What’s Preventing Nuclear Annihilation?

Published Oct 4, 2022

Global security expert Jennifer Knox explains how international treaties reduce the risks of nuclear weapons

In this episode

Colleen and Jennifer discuss:

  • the range of risks should Vladimir Putin launch a nuclear weapon
  • what checks and balances are in place in the US and Russia to avoid a nuclear exchange
  • two international treaties: on that seeks to limit nuclear weapons and one that want to ban them
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:25)
Intro (0:25-2:07)
Interview part 1 (2:07-15:15)
Break (15:15-16:05)
Interview part 2 (16:05-28:26)
Outro (28:26-29:00)


Editing: Colleen MacDonald
Additional editing and music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth and Cana Tagawa
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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Full transcript

Colleen: Today’s cold open begins with a chilling fact—the president of the United States is the one and only person in the country who makes the decision to deploy nuclear weapons. No other consultation is needed to make this extremely consequential decision. What’s more, the same policy, known as sole authority, exists in Russia. The fate of billions of people rests in the hands of two people.

If this makes your stomach sink, then you’re in good company. There are lots of groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, that have proposed legislation to limit the threats of nuclear weapons, meaning there are ways we can pressure our politicians to improve and prioritize these policies. While the issue of sole authority is a domestic issue, the implications are global, and thus, international relations and diplomacy are necessary to find solutions to the nuclear dangers we all face.

Jennifer Knox, a policy and research analyst for the Global Security Program at the UCS, is here to explain two of the most important pieces of nuclear policy legislation that exist. The first is the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT. And the second is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which we will refer to as the Nuclear Ban Treaty.

While Vladimir Putin’s nuclear saber rattling has drawn more attention to the threats of nuclear weapons, I can assure you that the risks were present long before Russia’s war on Ukraine, and they’re demanding more of our attention and advocacy.

Colleen: Jennifer, welcome to the podcast.

Jennifer: Thanks for having me, Colleen. I'm glad to be here.

Colleen: So, Russia's war on Ukraine has elevated the threat of nuclear weapons in our public consciousness. From the dawn of the nuclear age, there have been cries from scientists to politicians, to the concerned public to abolish them. So, Jen, I'd like to talk to you today about what's being done or not done here in the U.S. and on a global level to reduce the risk of nuclear weapons. So, let's start with the risks because they aren't limited to just launching and detonating a bomb. Can you outline some of the less obvious risks?

Jennifer: So, of course, the facts of a nuclear weapon depend on how and where it's used, what kinds of weapons are used because, of course, the destructive force of weapons can vary enormously, and also how many weapons are used? The blast wave and the thermal wave of the detonation itself would not only create enormous amounts of human casualties, but it also destroys the infrastructure that would make a meaningful humanitarian response possible.

So, you have to imagine, in this scenario, hospitals are gone, roads are gone. How do you treat a city full of burn victims and there's no running water? So, we really don't have an idea about how we could possibly respond to that situation. Then there's also radiation and radioactive fallout, which cause acute short-term but also long-term health consequences and generational health consequences. This is really a long-lasting effect that touches people who are not yet born when this disaster happens.

And these effects aren't confined within cities, they're not stopped by borders. These materials are carried on the wind, in the water, by the food that we eat, in the bodies of animals. So, the scale of this disaster, as you can imagine, is hard to put bounds on.

But, of course, in a larger nuclear exchange, we also see massive human displacement, possibly human displacement on a scale not experienced. There have been studies which show that soot from burning cities injected high enough into the atmosphere where it could linger for as much as a decade or more would alter the global climate, disrupting agriculture leading to widespread famine, especially in places that are already food vulnerable or that rely on global distribution and supply to feed their populations.

There would be social, political, economic upheaval that is impossible to predict but would also be impossible to prevent. So, no one really can say what the world would look like after a nuclear war, except that it would be unrecognizable from the world we know today. Colleen: Wow, the word that keeps flashing into my mind is catastrophic. I think often we think of the nuclear exchange as somewhat like conventional, where it's just the same but bigger. But the effects that you've described are really life-altering.

