Nuclear arms are the only weapons of mass destruction not yet prohibited by an international convention, even though they are the most destructive and indiscriminate weapons ever created. We scientists bear a special responsibility for nuclear weapons, since it was scientists who invented them and discovered that their effects are even more horrific than first thought. Individual explosions can obliterate cities, radioactive fallout can contaminate regions, and a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse may cause mayhem by frying electrical grids and electronics across a continent. The most horrible hazard is a nuclear-induced winter, in which the fires and smoke from as few as a thousand detonations might darken the atmosphere enough to trigger a global mini ice age with year-round winter-like conditions. This could cause a complete collapse of the global food system and apocalyptic unrest, potentially killing most people on Earth – even if the nuclear war involved only a small fraction of the roughly 14,000 nuclear weapons that today’s nine nuclear powers control. As Ronald Reagan said: “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”
Unfortunately, such a war is more likely than one may hope, because it can start by mistake, miscalculation or terrorist provocation. There is a steady stream of accidents and false alarms that could trigger all-out war, and relying on never-ending luck is not a sustainable strategy. Many nuclear powers have larger nuclear arsenals than needed for deterrence, yet prioritize making them more lethal over reducing them and the risk that they get used.
But there is also cause for optimism. On March 27 2017, an unprecedented process begins at the United Nations: most of the world’s nations convene to negotiate a ban on nuclear arms, to stigmatize them like biological and chemical weapons, with the ultimate goal of a world free of these weapons of mass destruction. We support this, and urge our national governments to do the same, because nuclear weapons threaten not merely those who have them, but all people on Earth.
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