With the recent signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) the two nuclear giants continue to reduce the world’s stockpile of nuclear warheads deployed on hair-trigger alert. The new 10-year agreement calls for each nation to reduce deployed warheads from the current ceiling of 2,200 to 1,550 within seven years after ratification by Russia’s legislature (Duma) and the U.S. Senate. It replaces the 1991 START I agreement. Delivery vehicles such as missiles, bombers and submarines are to be cut from 1,600 to 800. The treaty does not appear to cut the stored stockpiles not deployed that are more than three times larger.
According to the Federation of American Scientists over the past 25 years the world’s stockpiles of nuclear warheads have been reduced from a cold war high of over 65,000 in 1986 to 22,300 (“Status of World Nuclear Forces,” www.fas.org, April 6, 2010). Nuclear expert Michael Krepon, former adviser to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, writes in The Washington Post of both decreasing and increasing threats. “While the threat of short- and medium-range missile attacks on our allies and forward-deployed troops is growing, the danger of transoceanic missile attacks on U.S. soil has decreased markedly…Overall, the long-range missile threat to the United States has decreased by two-thirds over the past two decades…Still, there are far too many missiles in U.S. and Russian arsenals on hair-trigger alert.” (“5 Myths About All Those Nukes Out There,” March 1, 2009).
Analyzing current threats
The threat of nuclear annihilation is still very much with us. In their book Global Catastrophic Risk, Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic analyze the risks and picture the devastation nuclear weapons can bring. “In an all-out war involving most of the weapons in the current US and Russian arsenals, 35-77 percent of the US population (105-230 million people) and 20-40 percent of the Russian population (28-56 million people) would be killed. Delayed and indirect effects—such as economic collapse and a possible nuclear winter—could make the final death toll far greater” (2008, p. 21).
What are the chances your life will be cut short due to nuclear war? “At least 10 percent…” says Stanford University Professor Martin Hellman. The odds are “thousands of times greater than the risk you would bear if a nuclear power plant were built right next to your home” (“Chance of Nuclear War Is Greater Than You Think: Stanford Engineer Makes Risk Analysis,” www.physorg.com, July 20, 2009).
Efforts to rein in nuclear materials
Recognizing the growing danger, U.S. President Barack Obama called for a world free of nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague last year. He also stated “the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of nuclear attack has gone up” (The Washington Post, April 11, 2010).
The United States hosted a 47-nation Nuclear Security Summit, the largest such gathering in the United States since 1945. It was convened to stop terrorists from getting nuclear material. It called for the safeguarding of all “vulnerable nuclear material” within four years and steps to stamp out nuclear smuggling.
The United Nations also sponsored the five-year review of the 42-year-old Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the world’s bedrock agreement designed to limit the spread of nuclear weapons.
Most of the world community (187 countries) has signed the NPT agreement. It recognizes the first five nuclear powers (the United States, Russia, China, France and Britain) and commits them to work toward nuclear disarmament. It allows all other countries, in compliance with treaty obligations, to pursue civilian nuclear power but not nuclear weapons.
The UN’s month-long May NPT conference pushed a highly ambitious plan that “reaffirms the unequivocal undertaking of the nuclear-weapon states to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals” (Associated Press, “At UN, Deadline Aired for Abolishing Nuke Weapons,” May 14, 2010).
But none of the five nuclear powers recognized under the treaty have ever endorsed a specific timetable for this to be accomplished. And Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not signatories of the NPT and would be unaffected by any final plan.
Is it too late to rein in nuclear proliferation? The more nations that get the bomb, the harder it will be to prevent further proliferation. As technology and know-how become more widespread, technical barriers are lowered. And once neighboring nations start down the nuclear path, surrounding nations may feel obligated to join them.
The recently issued U.S. “Nuclear Posture Review” includes significant changes hoped to encourage NPT compliance. It pledges that if attacked with biological or chemical weapons by a state in compliance with NPT, the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.
