Nuclear Nightmares & Nuclear Security

July 23, 2011

People from both sides of the political spectrum agree that the spread of nuclear weapons is the greatest threat we face. What do we do about it? These readings and activities help students explore the options.


To the Teacher:

During the presidential debates the two candidates agreed on at least one thing: "Nuclear proliferation" is the most serious threat to the security of the United States. The readings that follow aim to explain why. They also detail various approaches for gradually reducing and ultimately eliminating that threat. Suggested classroom activities follow. We suggest ideas for developing students' nuclear weapon literacy and offer suggestions about how students might act on their knowledge.

Teachers may find useful other materials under "Nuclear Weapons" in our offerings for high school classrooms here.


Reading 1:

Nuclear Nightmares

"I think they're going to try," said the physicist David Albright. He was talking about a terrorist attempt to explode a nuclear device in one of America's cities. Albright, an expert on nuclear weapons, is President of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, D.C.

Drawings, articles, and books from terrorist hideouts demonstrate that some terrorists have an interest in nuclear weapons. Osama bin Laden himself has spoken about his nuclear weapons dreams. They are nightmares for many nuclear weapons experts, who also think "they're going to try."

"It's likely to be a radiological attack," said Rose Gottemoeller, who was in charge of nuclear safety in the Clinton administration. Radioactive material that is easy to come by might be packed with conventional explosives in a "dirty bomb."

The Federation of American Scientists recently described in a Congressional hearing the possible consequences of a homemade dirty bomb detonated in New York or Washington. A bomb made with a single foot-long pencil of cobalt from a food irradiation plant and 10 pounds of TNT, if detonated at New York City's Union Square in a light wind, would send a plume of radiation drifting across three states. Much of Manhattan would be as contaminated as the area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Russia, now permanently off-limits. And anyone living in Manhattan would have at least a l-in-100 chance of dying from radiation-induced cancer. The contamination would reach high up the Hudson Valley.

A researcher at the Federation of American Scientists, Michael Levi, imagines what would happen if a homemade nuclear explosive device detonated inside a truck that was passing through one of the tunnels into Manhattan. "The blast would crater portions of the New York skyline, barbecue thousands of people instantly, condemn thousands more to a horrible death from radiation sickness and—by virtue of being underground—would vaporize many tons of concrete and dirt and river water into an enduring cloud of lethal fallout." (Quotes from Bill Keller, "Nuclear Nightmares," New York Times Magazine, 5/26/02)

These nuclear nightmares are by no means the only ones. The possibilities for nuclear horror have been spreading ever since the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945, killing 200,000 people instantly.

By 1949 the chief rival of the US, the Soviet Union, had atomic bombs. Within a few more years both the US and the Soviets developed even more powerful hydrogen bombs. By 1958 both had nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching into the heart of the other's cities. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis demonstrated dramatically that the threat of nuclear annihilation was very real. During the Cold War years the two countries stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and put thousands of them on hair-trigger alert—as thousands are to this day, more than a decade after the end of the Cold War.

Nuclear nightmares and fears proliferated as other nations-a so-called "nuclear club"-developed nuclear weapons: Britain (acquired the nuclear bomb in 1952), France (1960), and China (1964). Israel became a secret member because it has never proclaimed itself a member but is universally assumed to be one.

The collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) meant the end of the Cold War, but not the end of nuclear nightmares.

Russia inherited most of the Soviet nuclear weapons. Today Russia is responsible for stockpiles of poorly guarded nuclear bomb fuel and a deteriorating command and control system for its ready-to-launch nuclear weapons. Terrorists might steal the nuclear bomb fuel. The weakened command and control system could trigger an accidental launch or become vulnerable to terrorists.

Fearing each other, India and Pakistan (1998) conducted nuclear weapons tests. Those two countries have long fought over who would control a mountainous region known as Kashmir. But now that both countries have nuclear weapons, a war between them could kill millions in India and Pakistan and irradiate people in other countries as well.

