Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons by Richard Rhodes is a great read for a person interested in the survival of civilization. This is a profound work of careful scholarship. It leads the reader through the complexities of how human society is trying to cope with of the tens of thousands of A-bombs already existing in ready-to-use stockpiles. It is crazy for anyone to possess these weapons because it makes those persons and countries an instant target for everyone else who possesses a bomb to launch a surreptitious surprise attack. It is suicidal for the US to launch an attack on Russia because they have a superabundance of Weapons of Mass Destruction at the ready to counterattack, and the reverse is equally true. Thus there was a decades-long standoff called the Cold War which maintained the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy. That worked okay when there were only the two superpowers, but now there are at least nine superpowers. Those other seven are not usually called superpowers, but it seems appropriate to call someone who has a couple hundred A-bombs a superpower.
The problem is that the existence of these weapons in one person’s possession creates the desire in other people to possess them also. There are seven billion people, at present, so that proposition clearly portends doom. The only way to prevent disaster is to totally eliminate those weapons from the world. Rhodes documents the various efforts, and an Australian, Richard Butler, has dedicated his life to that project and has been successful in providing the intellectual footing to sculpt successful bomb-reduction treaties. However, with so very many of these weapons already in existence it seems impossible to eliminate all of them. President Barack Obama stated it clearly:
Some argue that the spread of these weapons cannot be stopped, cannot be checked–that we are destined to live in a world where more nations and more people possess the ultimate tools of destruction. Such fatalism is a deadly adversary, for if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.
This is a cry of despair from the very person who holds the greatest power to destroy. But his power is to destroy the world a hundred times over, whereas some of his adversaries may only have the power to destroy it ten times over, and some only a single time, but what’s the difference. Dead is dead.
Although most people disparaged and laughed at President Reagan’s Star Wars plan of destroying missiles headed for the US, it did have the hope of finding a weapon superior to A-bombs, at least those launched by rockets. There are now various plans afoot for creating large numbers of precisely directed weapons, such that wars are fought individually again, as they were in the ancient past. Instead of destroying a whole country to remove a single malefactor, such as Saddam Hussein, only the exact target individual would be killed.
The problem is that nature has provided us with the materials necessary to make these bombs. Enriched U235 is expensive to make, but it is just an industrial process, and basic 10kt A-bombs using Highly Enriched Uranium are not difficult to build by a small team of appropriately educated people. The problem for the potential bomb builder is the cost and the difficulty of keeping a large project secret. There is a wide trail of yellow cake precursor minerals leading to the builders. To make an efficient bomb requires Tritium, but fortunately that is very expensive and very difficult to come by and fortunately for humanity deteriorates quickly. To maintain a stockpile of nominal modern weapons, 500kt, requires a constant and very expensive resupply of tritium. Terrorists will be limited to 10kt Hiroshima-size bombs and probably only one at a time. That would be horrible, but it wouldn’t be the end of civilization. But there are those other folks with tens of thousands of bombs and much bigger ones too. It’s a very nasty problem. Until we have a weapon clearly more powerful than A-bombs we are on a path to their use.
The very existence of the possibility of A-bombs is the problem.