In the dim Cold War years, the world held its collective breath as the risk of nuclear warfare, and holocaust, soared. But the crumbling of the Berlin Wall and the disbandment of the Soviet Union gave us reason to exhale a vociferous sigh of relief. Suddenly, the future appeared brighter, the grass greener.
Our high hopes, however, proved short lived. Today, despite several treaties condemning nuclear stockpiling, the world remains home to some 30,000 nuclear weapons, an estimated 95 per cent of them owned by Russia and the United States.
The remainder belong to the United Kingdom, France, China, Pakistan, India and possibly also North Korea, Israel and Iran.
Two decades ago, the number of nuclear weapons worldwide was probably twice as great as it is today - but 30,000 is certainly enough to make a sizeable bang, and kill the human species more than 12 times over.
Frighteningly, many of today’s nuclear weapons are larger and more powerful than their 1980s counterparts. Most are now fuelled by nuclear fusion, rather than fission, and can be up to 100 times deadlier than the traditional A-bomb. But scientific progress is not to blame for the perilous state of the world. Scientific progress is steered by human hands.
In an age where terrorism dominates headlines and violent conflict ravages over 30 countries, we must re-question our vulnerability to nuclear destruction. Is it inevitable or avertable?
History might hold some clues.
The immense power of the atom has been properly demonstrated on just two occasions, each in the closing days of World War II, when the United States bombed the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” - as the two bombs were nicknamed - claimed on impact a total of 120,000 lives. At least 90 per cent of them were civilian.
Hazardous radiation from both uranium and plutonium lingered long after the bombs had fallen, and eventually almost doubled the number of casualties.
Those infamous acts, carried out by the United States armed forces under the presidency of Harry Truman, have been condemned by some as war crimes in the first order and praised by others as hastening an end to the war.
Of course, Truman’s decision was never queried in a court of law, but the story might well have been different had the bombings - which targeted civilians - been carried out today. International humanitarian law has, in recent times, brought squarely into question the age-old notion of head-of-state impunity - particularly since the International Criminal Court opened for business in 2003.
In the 1950s, the United States and Soviet Union competed to see which of them could produce the largest stockpile of nuclear arsenal. The power and usability of the weapons also became central considerations in the arms race. Before the decade was out, the Soviet Union had produced and tested the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile, which was at the time impossible to intercept.
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