In 2003 the world learned of a network of scientists, engineers, and salesmen that had been operating out of Pakistan and involved a number of other countries. The network was responsible for selling nuclear bomb designs and equipment for producing nuclear weapons to North Korea, Iran, Libya, and perhaps other, as yet unknown, nations.

North Korea's leaders boasted that their country (with Pakistan's help) had built nuclear weapons. Iran, it was recently discovered, has been taking steps that could enable that country to produce nuclear weapons.

Step by step, each nuclear proliferator, beginning with the United States, has led to another proliferator. And each nuclear proliferation has led to a greater threat to the planet on which we all live. For a half-century nuclear nightmares were about the behavior of nations. Now, since the Soviet collapse and Al Qaeda, they are also about the behavior of individuals.

The latest negative nuclear development is the failure of a month-long conference in May 2005 to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)

Most of the world's nations have agreed to this treaty. Its main purpose is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. The NPT forbids countries that do not already have nuclear weapons—and that is the vast majority of nations—from importing or manufacturing them. In return, these nations are guaranteed access to the technology needed for the development of nuclear power. The NPT also requires nations that already have nuclear weapons to make "good faith" efforts at nuclear disarmament. In 2000 this part of the NPT was strengthened when the nuclear weapons nations agreed to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

But in May 2005, five years later, Mohammed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said that "absolutely nothing" had come out of the 2005 NPT conference. Why?

At the meeting, the non-nuclear nations demanded 1) that the US and other nuclear nations guarantee they will never attack a non-nuclear nation; 2) that the US ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which prohibits nuclear weapons tests; and 3) that the US and other nuclear nations show serious efforts "to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear weapons."

But early in George W. Bush's presidency, the US stated in its Nuclear Posture Review that "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends." It stated also that the US needs to develop "bunker busters," nuclear weapons capable of penetrating deeply into the earth to destroy heavily fortified bunkers that might be used to store weapons of mass destruction. The Bush administration opposes ratification of the CTBT because the administration maintains that US security depends upon freedom to test new nuclear weapons such as the bunker-busters.

At the NPT conference the US also argued that a 2002 agreement with Russia providing for reductions in both nations' arsenal of nuclear weapons shows seriousness in moving toward nuclear disarmament. As critics point out, however, there is no inspection system to guarantee this agreement is being carried out and, under the provisions of the treaty, nuclear weapons removed from an alert status do not have to be destroyed, but may be kept in storage.

The US maintains that the situation today is very different from what it was five years ago. Since 2000, after announcing it would not longer be part of the NPT, North Korea almost certainly has manufactured at least two or three nuclear weapons. Iran, a member of the NPT, has been enriching uranium in a program it claims is strictly for nuclear power development. But given that North Korea developed its uranium enrichment program secretly and that it has huge deposits of oil, there is reason to suspect that these enrichment efforts have been for a nuclear weapons program.

The nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran were what the NPT conference should have focused on, according to US spokesman, Richard Grenell. But non-nuclear nations wanted to concentrate on shrinking the arsenals of the US and other nuclear powers. The result was a wasted month.

"Of the countries represented at the conference," author Jonathan Schell wrote, "fully 183 have found it entirely possible to live without atomic arsenals, and few—barring a breakdown of the treaty—show any sign of changing their minds. In the UN General Assembly the vast majority of them have voted regularly for nuclear abolition... Even the people of the United States are in the consensus. Presented by AP pollsters in March with the statement, 'No country should be allowed to have nuclear weapons,' 66 percent agreed." ( The Nation , 5/23/05)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is a "dirty bomb"? How does it differ from a nuclear bomb?

3. What was the Cuban Missile Crisis? Why was it so dangerous? How was it resolved?

4. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union had nuclear-tipped missiles ready to fire at each other. Why? What is your understanding about why the US and Russia still have such missiles on high alert?

5. What problems are there with Russia's nuclear stockpile?

6. Why has there been a longstanding conflict between India and Pakistan? After 1998 what made this conflict more potentially deadly?

