Seventy-one years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world has entered a new and potentially more dangerous nuclear era. Today, the risks posed by nuclear weapons and the materials needed to make them are expanding around the globe.
Consider this: There are now nine nuclear-armed countries with arsenals that could destroy life as we know it for this and future generations, and there is enough highly enriched uranium and plutonium to build tens of thousands of bombs, and it is spread across 24 countries, much of it poorly secured and vulnerable to theft by terrorists.
The United States and Russia, which hold the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons, are moving forward with significant upgrades to their nuclear arsenals in what amounts to a costly and dangerous new arms race a generation after the end of the Cold War. To put this in perspective, even before these upgrades are made, U.S. and Russian weapons are hundreds of times more powerful than the weapons used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
At the same time, other nuclear powers are pursuing their own modernization and replacement programs, and newer entrants to the nuclear club, like North Korea, India and Pakistan, are all working to improve their nuclear reach, survivability and lethality.
Today, with more nuclear states, more lethal nuclear weapons, regional animosities, and new technologies such as cyber that can disrupt the stability of the old nuclear status quo, we are separated by thin ice from a nuclear catastrophe.
In short, the risk of nuclear use is growing, not receding.
Earlier this year, survivors of Hiroshima greeted a sitting U.S. president at their memorial and heard him recommit the United States to the vision of a world without nuclear weapons.
Those survivors know better than anyone that despite important progress, there is much more work to be done to make sure that no city in the world ever again faces nuclear catastrophe. Around the world, leaders can take practical steps to reduce nuclear risks, and citizens should demand that they do. Among them:
- The United States and Russia, which hold 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons and weapons-usable materials, must find a way to cooperate to ensure that neither the Islamic State nor any other extremist organization get ahold of nuclear weapons or the materials to make them.
- World leaders should build on the progress made through the Nuclear Security Summits toward securing and eliminating the vulnerable nuclear materials that terrorists are seeking. Leaders must develop an effective global nuclear security system that holds states accountable for security.
- The United States and Russia must reengage each other in a process for ensuring mutual strategic stability and step back from the increasing perception on both sides that they threaten each other’s vital interests. This is crucial for reversing the new arms race we have begun.
- The United States should work closely with our allies in South Korea and Japan, as well as China, to put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
It is easy to turn away from a task that seems too daunting – easy to leave nuclear security to the governments and international organizations, to the scientists and technical experts we believe are best positioned to keep us safe from existential threats. It is easy to figure that if we’ve come this far without another nuclear detonation, we don’t need to worry. It is easy to believe that as citizens, we are just too small to effect progress on such a complex issue.
That thinking is wrong. Change may come slowly – but it won’t come at all if citizens don’t demand it.
We know that progress is possible. Since the peak of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, we have seen the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and Russia reduced by 85%. In the last year alone, we have also witnessed the international community working together to improve the security of nuclear materials and prevent nuclear terrorism, as well as the achievement of an ambitious agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
As we mark another anniversary of the bombings in Japan, we should call on leaders to redouble their efforts to prevent a modern-day Hiroshima – a catastrophe that would dwarf the 1945 bombings but is, unfortunately, all too possible.