Nuclear weapons never went away. Whether it’s Trump insulting Rocket Man, or their later appeasement at the Singapore summit, it’s been a year when the spectre of nuclear annihilation has emerged from under the shadow of terrorism and climate change.
For some it’s the unwelcome return of an existential threat that had diminished, at least in contrast to images of trucks being driven into pedestrians, or fears for a warming world during record breaking heatwaves. For others, the presence of nuclear weapons capable of obliterating the entire planet in a few hours has never gone away.
In June, 45 Trident Ploughshares activists chained themselves to the railings around the Houses of Parliament calling on the UK’s government to sign the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty. An initiative led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), for which they won the Nobel Peace Prize, the treaty is the first legally binding international agreement to comprehensively prohibit nuclear weapons. The aim is their total elimination. The treaty was passed on July 7th 2017, and so far 59 states have signed. The UK is not one of them.
For over thirty years now Ploughshares activists, along with Quakers, other religious and anti-nuclear groups, have been conducting an annual “action-fast” as an international protest against the ongoing existence of nuclear weapons. The fast takes place between August 6th and 9th, and commemorates the 300,000 deaths caused when the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Today there are around 16,300 nuclear weapons spread across nine countries, of which the UK is one. Russia and the US share 93 per cent of all those nuclear warheads. Under the New START treaty (Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms) there were measures in place to reduce those numbers. But Trump’s administration has inaugurated a new nuclear strategy, undoing the Obama-era push to reduce the US arsenal of weapons.
Together, the power of those weapons—all dozens or hundreds of times more powerful than Little Boy and Fat Man dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—could destroy the planet many times over. But based on the Pythonesque nature of Mutually Assured Destruction we are encouraged to believe this will never happen.
So why have them at all? As some military chiefs, advisers and think tanks have argued, the nature of today’s global security threats has moved on; nuclear weapons were the product of the reality of world wars, but also of military thinking that, even at the time, was called the “bottomless wound in the living conscience of the [human] race”. Today’s risks are of a more insidious and digital nature, and the nature of the response needs to change accordingly. Not even Trump’s “low-yield nukes” are targeted enough to root out insurgent cells without devastating thousands of square miles of planet Earth.
The cost of this nuclear might—financially, and existentially—is not worth it. I’m fasting in protest against my government’s continued militant madness in holding to attitudes and weaponry borne out of mid-20th century responses to war that are no longer tenable. As the NHS struggles to fill a funding gap that reaches into the billions, the decision to divert money into what remains a Cold War weapons system is brought suddenly into focus.
Many countries have given up their weapons, including South Africa and three former Soviet countries who surrendered their arsenals after independence. Will the UK? Our warheads are carried on four nuclear-powered submarines based at HMNB Clyde, at Faslane in Scotland, with two of those submarines constantly at sea as deterrent to anyone who might aim their warheads at us. If one of the potential outcomes of Brexit is a new referendum on Scottish independence, then the future of the base—which the Scottish people, and the SNP, do not want on their land—is in serious doubt (although one adviser believes it will take 20 years for Scotland to shift the warheads). That, in turn, will precipitate a bout of national soul searching, as not only the costs of the Trident replacement—estimated by some to be as high as £200billion—but also the costs of a new base on English, Welsh or Northern Irish soil, will see the UK’s nuclear status severely challenged.
And that would precipitate changes in power globally: one of the reasons the UK parliament pushed through plans to renew Trident in 2017 was to maintain its legitimacy as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, along with fellow nuclear powers Russia, the US, France and China. Nuclear weaponry is the UK’s “hairy chest” on the global stage and, without it, we don’t speak as loudly. Considering the UK’s colonial impact on the world and its leading role in the industrialization that has led to the Anthropocene, maybe that’s a good thing.
Theresa May might think pressing that button is the sign of a strong leader. I, and many others around the planet fasting this week, disagree. And if there’s any part of you that agrees a world without nuclear weapons is a world that has tacked towards a more mature index of humanity, based on mutual trust rather than mutual distrust, then you should join us.
Dr Alex Lockwood is senior lecturer in the Centre for Research and Cultural Studies at the University of Sunderland, and author of The Chernobyl Privileges, published March 2019 with Roundfire Books.