Fifty years of nothing?

Fifty years after it was signed Tom Harrison examines the impact the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the future for nuclear weapons.

Nuclear testing at Bikini Atoll Image:Wikipedia

In ten seconds a fireball would engulf Westminster. Temperatures exceeding ten million Celsius. Wind speeds approach the speed of sound.Hundreds of buildings, tens of thousands of people, even the first few feet of the earth’s crust, vaporised. Virtually everyone in a five-mile radius; six or seven million people, dead in a minute, destroyed by the intense blast of energy.

Further out in Wembley, Croydon and Dagenham, the blast would shatter every window, sending shrapnel flying out in all directions at the speed of a bullet. Moments later survivors would be engulfed by a firestorm with the intensity to burn anything that can; paper, clothes, hair.

As far away as Reading, Brighton and Oxford people would suffer first degree burns from the intense heat. Hospitals as far afield as Bristol, Birmingham and Belgium would quickly be swamped by the injured. Thousands would linger under collapsed buildings for days, never to be rescued.

That would be the impact of a Trident nuclear weapon being detonated on our country’s capitol. A single weapon capable of killing more people in an hour than every conflict since the end of the Second World War. One explosion wiping out more Britons than have died in war since the Vikings stalked our shores. Destructive power beyond comprehension.

That is the power of just one modern nuclear weapon.

Thankfully only two nuclear weapons have ever been launched in anger, the first on Hiroshima and the second on Nagasaki three days later. So destructive were the bombs that accurate death tolls are impossible but the combined total is at least 100,000, with upper estimates nudging 250,000 people.

Since that first bomb dropped in 1945 technology has moved on. Those relatively crude devices that were dropped on Japan had a destructive capacity equivalent to 15 and 21 kilotonnes of TNT respectively, but today US warplanes routinely fly with multiple 1000 kilotonne bombs, submarines are routinely sent to sea with 10,000 kilotonne bombs and the largest bombs in the global arsenal have a destructive power of 50,000 kilotonnes.

Fifty years after the signing of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, nine countries currently possess nuclear weapons; Russia, USA, China, France, UK, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. The two Cold War powers maintain the vast majority with around 6000 each, significantly less than their combined peak of 64,000 but still comfortably enough to destroy any planet they may take a dislike to. A further five NATO countries host American weapons while Saudi Arabia is widely believed to have an agreement with Pakistan regarding the deployment of their weapons should the situation in the Persian Gulf deteriorate.


The treaty had three aims; prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, promote peaceful use of nuclear technology and encourage disarmament.

The key problem for disarmament is that making a nuclear bomb just isn’t very hard. A team of 10 or 15 competent physicists, engineers and technicians could easily produce a functioning bomb in a few months. The major stumbling block would be acquiring the requisite high enriched uranium to power the device. A viable device would only need a few kilograms but getting hold of that isn’t easy.

It may be possible to obtain the fuel legally, under the guise of research, but the oversight on that amount of material would make nefarious use unlikely.

Enriching uranium from ore is no simple task, it requires hundreds of centrifuges, large amounts of unusual chemicals and, as Iran found, enough uranium ore that the world is likely to notice. Even so, multiple countries are proof it’s not beyond the capability of the determined; uranium is highly abundant and the technology isn’t complex.

By far the simplest way would be by smuggling. The once great Cold War arsenals have left a residue, particularly in Russia, where nuclear material is often left rotting in remote military bases, awaiting proper decommissioning. In 2012 Russian journalists were able to break into one such base through a hole in the fence and take a piece from a submarine undetected. Whilst they didn’t take any nuclear material, in the last 12 years the IAEA has confirmed 18 cases of loss or theft of high enriched nuclear material and the Geiger counters and X-ray machines at most ports are generally acknowledged to be less than impermeable to this sort of material; buried in a container of cat litter or a shipment of paving slabs high enriched uranium would be largely invisible, even forsaking the blinding effect of a few judiciously placed dollar bills.

Non-proliferation however, has been a qualified success. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall nuclear weapons have been most often only discussed in the context of three ‘rogue states’; Libya, Iran and North Korea. For these regimes a nuclear weapons programme is appealing, one weapon propels them on to the world stage, they have stood with Blair, Putin and Trump, not as a puppet in a subordinate state but as equal custodians of the same awesome destructive power.

