Nuclear nightmares

The case for a minimum nuclear deterrent

Despite years of reducing the number of nuclear weapons’ the UK has the government has changed course. After the Defence review by the government the cap on the number of nuclear weapons will now rise from 180 warheads to 260. I can’t find a reason for this beyond something from an insider who supposedly spoke to the Guardian who said “If we have them, let’s not apologise for it, let’s own it”.

There is another way to deal with nuclear weapons’ that doesn’t sit on the side of either this increase in warheads just because we can have them or disarming completely. Its an approach that combines a dislike for nuclear weapons whilst knowing that we probably can’t disarm fully.

To look a bit at why my dislike of nuclear weapons’ exists, its best to go back to the birth of nuclear weapons when we were still struggling to understand this force we had unleashed.

Nuclear terror

What’s the first memory of nuclear weapons’ you have? Its thankfully unlikely that it will be of a real explosion but it’s likely the culture that’s been created by them. We have documentaries, films and even video games dedicated to exploring nuclear weapons’. When I was younger I ended up being fascinated by documentaries about nuclear weapons’ such as the huge Tsar Bomba detonated by the USSR. Now its more likely to be through post-apocalyptic video games such as Fallout. However rarely do we question where this nuclear culture that surrounds us actually came from.

Whilst the culture around nuclear material itself has been around for much longer the trigger point for the culture around nuclear weapons’ is probably unsurprising. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 seem to be the origins. Initially this fear resulted in a fascination from the press which was often “portrayed as a ‘monster’ threatening the world” and it started a culture that we still live with. It created everything from products such as paint to protect from nuclear blasts in 1953 and museums looking at the bombings to fallout shelters that still exist across the United States today. Later on with the launch Sputnik 1 in 1957 it became clear that the USSR could launch nuclear bombs without warning for the area being attacked.

This was joined by nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl and more recently the Fukushima disaster. Radiation, a product of both nuclear accidents and bombs, also caused its own changes to culture. I think it was best described by the roof runners at Chernobyl that “radiation is not only dangerous but also insidious“, roof runners being those solders that removed radioactive material from the roof of the reactor buildings. You can’t see it or feel it but that doesn’t stop it from killing you. Its not a nice way to die either which is something Moscow Hospital number 6 saw after the Chernobyl disaster. All of this is the same whether its from a bomb or a destroyed reactor.

The danger from nuclear weapons’ that was reflected in this nuclear culture is very real too. You can’t really hide from nuclear bombs if they explode and you won’t really have a warning if they are delivered by missile. There were attempts in the 1950s to create civil defence films on preparing for nuclear attacks. Unfortunately, even the cartoon turtle Bert and his ability to duck and cover probably wouldn’t save him. Nuclear weapons are terrifying to the extent that they have created a nuclear culture and the threat is very real.

Duck and Cover, the 1951 Civil Defence Film on how school children could protect themselves from nuclear weapons.

Moving away from the brink of nuclear war

This danger is what caused countries to move away from nuclear weapons. The tensions of the Cold War resulted in the USSR and the USA entering negotiations on nuclear arms reduction with the Reykjavík Summit of 1986. However, neither the USSR nor the USA wanted to be left without the bomb if the other side still had it. We also had the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 2011 to reduce the number of deployed nuclear weapons by 30% and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which resulted from the unsuccessful negotiations at Reykjavík.

These agreements reduced the number of nuclear weapons held by the USA and Russia and previously the USSR. However, the efforts also extended to reducing not only nuclear weapons in the present but also stopping countries from developing nuclear weapons in the future. The biggest effort here was seen with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. This created a situation where states who had weapons before 1 January 1967 could keep them and any countries that did not have nuclear weapons’ by then couldn’t develop them. This didn’t stop countries outside of the pre-1967 group from obtaining them by not signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty, most notably India and Pakistan.

For all the progress, nuclear weapons still exist and even the international agreements that try to limit their spread have not been totally successful. We are very much in a world where the danger we discussed before is still here and so are nuclear weapons’, even if there are less of them than during the cold war.

Total disarmament

The question is then how we deal with this issue. One approach would be to disarm fully regardless of what other countries do, especially considering how dangerous these weapons’ they are.

