A year out from the Jan. 6, 2021 riot at the U.S. Capitol, Congress, the media and much of our citizenry are obsessing over a potential demise of democracy. While this may be a substantial concern, it could be rendered moot by an existential threat constantly facing American society: nuclear war.

This Jan. 22 we will also be a year out from the implementation of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons or TPNW. The treaty bans the development, testing, possession, and use of all nuclear weapons.

Eighty-six countries have signed onto the TPNW, but this list excludes the countries that actually possess nuclear weapons: the U.S., Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel and North Korea, and five other countries that host nuclear weapons on our nation’s behalf (Turkey, Italy, Belgium, Germany and The Netherlands).

Should we be surprised that no nuclear nation complies with the TPNW — especially our own? Not if we look at our nation’s track record on nuclear disarmament.

In 1968 the U.S. signed the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons by which it joined the four other nuclear powers at the time (Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom) in promising to get rid of all their nuclear weapons; 190 other nations promised to not obtain them. The U.S. has broken its promise — as have the other nuclear powers.

More than 50 years later the world remains awash with nuclear weaponry, despite many subsequent nuclear treaties. The Federation of American Scientists estimates nuclear warheads currently number 13,150 globally. These are thermal nuclear weapons, each thousands of times more powerful than the fission weapons the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize, warns that even limited nuclear conflicts will cause global devastation. The detonation of just 1% of the global nuclear arsenal will threaten as many as 2 billion people with famine. A full-out nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would quickly result in hundreds of millions of deaths and bring about a nuclear winter that will destroy the ecosystems that support life on our planet. 

According to a study in the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists,” the U.S. nuclear arsenal includes 3,800 warheads and employs a triad of delivery systems: missiles launched from submarines; land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs); and bombs dropped from jets. 

America’s nuclear force is unstoppable. Yet, the U.S. is modernizing its arsenal and delivery systems at a cost of $1.2 trillion. Most alarming, our nation has never adopted a “no first use” policy for nuclear weapons. 

On Dec. 16, 2021, hundreds of leading scientists and engineers cosigned a letter urging President Biden to declare that our nation “will not use nuclear weapons first under any circumstances.” This would be a long overdue step, but one falling far short of ending the existential threat of nuclear weaponry.

As the only nation to have used nuclear weapons, we must go further down this path. The U.S. should lead and unilaterally disarm itself of nuclear weapons, in the same vein that it brought them into existence.

The Dec. 16 letter concludes with a plea for the immediate elimination of ICBMs. These missiles are kept on alert because they are vulnerable to Russian attack. This situation forces a U.S. president to make a decision to retaliate in only a few minutes.

All ICBM missileers are trained at Vandenberg Space Force Base (VSFB), where testing of the ICBM system is also conducted. A protest by the main gate of VSFB condemning nuclear weapons is scheduled for Jan. 22 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. The base directs participants to park at the nearby Vandenberg Middle School. Masks are encouraged.

Scott Fina is a Santa Maria resident.


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