It has been more than 75 years since the United States dropped the first atomic bombs on Japan and yet nuclear weapons continue to be included in the national security policies for several countries around the world.
Although the Cold War ended in 1991, over 13,125 nuclear warheads remain in nine countries: China, France, Israel, India, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. More than 91% of them belong to the United States and Russia (Source: Ploughshares.org). There is a very real threat that the large quantities of weapons-grade fissile material that remain in the military stockpiles of several of these states could potentially be converted into many thousands of additional warheads.
The United States and Russia maintain roughly 1,800 of their nuclear weapons on high-alert status – ready to be launched within just minutes of a warning (Source: Federation of American Scientists).
Most of the weapons today are much more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. A single nuclear warhead, if detonated on a large city, could kill millions of people, with the effects persisting for decades (Source: Popular Mechanics).
The United States is planning to spend a trillion dollars on modernizing its nuclear weapons program over the next two decades, which will also dramatically increase the "killing power" of these weapons. The United Kingdom, Russia, India, and other nuclear-armed states are also pouring vast sums of money into their nuclear arsenals, generating a new arms race and taking money away from the well-being of people around the world (Source: Arms Control Association).
Frightening information has emerged in recent years about "close call" situations where nuclear weapons were nearly used because of technical errors or misunderstandings. The only way to really prevent this from happening is to eliminate them completely (Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative).
Actions the United States can take to Reduce the Threat of Nuclear Weapons
renounce first use of nuclear weapons (such as the No First Use Act which would modify U.S. declaratory policy to state that the United States would never use nuclear weapons first)
end the sole authority of the U.S. president to launch a nuclear attack (such as the Restricting First Use of Nuclear Weapons Act which would require a president to get approval from Congress to use nuclear weapons first through an authorization for the use of military force)
take U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert
cancel plans to upgrade and enhance the existing nuclear arsenal
actively pursue agreements with other nuclear-armed states to eliminate nuclear weapons
Existing International Treaties Regarding Nuclear Weapons
Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons
This treaty went into force on January 22, 2021. It is the first legally-binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons, with the goal of leading toward their total elimination. For those nations that are party to it, the treaty prohibits the development, testing, production, stockpiling, stationing, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons, as well as assistance and encouragement to the prohibited activities. None of the states which possess nuclear weapons, including the United States, signed on to the treaty (Source: United Nations).
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT was negotiated in 1968. It prohibits its parties from manufacturing nuclear weapons however, it exempts five nuclear-weapon states (France, the People's Republic of China, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States) from this ban but they are obligated by the treaty to eventually disarm. Other nuclear-armed states – India, Israel, and Pakistan – have not joined the NPT, but are commonly considered as nuclear-weapon states (Source: Arms Control Association).
Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty
This is a multilateral treaty that bans all nuclear explosions, for both civilian and military purposes, in all environments. It was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1996 and has been ratified by 168 countries but not by eight specific states (including the United States) so it has not been entered into force (Source: Nuclear Threat Initiative).
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty
This Reagan-era treaty led to the elimination of over twenty-six thousand U.S. and Soviet missiles used at distances ranging from five hundred to five thousand five hundred kilometers. It was wildly effective at stabilizing tensions on the European continent, helping usher in the end of the Cold War. Russia withdrew in 2019 following withdrawal by the United States (Source: Arms Control Association).
Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
In 1991, President George W. Bush and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the largest nuclear arms control treaty in history. START imposed restrictions on the number and size of nuclear weapons and created a verification regime to ensure both parties abided by it over its fifteen-year lifespan. It expired in 2009 (Source: Arms Control Association).
New START, agreed to by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague in 2010, capped the number of nuclear warheads that the United States and Russia can deploy at one thousand five hundred fifty each. On February 2, 2021, three days prior to the scheduled expiration of the deal, President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement to extend the treaty for five more years (Source: U.S. Department of State).
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – a.k.a The Iran Nuclear Deal
The Trump administration pulled out of this deal arranged between Iran and several world powers in 2018, unraveling three years of progress and many more years of planning. U.S. and Israeli attacks on Iran’s nuclear sector and the re-imposition of sanctions has predictably led to Iran disregarding the deal, though inspections are still being agreed to. In a hopeful sign that resurrecting the JCPOA is part of the new administration's plans, President Biden has brought in key Obama appointees involved in the 2015 deal. Whether Iran can be persuaded to rejoin is another question (Source: Physicians for Social Responsibility).
Arms Control Association
The Arms Control Association, founded in 1971, is a national nonpartisan membership organization dedicated to promoting public understanding of and support for effective arms control policies.
Back from the Brink
Back from the Brink is a national grassroots campaign that brings local communities together to build the public support and political will needed to fundamentally change U.S. nuclear weapons policy and prevent nuclear war.
Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a media organization, publishing a free-access website and a bi-monthly magazine. The Bulletin’s website, iconic Doomsday Clock, and regular events help advance actionable ideas at a time when technology is outpacing our ability to control it.
Global Zero is the international movement for the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Its members understand that the only way to eliminate the nuclear threat – including proliferation, nuclear terrorism, and humanitarian catastrophe – is to stop the spread of nuclear weapons, secure all nuclear materials, and eliminate all nuclear weapons: global zero.
International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)
ICAN is a broad, inclusive campaign, focused on mobilizing civil society around the world to support the specific objective of prohibiting and eliminating nuclear weapons. The ICAN international structure consists of partner organizations, an international steering group, and an international staff team. The organization was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.
National Priorities Project (NPP)
In 2014, NPP was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of its pioneering work to track federal spending on the military and promote a U.S. federal budget that represents Americans' priorities, including funding for people's issues such as inequality, unemployment, education, health, and the need to build a green economy.
Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
The mission of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (NAPF) is to educate, advocate, propose, and pursue denuclearizing actions with the intention of achieving a just and peaceful world, free of nuclear weapons. NAPF is a non-partisan, non-profit organization with consultative status to the United Nations and is comprised of over 80,000 individuals and groups worldwide.
Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI)
Founded in 2001 by former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn and philanthropist Ted Turner, NTI is guided by a prestigious, international board of directors and a high-level advisory board. NTI designs innovative threat-reduction projects that show governments the way and build momentum and support for action.
Reaching Critical Will
Reaching Critical Will is the disarmament program of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the oldest women’s peace organization in the world. Reaching Critical Will works for disarmament and arms control of many different weapon systems, the reduction of global military spending and militarism, and the investigation of gendered aspects of the impact of weapons and of disarmament processes.