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Bringing nuclear risks back into popular imagination

  • 10 August, 2020

  • 10 Min Read

Bringing nuclear risks back into popular imagination


  • Commemorating the 75th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the article calls for greater awareness and public discourse on the issue of nuclear weapons.

Damage potential:

  • Recent studies have indicated that use of even a fraction of the current stock of nuclear weapons would cause a massive human tragedy and also have long-term repercussions for food and water availability, agricultural output and climate change.
  • Any nuclear use between nuclear adversaries would cause a humanitarian disaster.
  • Though it is very unlikely that nations would resort to pre-meditated, deliberate nuclear attacks given the risks posed by nuclear retaliation, there is the underlying risk of inadvertent escalation due to miscalculation or misperceptions.
  • Possibilities of unintended use are increased by the following factors.
  • Stressed inter-state relations have diminished inter-state trust.
    • Growing tensions between North Korea and the U.S.
    • Tensions between Russia and the west
    • Tensions between the U.S. and China
    • Tensions between India and its two nuclear-armed neighbours, China and Pakistan.

Unchecked strategic modernisation of nuclear weapons:

  • Russia and the USA have extensive and expensive programmes underway to replace and modernize their nuclear warheads. Similar demands have been observed in countries like the U.K. as well.
  • China has been increasing its nuclear arsenal at a substantial rate.
  • North Korea has been making attempts to produce nuclear weapons.

Failure of arms control arrangements:

  • The 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) expires in 2021 and the U.S. administration has expressed its reluctance to renew the treaty. This removes the check on the nuclear weapons programmes of the two nations with the largest nuclear weapons inventory.
  • New START is a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the United States and the Russian Federation with the formal name of Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms.
  • The nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 seem to have failed, with Iran vowing to restart its nuclear programme in the wake of increased U.S. sanctions.

Adoption of aggressive nuclear postures:

  • Abandonment of no first use policy
  • Support for the idea of ‘limited’ nuclear war
  • Emergent technologies have created anxieties and these new developments threaten to create unknown risks.
  • Advancing capabilities of cyberattacks on nuclear command and control
  • Blurring lines between conventional and nuclear delivery with conventional weapon delivery systems being upgraded to enable the delivery of nuclear weapons as well
  • Induction of hypersonic missiles capable of high speed and manoeuvrability
  • Incorporation of artificial intelligence in nuclear decision making


  • Post the Cold War, the perceived sense of danger of nuclear war has receded, though the nuclear war risk continues to increase.
  • A high level of public apathy and political complacency has led to a situation where the risks remain high but the desire to address them is low.
  • There are no efforts being made for nuclear risk reduction. Led by the principle of nuclear deterrence, there has been an increasing tendency to use strategies of nuclear brinkmanship and ambiguity that actually is adding to the nuclear risks.

Lack of public discourse:

  • There is a lack of public participation in the nuclear policy formulation and nuclear strategies are being dictated and driven primarily by security conclaves.
  • Popular participation is important to temper national choices and create the much-needed checks and balances.

Way forward:

  • There is the need to bring nuclear risks back into popular imagination and into the political agenda.
  • The public campaign to expose leaders and societies to the full range of physical, economic, social, political, health, environmental, and psychological effects of nuclear weapons.
  • Public pressure in the form of civil society movements can compel leaders to rationalise their weapon requirements; force nations to find ways of reducing nuclear risks, and gradually pave the path towards the elimination of nuclear weapons.

Source: TH


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