05/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

What You Don't Know Might Kill You -- And Everyone Else

When it comes to nuclear weapons, ignorance is dangerous not blissful.

So let's test your basic nuclear knowledge.

Here's a little 30 second quiz I call "Four Questions and Four Numbers."

• How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? 26,000
• How many nuclear weapons are on high alert, meaning they can be fired within minutes and detonated at the target site in less than an hour? 3,500
• How many nuclear weapons does it take to kill a million people? One
• The last time nuclear weapons were used more than 200,000 people died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
• So when should we use nuclear weapons again?

When I tell the story, I don't answer the last question. Most people think for a moment. There is silence. Then they look me in the eye and say, "Never."

Once people know the basic facts about nuclear weapons, they can make up their own minds. But let's face it, there is a significant gap in the education of most people in America. Nuclear weapons are seen as the most serious and immediate threat to human life on the planet, but few of us know much about that threat. When so many people simply don't know the facts, we are left at the mercy of the status quo.

And what's wrong with the status quo?

This week Steve Pearce, a Congressman from New Mexico, introduced an amendment to the 2009 defense authorization bill. This amendment would provide $10 million for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program. He introduced another amendment which would spend another $50 million to produce plutonium pits, which are the cores of nuclear warheads.

Compared to the billions spent on other programs, these figures might seem unimportant. But when you understand the $10 million is for a program to design and build new nuclear warheads, and the $50 million is to build more nuclear weapon cores to arm warheads, you realize this isn't just about money.

This is about spending large sums of money to make new weapons of mass destruction.

And once you know the world already has 26,000 nuclear weapons -- about 9,000 in the US alone -- common sense presents a basic question -- Why do we need any more of these things?

For the record, the Department of Energy originally requested the $10 million for 2009 for "maturation" of the Reliable Replacement Warhead design. It went on to say that:

"the Department of Defense and the Joint Department of Defense-Department of Energy Nuclear Weapons Council fully support continuing efforts to examine how the RRW concept can address issues of safety, security and long-term reliability of the nation's nuclear deterrent."

This is Through the Looking Glass logic.

How do such terrible weapons make us safe? The Cold War ended 17 years ago. The big threat is thought to be a terrorist group with a nuclear weapon, but such an enemy usually can't be located and so can't be targeted. Deterrence is a nonsense in such a situation.

As for security, nuclear proliferation is normally considered a major threat. And Washington is adamant about controlling such proliferation -- unless, of course, the proliferation is our own. Then it's for safety's sake.

Critics have pointed out the US nuclear double standard inherent in the Reliable Replacement Warhead program.

"It is hypocritical and counterproductive for the United States to develop new nuclear weapons while we try to convince countries like Iran and North Korea to do exactly the opposite," said John Isaacs and Guy Stevens of the nuclear disarmament group Council for a Livable World.

In testimony before Congress in 2007, former Defense Secretary William Perry said:

"On balance, I believe that we could defer action for many years on the RRW program. And I have no doubt that this would put us in a stronger position to lead the international community in the continuing battle against nuclear proliferation, which threatens us all."

And just yesterday, the House voted to defeat the Pearce ammendent to allocate $10 million to RRW. The vote was 271-145, with 44 Republicatns crossing party lines to oppose it.

The Senate will consider the defense authorization bill after the Memorial Day recess, and funding for building new nuclear weapons could still be reinserted.

This is where education is crucial. What should US policy be on nuclear weapons? Ordinary people should weigh in with their views.

Should we spend our tax money to build new nuclear weapons?

Or should the US take leadership in working with other countries for the eventual elimination of such weapons?

In 1970, the Nonproliferation Treaty, signed by the United States, came into force. The treaty committed all signatories "to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament." Even with political leadership from the White House, it would still take many years to realize the promise of this treaty. But an enlightened populace can make a big difference in getting Washington to stop thinking about making new weapons of mass destruction and start thinking about dismantling them.

The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation wants to empower the public to send just such a message to the next President. The Foundation is gathering one million signatures in a major public education campaign, US Leadership for a Nuclear Weapons-Free World -- An Appeal to the Next President of the United States. The text of the Appeal sets out seven prudent steps -- such as de-alerting nuclear weapons -- that would make the world safer. The names will be delivered to the White House on Inauguration Day January 20, 2009.

People can read the US Leadership Appeal and sign on at

What we don't know might kill us, it's true. But what we can learn just might make the world a whole lot safer.