Jennifer: And civilization-altering truly. And that's one of the most challenging things about working on this issue is that the consequences are so unimaginable that... And also fully hypothetical. It's an abstraction that human beings have a hard time thinking through.

Colleen: So, what were some of the first concerted efforts to ensure that nuclear weapons would never be used?

Jennifer: It took not very much time for scientists and other leaders to realize that just as you said, nuclear weapons weren't a greater form of previous weapons but a unique new form of destruction, which would require unique efforts to contain. And this was really underscored and confirmed by the horrors that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, some of the effects of which weren't anticipated, including the long-term generational effects of radiation exposure.

Albert Einstein famously expressed regret for encouraging the development of nuclear weapons. Robert Oppenheimer was the wartime head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory He's often called the father of the atomic bomb. And when he was leaving Los Alamos, he warned about a future in which nuclear weapons had become a regular part of military arsenals and a normal tool of war. And he said, "The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish."

President Truman later called him a crybaby for calling for international control of these weapons. But other people saw the same dangers that Oppenheimer did. And while the Manhattan Project at the time was an enormous scientific undertaking, there was every reason to believe that nuclear weapons technology would eventually become accessible all around the world, just like gunpowder, radar, airplanes, any kind of military or technological advancement.

Just as important in this case is that the technologies that would allow countries to develop nuclear energy programs and benefit from nuclear energy, those technologies and the technologies needed for nuclear weapons program overlap a lot. Fundamentally in many ways, they're the same. And so, there's not much of a difference between an advanced nuclear energy capability and the ability to make nuclear weapons.

It wasn't really until the Cuban Missile Crisis that the danger became clear enough to prompt forceful concerted action by the international community. That event demonstrated it was possible not only to step off the ledge into nuclear annihilation, but to slip by accident, and that those dangers would exist as long as nuclear weapons did. So, states became very concerned about the risk of nuclear use by accident or miscalculation and tried to control the spread of nuclear weapons as a way to reduce that risk.

Colleen: what are the U.S. policies on nuclear weapons, and what sorts of checks and balances do we have when it comes to managing nuclear weapons?

Jennifer: The United States is the first nuclear power. It's the only country that has ever used nuclear weapons in war. And today, it's one of the largest nuclear powers. In fact, Russia and the United States together own approximately 90% of all of the world's nuclear warheads. They each have around 4,000 warheads in their arsenals. No other nuclear-armed state has more than a few 100. So, there's a really big gulf between where the U.S. and Russia are compared to the other seven nuclear powers.

Right now, the U.S. is on track to spend over $1 trillion in the next few decades to modernize its nuclear forces. And we're also seeing a lot of pressure and increasingly loud calls, especially from defense communities calling for the development of new types of nuclear warheads. So, we're entering a period that is starting to look frightfully like another arms race, and seeing other countries, especially Russia and China who are looking to expand their arsenals as well.

The U.S. President has sole authority to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, and that authority is derived from the civilian control of the military outlined in the Constitution by giving Congress the power to declare war while making the President commander in chief. There are virtually no checks and balances against the President's ability to order a nuclear strike, even to use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, so essentially to begin a nuclear war.

Colleen: Does Russia have the same policy, meaning that Putin has sole authority to order the launch of nuclear weapons?

Jennifer: Yes. Just like the U.S. President is the decider in the United States, the Russian President is the decider in Russia.

Colleen: Because nuclear weapons play out on a global scale, there are two international treaties that we often hear about. Let's start with the NPT or nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. What is it and who has a seat at the table?

Jennifer: So, the NPT, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, I might be biased because of the issues I work on, but I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that it's one of the most important and overall successful diplomatic efforts in human history. In the 1960s, the early 1960s, political scientists were predicting that we would soon be looking at a world where there would be 20 to 30 states that had nuclear weapons.