7. Why has North Korea developed nuclear weapons?

8. What reasons might Iran have to develop a nuclear program?

9. What is your understanding of why the most recent conference on the NPT failed to accomplish anything?




Reading 2:

Nuclear Security

Not all the nuclear news is nightmarish.

  • There were 65,000 nuclear weapons worldwide in 1986; today there are 30,000.
  • Sweden, South Africa, Argentina, Ukraine, and Libya are among the more than dozen nations that have abandoned nuclear weapons programs.
  • The US and Russia have been working cooperatively for years to disassemble and assure the safety of nuclear weapons and to secure some 600 tons of enriched uranium and plutonium left over from the Cold War ( Newsweek 10/11/04).
  • The US has led a Proliferation Security Initiative to intercept and prevent illegal transfers of nuclear weapons and materials.
  • In April 2004 the United Nations Security Council approved a resolution requiring nations to increase security for nuclear weapons and materials and to criminalize proliferation activities by individuals and corporations.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) works under the authority of the United Nations to enforce the NPT. This means the agency works to limit the spread of nuclear weapons. It has the power to inspect nuclear facilities suspected of nuclear weapons activities and to control the export of nuclear materials and technology.

Yet, during the first presidential debate when John Kerry was asked what he regarded as "the single most serious threat to the national security of the United States," his immediate answer was "Nuclear proliferation." George W. Bush agreed. International efforts to reduce nuclear dangers continue. But the threat of nuclear terrorism, nuclear weapons proliferation, and insecure nuclear materials also continue. The world still contains 30,000 nuclear weapons.
What lessons have we learned about dealing with these threats? The director general of the IAEA, Mohamed ElBaradei, answered this question in a speech, "Nuclear Weapons and the Search for Security" on October 6, 2004.
According to ElBaradei:

1. Inspections and diplomacy together can work. Even when Iraq's Saddam Hussein did not fully cooperate, IAEA inspectors located and destroyed Iraq's nuclear facilities and prevented them from being rebuilt. But today the IAEA needs more authority than it did in the past. A new addition to the NPT (called a "protocol") gives inspectors fuller access to facilities and the power to search more intensively as well as to use new technology. Not all NPT nations have agreed to this new authority. Without it, the IAEA can only check nuclear material already declared, a problem it had with Iraq before the first Gulf War.

2. We cannot afford inaction. For years North Korea stalled the IAEA about its nuclear program. In 2003 it withdrew from the NPT. But the Security Council has done practically nothing. This behavior sends the wrong message.

3. International efforts to control a nation's export of nuclear equipment and technology have not been effective. This was proved by the illegal nuclear network that operated out of Pakistan for years. This network involved more than two dozen companies in different countries, apparently operating without the knowledge of their own governments. Modern societies make use of electronic information exchange, interlinked financial systems, global trade, and new types of hardware that can all be used to aid in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. All of these things make international control more and more difficult.

4. "Insecurity breeds proliferation." The spread of nuclear weapons "occurs in regions where there are chronic tensions. The underlying causes are "regional rivalries, the chronic lack of good government, the divide between rich and poor, cultural schisms based on ethnic, racial or religious differences."

Some of the major regions of tension are:

  • Middle East (Problems here include the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israel, which has nuclear weapons; the US occupation of Iraq and an Iraqi insurgency that has attracted terrorists to the country; and the possibility that Iran has a nuclear weapons program.)
  • South Asia (the conflict over Kashmir between two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan)
  • Northeast Asia (the potential threat to South Korea and Japan by North Korea, which is widely believed to have produced six to eight nuclear weapons)

ElBaradei declared that "Whatever value the concept of nuclear deterrence may have served during the Cold War...nuclear weapons today serve only as an obstacle to peace and security." Five countries—the US, Russia, Great Britain, France, and China—are recognized by the NPT as nuclear-weapon states. But nuclear "have nots" like North Korea and Iran resent this recognition. Why shouldn't they, too, have nuclear weapons? Meanwhile, the US and Russia "now find themselves in the absurd situation of collaborating to guard against accidental launch" while at the same time they maintain "as a stubborn legacy, a hair-trigger readiness for catastrophic exchange. In the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula, nuclear weapons...are a stumbling block that trips up attempts to resolve regional tensions."

