May/June 2024Vol. XXXVI No. 5

The Danger of Nuclear Weapons and the Efforts at MIT to Reduce the Threats

Robert P. Redwine

The danger of the use of nuclear weapons in conflicts between countries on Earth is difficult to overstate. There are currently nine countries (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea) that are known to have nuclear weapons and at least one other country (Iran) that seems to be working toward obtaining such weapons. The United States and Russia have the most deployed weapons, about 4000 each, most with warheads many times more destructive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While this number is a factor of 3 to 4 less than it was during the Cold War, it still represents vast overkill capacity. Another fact to keep in mind is that most of the nuclear weapons in the world are on “hair-trigger alert,” which means that they can be launched on the order of one person, the leader of the country. Countries which operate on this principle include, of course, the United States.

Recent developments in the world, including especially the war in Ukraine and the conflict in the Middle East, have increased the danger of the use of nuclear weapons. Israeli weapons can reach Iran. North Korea continues to threaten use of their nuclear arsenal. India and Pakistan, both nuclear armed, are in conflict over their border. The threats by Russia to use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine (which are less powerful than strategic nuclear weapons but still very powerful) are especially disturbing.

The US has embarked on a program to upgrade and modernize all three legs of the nuclear response triad – intercontinental ballistic missiles in silos, nuclear-armed submarines, and nuclear-armed long-range bombers. Russian and Chinese military spokespersons state that this represents an escalation of the nuclear arms race, and that they will have to respond in kind. The upgrades are estimated to cost US taxpayers close to $2 trillion over the next 20 years. Even if never used, the enormous cost of such weapons will sharply limit the investment in desperately needed federal programs for health, housing, education, biomedical research, public transit, and sustainable energy.

Professor Alan Robock’s climate modeling group at Rutgers University estimates that if up to about 50 current nuclear weapons were to be exploded anywhere on Earth, it would generate sufficient atmospheric soot to cut down sunlight reaching the Earth, resulting in a “nuclear winter” and cause worldwide famine.

This would result in hundreds of millions of deaths. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists now has their “Doomsday Clock” set at 90 seconds before midnight, the closest to midnight it has ever been.

Since the initial development of nuclear weapons in the 1940s, there have been several treaties implemented that have encouraged countries to limit development of nuclear weapons, end testing that is dangerous in many ways, and work towards the total elimination of such weapons. One can argue that these treaties have had important successful outcomes. However, it is also true that the successes have been limited. For example, most recently the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) was ratified by the United Nations in 2017 and signed by 122 countries. Many other countries have since also signed the TPNW. However, none of the nine countries that have nuclear weapons have signed the TPNW.

MIT has played and continues to play an important role in dealing with the issues described above. Several MIT scientists were members of the Manhattan Project that developed nuclear weapons for the US during World War II. The motivation of most of the leaders of the Manhattan Project was their fear that Hitler and the Nazis would develop such weapons before the Allies. When Germany surrendered in May 1945 these leaders wanted the Manhattan Project to end and they were very disappointed that it continued and that the US dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan. After the war many of the former leaders of the Manhattan Project, including MIT faculty members, spent much of the rest of their lives working towards limiting the number of nuclear weapons and hopefully the abolition of all nuclear weapons.

For example, MIT’s Henry Kendall was a founder of the Union of Concerned Scientists which, among its goals, aims to reduce as much as possible the dangers of nuclear weapons. Randall Forsberg, Philip Morrison, and Kosta Tsipis initiated the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which brought a million people to Central Park in 1982, and pushed President Reagan to open negotiations with President Gorbachev, leading to the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaties.

While those who participated in the Manhattan Project are no longer with us, they had strong influences on other faculty members at MIT, who have continued to pursue the goal of the abolition of nuclear weapons.

For example, MIT faculty have led the Nuclear Weapons Education Project (NWEP) for decades. The NWEP has as its goal the education of as many people as possible, especially younger people who did not grow up during the Cold War, about the continuing and ever increasing dangers of nuclear weapons. To achieve this goal the NWEP makes available online a very large amount of material related to the technology, history, and prospects of nuclear weapons in the hope that many educators will use this material to familiarize younger people with this existential threat.

Another example of MIT contributions is the co-sponsorship of the annual “Reducing the Threat of Nuclear War” conference, which attracts a very significant number of attendees from across the country. The Faculty Newsletter also maintains a Nuclear Disarmament Page honoring our former colleague Aron Bernstein’s contributions.

To summarize, the goal of reducing and hopefully eventually eliminating the threat of nuclear weapons is a critical effort and MIT has for a long time played an important role in working towards this goal. We encourage other members of the faculty to engage in these activities and we would be happy to provide more information if requested concerning how to do so.