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The spectre of nuclear war comes creeping back to haunt the world

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 16 October 2003


Apparently, according to a recent study, the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima had the explosive power of 16,000 tons of TNT, not 15 kilotons as had been thought. The Hiroshima device was a one off design, experimental - subsequent nuclear bombs were of a different type.

There are many ways to turn a few kilos of fissile material into a lot of energy, heat and light. And it worked a treat. It obliterated a whole city and killed some 140,000 men, women and children.
It vaporised some in the initial flash, turned others into carbonised shadows on the wall, crushed many to death in the shock wave, incinerated thousands, boiled alive those who jumped into the river to escape, and radiated many more who would live with that legacy all their lives.

There was only one good thing to come out of this horror - it scared the hell out of everyone on the planet and made nuclear weapons too terrible to actually use.

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Oh, and for those who also want to claim that it ended the war against Japan - which was no doubt a good thing - the evidence suggests otherwise. The Japanese government was already suing for peace, and there is even an argument that the war was prolonged a couple of weeks in order to try out the bombs.

Yes, basically the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (another 80,000 human beings dead there) to see how they would work in practice, and to scare the Russians who by the end of the European war had mobilised the largest and most powerful land army in history. But even at the time, at the end of a long and vicious war, many wondered if this was not going too far.

The nuclear bombs did not end war but they did effectively end direct war between nuclear states. In a way they just became new weapons in national arsenals, with thousands built for many different kinds of purposes - strategic, tactical, antimissile, anti-submarine and anti-ship, to name some. But the cold fact was that no nation was game to cross the nuclear threshold and use them. They were just too big, too destructive, and too horrific in effect. Nuclear weapons became useful only as deterrents, and when the two superpowers came to a showdown in 1962 over Cuba, they both backed away from the final option. Rationality had won out over the most trenchant ideological differences.

But now the possibility of nuclear war has come creeping back. The latest developments are an imminent nuclear weapons capability in those two "rogue nations" North Korea and Iran, and speculation that Saudi Arabia is considering the nuclear option. The disturbing trend is that nuclear weapons are proliferating, and also more likely to be used. The new situation is not the result of some doomsday scenario with mighty globe-staddling superpowers facing off in a quest for world domination but as an after-effect of the end of the Cold War. A combination of events has meant that a new nuclear weapons race is under way; one that is perhaps ultimately even more dangerous than the Cold War.

The core problem is that with the end of the Cold War one nuclear superpower fell apart and the other found itself with few constraints on its behaviour. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, fissile material, other nuclear weapons components and Russian scientists were suddenly on the market. And potential buyers appeared, from newly active terrorist organisations like Al Qa'ida to wannabe nuclear states, like Iran and North Korea. These entities do not have the control systems that prevented accidental explosions that the superpowers did (although it turned out the Soviet measures were pretty minimal) and they are also much more likely to deliberately use them.

As for the other superpower - now the lone global hyperpower - a new generation of leaders took over who seem to have little of the dread of nuclear weapons of preceding leaders. There are no "ashes in our mouths" (as Kennedy poignantly described the results of nuclear war) sentiments issuing from Washington these days.

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Instead, the Bush administration has discussed development of a whole new range of nuclear weapons, supposedly for bunker-busting. They have also mooted renewal of nuclear weapons testing. Commentators worry that Washington is undermining the "threshold" idea of nuclear weapons use with these projected mini-nukes.

Meanwhile Russia has made noises that suggest it will match any such initiatives by the US, and no doubt China (which has been busy stealing US nuclear weapons technology anyway) will reconsider its position also.

Elsewhere, in a context of a total lack of positive leadership by the US on this issue, nuclear weapons proliferate in India, Pakistan, Israel, and actually or potentially in the "rogue states" of Iran and North Korea. Since the existing nuclear states refuse to honour their obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty to get rid of their nuclear weapons, and Washington is talking tougher and tougher about its right to "go nuclear", any constraints on nuclear proliferation other than the threat of force have pretty much disappeared.

This is a very dangerous situation. With a minimum of safety controls, pre-existing hostilities, and the rise of new tensions over such problems as environmental degradation and water shortages, the likelihood of one or some of these nuclear weapons actually being used grows ever more strong.

It is possible to step back from the brink. We should take heart from the only state to ever give up its nuclear weapons, South Africa. But then that nation enjoyed the leadership of Nelson Mandela, a man of true vision and integrity.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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