The United States also pledges to not develop new nuclear warheads or replace any aging nuclear components, emphasizing refurbishing instead. Exceptions must be authorized by the president.
But critics worry that the changes may encourage use of other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and weaken deterrents offered by the nuclear umbrella that has kept America and its allies secure for the past half-century.
President Obama identifies nuclear terrorism as “the most immediate and extreme threat to global security.” His deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, explained: “We know that terrorist groups, including al-Qaida, are pursuing the materials to build a nuclear weapon and we know that they have the intent to use one” (“US: al-Qaida Exemplifies New-Age Nuclear Threat,” Associated Press, April 9, 2010).
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described in stark terms the impact that even a small bomb would have. “A 10-kiloton nuclear bomb detonated in Times Square in New York City would kill a million people.
“Many more would suffer from the hemorrhaging and weakness that comes from radiation sickness,” she added. “Beyond the human cost, a nuclear terrorist attack would also touch off a tsunami of social and economic consequences across our country” (ibid.).
Her illustration uses a bomb about half the size of the one dropped by the United States on Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Terrorists are likely to use a similar bomb. They could also use less-developed radioactive materials in a variety of ways.
Terrorists could attack a nuclear reactor, steal nuclear fuel or waste; acquire fissile material and build a crude nuclear bomb (improvised nuclear device), disperse radioactive material with conventional explosives (dirty bomb), fabricate a nuclear bomb, trick a nuclear state into launching a nuclear weapon or acquire a ready-made nuclear weapon, small enough to fit inside a suitcase.
In spite of these growing concerns, a commission created by the U.S. Congress recently issued a “report card” on America’s preparedness and gave it an “F” in some areas.
The report concludes the “U.S. government is not taking the necessary steps to protect the country from the threats posed by WMD and terrorism… There is direct evidence that terrorists are trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction…and the opportunity to acquire and use such weapons is growing exponentially because of the global proliferation of nuclear material and biological technologies” (World at Risk, www.preventwmd.gov, 2008).
The report warns unless nations act “decisively and urgently,” it is more likely than not a WMD will be used in a terrorist attack by the end of 2013.
Growing nuclear stockpiles
In addition to nuclear materials used in bombs, there is a growing nuclear stockpile scattered about the globe in nuclear reactors, research facilities and military installations that may be vulnerable to attack or theft. This makes securing nuclear material more urgent and more difficult.
For example, according to the European Nuclear Society, 30 countries have 437 nuclear power plants, and 15 countries have 55 plants under construction (“Nuclear Power Plants, World-wide,” April 2010). Another 40 countries, some in unstable regions, have also recently expressed interest in acquiring nuclear power.
And the amount of nuclear material needed for a devastating bomb is relatively small. The Washington Post reports, “Just 55 pounds of highly enriched uranium—about the size of a grapefruit—is needed to make a small nuclear device. There are an estimated 3.5 million pounds of the material in 40 countries and 1.1 million pounds of plutonium.”
There is enough “ ‘weapons-usable nuclear material’ in the world to build more than 120,000 nuclear bombs” (“Obama Leads Summit Effort to Secure Nuclear Materials,” April 11, 2010). The nuclear threat is also growing in specific regions like India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran and Israel.
India and Pakistan
The escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan for more than a decade has spawned a nuclear rivalry. Pakistan is building two additional plutonium production reactors. At least one Pakistani scientist has confessed to smuggling nuclear weapons technology to other nations.
India has a superior conventional force, and there is growing concern that if pressed by an overwhelming conventional attack, Pakistan might use its nuclear weapons. According to the Federation of American Scientists both countries are estimated to have 60 to 90 nuclear weapons, and they continue to develop more (ibid.). Neither country has signed the NPT agreement.
North Korea withdrew from the NPT in 2003 and has since successfully tested two nuclear weapons.
Times Online reports that North Korea is a “fully fledged nuclear power,” an opinion shared by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). North Korea is capable of striking cities in neighboring countries and has threatened the United States and its allies (“North Korea Is Fully Fledged Nuclear Power, Experts Agree,” April 24, 2009).