And that's not the situation we're in today. Not again at the end of the '60s, but here in 2022. And that's because, today, almost every country in the world is a party to the NPT. That's every country except India, Israel, Pakistan, South Sudan, and North Korea, which is just an incredible success rate for a treaty of this kind. It's often called a grand bargain between the non-nuclear states and the five countries that were recognized as nuclear powers because they possess nuclear weapons when the treaty was negotiated.

The non-nuclear states who are party to the treaty have agreed not to develop or possess nuclear weapons, and they verify that commitment through extensive safeguard measures. In exchange, through the treaty, they receive access to peaceful nuclear technologies such as nuclear energy or nuclear technologies used for medical uses. And they also received a commitment from the five nuclear powers that they will pursue nuclear disarmament "in good faith."

Now, looking at this bargain, it's obvious that non-nuclear states have significantly greater responsibilities and burdens versus the nuclear powers who have only pledged to act in good faith towards this ultimate goal of nuclear disarmament. And that's because the treaty was primarily written by and for nuclear weapons possessors during the Cold War. So, you can see how power is distributed in the way that this treaty is outlined. Non-proliferation, therefore, is a much higher priority than disarmament.

But the treaty does allow the states that are party to it every five years to convene to discuss and evaluate what progress has been made on the treaty, how well states are adhering to the terms of the treaty, and how to move the goals of the treaty forward. That's become a really important and consistent international forum for states to work on non-proliferation and disarmament issues.

Every time this review of the treaty happens, there's an attempt made to create a final document kind of describing the consensus of the states on the state of the treaty and how to move it forward. And so, because of the consensus-making rules of this treaty, it means that every single state essentially has veto over what's in that final document. And functionally, this means that the nuclear weapon states, these five nuclear powers, they have veto or control over what steps are taken to make progress towards disarmament.

Colleen: And were we able to get a final document?

Jennifer: So, we have, in the past, been able to arrive at a final document. And in the past, we failed to achieve consensus on a final document. The most recent review conference just concluded in August of this year. It was delayed for two years because of COVID. And we did not achieve consensus in that review conference, which was a major disappointment. In fact, consensus was blocked by one state, Russia. And they voted against the adoption of this final document because they objected to language that was included on the radiological risk of military actions around Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which right now is being occupied by Russian forces. And so, as a result, this really does illustrate some of the weakness of this idea of consensus that one state can disrupt all of the work that was put into this conference up to that point.

Colleen: So, by reaching consensus, that means that you've all agreed, but it's not a binding agreement. It's in "good faith." I have that in air quotes.

Jennifer: That's true. And really, if you take a step back, that kind of describes almost all diplomatic work, right? Especially in the vein of these multilateral treaties. We talk sometimes about things that are binding versus not binding. And, of course, there are degrees to which a treaty or an agreement can have more commitments or less strong commitments. But when we're talking about treaties on the international level, we're talking about what political scientists call a state of anarchy, which just means that there's not an authority that exists to enforce agreements, which is what makes diplomacy so important because, ultimately, even for a treaty like the NPT where states have agreed to do something, that functionally only matters until they stop agreeing to do that thing.

Colleen: Right. So, in the diplomatic arena, it doesn't make that much difference if it's binding or non-binding.

Jennifer: Right. What matters most is commitment or a lack of commitment.

Colleen: Let's talk now about the more recent treaty that was developed, which is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, or the TPNW. So, what is that treaty? And, you know, my follow-up question is probably gonna be and how are they different? How are the two different?

Jennifer: Right. So, the TPNW is often commonly called the Nuclear Ban Treaty, and that's because it is a comprehensive and universal prohibition of nuclear weapons. So, this is in contrast to the NPT, the much older Treaty, which is permissive in the sense that it acknowledges the right of five states to possess nuclear weapons.

The Nuclear Ban Treaty, by comparison, says there's absolutely no room for these weapons. These are inhumane and they need to be categorically banned. Similar to biological weapons or chemical weapons as a weapon of mass destruction. So, this treaty prohibits all state parties from developing, testing, producing, using, threatening to use nuclear weapons, and states are further prohibited from assisting states in conducting these activities.

