For those titillated by Strangelovian fantasies of nuclear apocalypse, the early 1980s were a golden age.
That was the height of the Cold War, when nuclear arms and rhetoric escalated, and President Ronald Reagan envisioned a space-based anti-missile “shield”—promptly dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptics—that could thwart attacks by the “Evil Empire,” also known as the Soviet Union.
In 1983, I wrote my masters thesis on the nuclear freeze movement, which sought (in vain) to halt the arms race. After graduation I reported for IEEE Spectrum and then Scientific Americanon nuclear weapons, which also provoked widespread coverage in mainstream media. Everyone, it seemed, was “thinking about the unthinkable,” as the security scholar Herman Kahn famously described nuclear war.
How different from today. Other than sporadic updates on the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the media seldom report on nuclear weapons, certainly not in comparison to the 1980s. From one perspective, the diminished coverage makes sense, since the Cold War is over, and the U.S. and Russia have slashed their stockpiles by more than two thirds. No wonder, then, that today many of us—and especially young people, assuming my students at Stevens Institute of Technology are typical—do not think or know much about nuclear weapons.
But that must change. After all, there are still more than 17,000 nuclear weapons out there possessed by nine nations, according to a recent survey in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The survey’s authors note, moreover, that “all the nations with nuclear weapons continue to modernize or upgrade their nuclear arsenals.” Factoring in the possibility of accidents and nuclear terrorism, the threat of nuclear catastrophe remains all too real.
So the time was right for Stevens to host last week’s “Workshop on Nuclear Issues Education,” where experts swapped ideas about how to inform students and others about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The organizers were my Stevens colleagues Edward Friedman, a physicist, and Julie Pullen, a maritime security expert; and Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, whom I recently profiled. Carnegie Corporation of New York provided funding.
Friedman opened the workshop by quoting security scholar Paul Bracken, who recently warned that “the quality of thinking about nuclear weapons has reached a dangerously low level.” Ferguson outlined plans of the Federation of American Scientists to create a nuclear-information website similar to its “Virtual Biosecurity Center,” which informs the public about biological threats. A “Nuclear Education Center,” Ferguson said, could provide information for teachers as well as journalists, government officials and others.