How to Get Rid of Nuclear Weapons

By Peter Metz and Ira Helfand

Originally published in the Boston Globe, September 30, 2021

Sunday was the eighth annual International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established by the UN General Assembly You probably weren’t aware of it. After all, the possibility of nuclear annihilation is not new and the threat of it may seem somewhat abstract in a nation roiled by COVID, climate change, racial injustice, bitter political divisions, and other concerns.

Nonetheless, the fact remains: We really can eliminate the most cruel, indiscriminate, destructive weapons humankind has ever built, if we want.

The nine nuclear-armed nations hold over 13,000 of these weapons, many poised for launch on hair-trigger alert, with 10 to 50 times the power of the bomb used on Hiroshima, which killed at least 100,000 people. And several nuclear nations, including the United States, are now “modernizing” their nuclear arsenals, replacing existing weapons with new ones that are more deadly and more easily used. The US program alone is to run for 30 years and is estimated to cost $1.7 trillion.

These systems, while designed with safeguards, are incredibly complex and could be set off erroneously or unintentionally by an equipment malfunction, cyberattack, or rogue operators. That would trigger a counterattack with worldwide consequences. Even a “small nuclear war” between India and Pakistan, involving fewer than 100 of each side’s missiles, would pollute the atmosphere so extensively that up to two billion people could starve to death.

We don’t have to accept this dire state of affairs. Consider that in the mid-1980s, at the height of the Cold War, the world held over 60,000 nuclear weapons. But President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev agreed in 1985 that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought,” opening the door to a succession of negotiated agreements in which the United States and the Soviet Union (later Russia) carefully and methodically, under mutual inspection protocols, disarmed over 40,000 nuclear weapons. The United States and Russia have over 90 percent of the ones that remain; the rest are held by China, France,
Great Britain, India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. Since the 1990s, no nation other than North Korea has newly obtained nuclear weapons, and a few have given them up or abandoned their development programs.

Recently, in response to several public appeals — we, the authors, were each part of one of them — President Biden and Russia’s Vladimir Putin agreed to discuss nuclear weapons at their June summit. They reaffirmed that “a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought” and agreed to start talks on “strategic security.” This is a good and hopeful step, but much more is needed. We propose that Biden and Putin — or even Biden by himself — make a public commitment like John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Moon Shot announcement and declare that we will totally eliminate nuclear weapons within the decade.

Such an audacious challenge would be widely approved by people all over the world. It would reenergize the can-do spirit of many people. The goal clearly can be accomplished: We’ve already disarmed over 40,000 nuclear weapons and there are no forces of nature to overcome, no technologies to invent. We’ve already negotiated the agreements and verification protocols to do this.

For all nine nuclear nations to make this pledge would take unparalleled diplomatic and negotiating effort. If doing away with nuclear weapons were easy, it would have been done long ago. But if all nine agree, there’s no issue of “Who goes first?” All nine nuclear-armed nations would disarm concurrently. And all nine nations, including obstreperous North Korea, would have to agree to the extensive, intrusive, and continual inspection and verification required to assure one another and the world. Broad international pressure and security assurances would be needed to bring this compliance about.

In 2017, as his term as vice president was coming to a close, Biden declared in a speech:

“If we want a world without nuclear weapons, the United States must take the initiative to lead us there.” And, he added, “as the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, we bear a great moral responsibility to lead the charge.”

In that spirit, Biden could appoint a prominent special envoy for a world without nuclear weapons, a role akin to the one John Kerry plays as special envoy for climate change. Building on that momentum, Congress could conduct investigations and hearings to remind the public of the risks of nuclear annihilation. Citizen peace groups such as Back from the Brink could band together to organize public demonstrations all around the world — much like the ones in 1983 that prompted the Reagan-Gorbachev resolution. A great day for these would be Sept. 26, 2022, the UN’s ninth International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.

Peter Metz, a retired engineer with leadership experience in government, academia, and business, is a member of the Massachusetts Peace Action Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. Dr. Ira Helfand is a former co-president of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and a member of the international steering group at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Both those groups have won the Nobel Peace Prize.