But only terrorists would use nuclear weapons without hesitation, notes ElBaradei. "A nuclear deterrent is absolutely ineffective against such groups; they have no cities that can be bombed in response, nor are they focused on self-preservation. But even as we take urgent measures to protect against nuclear terrorism...we remain sluggish and unconvinced about the need to rapidly rid ourselves of the 30,000 nuclear warheads around the world, poised for use. Why?"
ElBaradei argues that "Nuclear weapons will not go away until a proven collective security framework exists to fill the vacuum. The aftermath of the Cold War should have served as the logical lead-in to such an effort. The resulting changes to the international security landscape have been obvious; it is only that we have lacked the vision and the initiative to adapt to these changes. If there is any silver lining to this dark cloud, it is that the window of opportunity is still open. The question remains, how?....I do not presume to have all the answers, but I do know that the answer is not nuclear weapons."

The "collective security framework" ElBaradei calls for involves a collaborative effort by many nations to systematically reduce and ultimately eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. He thinks that progress must be made "on all fronts—political, scientific, and social."

Political: On the political front, ElBaradei says we need to restore and strengthen multilateral efforts by the leaders of a number of countries to resolve conflicts and threats to international security through the United Nations. "This must be our starting point," says ElBaradei. "The Security Council....should use, if necessary, 'smart' sanctions that can target a government without adding misery to its citizens; and adequate forces to deal with the foreseeable range of situations—from maintaining law and order, to monitoring borders, to combating aggression."

The ultimate objective, "the elimination of all nuclear weapons," should not be used as an excuse not to take the immediate step of drastically reducing existing nuclear arsenals.

In addition, says ElBaradei, all nations should strengthen the NPT by approving the additional protocol. And steps should be taken to tighten controls over the export of nuclear materials and technology; work toward control over the nuclear fuel cycle, including enrichment and reprocessing of fuel and the management and disposal of spent fuel; and ensure that nations cannot withdraw from the NPT without clear consequences. Nuclear non-proliferation and disarmament, says ElBaradei, "are two sides of the same coin."

Scientific: On the scientific front, ElBaradei believes that responsibility is the key word. Nobel prize-winning physicist Sir Joseph Rotblat said years ago: "Precepts such as 'science is neutral' or 'science has nothing to do with politics' still prevail. They are remnants of the ivory tower mentality, although the ivory tower was finally demolished by the Hiroshima bomb." We need scientific researchers and inventors to develop new tools for nuclear inspections, for reducing the threat of proliferation of nuclear material and technology, and for dismantling and destroying nuclear weapons.

Social: On the social front, says ElBaradei, it is vital that as many people as possible become involved in a public dialogue. We need to remind people of the continued danger of nuclear war, to explain to the alternatives available, and offer avenues for involvement. "The nuclear genie is out of the box—but it remains, at least at present, at the bidding of its human makers. May it not ultimately be said of our society that we created the inventions that led to our own demise."

"In my view," ElBaradei has declared "we have come to a fork in the road. Either there must be a demonstrated commitment to move toward nuclear disarmament or we should resign ourselves to the fact that other nations will pursue a more dangerous parity through proliferation."

(ElBaradei quotes are from a speech at Stanford University, 11/4/04.)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. What is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)? What is the basic agreement between nuclear weapon nations and nations without nuclear weapons? What is the role of the IAEA in enforcing the NPT?

3. What lessons does ElBaradei say we have learned? What problems continue despite these lessons? Why?

4. What was the possible value of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War? Why does ElBaradei think it has no value today?