And North Korea is believed to have sold nuclear and missile technology to Iran, Pakistan and other nations.
Iran and Israel
The IAEA recently concluded that Iran is actively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability in defiance of IAEA and Western powers. The United States is leading a diplomatic push for a fourth round of UN sanctions against Iran. But past sanctions have not deterred Iranian efforts.
Iran was known to have five primary nuclear facilities until last September when a sixth facility was uncovered. It was being constructed secretly in defiance of the UN and IAEA inside a mountain near Qum. Iran has since announced plans to build 10 more.
Iran continues its efforts to enrich uranium to higher levels. The Iranians recently achieved the 20 percent level needed to produce nuclear fuel rods for research reactors.
According to the Long War Journal, Iran’s stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) is “just over two tons, enough for two nuclear bombs if the uranium is enriched to 90%” (“Iran Actively Pursuing Nuclear Weapons Capability: IAEA,” Feb. 19, 2010). Other experts indicate the additional enriching necessary to reach 90 percent is relatively small.
Many Arab countries worry about the unprecedented leverage a nuclear-armed Iran would have. With the dramatic altering of the balance of power in the Middle East, some may feel forced to respond with a program of their own.
Concern is nowhere more pointed than in Israel, which sees Iran’s program as a direct threat to its existence. Israel has repeatedly threatened use of force if necessary to stop the Iranian efforts. Disrupting Iran’s nuclear program will require more of a sustained campaign than the overnight air strike Israel launched on the Syrian nuclear site in September 2007. But even a successful campaign would likely only set the Iranian program back a few years.
If a strike occurs, the Iranians may retaliate either by striking Israel directly or through their proxies, Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon. And they may even order terror attacks on Western targets.
The Federation of American Scientists believes Israel is currently the only Middle Eastern country with a nuclear arsenal and calculates it has 80 weapons (ibid.).
“A nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel would be devastating,” says Anthony Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment for the U.S. secretary of defense. Israel “could conceivably survive a nuclear exchange while losing 200,000 to 800,000 citizens within 21 days, but Iran would face 16 to 28 million dead in the same time frame and no longer survive as an organized society” (United Press International, Nov. 22, 2007).
Prophecy and WMDs
Despite the global reduction of nuclear warheads, a growing dangerous nuclear threat explodes around the globe. We cannot know for sure when nuclear devices may be used. But they have been used in the past, and the figurative language of Bible prophecy in Revelation 9:13-19 Revelation 9:13-19  And the sixth angel sounded, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar which is before God,
 Saying to the sixth angel which had the trumpet, Loose the four angels which are bound in the great river Euphrates.
 And the four angels were loosed, which were prepared for an hour, and a day, and a month, and a year, for to slay the third part of men.
 And the number of the army of the horsemen were two hundred thousand thousand: and I heard the number of them.
 And thus I saw the horses in the vision, and them that sat on them, having breastplates of fire, and of jacinth, and brimstone: and the heads of the horses were as the heads of lions; and out of their mouths issued fire and smoke and brimstone.
 By these three was the third part of men killed, by the fire, and by the smoke, and by the brimstone, which issued out of their mouths.
 For their power is in their mouth, and in their tails: for their tails were like to serpents, and had heads, and with them they do hurt.
American King James Version×appears to indicate a future global conflagration with staggering casualties (one third of the world’s population) made possible only by today’s arsenals of WMDs.
Jesus Christ personally warned that a time of trouble like no other is destined to push our world to the edge of human extinction (Matthew 24:22 Matthew 24:22And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.
American King James Version×). Have you thought about what Christ said in Luke 21:36 Luke 21:36Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man.
American King James Version×and considered exploring its implications?
In a world seemingly out of control, it is time to understand why you are alive in the first place and what God has planned for you and the whole world. Learn about end-time events and God’s plan to intervene to save us from self-destruction in Are We Living in the Time of the End?
Explore what the Bible says about your personal future in our booklets What Is Your Destiny? and Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion. WNP