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“We tend to deny the possibility of unwanted nuclear strikes”

La Croix: Since the end of the Cold War, we had largely forgotten, at least in Europe, the hypothesis of the use of a nuclear weapon. But this threat is agitated again on the occasion of the war in Ukraine. Is the comparison with the situation that prevailed during the Cold War relevant?

Benoit Pelopidas : With the exception of shocking moments like the war in Ukraine, we tend, in reality, to deny the possibility of unwanted nuclear strikes, and post-Cold War popular culture no longer helps us fight against this. denial.

As in the days of the Cold War, we still have no protection against a deliberate, accidental or misperceived nuclear explosion. If the number of nuclear weapons has decreased since the fall of the Berlin Wall, it would only take 1% of the approximately 12,000 weapons spread over the planet to explode on cities to create a nuclear winter that would cause more than a billion deaths.

In your latest book, you come back to several moments when the use of the weapon was narrowly avoided. What did you conclude?

PO: The question that must be asked is the following: has a catastrophe been avoided thanks to control practices or, on the contrary, thanks to a failure of these practices (disobedience or technical failure) or to the intervention of external parameters? In the last two cases, we must speak of luck, and it would be incorrect to attribute the absence of an explosion to a success of said control practices. For example, in January 1961, at goldsboroin North Carolina (USA), two bombs, each 250 times more destructive than the one that leveled Hiroshima, did not explode by chance (they fell from a damaged bomber, editor’s note).

The bottom line is that the cases presented in detail in the book are most likely an understatement, because they depend on available records and testimonies. We therefore only have good knowledge of these cases in the United States and the United Kingdom. In other nuclear-weapon states, opacity cannot be taken as proof of perfect control.

Let us recall in passing that it took us at least thirty years to take stock of the danger of the Cuban crisis of 1962, the best documented and most studied crisis. Thus, we cannot deduce from our lack of knowledge of this type of case over the past twenty-five years that everything has been checked.

Where is the mobilization in favor of a world without nuclear weapons today?

PO: As we speak, the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty has 61 member states and 91 signatory states. The two key questions are whether the war in Ukraine is going to be seen as a relevant precedent in nuclear policy or as a unique case, and what lessons different stakeholders will draw from it. The post-Cold War years have been an unprecedented period of non-proliferation, and it is essential not to revive demand for these weapons systems. Notably by perpetuating a false idea, namely that if Ukraine had kept nuclear weapons on its territory in the 1990s, it would not have been invaded.

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