5. Consider each area of regional tensions and conflict. What are the sources of these tensions and conflicts?

6. ElBaradei believes that only a "proven collective security framework" can result in the elimination of nuclear weapons. What does he mean? Do you agree? Why or why not?

7. What does Rotblat mean when he says "the ivory tower was finally demolished by the Hiroshima bomb"?

8. What warning does ElBaradei give in his remarks about "the social front"?

9. Why do you suppose ElBaradei believes the world must "move toward nuclear disarmament" or accept the fact that nations now without nuclear weapons will build them?


Reading 3:

"The answer is not nuclear weapons"

"I do not presume to have all the answers, but I do know that the answer is not nuclear weapons," declared Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Most of the people in the world would agree with him. And a number of organizations have been working to find answers. Two examples:

A. Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has produced a document entitled "Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security," a "blueprint for US leadership in rethinking the international nuclear nonproliferation regime." In developing the document, the authors started from the premise that the United States cannot solve the nuclear proliferation challenge alone. Over 18 months they sketched a rough draft, invited criticism from leading US and international experts on nuclear weapons, traveled to 15 nations for additional feedback, and consulted with International Atomic Energy Agency and UN disarmament officials. They then produced a final document of recommendations.

What do the Carnegie authors mean by "universal compliance"? Universal means every nation that has joined the NPT as well as those that have not; it includes corporations and even individuals. Compliance means actual performance. "Universal Compliance" also means that the majority of nations without nuclear weapons must see a process to achieve it as "beneficial and fair," one that enforces compliance "universally, not selectively." It means also that the nuclear states must act on the commitment they made decades ago and have not honored: that is, to work for the elimination of their nuclear arsenals.

The Carnegie document maintains that there are "xix obligations form the core of the universal compliance strategy."

1. "Make nonproliferation irreversible": l) Facilities to enrich uranium and separate plutonium have nuclear weapon potential. To prevent its development (in Iran, for example), the US and other nuclear weapon nations must provide supplies of fuel and services to meet nuclear energy demands. 2) The UN should require any nation that withdraws from the NPT (like North Korea) to be responsible for violations committed while it was a member or for using nuclear materials acquired before the withdrawal. 3) All nations should stop nuclear cooperation with countries that are not meeting their nonproliferation obligations.

2. Weaken the political and military value of nuclear weapons. The US, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom must 1) pledge not to develop any new nuclear weapons; 2) reaffirm their commitment not to test any; 3) ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; 4) lengthen the time leaders would have to launch nuclear weapons; 5) produce a detailed plan for their verifiable elimination.

3. "Secure all nuclear materials." All states must maintain high standards for monitoring and accounting for all fissile materials (highly enriched uranium and plutonium, the fuel for nuclear bombs).

4. "Stop illegal transfers" of the technology, materials and know-how needed to develop nuclear weapons through the strengthening of international regulations.

5. "Commit to conflict resolution." Nuclear weapons experts cannot solve such problems as the nuclear and missile arms race between India and Pakistan. The national leaders of nuclear weapon nations "must use their leadership to resolve regional conflicts that compel or excuse some states' pursuit of security by means of nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons."

6. "Solve the three-state problem." India, Pakistan, and Israel never joined the NPT. The US and other major powers should focus on "persuading the three states to accept all of the nonproliferation obligations accepted by the five original nuclear weapon states" in the NPT. "If they failed to comply, they would be subject to... "sanctions and political pressures."

The authors of "Universal Compliance" think that "stopping the spread of nuclear weapons requires more international resolve than previous [US] administrations could muster." They also think it "demands more international teamwork than the Bush administration recognizes. Nuclear weapons and fissile materials are problems wherever they are, not just in a handful of 'evil' states. The threat cannot be eliminated by removing whichever foreign governments the United States finds most threatening at any given time. History has shown again and again that today's ally can become tomorrow's 'rogue' state. Moreover, terrorists will seek nuclear weapons and materials wherever they can be found...

