Safeguarding Our World From Nuclear Weapons

The recent tentative nuclear accord between the United States and Iran is motivated by the United States’s commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Signed in 1970, the NPT is the only binding multilateral treaty that obliges nuclear weapons states to work towards the goal of disarmament. The United States has a duty under Article VI of the NPT to undertake “negotiations in good faith” towards nuclear disarmament, yet it has instead begun a program of nuclear “modernization,” under which it will upgrade its warheads and construct new missiles, submarines, and bombers, at an estimated cost of one trillion dollars over 30 years.

An international rally in New York City on April 26, ahead of the historic NPT Review Conference to begin the next day, is an opportunity for citizens to reaffirm that the NPT not only accords rights to the nuclear weapons states to demand non-proliferation, but also duties to make progress towards nuclear abolition. This is an issue which speaks to all citizens and which resonates with the concerns recently voiced during Harvard Heat Week, as nuclear weapons not only negate human freedom, but also threaten the survival of the species and the environment.

The existing nuclear arsenal poses catastrophic humanitarian risk. A nuclear strike on Moscow, for example, would result in 700,000 child deaths and destroy many hospitals, rendering meaningless any distinction between “combatant” and “civilian” targets—a distinction that is vital to international law. The United States is poised to violate this law. Its 14 Ohio-class submarines equal 4,000 Hiroshima blasts; eight of these submarines were built since the end of the Cold War, and our nuclear posture remains on high alert.

President Obama has already recognized the need to establish firm protections against nuclear weapons. In a 2009 speech, he asserted that "as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act." Obama's major achievement on this front has been the New START treaty, which caps the arsenal of nuclear warheads deployed by Russia and the United States at 1550 on each side by the year 2018. But the START treaty is modest: Despite strong rhetoric, the Obama administration has made fewer reductions to our nuclear arsenal than any other administration since the Cold War.

 The trillion-dollar “modernization” risks igniting a new nuclear arms race, this time focused not on the number of warheads but on their overall capability. Such enhancements have already been made to arsenals in Europe and the United States. This money is better spent on increasing security of existing sites. The need for increased security has been powerfully demonstrated by Sister Megan Rice, an 84-year old nun, who was able to break into the Oak Ridge nuclear weapons plant in an act of protest for which she was sentenced to three years in jail. A similar risk exists with respect to nuclear cybersecurity, as the current electronic military infrastructure is vulnerable to hacking. Of the thousands of hacking incidents reported by the federal government each year, some have involved major defense breaches, including a 2009 attack in which hackers seized plans for the nuclear-equipped F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet.


Nuclear weapons threaten every form of life on our planet. Scientists have shown that even a small-scale deployment of nuclear weapons could cause unprecedented and lasting disruptions to our climate. Even the maintenance of existing nuclear arsenals generates toxic waste that contaminates our soil and poisons our groundwater. The urgent imperative to seek solutions to these environmental hazards—coupled with our moral responsibility to serve as custodians for future inhabitants of our planet—is an especially timely issue here at Harvard, where participants in Heat Week have called on the university administration to divest from fossil fuels. We share the concerns of those working to address global climate change, and stand in solidarity with efforts to safeguard a planet on which future generations will thrive.

It is not too late to reverse our course. A Harvard delegation, led by Harvard Peace Action, will be attending the April 26 rally in New York. We invite you to get in touch via our website, where you will find information about affordable transportation to the march, our next organizational meeting, and an international petition for the elimination of nuclear weapons, which has already been signed by over four million people. We urge you to join us in support of a peaceful and sustainable future. Now is the time to abolish nuclear weapons.


Abel Corver ’16, co-founder of Harvard Peace Action, lives in Pforzheimer House. Rebecca Kastleman, a PhD candidate in English, is co-founder of Harvard Peace Action.


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