited, regional” war between India and Pakistan using just 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs – less than 1 percent of the world’s arsenals – would likely result in the deaths of 20 million people outright, cause global cooling for a decade, disrupt agriculture over the entire northern hemisphere, and threaten as many as 2 billion people with starvation.
"To err is human." An accident could happen at any time. In his latest book, Command and Control, Eric Schlosser documents 78 known incidents where something has gone amiss with the American nuclear weapons enterprise. This includes some well-publicized incidents such as the weapon that fell from a B-52 bomber over North Carolina, started to arm itself, and almost detonated in 1961. Who knows what hair-raising incidents have happened in other nuclear-armed states? And with the proliferation of the weapons comes the danger that terrorists will get hold of the materials to make a bomb. We are living on borrowed time.
In Prague in 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama stated “clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Since then, his administration has put considerable effort into securing “loose” nuclear materials around the world. However, in other arenas, his administration has moved away, not toward, a nuclear weapons-free future. Obama’s budget for 2015, for example, ramps up spending to modernize or replace the entire inventory of strategic weapons – land-based missiles, submarines, and bombers. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this “modernization mountain” will wind up costing $355 billion over the next 10 years. If the president meant what he said in Prague, then he needs to rethink his investment strategy.
Sadly, so far at least, this administration has refused to take advantage of the most promising international nuclear disarmament initiative in decades.
Take the inaugural, historic Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons Conference, which was hosted by the government of Norway last March – 127 nations attended, but not the United States. Three quarters of the nations of the world—146 nations—saw fit to attend the Second Humanitarian Impact Conference in Mexico last February. The U.S. was again absent. And we have been invited, yet again, to the third conference in Vienna, to be hosted this December by the government of Austria. The United States should seize this opportunity and constructively participate in this vast international forum, which expresses the aspirations of humanity.
President Obama, amid much international controversy, was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize less than a year after taking office. Ensuring the United States is represented at international forums such as that in Vienna would show he is sincere about reducing the nuclear dangers facing the world – and that he truly deserved the Nobel Committee’s faith.