"The United States cannot defeat the nuclear threat alone... It needs sustained cooperation from dozens of diverse order to broaden, toughen, and stringently enforce nonproliferation rules... The nuclear weapons states must show that tougher nonproliferation rules not only benefit the powerful but constrain them as well. Nonproliferation is a set of bargains whose fairness must be self-evident if the majority of countries is to support their enforcement."

(For copies of the Carnegie report, see

B. Model Nuclear Weapons Convention

An organization of lawyers, scientists, and disarmament experts coordinated by the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy produced a "Model Nuclear Weapons Convention," a detailed document calling for a prohibition on the "development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use and threat of use of nuclear weapons. States possessing nuclear weapons will be required to destroy their arsenals according to a series of phases. The Convention also prohibits the production of weapons usable fissile material (that is, material in which the splitting of an atomic nucleus results in the release of large amounts of energy) and requires delivery vehicles (or missiles) to be destroyed or converted to make them non-nuclear capable."

This Convention outlines five phases in the gradual elimination of the nuclear threat:

1. Taking all nuclear weapons off alert. This step requires nuclear-capable nations to make it impossible to fire a nuclear-tipped missile immediately. For example, despite the end of the Cold War, the US and Russia still have nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at each other, and those missiles can still be fired on a moment's notice. Once fired, they cannot be recalled.

2. Removing weapons from deployment. This means taking the nuclear-tipped missiles out of the silos, where they have been placed for instant use.

3. Removing nuclear warheads from their delivery vehicles. This means taking nuclear warheads off the missiles.

4. Disabling the warheads. The nuclear warheads could not be used immediately.

5. Removing and disfiguring the "pits" and placing the fissile material under international control. That is, making the emplacements for the nuclear-tipped missiles unusable and putting the nuclear material under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Verifying that each of these steps has been taken by every nuclear-capable nation would require: regular reports from each nation about exactly what it has done to meet the requirements of a phase; routine monitoring by international inspectors; sudden challenge inspections if questions arise; on-site sensors to detect activities; satellite photography; information-sharing with other organizations; and citizen reporting.

"It is amazing how many people cannot envision a world free of nuclear weapons," General Charles Horner said in an interview. Horner was the allied air forces commander in the Gulf War from 1992-1994. "It just scares the hell out of them. I find those people the most small-minded. You need the hardheaded businessman, the pragmatists, but you also need the visionary, the philosopher, the poet, to describe where we want to go....we need a whole new way of thinking." (Quoted in Jonathan Schell, The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons. )

People like IAEA Director General ElBaradei and Air Force Commander Horner and the women and men who produced "Universal Compliance" for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the "Model Nuclear Weapons Convention" for the Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy are both visionaries and pragmatists. They have envisioned a future free of nuclear weapons, and produced a detailed, practical plans to reach that future.

But political leaders are the ones who have the power to act on visions and plans. And ordinary people are the ones who, if organized, determined, and willing to work hard, have the power to make political leaders act. In the view of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (, "President Bush's first order of business in his second term should be providing global leadership to create and maintain a worldwide inventory of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials and to place these weapons and materials under strict international safeguards."

(The full Model Nuclear Weapons Convention is available at and

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Consider each point in the two plans to reduce and then eliminate the nuclear weapons threat. Why do you think each organization regards every point as very important? In what ways are the plans similar? Different? What barriers do you think stand in the way of implementing these plans? Why? How might they be overcome?

3. Why do you suppose the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation regards "a worldwide inventory of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons materials" and the placement of "these weapons and materials under strict international safeguards" as a vital "first order of business" for President Bush in his second term?

4. What examples can you think of that demonstrate the power of ordinary people, when organized, to get political leaders to act on their demands for change?