In this situation we would probably end up relying on the United States for protection through NATO under article 5:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area“.

The issue with this is that it relies on NATO allies retaliating to a nuclear strike on the UK. It’s not a guarantee that they would strike back if the UK were attacked. It removes the idea of having a deterrent that striking a country will mean retaliation. Whilst there is no guarantee that the UK would fire its nuclear warheads in the event of an attack it is far more likely than another country doing it for the UK. This is the way that most of the arguments for full and unilateral disarmament don’t really hold up. Whilst other countries would retain nuclear weapons’, we would have no real way to deter a nuclear attack.

There are, however, huge ethical issues with using a nuclear bomb or even possessing a bomb that could kill so many people. Problem is, removing our nuclear weapons’ does not remove the risk of nuclear war, if anything it means we no longer have a deterrent.

The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons

If the issue is other countries having nuclear weapons and the possibility that they could use those weapons’ then a solution may be for all countries to give up nuclear weapons’. This would remove a lot of the issues with having no deterrent but there is a long way to go before this can be an option. It would need all countries to join The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, especially those that currently have nuclear weapons’. However, as I mentioned earlier, India and Pakistan aren’t even members of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons let alone countries like North Korea. It would also be difficult to know whether North Korea was complying with the treaty without checks it would be unlikely to agree to. Even then it requires countries to trust each other not to create weapons’, if they do then they will have a weapon and no-one else will have a deterrent. Its unlikely with checks but would it be worth the risk?

Therefore, even if a world without nuclear weapons’ may be better, it just doesn’t seem achievable. At least not in today’s world of opposing sides and distrust. There needs to be trust that other countries will comply with UN weapons’ inspections, that no-one will build nuclear weapons behind the backs of others and that everyone will sign up to such an agreement in the first place.

Accidents with nuclear weapons

Whilst we need nuclear weapons as a deterrent, there is an issue when it comes to accidents. If we keep nuclear weapons’ we will have a deterrent but is also means we could start a nuclear war by accident. This is an argument I learnt a lot about as a student at Aberystwyth University and accidents with nuclear weapons’ have occurred before. There is an unclassified list of accidents from the Department of Defence and it doesn’t make for pleasant reading. Part of this comes down to increasing safety around transport bit there is only so much that can be done.

This causes a dilemma, keep the deterrent and risk an accident that starts nuclear war or lose the deterrent but not have to worry about a nuclear accident by the UK.

A minimum nuclear deterrent

The answer to this all is actually fairly simply, a minimum nuclear deterrent. This is much like the path we have already been down with countries doing deals together on disarmament much like was seen at the Reykjavik Summit on arms control. The goal is for countries to have as few nuclear weapons as possible without having to totally disarm.

A reduction in nuclear warheads would reduce the chance of an accident by keeping the number of nuclear weapons to a minimum. It would also mean the UK would continue to maintain a deterrent creating a balance between reducing the risk of accidents and keeping a deterrent.

If we reduce the number of warheads we have in the future the waste from decommissioned warheads could be used for nuclear power. That means much less waste to deal with, more electricity for the grid and more time for expanding our use of renewable energy in the form of wind, solar or wave power.

This brings me back to what I started this article with, the UK government’s plan to increase the number of nuclear warheads we have. The actual explanation for this increase in the Integrated Review was “However, in recognition of the evolving security environment, including the developing range of technological and doctrinal threats, this is no longer possible, and the UK will move to an overall nuclear weapon stockpile of no more than 260 warheads“. The issue is it doesn’t really explain why this increase is needed and some of the language used hasn’t exactly given me much hope that this is just to keep a minimum deterrent.

We need more clarity from the government on its plan to increase our nuclear stockpile. Increasing it may have become an issue simply of looking strong but in reality more weapons means more potential for accidents and it won’t help us to push nuclear arms reduction if we are increasing the number of warheads we have. We need to work towards a world with fewer nuclear weapons and maybe someday a world without them may be possible.

About the author

Torrin Wilkins

Director and Founder

Torrin founded Centre in 2020. In the role has written numerous papers including one backed by the Gaps in Support APPG which contained 260 MPs. He has also written policies for political parties and appeared on a wide range of media including TV and radio. He has a Political Studies degree from Aberystwyth University.