Although the overall number of nuclear weapons in the world has declined, the threat of nuclear warfare has not vanished. A report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute found that while countries are not acquiring more weapons, they’re modernising and perfecting the ones they have. However, India, China, and Pakistan are still increasing their nuclear arsenals.
The report says that the US, Russia, UK, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea have a total of 13,865 nuclear warheads—600 less than in the beginning of 2018.
The US and Russia account for 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, but they are adhering to START, a treaty that not only restricts countries to a certain number of active warheads but also asks them to dispose of Cold War-era weaponry.
The Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) was signed on July 31, 1991, by the US and Soviet Union. It expires on February 5, 2021, and can be renewed for five years at a time.
However, NDTV quotes Shannon Kile, one of the report’s authors, who says the close expiry date is worrying because there are “no serious discussions underway about extending it”.
Moreover, countries, including the US and Russia, aren’t doing away with their nuclear arsenal entirely. They are optimising it for the current military context and involving them in greater capacity in present-day operations.
Kile said, “I think the trend is moving away from where we were five years ago, where the world’s nuclear weapons were being marginalised.”
Ready to launch
In South Asia, China’s nuclear arsenal is largest with 280 warheads, Pakistan’s is next with 150, and India is last with 140.
India’s nuclear arsenal has remained unchanged since the end of 2018, but Pakistan and China both added 10 weapons. All these warheads are actively deployed, meaning they are ready to use if the countries wished.
While China may be adding to its collection, it has a no-first-use policy and will only use those nuclear weapons if provoked first. India has also mentioned having the same policy, but Pakistan has not.
India has fighter-bomber aircraft, namely Mirage 2000Hs and Jaguar IS/IBs, and ballistic missiles based on land, such as the Agni series, and sea, such as Dhanush, K-15, and K-4. These weapons are not particularly lethal in combat because they are short-ranged and outdated.
The geopolitics of it all
However, with Mission Shakti and the Make in India programme, India has said it is updating its equipment and making it more effective and reliable. But do more or better weapons also increase the threat of nuclear war between India, Pakistan, and China?
Escalating tensions with Pakistan to nuclear level does not seem like a sound strategic decision on India’s part, because China’s support to Pakistan might increase, including through materials and infrastructure needed for more nuclear weapons.
The two are already dubbed “all weather friends” because of their common geopolitical interests in South Asia.
Scholar Michael Kugelman said, “China will want to reiterate its commitment to Pakistan and express its strong support, particularly if Beijing starts to worry that India’s more muscular approach towards Pakistan could entail efforts to undercut or even sabotage the China-funded China-Pakistan Economic Corridor project.”
Professor of International Relations Harsh V Pant explains that South Asia is also a diplomatic battlefield for the US and China. So much so that the Obama administration courted India by naming it a “major defence partner”.
The friendliness between the US and India will only push China and Pakistan closer, Pant says. So any imminent threats of nuclear warfare are unlikely between the three countries.
The heavy cost of nuclear arsenal
In May, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed concern about Cold War-era radioactive waste from atomic bomb tests leaking into the Pacific Ocean.
Guterres described the concrete dome-like structure built to contain the waste as a “a kind of coffin” that serves as the legacy for nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War. The dome sits on Runit Island.
He added that the Pacific islanders, who were either resettled or exposed to radioactive activities, such as the “Bravo” hydrogen bomb and “Cactus” bomb tests conducted by the US in the early ’40s and late ’50s. still need help with the health impact of climate change.
The century-old dome was only pursued as a temporary solution and is now leaking radioactive waste because the bottom of the structure was not lined with concrete. Along with radioactive ash and soil, the Runit dome is leaking plutonium-239, one of the most harmful materials on the planet today, which will only reduce its toxicity by half after 24,100 years.
“The consequences have been quite dramatic, in relation to health, in relation to the poisoning of waters in some areas,” said Guterres.
Forbes says the Runit dome could be “cracked wide open from the next storm that rolls by”. If the radioactive waste continues to leak, it could not only pollute the underground groundwater and aquifers but also leak into the Pacific Ocean.
Why it matters
The spilling of radioactive material into our natural resources is not a far-away scenario.
Scientists have already found radioactive carbon in the Mariana Trench, the deepest place on Earth, that was first released into the atmosphere from nuclear bomb tests and then fell into the ocean.
Crustaceans these researchers studied had much higher levels of radioactive carbon, carbon-14, than is found naturally in the ocean or in other living organisms on Earth.
Even surface organisms have this radioactive carbon in their molecular structure because the oceanic food chain makes substances travel faster to the surface than the normal process of water mixing, say the scientists.
Geochemist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Weidong Sun said, “There’s a very strong interaction between the surface and the bottom, in terms of biological systems, and human activities can affect the biosystems even down to 11,000 metres; hence, we need to be careful about our future behaviours.”
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius.
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