To Nuke or Not to Nuke

Humankind today faces three common problems that make a mockery of all national borders, and that can only be solved through global cooperation. These are nuclear war, climate change and technological disruption.

Yuval Noah Harari

As tensions between India and Pakistan intensifies and US and North Korea fails to reach an agreement on denuclearisation, I thought it’s good timing to recap on the concept of nuclear power and why we should be paying close attention to what is happening.

I won’t go into the details of why decimating Hiroshima and Nagasaki and intentionally targeting civilians – mostly children, women and elderly – were grim violations of rules of war. If you’re curious you can read more here. I’ll also avoid pontificating on the 150 tons of irradiated water that’s still being pumped out of Fukushima on a daily basis with over a million tons in tanks that we still don’t know what to do with (except perhaps as a concoction to breed Godzillas).

Tanks of irradiated water at Fukushima.
Onkalo Finland Nuclear Waste Depository

I won’t even go into the hundreds of thousands of years that radioactive waste remains hazardous and the challenges of containing something so toxic for such an unimaginably long time – with serious consideration for a post-apocalyptic world where no one remembers our languages and symbolisms, and perhaps lost the scientific knowledge and historical records. How do we ensure no one opens the forbidden tomb for 100,000 years? After all, the pyramids of Giza are merely 5,000 years old. Check out the documentary ‘Into Eternity’ to get a full picture. Here is a link to a Motherboard article on it.

I’ll also refrain from writing up pages on the fact that even at the current rate of consumption, uranium reserves will only last for 80 years and if we were to meet global consumption of 15 terawatts? Ludicrously insignificant 5 years. It is clearly not a solution to climate change and most definitely not a sustainable source of energy.

Nuclear Peace

Instead, I’m going to focus today on the idea of nuclear peace. A theory in which it subscribes global peace to the devastating power of atom bombs and advanced retaliatory capabilities. It argues, rather convincingly to my dismay, that Mutually Assured Destruction or MAD makes the idea of war prohibitively costly, hence leading to voluntary restraint, treaties and peace.

I’ve been entertaining the idea that perhaps arming ourselves to our teeth with nuclear bombs did give us enough relative global peace in which economic growth and technological innovation could occur, shifting the values from physical assets to a more digital one. Thus, displacing the need to conquer and colonise. Perhaps free trade, economic alliances and diplomacy yielded far better return than outright invasion and domination – a model that China seems to have taken on in recent years.

Yet, I was not fully aware of the real risks of nuclear war until very recently – that the biggest long term damage comes months to years later, as thick smoke reaches the stratosphere and blocks the sunlight over much of the Earth’s surface. A small nuclear war between India and Pakistan, with each country detonating 50 Hiroshima sized bombs could kick start a decade long nuclear autumn where temperatures drop to levels we have not experienced on Earth in the past 1,000 years, triggering a global famine (Note, many atomic bombs are now 1,000 times the power of the Hirohima bomb). In some calculations by scientists, a single 5 megaton Inter Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) detonation will be enough to trigger a nuclear autumn.

As many as 2 billion people would be at risk of starvation even in that “limited” range, he estimates, most of them in Southeast Asia, Latin America, North America, and Europe. “The death of 2 billion people wouldn’t be the end of the human race,” he told me, “but it would be the end of modern civilization as we know it.”

If you’re curious to know what an all out ‘nuclear winter‘ will look like, continue reading this Vox article.

Over the last 30 years, we have reduced the number of nuclear weapons by more than 3/4 through peace treaties and strategic disarmament. But the 9 countries that possess them have not taken the steps to complete disarmament. I’m doubtful that will ever happen, and there’s always the possibility that the world will remain peaceful, uneventful and benevolent if we somehow managed to maintain a nuclear equilibrium.

However, as long as we apes have the power to destroy the world at a touch of a button, we remain open to the possibility of our civilisation becoming part of Fermi’s Paradox – a prospect that intelligent life inevitably self-destructs… One thing is for sure, we have arrived at a time in our evolutionary history where we must shift our concept of ‘us’ to beyond national borders, over the whole of the Earth on which we all live. And tackle the biggest existential threats we have ever come across as species through global cooperation.

“Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.” 

Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

One Comment Add yours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s