Anxiety about a future conflict involving nuclear weapons is once again high with a recent YouGov poll showing more than half of UK adults (56%) are now worried that one might be used in a war in the next two years. This is not surprising given the war in Ukraine and the attack on the nuclear power plant at the weekend, the tensions regarding Taiwan, and a range of other ‘local’ conflicts with potential to lead to global conflagration. As the UN General Secretary, Antonio Gutteres, warned just this week, nuclear annihilation is just one miscalculation away.
Doomsday Clock and nuclear anxiety
Nuclear tension has gone full circle. In the early eighties fear was demonstrated worldwide at the deployment in Europe of shorter-range nuclear missiles (SS20s) by what was then still the Soviet Union, and of Cruise and Pershing by NATO. The INF treaty in 1987 (intermediate-range nuclear forces), the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1900 and the START treaty of 1991 (strategic arms reduction) significantly reduced nuclear nightmares. The Doomsday Clock, which had reached three minutes to midnight in 1984, was reset to 17 minutes to 12, the furthest from midnight it has ever been.
By steady degrees the world has ratcheted itself into a state where the use of so called tactical nuclear weapons – not much smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (77 days ago last Saturday) – is countenanced by Vladimir Putin and countries including the UK are adding to their nuclear stockpile.
Today the Doomsday Clock stands at 100 seconds to midnight!
It is time for policy makers, politicians and the public to wake up and talk about the dangers of nuclear weapons, and the need to get back on a course towards nuclear disarmament not rearmament, once again.
Strong support for more public information on nuclear weapons
Recent polling commissioned by independent charity the Nuclear Education Trust, showed strong support for more public information, more education in schools and colleges, and more public debate about nuclear weapons. Of course, there is a natural tendency to avoid talking about difficult, painful and indeed horrific issues, but the catastrophic impacts of nuclear weapons should be more widely known. United Nations agencies and the Red Cross have concluded, for example, that in the event of a nuclear detonation, no organisation in the world would be able to tackle the resulting humanitarian emergency.
Informing public opinion may of course heighten public alarm – another reason decision-makers and influencers might cite to avoid wider debate – but it could, and arguably should, also lead to discussion of policy and, quite possibly, positive change. For example, the YouGov poll found seven in ten (68%) believe the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances is unacceptable and that eight in ten (79%) of UK adults would support all countries with nuclear weapons committing to a policy of never using nuclear weapons first in a conflict.
‘No first use’ of nuclear weapons
At the moment, the only countries with nuclear weapons to make that their declared policy are China and India; the remaining seven – UK, Russia, USA, France, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea – have not made such a commitment.
If all countries with nuclear weapons agreed to a policy of what is known as ‘no first use’, then anxiety regarding the use of nuclear weapons would be significantly reduced. This could also be a major step towards creating confidence in the possibility of nuclear disarmament and is therefore the kind of public policy that should be debated more in all countries where this is not declared policy, including the UK, the USA and Russia.
Of course, over the last three decades debate and discussion has never quite gone away. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists continues to provide information, analysis and a range of perspectives. And there has been policy change. Most recently, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which includes a comprehensive set of prohibitions on participating in any nuclear weapon activities, was voted into international law in 2017 by 122 countries at the United Nations, with only one country voting against. However, no country with nuclear weapons is a signatory to the treaty.
Time to debate nuclear
We may all have to some extent forgotten about nuclear weapons but there is a ‘return to the eighties’ feel to contemporary society. Soaring inflation, industrial strife, Kate Bush back in the charts and now nuclear anxiety. However difficult in the current circumstances, the path towards reducing nuclear tensions and ultimately fewer, not more, nuclear weapons has to be found. Now is the time for debate to become far more public and widespread.