Are we in more danger from nuclear power now than we were during the Cold War?

The answer is most definitely ‘yes’. The nuclear threat that we face is now more of a reality than it ever was during the 20th century.  While the Cold War was ultimately an avoidance of conflict with the intention of preserving international order, the reality of today’s world is simply ‘preservation’, as nuclear weapons are created not only as offensive tools, but as insurance against future attacks and as trophies to prove national development and strength. In fact, unlike the Cold War, which was a specific stand-off between the United States and the former Soviet Union, our second nuclear age is one of smaller powers possessing, or aspiring to possess, nuclear abilities (both nuclear energy and weapons). While it is not the place of larger powers to suppress or discourage smaller powers’ nuclear aspirations, as can be see in the well-founded global anxieties over the Iranian nuclear program, smaller powers cannot be taken lightly in terms of the threat they could internationally pose.

…the nuclear anxieties that characterized the Cold War are absent…

2012 Ipsos MORI poll, The Guardian, 01.2012

So why is public concern over Iran apparently minimal when the possibility of nuclear terrorism is an all too petrifying threat? Are we hoping that in overlooking the possibility of nuclear conflict that it will disappear? Despite the undeniably frightening undercurrent of growing nuclear power in the world, the nuclear anxieties that characterized the Cold War are absent. Concern over potential nuclear war is not a part of the average citizen’s 21st century day-to-day life. Perhaps seen as an antiquated threat, the idea of nuclear devastation has possibly become a passé cultural fear that died with postmodernism. While the Cold War hysteria should not necessarily be re-lived, why have modern generations become indifferent to the iconic mushroom cloud?

It is interesting to note that while the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of March 2011 initially caused UK nuclear support to sharply dip from 47% to 36%, six months later nuclear support had risen 3% above pre-Fukushima polls. Why? Did this mark a national lapse into a quiet desire to forget?

…Preventative measures need to be established…

Thérèse Delpech, in her book Nuclear Deterrence in the 21st Century, wonders whether the world’s power paralysis in handling the nuclear crisis is due not only to clashing international philosophies, but to a lack of domestic consensus and interest. While the world’s concern is currently enmeshed in attempting to salvage the imploding economy, this should not mean that governments should put aside the priority of focusing on national and international security. Preventative measures need to be established to not only ensure national safety against nuclear accident or attack, but global safety against nuclear conflict.

It was announced in 2010 that the British 2015 elections would see a focus on the issue of nuclear deterrence and development. However, can the United Kingdom afford to postpone such an important national discussion in the current unpredictable international environment? Is it enough for the government to be constructing a Trident replacement system in the background without planning and putting in place other national security systems? It is time for the world’s superpowers to admit to themselves that their international power and influence does not sit as securely as it did before, but that as a consequent of the financial crisis and the increasing amount of global nuclear development, what has ensued is an international tug-of-war of power. This will create what Eric Edelman calls a “multipolar world”, in which the upper-hand of global power will see-saw between countries. In such a complex international climate, it is therefore doubly important that both the government and the public place priority upon discussing Britain’s nuclear future and needs, and taking measures that will ensure national protection.

Images courtesy of Flavio Takemoto and The Guardian


About The Author

Pamela Carralero graduated with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University of London and is currently pursuing an MSc in Literature and Transatlanticism at the University of Edinburgh.

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