The Indispensable Choice: Eliminating Nuclear Weapons

12/14/2011 08:45 am ET | Updated Feb 13, 2012

Today, I will have the honor of receiving from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon the UN Correspondents Association Advocacy of the Year Award for my work in the Global Zero movement to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Since I and one hundred international leaders from around the world launched the movement three years ago this month, we have made tremendous progress, but if we are to avert nuclear catastrophe, our leaders must act with much greater urgency to set our course to the elimination of all nuclear weapons.

When the lights went out on the Soviet Union on Mikhail Gorbachev's watch twenty years ago this month, the fate of its thirty-five thousand nuclear weapons became a source of deep concern to the world. Russia had to round up its nuclear inheritance from most of the fourteen other republics that emerged from the Soviet break-up, in many cases prying them loose from countries like Ukraine that claimed ownership. Miraculously, Russia retrieved them without losing its grip on a single weapon, thanks in large part to the herculean effort of the Russian general in charge, Evgeny Maslin.

But the list of nuclear dangers has only expanded over the past two decades, and frankly there is little relief in sight. The world is beset with problems and preoccupied with economic challenges that have distracted attention from the even greater danger of nuclear catastrophe. We are pretending as though this peril will go away if we ignore it.

New threats are knocking on the door - the spreading of the bomb to additional countries, and potentially to terrorists. Since Gorbachev stepped down, Pakistan, India, and North Korea have acquired and tested the bomb. Iran is moving ever closer to that day. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and others are waiting in the wings. As Iran goes, so go them. The world faces the specter of cascading proliferation that may not be stoppable if it gains further momentum. Terrorists will stand a better chance of getting their hands on them. The use of nuclear weapons would become inevitable.

And there remain serious risks stemming from the continuing Cold War habits of the United States and Russia to keep many hundreds of their nuclear-armed intercontinental rockets poised for launch within a few minutes. In the documentary film Countdown to Zero, which I produced, Gorbachev recalls how hair-trigger nuclear missiles allowed him only minutes to decide whether to unleash Soviet nuclear forces on apparent warning of an incoming strike. His counterpart in nuclear negotiations, former President Ronald Reagan, also was astonished at how little time for reflection was allowed by the standing nuclear war plans: In his memoirs, Reagan wrote: [pp. 36-7] "Russian submarines off our East Coast with nuclear missiles could turn the White House into a pile of radioactive rubble within six or eight minutes. Six minutes to decide how to respond to a blip on radar scope and decide whether to release Armageddon! How could anyone apply reason at a time like that?"

What is more astonishing is that virtually nothing has changed. Both Russia and the United States continue to prepare to fight a large-scale nuclear war with each other on a moment's notice. If their launch-ready stances are adopted by the world's other nuclear weapons countries, then the risks of the accidental or unauthorized use of nuclear weapons would grow exponentially. As Enrico Fermi said about the laws of physics, if an event is not prohibited absolutely, then it will happen eventually. If nuclear weapons are not stood down and eliminated, one day they will be used.

Rather than retreating from the precipice of an avoidable disaster, almost all of the nine nuclear weapons countries are upgrading their nuclear arms, at an estimated total cost of one trillion dollars over the next decade. The United States is constructing new uranium and plutonium factories to build bombs, and planning to build new nuclear-armed submarines and bombers. Russia is embarked on a 70-billion dollar binge to replace its aging nuclear forces. China is building its first fleet of nuclear missile submarines and truck-based nuclear forces. Great Britain is preparing to build four new Trident-class submarines. France just christened a new nuclear missile submarine. Pakistan is surging its production of nuclear materials and may take third place in nuclear-arsenal size within a few years, ahead of everyone but Russia and the U.S. India is playing catch-up deploying new land-based missiles and submarines. Even Israel is buying submarines (from Germany), equipping them with nuclear cruise missiles and deploying them in the Persian Gulf to pose a nuclear threat to Iran. The bête noire of nuclear countries, North Korea, is spending extravagantly on its nuclear factories and missiles while its people starve.

Hundreds of international figures in the Global Zero movement, like Gorbachev and Maslin, have joined forces in a last-ditch effort to pull the world back from the brink. It may not be too late if we can convince world leaders and the public of the urgent need to take immediate steps to reduce the nuclear threat - like taking all nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert -- and to begin multilateral negotiations to eliminate all nuclear arms in verifiable stages over a period of years. The Global Zero movement includes leaders who have served as national security advisors and in other positions with high-level responsibility for foreign policy, defense, and counter-terrorism that allows them to testify credibly about the growing dangers of nuclear war by intention or accident, by states or terrorists. Our agenda is to bring all the nuclear weapons countries into dialogue and negotiation to ensure that the use of nuclear weapons does not become inevitable. This is a catastrophe can be prevented.