Is the use of nuclear weapons obsolete? This is a question that has gained traction recently, post-Cold War with radical nations either acquiring or pursuing nuclear capabilities. The other side of the coin is nuclear energy and not necessarily acquiring nuclear capabilities for weapons.
When examining non-weaponized nuclear capability used for energy purposes, it can be quite efficient. In fact, nuclear energy is much cleaner than more conventional forms and it is virtually emissions free. Nuclear energy is also better for the environment with no byproducts such as greenhouse gasses. However, nuclear energy can be very dangerous if not properly maintained. The nuclear reactors must be cooled at certain levels in order to prevent what is called nuclear meltdowns or the melting of the nuclear core. Such disasters have had cataclysmic consequences in areas such as Chernobyl and most recently at Fukushima.
The nuclear reactors in Fukushima melted down three years ago as a result of the Earth's worst recorded earthquake and subsequent tsunami. CNN reported that before the Fukushima meltdown, "442 nuclear power reactors in 30 countries produced 14% of all world's electricity...This number dropped to just 11% in 2012, as 15 reactors exited service - mainly in Germany and Japan." The world's attitude has changed toward nuclear energy after the meltdown demonstrating the dangers of such accidents. Japan is not much closer to cleaning up thousands of tons of nuclear waste from the meltdown and according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), "Decommissioning the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power site may take over30 years," and cost $125 billion. Even more staggering, CSIS wrote that there are 300 tons of contaminated water leaking into the ocean with a 100 ton leak reported as recently as February, and responders have had to build an underground wall of ice in order to keep nuclear waste from contaminating the ground or ocean water.
In terms of weaponized nuclear capabilities, experts fear rogue states who may get their hands on nuclear weapons may use them against their enemies. While nuclear technology is much easier to acquire now than it was during the Cold War, other nuclear nations can see when these weapons are fired and respond accordingly. Nuclear warfare is a zero sum game in that it is virtually impossible to wipe out another nation without sustaining any reciprocal casualties. In nuclear warfare, this is called a first strike, which aims to destroy an enemies' nuclear arsenal to the point they cannot return fire. However, all nuclear weapons are connected to a grid and once a warhead is fired, other nations have a chance to respond.
With this type of system, the aggressor nation would be responsible with virtually starting the end of the world given the severe implications and power a nuclear war would enable. President Obama has made it part of his legacy to initiate non-proliferation among world powers and other nations looking to pursue it. The president initiated the New START Treaty with Russia, which sought to draw down the nuclear arsenals of both nations, a major win for the administration. However, according to Jane Harman, President of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Russia is talking about backing out of START. According to a report conducted by the Congressional Research Service, "The New START Treaty is a product of a different era and a different relationship between the United States and Russia." With recent developments, Russia is looking more and more like a belligerent state refusing to conform with the international community.
Pakistan is another nation of concern. Pakistan is a nuclear nation and is not a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many foreign relations experts point to Pakistan as one of the most dangerous and unstable nations in the world - not Iran - given their nuclear capability and fighting with the TTP or Pakistani Taliban. However, there may be room for friendly negotiations in the future. Last week at a House Armed Services Committee hearing, General Joseph Dunford, the commanding officer of US Afghan forces, stated that Pakistan and Afghanistan relations are beginning to warm signaling a regional peace. Pakistan wants to participate with the rest of the world and it appears the new regime is taking steps in the right direction to make this a reality. In fact, Pakistan has committed itself to non-proliferation and aims to use nuclear power only for "power production, medicine, agriculture, food preservation and water management for the benefit of its people."
North Korea also poses a large threat and they have established they have no interest in reform. Sanctions up to this point have not been effective and North Korea seems committed to achieving a useable warhead at the cost of its economy. Next week, an international summit will take place at The Hague regarding nuclear weapons and technology security but North Korea will not be participating according to Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, President Obama's nuclear adviser. North Korea threatens stability in Asia especially with its neighbor South Korea. China seems to be the best avenue to pursue talks with North Korea as they have been Pyongyang's greatest ally and have come to their defense many times (most recently denouncing a UN report documenting various crimes against humanity by the government.)
The reason Iran has garnered so much more attention than North Korea, who already has nuclear capabilities, is because Iran is known for being a state sponsor of terrorism. Many states are afraid Iran may provide terrorist cells with nuclear technology. As William Tobey - Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University - stated last week at a policy forum on global nuclear security, "we live in an age of unlimited terror." He asserted that cells such as al-Qaeda try to inflict the most damage as possible and in today's modern age, nuclear technology is not cutting edge making it easier to obtain.
The Obama administration is still weary of Iran despite the interim nuclear deal achieved in November with the P5+1 group. Last week, President Obama extended the national emergency declared against Iran in 1995 because, "certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States" despite "the first time in a decade that Iran has agreed to and taken specific actions to halt its nuclear program and roll it back in key respects." As Secretary of State John Kerry affirmed last December at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing, "we must now test and verify."
Iran merely asserts they are pursuing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes yet the level of uranium enrichment they have achieved thus far leads experts to believe otherwise. Iran stands to gain a lot in terms of economic growth if they comply with the interim nuclear deal given certain sanctions relief. Iran has started to export oil to several Asian countries and "Western sanction relief—including the resumption of some petrochemical exports, the removal of frozen assets and other trade—is expected to free up about $4.2 billion for Tehran," according to the Wall Street Journal.
Nuclear power can be every efficient but the drawbacks can be immensely consequential. Nuclear warfare is a zero sum game but nuclear weapons in the hands of rogues scares many experts. As Sam Nunn, former senator and Chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, stated last week at a policy forum, there is no effective international standard for nuclear safety and hopefully this will be addressed at The Hague summit. He also stated that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a fundamental way forward, yet certain loopholes such as the right to enrich can be exploited for weapons use.
Nuclear weapons are obsolete in that no nation would dare use them given the destruction and imminent retaliation. At this point, the harm of having such technology poses a danger that the technology may fall into the wrong hands or, as in the case with the United States, certain warheads can be lost at sea or set off by accident. There is no way to assess the damage that has been done to the planet by such material that is sitting underground because there is no other place to store nuclear waste. While nuclear power is an extremely efficient form of energy, international standards concerning proliferation are imperative to the future of environmental and diplomatic stability.