Nuclear weapons issues

14 November 2023 J.J.C. Voorhoeve

As is well known, nuclear weapons were invented and used in 1945 to force an end to the military aggression that had led to World War II, and to prevent such weapons from being made by an aggressor. The attempt to then bring this destruction technology under the authority of a UN institution failed at the time. These weapons were also made in the Soviet Union and later in France, the UK, China, Pakistan, India, North Korea and probably Israel. There are now at least 9 nuclear weapons states. I write at least, because I do not know which states will also turn out to possess nuclear weapons in the next few years.

All know the reasoning by the possessors of nuclear weapons and their allies: They are needed to block the threat of use by enemies with counterthreats. The numbers of nuclear weapons grew sharply after 1945 and the force of destruction is so great that if many of the heaviest nuclear weapons were detonated, at least hundreds of millions of people would perish. The incalculable mess would then be followed by a long, dark winter, extremely high radiation, famine, destruction of much nature and part of humanity. That is the first, existential risk.

The second risk is that nuclear weapons with lesser explosive power will be used in local conflicts. That risk is growing with the current wars. It is common knowledge that one of the nuclear powers openly and repeatedly threatens deployment. The deployment of so-called smaller nuclear battlefield weapons can also escalate to the use of much more explosive nuclear weapons.

The third risk is that nuclear weapons may inadvertently detonate due to technical or human error. The controllability of these weapons may be diminished by increasingly complex military systems and their reliance on electronics. Atmospheric and stratospheric failures should also be considered.  It is likely that the use of artificial intelligence in defense systems is growing.  As a result, the time leaders have to decide on deployment may become increasingly short. Then the risk of incorrect responses and escalation grows. 

A fourth type of risk is that threats of nuclear weapons are used by an entity that is not a state but has managed to acquire such weapons for its stated, probably very criminal purposes.  

I cannot determine a figure or range of all risks and think quantification would be arbitrary, dependent on debatable assumptions.

Theories of international politics and military strategy and tactics usually assume rationality on the part of governments and commanders. They would be out for the self-interest of their state. The question is, what is this self-interest, who determines it, and who chooses the purposes of deployment. There are many examples of governments, by their assumptions and assessments, actually harming their own state interest enormously. If only state interest were always leading! Then international politics would be more predictable.

 In this article, I  am only outlining the questions to be answered.  These are, I think:

1. How can the risk of deliberate deployment be reduced?

2. How can the risk of unintentional explosions be reduced?

3. How can the large numbers and high costs of this type of weapon be reduced as much as possible? From this also follow the questions of whether they can be totally and globally abolished, and how this can actually be achieved, in successive steps if necessary.

4. A question that seems to be becoming more topical is how to react to the use of battlefield or tactical nuclear weapons in a current war.

5. A question of a completely different nature is, how should accidents involving non-military nuclear facilities, such as nuclear power plants in a war zone, be governed? These can cause major radiation damage either deliberately or through conflict or neglect of good management.

6. The sixth question for European NATO members is what their contribution should be to NATO’s policy. That policy provides for sharing the risks and linking each other’s security interests, partly by sharing nuclear weapons tasks of allies who do not possess nuclear weapons themselves, but who can participate in alliance consultations (such as in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group).

A few years ago, the Advisory Council on International Affairs in The Netherlands suggested to the government and parliament in its report on nuclear weapons that the United Nations should propose appointing an international commission with experts from the nuclear states to answer such questions. This proposal did not resonate with the nuclear weapons states at the UN. The previously drafted Treaty on the Limitation and Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, supported by a large majority of states, was also rejected by the nuclear weapons states.

In answering the six questions I posed, actual developments in recent years must of course be taken into account: previously agreed restrictive treaties have been denounced, several nuclear-weapon states are expanding their numbers of nuclear weapons after downsizing since 1990, and adding new types. The state of Ukraine transferred the nuclear weapons on its territory to Russia in 1994, at the insistence of other nuclear weapons states, which guaranteed Ukrainian territorial integrity in the Budapest Memorandum.  But Ukraine was misled and duped: when Russia captured the Crimean Peninsula, none of the guarantors took action. This leads to the hypothetical question of what would have happened if Ukraine had refused transfer to Russia and become a nuclear weapons state itself.

International politics is generally very unpredictable, so it makes sense to ask questions about unexpected twists and turns in good time, even about developments that seem unlikely.

I need to add another question: if the present war of Russia against Ukraine leads to intended or unintended nuclear detonations or an explosion of one of the civil nuclear energy plants, this may have major consequences also for the Netherlands, such as large numbers of victims elsewhere, larger refugee flows, and radiation danger also far from the explosion area. It therefore makes sense to add a seventh question to six: How prepared is the Netherlands for this and what can be done to improve this preparation? Several states deal with this differently from the Netherlands. One example is Finland, which has systematically built air raid shelters and has a broad conscription system also for civil protection.  In the Netherlands, air raid shelters have been closed or turned into car parks, as in the center of The Haque. The Civil Protection organization Bescherming Bevolking has been ridiculed and disbanded. The question can be asked which of the two countries is more sensible. That nuclear weapons will be used against the Netherlands or its neighboring country Germany is unlikely, but radiation damage from radioactive dust from an Eastern European region cannot be completely ruled out, as was shown after the Chernobyl accident.