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Covid-19: The pandemic of nuclear weapons

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 
Ray Acheson ‒ Director, Reaching Critical Will, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom

It's 2020, we're in the midst of a global pandemic, we are facing unprecedented challenges ahead from the climate crisis, there are vast inequalities and suffering in the world, and … oh yeah. We still have nuclear weapons. In fact, the United States has more nuclear warheads than it does hospitals!1

In each of the nuclear-armed states, the money spent on nuclear weapons has directly impacted the resources available to deal with COVID-19. In 2019, the nine nuclear-armed states (China, Democratic People's Republic of Korea, France, India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, United Kingdom, and United States) spent nearly US$73 billion on their nuclear weapon systems.2 This comes to $138,699 spent on nuclear weapons per minute.

While this is a fraction of the $1.9 trillion3 spent in 2019 on all aspects of militarism, the money wasted on nuclear weapons is still a substantial amount that could have gone towards, say, health care and equipment that is vital during a global pandemic. Research by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) shows, for example, that France, which spends approximately €4.5 billion a year right now on its nuclear weapon programme, could redirect those funds to pay for 100,000 hospital beds for intensive care units, 10,000 ventilators, and the salaries of 20,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors.4

Yet even now we are witnessing the nuclear-armed states continue to invest in not just the maintenance but also the "modernisation" ‒ the upgrading, updating, and life-extending ‒ of nuclear weapons.

These political and economic choices are absurd, dangerous, and immoral. But it's just not just the wasted money that is concerning. The much bigger problem is the threat that nuclear weapons pose as tangible objects designed and constructed to incinerate human bodies and buildings. Nuclear weapons are not magical tools of security. They are monstrous weapons meant to melt and burn human flesh one city at a time.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to get rid of the threat of nuclear weapons and release the funds we desperately need to deal with real, rather than imagined, crises of security, safety, and stability: we can divest, demilitarise, and disarm.5 We can start this process by shaking off the rhetoric about nuclear weapons that we have been force-fed for generations and remembering the terrifying reality that these bombs impose upon us all.

"Nuclear deterrence," aka a masterclass in gaslighting

The nuclear age began nearly seventy-five years ago when a bunch of scientists working for the US government detonated an atomic bomb in the middle of a New Mexican desert in July 1945. A few weeks later, a US president sitting in Washington, DC, decided to drop two nuclear weapons on the people of Japan ‒ one on the city of Hiroshima, the other on Nagasaki. Since then, the world has been plagued by the construction of multiple "doomsday machines" programmed for global conflagration.6

For seventy-five years, the world has lived under the threat of radioactive blast and firestorm, the effects of which are immediately devastating and punishingly intergenerational.7 For seventy-five years, from production to testing, and use to storage of radioactive waste, nuclear weapon activities have contaminated land and water ‒ and will continue to do so for thousands of years more.8 For seventy-five years, corporations like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Bechtel have reaped incredible profits from government contracts for bombs and bombers.9 Certain academics, politicians, and bureaucrats have risen through the ranks of think tanks or government administrations in positions bankrolled by the nuclear profiteers, spinning theories of "nuclear deterrence" and "strategic stability" to justify this massive, unconscionable investment in technologies of massive violence.

For seventy-five years, we have been told that these weapons are absolutely necessary for (some, a select few) governments to possess, in order to ensure "international security" or "strategic stability". Eliminating nuclear weapons, we are told, will lead directly to another global conflict. As if the globe is not embroiled, right now, in conflicts of mass slaughter and destruction. We are told that without these weapons we would be subjected the whims of the "irrational" Others who will seize our moment of vulnerability to strike at the heart of the "free world" … blagh blagh blagh.

This is nuclearism ‒ the faith that nuclear weapons are necessary and essential for security, and the investments in both building the weapons and bolstering this culture. Nuclearism is an epic feat of gaslighting10 that insists that weapons that can kill everyone on the planet many times over are the only things keeping us safe.

Preparing for major apocalypse in the midst of a "minor" one

But we are far from safe. Right now, we are in the midst of a global pandemic for which no governments were sufficiently prepared. We do not have enough basic equipment like ventilators and protection for health care workers. Capitalist economies are tanking as the majority of workers have been ordered to stay at home to prevent the virus from spreading even more rampantly than it has already. Millions of people have lost or will lose their jobs. Hundreds of thousands will lose their lives.

But don't worry: the nuclear-armed states can still use their nuclear weapons! US Strategic Command has said that the coronavirus has had "no impact" on the ability of the United States to launch its nuclear weapons.11 "Right now across the command, we are working to make sure that our ICBMs remain on alert and our critical command and control capabilities stay viable," say those in charge of the US doomsday machine.12

While nuclear weapon forces in all nuclear-armed states are likely to be affected13 by the pandemic and may have to delay or reduce active deployments or other activities, the fact is that there are still approximately 13,410 nuclear weapons in the world.14 While this is significantly less than the 70,000+ kicking around in the 1980s, it is still more than enough to destroy our planet many, many times over. While we can celebrate the 80 per cent decrease in stockpiles, we also have to recognise that reductions of nuclear weapons tapered off in the 1990s, only to be replaced, as a recent joint activist statement has noted, "by a lavishly-funded new race to develop novel and diversified abilities to unleash nuclear violence."15 (A forthcoming report from WILPF's Disarmament Programme Reaching Critical Will16Assuring Destruction Forever, will highlight each of the nine nuclear-armed states programmes for nuclear modernisation.)

