A panel of three experts discussed the necessity of eliminating nuclear arsenals across the world Monday afternoon at the Woodrow Wilson School.

“Merely shrinking these [nuclear] arsenals down from the current level of 15,000 in the world isn’t going to protect us from potential disaster,” said Bruce Blair.  “The only reliable answer to this problem is to eliminate all nuclear weapons.” Blair is a former U.S. nuclear missile launch control officer and winner of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Fellowship for his work on nuclear arms control.

The other two panelists were Sharon Weiner, an associate professor at American University, who held White House responsibility for nuclear weapon budgets during the Obama Administration, and Ambassador Elayne Whyte Gómez, who led the negotiations of the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in 2017.

Blair specifically focused on the myriad of risks and errors possible in the possession of nuclear weapons, citing a number of close calls by the United States. He also noted that a decision by the U.S. to take nuclear action does not need the Secretary of Defense's consent. 

“There is no one in the chain of command that has the authority to stop the president [from launching a nuclear weapon],” Blair explained.  “Under the current protocol, the president has the unilateral power to order a first strike without apparent cause.  The president has carte blanche; he is, as we sometimes like to say, the nuclear monarch.”

To add to the risks highlighted by Blair, Weiner focused on the economic impact of nuclear war. Specifically, Weiner discussed the severe economic drain a modernization of nuclear weapons could potentially cause.

“The bad news is that a child born today will be at retirement by the time the current modernization program is beginning to wind down,” Weiner said. “That [modernization] program is estimated right now to cost 1.2 trillion dollars over the next thirty years.”

Weiner noted that 1.2 trillion dollars was a low estimate of the cost, as the program would still continue after thirty years. As such, cost estimates fail to take into account new missile silos and the infrastructure which must be built around new, modernized weapons.

“We’re only at the beginning for all of the programs,” said Weiner. “So before we get further into this process, the time is now to cancel these things.”

Echoing Weiner, Gómez explained that in order for progress to happen in winding down nuclear programs, it is essential to change the norms and assumptions both leaders and citizens hold regarding nuclear weapons. According to Gómez, citizens of the world need to think of nuclear weapons less as a source of security to their individual nation or states but more as a unilateral, global risk -- a risk not worth taking.

“I truly believe that human progress is the result of the constant challenging of ideas and beliefs through scientific observation and problem solving,” said Gómez.  “We have to exert our agency and our responsibility to ourselves and our children and future generations and do something about it.”

The talk, entitled “A Perpetual Menace: Nuclear Weapons Today, Tomorrow, Forever?” was held in Robertson Hall Bowl 016 on Monday, Nov. 13 at 4:30 p.m.

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