Additional Classroom Activities

1. Three possible approaches to an inquiry-oriented study

A. Questionnaire

Directions: Mark each of the follow statements T (true), F (false) or DK (don't know).

a. The only difference between nuclear bombs and other bombs is that nuclear bombs are more powerful.

b. The most serious threat to US national security is the spread of nuclear weapons, according to both major 2004 presidential candidates, George Bush and John Kerry.

c. Nuclear weapons are now part of the arsenals of most nations.

d. There are about 30,000 nuclear weapons worldwide, most of them in the possession of the US and Russia.

e. Even though they have friendly relations, the US and Russia have many nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at each other and on alert for immediate firing.

f. The US is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons against another nation.

g. The US and other nuclear weapon nations have never agreed to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.



a. (F) A nuclear bomb not only has vastly more explosive power but also releases radioactivity that can produce fatal radiation illnesses among blast survivors. This radiation remains for thousands of years. A nuclear bomb also creates a thermal pulse, a wave of blinding light and intense heat that causes intense burns in those many miles from the blast. An electromagnetic pulse knocks out electrical equipment over a wide area. A nuclear bomb creates strange meteorological conditions, such as the black rain and violent rains at Hiroshima that hurled debris at 600 miles per hour.

b. (T) Bush and Kerry agreed on this point in their first 2004 presidential debate.

c. (F) Nuclear weapon nations are the US, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and probably North Korea.

d. (T)

e. (T)

f. (T) Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.

g. (F) In 1970 the Nonproliferation Treaty came into effect. In it, non-nuclear nations agreed not to receive or manufacture nuclear weapons. In exchange, the five nuclear weapon nations at the time (the US, Russia, Britain, France, and China) agreed to make serious efforts at nuclear disarmament. Israel, India, and Pakistan have never agreed to the NPT; North Korea withdrew from it recently.

Discuss student responses without indicating their correctness or incorrectness.

  • Which answers are they sure of? How do they know?
  • What misinformation do students have? Why?
  • What do they not know or understand?

On each item, but perhaps especially the first, it will probably be useful to ask for detail. For example, ask students who think Item A is false what the differences are. Ask students who think Item G is false why they think so. Do they know about the NPT and what it entails?

Such a process will help to make clear what students know, what they
don't, where they are misinformed, and what questions they have that can
be an opening for inquiry

B. Current news

Select a current news item about nuclear weapons. It might be the negotiations with Iran or perhaps the stalled negotiations with North Korea. Why is this item in the news? What questions does it raise? Discuss student questions in detail for clarity, assumptions, and words and phrases needing definition (For details, see "the doubting game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking," which is available on this website.)

Use the news item and the questions it raises as an entry point for an inquiry into nuclear weapon issues and problems. The readings in "Nuclear Nightmares and Nuclear Security" can help to provide a common background for students. Teachers may also find useful background materials in earlier nuclear weapon materials posted on this site: "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on New US Policy" and "Nuclear Weapons and Our Future."

C. Reading and group work

Assign the opening reading, "Nuclear Nightmares." When students have
completed it

  • Ask each to write two or three of the best questions they can think of. A good question will be one which, if answered well, would lead to greater clarity about the nature of the "nuclear nightmare" confronting the world. However, it need not be a question the student can answer.
  • Divide the class into groups of four to six students to share, discuss, and select the two best questions produced in the group.
  • Have students share the best questions with the class. Write the questions on the chalkboard without comment.
  • Use the questions as an entry point for an inquiry into nuclear weapons issues and problems as described in "B" above.

NOTE: If during group or independent inquiries students are assigned written or oral reports, you may find it helpful to read an article entitled "The Plagiarism Perplex" on this website.

2. Films and books

Films can powerfully convey the threat of nuclear weapons. See the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation's website for films and photos of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

Two important non-fiction works on the bombing of Hiroshima are John Hersey's Hiroshima and Peter Weyden's Day One . Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth discusses what nuclear weapons mean for the future of the human race and issues a passionate call for disarmament. Having students read, discuss and report on any of these books will contribute to their understanding of "Nuclear Nightmares and Nuclear Security."