In North Korea the nuclear weapons programme has drained the wealth of the nation, brought its people to poverty, but, like unicorn blood, it has sustained the regime, allowing them cling to power even when inches from death. The bomb has come to define that country, it’s a point of national pride, serving as a deterrent to invaders, whilst simultaneously allowing the state to use disarmament as a bargaining chip for special treatment, a tightrope the Kim family has walked masterfully. They have watched as successive regimes have disarmed in a torrent of international assurances only to be quickly swept away: Libya, Ukraine, South Africa, Iraq, Syria and Myanmar. It should be no surprise that the current leader is being more than a little tentative.

And this is perhaps the greatest failure of the NPT; far from incentivising disarmament it tacitly promotes at least a nuclear weapons programme. Since the Manhattan project first split the atom, at least thirty seven nations have at some point had some form of a nuclear weapons programme, mostly since the NPT was signed, and every one saw their diplomatic standing rise whilst the programme was active. Nothing gets a country noticed like a nuclear bomb.

Proliferation has not, however, been the preserve only of states, building a bomb is well within the capability of a well-funded terrorist organisation. Prior to the 9/11 attacks, intelligence suggested Al Qaeda were actively seeking nuclear material for just such a purpose. There is evidence that, prior to their sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway, Japanese death cult Aum Shinrikyo were involved in fairly advanced negotiations to purchase a device from the collapsing Soviet Union. Whilst those negotiations were unsuccessful, they were able to recruit a number of Soviet engineers for their own programme. They took up the lease on the vast Banjawarn sheep station in Australia, establishing a research station and beginning the mining of uranium. There is even a suggestion they tested a bomb; in 1993 a seismic disturbance was detected in the area, with the few eyewitnesses reporting seeing a fireball in the sky and a protracted low frequency sound, consistent with the detonation of a 2 kilotonne device. No treaty can control a terrorist group hell bent on destruction, particularly when such a device is so relatively simple.

In spite of this, the advocates often refrain that nuclear weapons have made us safer; maintaining an unstable peace and restraining the great powers from waging all out global war. They keep us safe, not because they will be used, but because of the implied bailment that no country could ever use a weapon so awful. So called mutually assured destruction. An unstable peace maybe? Although the people of Angola, Vietnam and Nicaragua may justifiably disagree with this statement.

Information on accidents is shrouded in secrecy, only a few of the more serious events were reported at the time but the US Air Force (USAF), who are responsible for around a third of the US’s deterrent,have released some limited records. Between 1950 and 1968 (after which events are classified) the US Air Force alone lost 43 nuclear weapons in 22 separate incidents with likely more lost by the other branches of the military. That’s an average of more than one incident per year and every one of those ‘mishaps’ was over friendly territory, one was even in Suffolk. America has nearly accidentally blown up its allies on a truly frightening number of occasions and we have no reason to believe the indiscretions of the more secretive nuclear powers are any less heinous. In 2009 British and French submarines famously collided in the Atlantic both with up to 16 weapons on board and while both were able to return to port in the year 2000, 118 sailors perished when the Russian submarine Kursk was lost.

Now you could argue that most of those statistics are from a long time ago, before the NPT and they were still on a war footing but it’s not just the rate of weapons being lost that is concerning, as the nuclear threat has declined nuclear stewardship has fallen in to disrepair. Without the impending likelihood of the weapon being used, spending on nuclear weapons has declined and the soldiers tasked with protecting them have got bored and grown careless. Just last year 44 soldiers were admonished for texting colleagues the answers to monthly preparedness test and in 2007 six nuclear weapons were mistakenly loaded on to a bomber, flown across USA and left unguarded for 36h, before being noticed by the USA’s last line of defence, a catering crew. It’s not just a few lowly officers, a number of very senior members of the US nuclear hierarchy have been discharged in the last few years for ‘conduct unbecoming’. In 2013, former deputy commander of U.S. nuclear forces, Vice Admiral Tim Giardina, was discharged for using counterfeit poker chips at an Iowa casino. In the same year Major General Michael Carey, who was in charge of the nation’s fleet of 450 nuclear armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), seemingly acted out the script of the fourth Ron Burgundy sequel, as he was disruptive, repeatedly intoxicated and frequently seen ‘fraternising with foreign women’ whilst on a trip to Russia to discuss nuclear arsenal reduction.

Beyond the cost, which is eyewatering, or the geopolitics, this is perhaps the best reason for increased disarmament. For a deterrent to be effective it must be deployed and as soon as it is deployed it becomes a bigger danger to its owner than its adversary.

By maintaining nuclear weapons we are severely increasing the chances that humanity’s last word will simply be “oops.”

Tom Harrison is currently studying part time for an MSc in Sustainable Automotive Technology and runs a company called E.Mission which works to help people understand their carbon forkprint and give them the tools to reduce it.

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