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The Pragmatist’s Guide to Nuclear Disarmament

The United States has not seen a widespread nuclear disarmament movement since the early 1980s. A new one is desperately needed — but with a twist.

The 1980s movement was based on fear. In 1982, a million people, alarmed by President Ronald Reagan’s nuclear buildup, gathered in New York City’s Central Park to oppose the nuclear arms race — still the largest one-day protest in U.S. history. The next year, 100 million people — almost half the population of the United States — watched the television movie “The Day After,” which horrifically depicted the nuclear destruction of Kansas City.

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Fear can generate a fight-or-flight reaction, but it’s ultimately counterproductive. People become so scared that they think nothing can be done and give up. Or they ignore the issue entirely, at least on a conscious level.

There are still plenty of things to fear. Nuclear treaties are lapsing. National leaders have threatened to use nuclear weapons against their enemies. New research, now being reviewed by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, has strengthened the case that even a limited nuclear war could shut down agriculture for years and doom billions to starvation. A large-scale nuclear war could smother agriculture for more than a decade and end civilization.

But fear isn’t necessary to spur action. There are two very practical reasons to abolish nuclear weapons.


Early arrivals sign a petition seeking disarmament in a park near the United Nations in New York as crowds began forming for a march and rally in support of nuclear disarmament on June 12, 1982.  (AP Photo/Warren Jorgenson  //  Seattle Times)



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The first is their outrageous cost. The U.S. government is on track to spend at least $1.5 trillion over the next 30 years modernizing its nuclear weapons. That’s as much as the federal government currently spends on the National Institutes of Health. Or, to put it another way, four years of that spending, evenly divided among the 50 states, would buy us an entirely new ferry fleet.

Key parts of the modernization effort, like the new Sentinel ballistic missile program, are already massively over budget. Taking apart nuclear weapons systems would cost a small fraction of the money now slated to build new ones.

The second reason for getting rid of nuclear weapons is that they are far more dangerous than they are useful. Nuclear bombs are too large and destructive to deploy effectively in warfare. They would kill soldiers and noncombatants on both sides of a conflict. Nuclear fallout would drift far from a battlefield. Weapons have been getting smaller and smarter, not bigger and dumber.

Nuclear weapons also don’t make sense politically. If a nuclear weapon were detonated in a war — assuming that a general nuclear war did not follow — the responsible nation would face devastating conventional attacks and be ostracized internationally. No country has been willing to face those consequences, at least not since the very different circumstances that prevailed at the end of World War II.

The existence of nuclear weapons supposedly deters their use. No one has been able to figure out what that nonsensical statement means. Making a threat implies being willing to carry it out. The idea that deterrence has worked ignores the history of crises, miscalculations, and accidents that almost triggered nuclear war. Deterrence works until it doesn’t.

Nuclear weapons are a federal responsibility. For us as Washingtonians, that means working through our 10 U.S. representatives and two U.S. senators to change nuclear policy. Except for U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the members of our congressional delegation have been, at best, guarded in their statements about nuclear weapons. Washington receives about $20 billion a year in defense spending. Reducing that flow of funds would seem to be a recipe for electoral disaster.

But couldn’t at least part of our defense funding be spent in more socially productive ways? After all, flying a nuclear bomb-carrying F-35A jet for two hours costs as much as a nurse makes in a year. Keeping more than 55,000 mostly young men and women here in Washington well-trained and outfitted for future conflicts may help us feel more secure. But it doesn’t build infrastructure, spark innovation, or improve the health and well-being of the population at large.

Here, the Washington Against Nuclear Weapons coalition, led by the Washington chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, has been exerting pressure on our representatives and senators to take a stand against nuclear weapons. The Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action — on a 4-acre plot adjacent to the Kitsap submarine base outside Bremerton — works for disarmament right next to the largest stockpile of deployed nuclear weapons anywhere in the world. At the national level, the Ploughshares Fund, the Federation of American Scientists, the Arms Control Association and many other organizations are working to reduce and then eliminate the existential threat these weapons pose.

In 2021, the International Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which prohibits the development, production, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, entered into force after being ratified by 50 countries. The nine countries that have nuclear weapons have so far opposed the treaty, but they are nevertheless bound by the 1968 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons to negotiate an agreement “on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” That they have not yet done so is both a bitter disappointment and a betrayal of their stated intentions.

Nuclear disarmament will not be unilateral or immediate. Nations will need to negotiate stepped reductions and means of verifying progress. An especially urgent task is to eliminate the ground-based missiles now clustered in underground silos in Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and Wyoming, as well as in Russia and China. These weapons are inherently destabilizing and dangerous. They have to be launched within minutes if a president thinks a nuclear attack is underway. A mistake, miscalculation, or moment of madness could spell the end of the world.

Unlike efforts to slow climate change, which will require widespread changes in how we live, the threat of nuclear annihilation could be eliminated if nine men agreed to destroy about 12,500 pieces of elaborately machined metal. Reagan and then-president of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev almost agreed to junk their nuclear weapons in 1986. The only stumbling block was Reagan’s commitment to a nuclear weapons defense program that was canceled a few years later.

True, people will always know how to rebuild nuclear weapons. Also, nuclear power will almost certainly be part of the global response to climate change. But the world will be a safer and less oppressive place once our nuclear arsenals are gone.

Nuclear weapons are humanity’s most obscene invention. Our nuclear arsenals threaten not only us and everything humans have ever created but a natural creation that is inconceivably intricate and interdependent. Getting rid of them will be a wonderful human accomplishment.

[Steve Olson is a Seattle author whose most recent book is “The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age,” a history of Hanford and its impact on the world.]