The US government has been quick to reassure that the coronavirus pandemic will not affect its nuclear weapon investments.17 The current US president's latest budget proposal, released earlier this year, called for an increase of nearly 20 per cent in spending on nuclear weapons while cutting funds for the Center for Disease Control, World Health Organisation, and other public health agencies.18 BAE Systems, Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and all other major weapons producers have all indicated they are "open for business".19 While many have instituted work-from-home policies for certain employees, they have all assured the Pentagon that they will continue to operate throughout the crisis.

In the United Kingdom, the government has so far indicated it is also full-steam-ahead with its nuclear weapon modernisation programme. Estimated to cost about £205 billion, the efforts to replace the UK's Trident nuclear weapon system has already suffered from cost overruns.20 Furthermore, as the chapter on the United Kingdom in Reaching Critical Will's forthcoming publication notes, when it comes to accounting for other potential costs, "[e]nvironmental considerations and risks become externalities that are neither considered nor identified, with no analysis of remediation requirements or responses to climate change impact, accidents, or the protection of civilian populations."21

Other costs of nuclearism

Even without the detonation of a nuclear bomb, accidentally or on purpose, these weapons are costing lives.

Past nuclear weapon activities have direct impact on populations now facing the pandemic. Survivors of exposure to radiation from nuclear weapon use, testing, production, and waste are at greater risk from COVID-19. Exposed populations are disproportionately from Indigenous communities, communities of colour, low-income, and rural communities, all of which typically face barriers to receiving adequate health care.22 Land, water, and animals have been contaminated by radioactivity around the world from nuclear weapons and nuclear energy.23

Nuclear weapons also cost our imagination. They trap us in a construct of the most violent forms of masculinity24 and patriarchy25, of might makes right, where weapons equal security and thus nuclear weapons equal The Most Security.26 We can ‒ we must ‒ imagine more for ourselves as a species. We must imagine new conceptions of security27 and solidarity.28

The imperatives of divestment and disarmament

This is why since the beginning of the pandemic, activists have been demanding an end to nuclear weapon modernisation and a redirection of resources.29 Former Navy Commanders, members of parliament, academics, and activists have urged the UK government to redirect the billions of pounds spent on the operation and modernisation of the Trident nuclear weapon system towards responding to the pandemic instead.30 US advocates have called for the government to reduce its "bloated nuclear arsenal and invest in more urgent security priorities" such as "preventing or mitigating any future mass outbreak of disease."31 US activists have also demanded that stimulus packages include equitable health care access for communities harmed by nuclear weapon activities.32

But it is not just during the COVID-19 pandemic that we need to be concerned with nuclear weapon maintenance, modernisation, and use. This is a pandemic we live with every day, to the point where it has become completely normal for the vast majority of people in the world. Out of sight, out of mind. Missile tests don't even make the news. Nuclear weapon tests, such as those most recently by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), grab the headlines for a moment ‒ but the fact that those most vocally condemning the DPRK's actions possess far larger nuclear arsenals themselves is virtually never discussed outside of antinuclear activist circles.

We cannot wait until a nuclear weapon is used again before we pay attention and act to end the threat of nuclear war. We don't have to.

From prohibition to elimination

In 2017, the majority of the world's countries negotiated and adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.33 It outlaws the possession, use, threat of use, and development of nuclear weapons. It closes existing legal gaps in international law, provides for nuclear disarmament, and categorically rejects the idea that nuclear weapons provide security or stability.

Among other things, this treaty precludes nuclear weapon modernisation, and bans any assistance ‒ material or otherwise ‒ with such programmes. This follows the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)34, which obligates nuclear-armed states both to achieve nuclear disarmament and to cease the nuclear arms race. None of the nuclear-armed governments are in compliance with either treaty.

It is here, on the basis of international law and all of the commitments and actions to which these governments have voluntarily subscribed over the past fifty years, that we can demand an end to nuclear weapons.

It is also on the basis of public health, environmental protection, and of morality and human rights35, that we can demand nuclear weapon divestment and disarmament.36 It is past time to unleash the funds and the forces of human ingenuity to more productive, positive, progressive ends: towards a Green New Deal37 and a Red Deal.38 Towards health care, housing, education, food, decarceration and prison abolition, migration, and more. Towards international relations and transnational cooperation based on peace, equity, justice, and solidarity, instead of weapons and war.

Actions for abolition

In our current world, with so many converging crises, it can be difficult to figure out what to focus our attention on, what to spend energy on. But it is clear that throughout history, social pressure is what leads to change. While the single-issue antinuclear organising of the past may not be possible, the time is riper than ever for activism based on the fundamental redirection of security concepts and funding priorities, of which nuclear weapons issues are an important aspect.

The threat of nuclear war, the waste of resources on nuclear weapon modernisation, maintenance, and deployment, the risks to health and environment of nuclear weapon production, are all very real, tangible costs of the atomic bomb that need to be considered within social movements looking to change how we can achieve safety, solidarity, and security as well as peace and justice. To address these concerns, it is imperative to incorporate feminist, racial and Indigenous justice, and environmental perspectives in the actions we undertake.

Right now, there are several opportunities to help promote nuclear abolition:

  • Encourage your government to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons39;
  • Fight against nuclear weapon modernisation projects;
  • Protest and raise awareness of other nuclear weapon activities ‒ such as the nuclear weapon convoys in the United Kingdom or nuclear sharing in several NATO countries;
  • Divest your money from nuclear weapon producers and encourage your financial institutions to do the same40;
  • Get your city or municipal council to join the ICAN Cities Appeal41;
  • Write op-eds about the amount of money being spent on nuclear weapons in the midst of COVID-19.

These are all important actions we can take from our homes during this crisis. But it is also imperative to recognise how these actions can support other initiatives for social change, what the connections are between issues of local, national, and global concern, and how we can work together to mount a formidable, meaningful challenge to the nuclear-industrial complex but also to militarism and the other systems of our violent political economy.

Reprinted from