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Nuclear war threat now at highest level since Cuban missile crisis

By KOLO WAMBA

Late last month, the American Physical Society held the Fall Meeting of its Division of Nuclear Physics in New Orleans, an annual event that took place in person for the first time since the COVID pandemic. It brought together about 400 scientists, science policy officials, and students representing over 150 educational institutions, national labs, and two U.S. science funding agencies, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the US Department of Energy Office of Science, Office of Nuclear Physics (DOE-SC NP).

The plenary sessions were devoted entirely to the assessment and mitigation of the current threat posed by nuclear weapons, with particular attention paid to how this threat is impacted by the ongoing conflict in the Ukraine. Needless to say, these sessions were nothing short of horrifying, as they made quite clear that the world is now the closest it has been to an all-out nuclear war since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. They also laid bare the extremely reckless attitude that seems to have overtaken both Washington and the Kremlin—an intensely irresponsible public denial of the likelihood and severity of the very real nuclear Armageddon that could result as a consequence of their inter-imperialist maneuverings with respect to Ukraine.

One of the plenary talks was given by Steve Fetter, an associate provost at the University of Maryland College Park, who sits on the board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists—the group that famously maintains the Doomsday Clock. In his remarks, Fetter made the point that there seems to exist a misconception among those in power that any conflict can be won through the use of tactical nuclear weapons, and that this can be done safely. As he would go on to point out, this is complete nonsense for reasons aside from the obvious.

First, the term “tactical nuclear weapon” is only a euphemism for a type of weapon that has an average explosive yield of around 170 kilotons (for comparison, the “Little Boy” weapon that the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, which killed at least 70,000 people and devastated the city beyond recognition, had an explosive yield of just 15 kilotons).

Second, there is essentially no scenario in which a tactical nuclear weapon is used that does not lead to a rapid and immediate escalation, all the way up to and including the use of civilization-ending so-called “strategic” weapons.

Third, even though there supposedly are procedures, protocols, and safeguards in place, in practice all it takes is one malfunction, miscommunication, mistake, or moment of panic for inter-imperialist rivalry to escalate to the point of a thermonuclear exchange between the U.S./NATO and Russia—an absolutely terrifying possibility whose likelihood only grows with each day that the Ukraine war rages on.

Of course, none of this is to say that the Ukraine conflict is anything other than the struggle between an imperialist occupier and its semi-colony. As socialists, we must support the right of the Ukrainian people to self-determination, and accept nothing less than an end to the war that delivers victory to Ukraine in the form of its total and complete liberation from imperialist Russia. However, it is also true that this conflict unfolds within the context of the inter-imperialist rivalry between Russia and the U.S., making immediate victory for Ukraine all the more desperately urgent. For example, in response to the invasion, Finland is now preparing to join NATO and to begin hosting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on its border with Russia—an action that would only increase the likelihood of a sequence of mishaps and errors that leads directly to nuclear Armageddon.

Overall, Fetter’s remarks did rather well to underscore the scope and scale of the nuclear threat, but they came up short when it came to delivering concrete proposals for what to do about it: his purported solutions only involved working within the confines of bourgeois international law and national policy. For example, he called for urging the Biden administration to incorporate a no-first-use policy into its official Nuclear Posture Review (NPR). However, the revised NPR, which came out shortly after Fetter’s talk, still contains not a single word of no-first-use language, and is widely regarded as a step backwards for global nuclear security.

Fetter also made the mistake of commending the Biden administration for its efforts to keep the Ukrainian conflict from escalating, while failing to recognize how this same administration is also attempting to use the crisis to further its own imperialistic aims.

Another notable presentation was that of Alan Robock, a leading expert on the theory of nuclear winter, who serves on the faculty at Rutgers University. Nuclear winter is the idea that should there be a sufficiently large-scale conflict involving strategic nuclear weapons, tens of millions of tons of smoke and soot would be released into the upper atmosphere to the degree that it would block out the sun and plunge much of the world into a state of perpetual winter. Under these conditions, agriculture would become impossible and billions of people would starve. In his talk, Robock used carefully curated results of his group’s calculations and computer simulations of nuclear winter to answer the following questions:

  1. Although the Cold War and its associated nuclear arms race are over, could remaining nuclear arsenals still produce nuclear winter?
  2. What would be the consequences of the use of a much smaller number of nuclear weapons in a regional nuclear conflict?

Robock and his research group’s findings showed that the answer to the first question is definitely “yes,” and their latest models predict that the wintry period of low sunlight following a nuclear war between the U.S./NATO and Russia would last for several years longer than originally thought. In the most optimistic scenario (in which each side launches only a portion of the few thousand strategic warheads at its disposal), the extended disruption to the growing season that would follow results in about 30% of the world’s population dying of starvation within the year following the nuclear conflict. Notably, a significant fraction of these casualties would occur in non-combatant nations outside Europe and the Americas.

At the same time, even though 30% represents only a minority of the global population, it isn’t hard to imagine the remainder of humanity quickly expiring in due course as a result of the disruptions to basic human services that would inevitably come from losing almost a third of the world’s people in the course of just a year.

The second question considers the case of a hypothetical war consisting of a smaller, more localized conflict involving predominantly tactical weapons. But the conclusions are no less grim—tens of millions would die directly in the blast, from fire, or from radiation, and though there would be no nuclear winter per se, global food production would still be reduced by as much as 40%, and billions would starve.

An important conclusion that we can draw from the Robock simulations is that using strategic nuclear weapons against a similarly armed state is tantamount to conducting a suicide bombing. Moreover, nuclear deterrence itself is actually a myth—having a nuclear arsenal does nothing to deter attacks from non-nuclear states or other armed groups.

Where Robock’s presentation missed the mark was in its calls once again for working within the confines of bourgeois neoliberal politics to achieve eventual nuclear disarmament. Like Fetter, he failed to connect the threat of nuclear weapons to the class struggle—an enormous oversight. Nuclear weapons programs are undergirded by an infrastructure and political economy that are a boon to the capitalist weapons manufacturers, and we mustn’t forget that the weapons themselves were originally developed with imperialist aims. The bottom line is that nuclear weapons are tools of imperialism, useful only for upholding the neoliberal status quo, and it is impossible for them to serve even this dubious purpose without putting the future viability of our very species at extreme risk.

It is foolish to assume that any imperialist bourgeois state could ever be persuaded to give up these weapons without the application of revolutionary force. And so, as socialists, we must categorically reject nuclear weapons and push urgently for an immediate global workers’ revolution that will end the dictatorship of capital and eliminate the false justifications for these horrific weapons to even exist.

Photo: Romolo Tavani / Adobe Stock

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