The Vienna Conference on Nuclear Weapons

, manager of strategic campaigns | December 22, 2014, 12:27 pm EST
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I recently returned from the Vienna Conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons (HINW14), the third such conference since March 2013 spearheaded by a number of international civil society organizations and non-nuclear weapons states. These states are growing increasingly impatient with the nuclear weapons states in their lack of progress toward global disarmament—as they pledged to do in Article VI of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). 

The Vienna conference was attended by 158 countries, including the United States, as well as several hundred civil-society experts and campaigners. Like the previous two conferences held in Norway and Mexico, it brought much needed attention to the devastating consequences of nuclear weapons development and use.  We heard moving testimony from Setsuko Thurlow, a Hibakusha (the surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), as well as from the victims of nuclear explosive testing in the Marshall Islands, the United States and Australia. We heard from public health and security experts who described in excruciating detail what would likely happen if nuclear weapons are ever used again—anywhere on the planet.

A Christmas market around the Vienna town hall. (Source: Marek Slusarczyk)

A Christmas market around the Vienna town hall. (Source: Marek Slusarczyk)

Locked, Loaded, Finger on the Trigger

We also heard a great deal about the risk of nuclear use—particularly accidental, unauthorized or deliberate use of one or more of the roughly 900 nuclear weapons that both the U.S. and Russia keep on launch-ready status able to be fired in a matter of minutes—a situation frequently called “hair-trigger alert.” Indeed, leading up to and at the Vienna conference there was a  growing drumbeat of calls urging the nuclear weapons states—in particular the U.S. and Russia—to reduce the “operational readiness of nuclear forces” in an effort to lessen the risk of a catastrophic launch. These calls have included:

  • A March 2014 working paper from the member states of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Initiative (which includes Australia, Canada, Chile, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Nigeria, Netherlands, Philippines, Poland, Turkey and the UAE). The paper highlights the risks of launch-ready operational status urges the nuclear weapons states to take “concrete and meaningful steps” whether “unilaterally, bilaterally or regionally” to implement actions to “reduce the risk of accidental use of nuclear weapons.”
  • An October 2014 resolution in the UN’s First Committee supported by 163 nations, including China, India and Pakistan, which calls for “further practical steps to be taken to decrease the operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems, with a view to ensuring that all nuclear weapons are removed from high alert status.” It also calls for the lowering of the alert status of nuclear weapons system to be addressed further at the 2015 NPT Review Conference in April and May 2015. Only four countries opposed the resolution—the U.S., United Kingdom, France and Russia

The World Demands Action

In conjunction with the conference itself, some 120 former senior political, military and diplomatic leaders signed a letter coordinated by the Nuclear Threat Initiative to the Austrian Federal Minister Sebastian Kurz, which “urged international leaders to use the Vienna Conference to launch a global discussion that would more accurately assess steps to reduce or eliminate the risk of intentional or unintentional use of nuclear weapons.” Among their recommendations was “urgent action to lower the prompt-launch status of existing nuclear stockpiles.”

In addition, the Chair’s Summary of the conference stated that “the risks of accidental, mistaken, unauthorized or intentional use of nuclear weapons are evident due to the vulnerability of nuclear command and control networks to human error and cyberattacks, the maintaining of nuclear arsenals on high levels of alert, forward deployment and their modernization.”

Moreover, dozens of countries in their formal statements to the conference highlighted their concerns about the risks of accidental or inadvertent use and the imperative to reduce the prompt launch status of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. Can Lead

One hopes that the United States and Russia will heed these calls. Arms control is currently stalled, and frustration by non-nuclear states at the lack of progress required by the NPT Treaty could begin to undermine the treaty at the Review Conference next spring. Either country could demonstrate good faith by taking steps to reduce the operational status of their strategic forces. President Obama, for instance, could order the Air Force to “safe” our 450 land-based Minuteman missiles by activating a safety control switch in each silo. This would effectively eliminate the possibility of an accidental or unauthorized launch of these missiles. This simple step would send a powerful signal to the rest of the world that we are in fact serious about reducing the risk posed by nuclear weapons.

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