So, one of the other enormous differences between the Nuclear Ban Treaty and the NPT is that the states that possess nuclear weapons have had nothing to do with this treaty. It's mostly been conducted by members of the Global South, and it was negotiated in 2017. Also, many civil society groups have been very deeply involved in the negotiation and implementation of this treaty, the most important of which is the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, often called ICAN, which received a Nobel Peace Prize for its work on this issue.

Colleen: Who set these up?

Jennifer: Where did this come from?

Colleen: Yes.

Jennifer: It's interesting because, right, I think your question illustrates that these two treaties emerged in very different periods, right? The NPT was negotiated in the absolute height of the Cold War in the late 1960s, right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and it was largely negotiated between the United States and the United Kingdom on one side of the table and the Soviet Union on the other. So, this is a treaty written largely by and for the nuclear weapons states within the context of a small committee in the United Nations.

And by comparison, the Nuclear Ban Treaty was also negotiated within the framework of the UN but a much larger group of states. Over 120 states were involved in its negotiation, as well as a lot of civil society actors. So, this is a treaty that emerged after the Cold War in a period where many more states felt like they had not only the ability but also the obligation to work towards nuclear disarmament, regardless of whether or not they possess these weapons.

Colleen: For the TPNW, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, where are we in terms of that being an accepted or ratified treaty?

Jennifer: So, the Nuclear Ban Treaty or the TPNW entered into force last year in January of 2021. Today, it has 86 signatories, and 66 of those signatories have fully ratified the treaty, making them states parties. So, the treaty is, in effect, it is in force for every state that has ratified it. And they had a conference just this year, the first meeting of states parties, the first of, hopefully, many opportunities for the members of this treaty to come together to develop an action plan on implementation of the treaty and to assess progress on the treaty's aims.

Colleen: So, if the nuclear states aren't participating in this, is there real power in this treaty?

Jennifer: That's an interesting question because the nuclear states would argue that there isn't power in this treaty. And, in fact, they argue that quite often and quite forcefully, which to me is the clue that there, in fact, is power in this treaty. If there wasn't, then there would be no reason to say so often that there's not. The mechanisms for this treaty to affect state behavior is obviously really different from the NPT, but that doesn't mean it has no effect. It just works differently.

The aim of the Nuclear Ban Treaty is to delegitimize nuclear weapons and stigmatize their possession. And so, it's establishing a norm, which says, "We find these weapons to be unacceptable. We find states that rely on them to be relying on weapons that are inhumane and illegal." And the hope is that it will eventually incentivize states to consider other options for their security.

Colleen: So, I feel like I have this clear in my mind now, the NPT is the treaty that seeks to manage and minimize or reduce the nuclear arsenal, and the TPNW is the treaty that wants to ban nuclear weapons completely. Can these two treaties exist together, or do we need to move, I'm thinking, towards the TPNW?

Jennifer: They can coexist together. And I think it's possible that they can only coexist together. One of the enormous challenges that the NPT regime faces is this powerful stagnation. There's just a real sense of dread, I think, for most officials and diplomats thinking about the NPT regime, which has been so important in reducing nuclear risks for the 50-plus years that it's existed. But it's become a forum where it's so difficult to imagine progress happening because of the state of the relationships between the nuclear powers right now.

So, the Nuclear Ban Treaty is... And I kind of see it almost as a pressure relief valve, a place where states can still come together to have constructive conversation to take steps moving forward and to relieve some of that heaviness and that dread and fear that we're no longer gonna be able to make progress. But the truth is, while it is true that the NPT does much more so than the Nuclear Ban Treaty, crystallize and preserve the world as it is in that it permits these five states to possess nuclear weapons, the treaties do share the same aspiration, which is a world without nuclear weapons, complete disarmament. And that's the part of the NPT that's been neglected for too long. And so, I do see these treaties as complementary. And I hope that the emergence of the Nuclear Ban Treaty is going to ultimately allow for more momentum to also be developed within the NPT context and that these treaties will be able to work together in different ways.

Colleen: You talked a little bit about how Russia's war on Ukraine has undermined the NPT. Has it had any effect on the TPNW?