3. Writing

After students have studied nuclear weapons issues, assign an essay in which they present a reasoned opinion supporting or opposing one of the following quotations:

"The grandest illusion of the nuclear age is that a handful of states possessing nuclear weapons can secure themselves and the world indefinitely against the dangers of nuclear proliferation without placing a higher priority on simultaneously striving to eliminate their own nuclear weapons."
—George Perkovich, vice-president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

"Even if the United States were to divest itself of its nuclear arsenal, other states would be unlikely to follow suit."
—Institute for Strategic Studies

"Since the close of World War II, American and Western strategy has assigned a single function to nuclear weapons: the prevention of war and the preservation of peace."
—Alexander Haig, secretary of state under President Reagan

"Nuclear weapons today serve only as an obstacle to peace and security."
—Mohamed ElBaradei, Director General, International Atomic Energy Agency, 10/6/04

4. Further inquiry

There are many potential subjects for further student inquiry. In addition to those listed in "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on New US Policy" on this website, students might investigate the following questions:

  • Why did the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 threaten a U.S.-Soviet nuclear war?
  • Why is there a threat of nuclear war associated with any of the following regional tensions: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the potential for Iran to develop nuclear weapons; the India-Pakistan conflict over Kashmir; North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons.
  • What are the provisions of the NPT, and how effective has this international treaty been? (In 2005 there will be a review conference at the UN on the treaty.)
  • How effective has the International Atomic Energy Agency been in reducing the nuclear threat in Iraq? North Korea? Iran?
  • What is known about the nuclear sales network operating out of Pakistan and why has it been regarded as a serious problem?
  • How serious are the problems with Russia's nuclear materials and command-and-control system, and what is being done about them?

5. Citizenship

Student action in the world outside the classroom is a natural outgrowth of studies in the classroom. It offers opportunities for intelligent citizenship and learning the classroom cannot provide. But on an issue as overwhelming as nuclear weapons and world security, students may feel that any action of theirs is hopeless. Confronting and dealing with this sense of powerlessness then becomes an essential task.

Some suggestions:

  • Begin a dialogue with students in which you speak frankly about your feelings about acting on public issues and experiences that have shaped these feelings.
  • Ask students to think of a time when they made a difference, however small, on some family, school, or public issue. What was the situation? What did they do? How did it make them feel? What obstacles had to be overcome? How?
  • What makes it hard to have an effect on a public issue? Do you know of individuals who have had a significant impact on one? Consider such living individuals as Ralph Nader, Marian Wright Edelman, Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel. Consider such historical figures as Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, Eleanor Roosevelt.

What can high school students do? Students might act on any of the following suggestions, working with others who may have differing views about nuclear weapons, with the aim of educating themselves and others.

  • Organize a program for a club, an assembly, the PTA.
  • Prepare a special issue or section of the school newspaper or perhaps a magazine devoted to nuclear issues.
  • Write letters to local newspapers or federal officials, including the president.
  • Get in touch with the ESR Metro office for news of student activities and possible participation. (Kathleen Sullivan at 212-870-3318 or at
  • Check the website for news of things students can do about nuclear abolition

Have students keep a journal of their activities, and ask them to evaluate their experiences. What impact do they think they had? What might they and others they worked with have done better? What do they think they have learned from their experiences?


Additional Sources

Many resources are available on the internet. A sampling:

—The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation ( and its allied site Nuclear Files ( provide a wealth of historical and current information.

—The Nuclear Threat Initiative focuses on current nonproliferation issues and provides tutorials on them.

—The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies ( offers a detailed 13-point plan for nuclear abolition.

—The Center for Defense Information ( provides information on a variety of military and defense issues, including nuclear weapons, and offers links to many official and unofficial organizations in the field.

—Nukefix ( offers links to many official and unofficial organizations in the field.

—Reaching Critical Will ( is especially useful for its provision of treaty texts.

—Federation of American Scientists ( provides a nuclear weapons primer, treaty texts, interviews with policy makers, and discussions of issues.

—The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ( provides many articles on nuclear issues.

—International Atomic Energy Agency ( is the official website of the organization headed by Mohamed ElBaradei.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: