The Aug. 8 explosion at a remote missile test site in Nyonoksa in Northern Russia has been covered widely in the media. The test involved something powered by radioactive isotopes (possibly a nuclear power generator of some kind). The nearby cities of Severodvinsk and Arkhangelsk observed spikes in radiation immediately following the incident.
The explosion serves as a reminder of the ever-present dangers posed by nuclear weapons. As researchers in the field of nuclear risk, we believe these dangers will only grow with the accelerating nuclear arms race and need to be addressed through active efforts for nuclear weapons disarmament and elimination.
The accelerating nuclear arms race
This test comes at a time when the constraints on Russian and American nuclear weapons are being shredded. Earlier in August, these two countries, which have the largest nuclear arsenals, formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. The INF Treaty prohibited producing, manufacturing and testing ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with ranges of 500-5,500 kilometres.
The currently operational Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which sets limits on the number of deployed warheads, expires in 2021 unless superseded by another agreement. That looks unlikely at this point.
The roots of disagreement between Russia and the United States go back to 2002, when the U.S. withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and proceeded to deploy previously prohibited ballistic missile defence systems. Russia responded by developing new nuclear weapons such as cruise missiles designed to overcome U.S. missile defences. U.S. officials point to one of these cruise missiles as the rationale for U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty.
Russian officials have asserted that launchers developed by the U.S. as part of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system were “inconsistent with the INF treaty.” Indeed, following the formal withdrawal from the INF treaty, the U.S. immediately tested a land-based cruise missile from a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System, identical to that used by the Aegis missile defence system.
These new weapon systems are being developed as part of a larger global pattern of modernization of nuclear arsenals and this has been going on for most of this decade.
In financial terms, the U.S. has led the field and plans to invest more than a trillion dollars between 2017 and 2046 into the refurbishing of existing nuclear warheads and developing new delivery systems. Other nuclear weapon states, including China and India, are following similar paths, albeit at different rates.
A possible role for Canada
The destructiveness of nuclear weapons has been obvious since August 1945, when the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Given the vastly greater explosive power of today’s nuclear weapons, any use of these weapons could result in millions of casualties. Arms races increase the likelihood of nuclear war, which would be a global catastrophe.
In addition to this humanitarian concern, and because of its membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Canada is obliged to work towards the “cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament.”
Traditionally, Canada pursued a self-described step-by-step approach, by trying to negotiate agreements such as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty. But the step-by-step approach has hit a dead end: not a single multilateral nuclear treaty has been negotiated since 1996.
Canada should also use its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance, the most powerful military alliance in the world, to advocate for nuclear disarmament. Of the 29 member states, only the U.S., the United Kingdom and France are recognized as nuclear weapon states under the NPT. Canada could work with other NATO allies that have signed the NPT as non-nuclear weapon states to both challenge the alliance’s reliance on nuclear weapons and renounce the idea of nuclear deterrence.
The tragic accident in northern Russia reminds us of the dangers associated with nuclear weapons. They pose substantial risks even before they are deployed or used in war, as shown by those who died or were exposed to radiation in this most recent accident. The manufacture and testing of nuclear weapons globally have significantly damaged public health and the environment.
Accidents involving nuclear weapons systems cannot be completely prevented because of the complexity of these systems. The plethora of accidents within the U.S. nuclear arsenal alone supports this fact. Newer forms of nuclear weapons risks such as cyber threats will continue to threaten us, unless we eliminate such weapons altogether. The task is as urgent as it is important.