What it is: Bombs and other missiles with nuclear warheads which detonate with tremendous force, the most powerfully explosive weapons of mass destruction ever manufactured. They also release large quantities of dangerous radiation.

What it means: Stocks of nuclear weapons are maintained (at huge expense) by five acknowledged ‘nuclear powers’: the USA, the UK, Russia, France and China. Pakistan and India (states which have fought against each other) also have nuclear weapons, and so does Israel, though its government has never admitted it. Over 20 other states have had ambitions to go nuclear. The Cold War led some governments to think that having nuclear weapons prevents attacks from others. (see under Deterrence) But nuclear weapons are totally rejected by other parts of the world: South America, Africa, South East Asia, the South Pacific and Antarctica are all committed to treaties making them nuclear-weapon-free zones. After the attack on New York in 2001, the USA - while urgently demanding that nuclear-ambitious states drop their plans - was planning a new project for nuclear weapons (designed to penetrate underground bunkers) for its ‘war against terrorism’. Yet how could the US government expect to persuade other nations to abandon nuclear projects while insisting on possessing such weapons, possibly using them, and using them first? ‘We’re driving recklessly down a road that we’re telling other people not to walk down,’ said a troubled politician. A terrifying situation had developed: some of the most powerful states (six of them liberal democracies) had signed up to the idea that the most desirable aim – world peace – could be got and preserved by the use of the most destructive weapons. (They were used twice by the USA, against Japan in 1945.) Whatever nuclear weapons may preserve – uneasy truces? international blackmail? - it isn’t peace. Their existence did nothing to prevent the decades of undeterred non-nuclear conflict, war and genocide that followed their invention. And radioactivity released into the air, the earth and the sea by nuclear weapon tests continues its poisonous work.

Think about it:
(1) At the end of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union signed treaties to reduce the number of nuclear weapons they possessed. In 1992 the US president (George Bush senior) said, ‘I saw the chance to rid our children’s dreams of the nuclear nightmare, and I did’. George Bush junior campaigned for the presidency on the same lines – ‘Our mutual security need no longer depend on a nuclear balance of terror. These unneeded weapons are the expensive relics of dead conflicts’. But in 2002, without any debate, the president was given unrestricted power to use any means, including nuclear weapons, in a ‘preventive’ attack on Iraq whenever he thought it ‘appropriate’. Should any state, let alone any single leader of one, be allowed that kind of power? What should ‘security’ really depend on?
(2) In 1995 the USA made a statement to the International Court of Justice, in which it defended the use of nuclear weapons and their genocidal destructiveness: ‘the deliberate killing of large numbers of people’ counted as genocide (and would therefore be illegal) if the aggressor intended to destroy ‘in whole or in part a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’. It’s true that the 1948 international law making genocide illegal left political groups out of the list. But there has been nothing to stop the UN from amending the law. What might be the reason/s why that hasn’t happened?
(3) ‘I’m not a traitor, I’m a man with a conscience.’ Mordechai Vanunu was a technician at Israel’s secret nuclear site for 10 years. In 1986 he could keep silent no longer. He told a British newspaper about Israel’s nuclear weapons programme. He was pursued, kidnapped by the Israeli secret service, tortured, and sentenced to 18 years in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. In 1991 he wrote these words from prison: ‘No matter what happens, I am proud of my actions, for my revelations, for not co-operating with their lies, for not keeping silent. That is all a man can do, to not be afraid of the power of the state; to show to all that in the nuclear age a man is obliged to all the human race.’ Any nuclear weapon anywhere is a danger to the world. No-one, anywhere, should be punished for saying so. How might people try to curb the power of governments, or give them less of it?