There are several problems with the decommissioning of nuclear weapons. It's not that it's not a bad thing-for the most part, if all countries with nuclear weapons decommissioned them the Doomsday Clock would go back around...23 hours-just that, it's impossible.

As much as Greenpeace and I don't like it, there is frankly no way in hell that every country on the planet will multilaterally (or all do it alone without talks at once: multiunilaterally?) will renounce nukes. Why?

Simply, we have too many. The US and Russia processed plenty of plutonium and made lots of bombs for a firework display that never came, and because of this there are 30,000 intact nuclear weapons in the world today1, and of these 10.729 are American. Disregarding the increase in strength of nuclear weapons (upward from 15kt, the capacity of the Hiroshima bomb), the whole world has enough nuclear weapons to kill 2.4 BILLION (2.4x10^9) people. Now, when the world has enough bombs to kill 2.4 billion people, there are some slight logistical problems with dismantling said bombs.

Dismantling nuclear warheads sounds straightforward-break it into its component parts, job done. But then, there is the heart of the device: the sphere of radioactive material, the thing that, if it reaches critical mass, could completely ruin your day. If we dismantled every nuclear weapon, we would suddenly have 30,000 of these highly radioactive (and needless to say, bloody dangerous) cores. And considering both the US record for handling nuclear waste and the Russian record, we'd have, to say the least, a slight problem. Of course, some of these could be reprocessed into nuclear fuel but chances are that it will be either sent to the Mayak Chemical Combine in Russia, Sellafield in the UK or La Hague in France. To put it simply, the purpose of these is to take some nuclear stuff, manipulate it to extract nuclear fuel from it, ship off the nuclear fuels and dump the rest into a nearby water source, with little care given as to what gets on the receiving end. Slight disgression: Greenpeace, in a brilliant display of giving the finger to the French nuclear industry, installed a device on the end of the La Hague discharge pipe which could shut off the flow of nuclear waste through six pipes, to show how easy it would be to stop the dumping. And that they did. And then they piped webcam footage directly into a room hosting the OSPAR conference on waste dumping. Footage is available at www.tappedintogreenpeace.org.

Ahem, where was I? Ah, yeah. The nukes. Anyway, so dismantling the weapons would create a huge amount of nuclear waste, which would have to be dealt with in one way or another. But that's not the only problem.

The above was just what would happen if all of the countries in the world held hands and dumped nukes. And therein lies the problem: would they all hold hands and dump nukes?

Of course, one country doing it is good, and every little helps, but it's a small gesture in the scheme of things.

So, who has them?
According to CND, there are five states who have openly had nuclear weapons for some time (generally Warsaw Pact and NATO countries): they are the USA, Russia, Britain, France and China. Israel is suspected to have nuclear weapons, but has never tested nor detonated any, so they are still on the maybe list. India and Pakistan are both nuclear armed, and indeed came to the brink of nuclear war around 1999. South Africa did have them but dismantled them. Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan have scrapped them as well since the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact. North Korea is suspected to be constructing a bomb right now, Iran and Iraq have both had and are suspected of having a programme to develop one.

With all of the above countries, totalling around 11, all with nuclear weapons programmes, anybody looking for multilateral disarmament would have a task ahead. The US would be reluctant to dispose of its nuclear weapons as it is feared that might weaken its status. Russia has enough problems with nuclear issues (cf Chernobyl, Mayak, anything) to be worried about disarmament now. Britain is part of NATO and would have to have US weapons anyway. France has been a staunch defender of its nuclear policies, and wants to keep them-the same applies to China. Iraq, Iran and North Korea would, if they had a bomb, deny it to avoid (at the least) sanctions. Israel, India and Pakistan are not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and we can therefore probably assume they don't have much interest.

Now do you see the problem? Not everybody really wants to work towards disarmament, and those that do face an uphill struggle.

So we're all doomed to nuclear apocalypse.

No. We just have the threat of one. START I is supposed to be fully implemented by 1st January next year, though the War in Iraq may have delayed things in this respect. Talks are underway on Iran and North Korea's nuclear activities, and these seem to be going well.

Generally, aside from the nuclear waste cost, full nuclear disarmament by all nations would be a good thing. The problem is that all nations have different ideas of what "good" is when talking about weapons of mass destruction. The US has a fairly odd policy concerning nukes: they generally do not dismantle many of their own, while calling for other countries to drop theirs. The reasons for this are as yet unknown. France, on the other hand, just wants to look after their own turf, to defend them and theirs. They have a staunchly unilateralist policy towards use and manufacture of nuclear weapons, and are happy to go their own way.

Pipedream? Possibly. But still, if peace is a pipedream, we've got no hope at all.
Links and footnotes 1: http://www.cdi.org/nuclear/facts-at-a-glance.cfm


Greenpeaces new nuclear site is less comprehensive than their old one, but the old one isn't really suitable for children as it has some disturbing pictures, mainly in the section on nuclear waste. . (Greenpeace briefly used these on their home page, and I asked them to take them down. They haven't shown them since.). Take your pick. The old one is http://archive.greenpeace.org/~nuclear (feel free to correct me on the URL), with a special site (also with disturbing pictures) on Mayak: http://archive.greenpeace.org/mayak. The new one is at http://www.greenpeace.org/international_en/campaigns/intro?campaign_id=3940.

My figure for number of people killed if all weapons on Earth were detonated was a result of multiplying the number of casualties in Hiroshima (see here) by 30000. I did not take into account increased tonnage of weaponry. In any event, the death toll would most likely be far bigger (some of the US's biggest bombs are 2000 times as strong as the Hiroshima bomb).

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