Jennifer: I think while you can certainly say and it's very clear that Russia's actions are hurting the NPT, I think in some ways, Russia's actions have galvanized the Nuclear Ban Treaty because it's really demonstrated that a lot of the beliefs that allow us to feel comfortable with the existence of nuclear weapons are not necessarily true. And some of those beliefs include that nuclear weapons are fundamentally defensive because they prevent or disincentivize war because of the enormous cost that would result from their use.

But, in fact, what we're seeing today with Russia's war in Ukraine is Russia using the threat of nuclear war to shield itself from the consequences of its own aggression against a non-nuclear state. And that is shaking norms that underpin the entire Nuclear Non-Proliferation Regime. And further, Russia is demonstrating that we can't trust necessarily a single person to wield the power to fundamentally alter human civilization and millions of lives. I think people look across the world at Putin, and they say, "I don't want him to have that power. Maybe no one should have that power."

Colleen: So, you know, this question is almost too troubling to ask but I think our listeners and I, too, wonder about this. Let's imagine the unimaginable if Russia did use nuclear weapons against Ukraine and its people, how would the U.S. and other nations react, particularly given that Ukraine is not a member of NATO?

Jennifer: So, unfortunately, the answer is that I don't know. And the more frightening answer is that it's possible. No one knows for certain what would happen if Russia were to use nuclear weapons in its war in Ukraine. How the U.S. would react is a decision that would ultimately come down to a single person, President Biden. Every effort would be made to keep all options available to him up until the point that he makes that decision. And some of his advisers I'm sure would argue quite forcefully that the U.S. must respond to use of nuclear weapons with our own use of nuclear weapons to demonstrate resolve to Russia.

Other advisors would probably argue also forcefully that retaliating, even with a symbolic nuclear use, even a small, what we call tactical nuclear weapon, could lead to further escalation that itself could lead to a wider nuclear exchange and that, therefore, a non-nuclear response of some kind would be better. But we won't know how that scenario would unfold until it does because it's never happened before.

Colleen: What do you see as realistic, achievable next steps that would bring us closer to eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet?

Jennifer: I think the most important thing that we can do in the next five years is to try to stop the new arms race that's in its just very early stages from spiraling out of control. We're at a place right now where the major nuclear powers are modernizing their arsenals, they're examining the expansion of their arsenals, and they're all looking at each other to make these justifications.

And I think with sobriety and clear-sightedness, it's possible that we can slow that dynamic down now, because if we don't, it'll become something we spend the next several decades trying to reverse. So, I think that's the most important thing that we can do is not find ourselves in the midst of a second Cold War.

The next thing that can be done, and it could be done now is greater engagement from the nuclear powers, and especially the United States, with the international community on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear use. This is a topic that's being discussed much more broadly now because of the Nuclear Ban Treaty, but it's a really important one. And the truth is that we don't fully understand the consequences of nuclear use. We don't fully understand how it affects people, how it affects communities. And we need to know that, not only because it helps inform policies that enforce reducing nuclear risk and ultimately eliminating nuclear weapons, but because there already exists all over the world people who have been hurt by nuclear weapons, from their use in Japan, but also from nuclear testing, over 1,000 nuclear tests were conducted during the Cold War, and from their development, from communities that live near sites where uranium mining happens or military defense sites.

And the truth is we need to focus on justice and remediation for these communities, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because until we can understand the true costs of nuclear war, we won't be doing enough to prevent it. And, right now, we can't even articulate what those true costs are because we haven't finished paying them. So, we need to do right by these communities first.

And that's something that even in the midst of where we are right now and even with these enormous geopolitical tensions that are slowing down arms control, this is a conversation the U.S. and other nuclear powers can engage in right now and show their good faith as they are obligated by treaty, to a world where we don't have to worry about these things.

Colleen: Yes, a good faith effort around doing the right thing about be a powerful step in the right direction. Jennifer, thank you for the work that you do and for joining me on the podcast. This has been a great conversation.

Jennifer: Thanks, Colleen, for having me.

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