No one has used nuclear weapons since the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima 71 years ago — the only time a country has used nuclear weapons against its enemies.
But it’s not likely the world can go another 71 years without a nuclear weapon being used against people, Nunn said on the University of Georgia campus Tuesday.
“I would hope so, but the odds are against it,” Nunn said. Nine countries now have nuclear weapons, and two more, Iran and North Korea, have nuclear aspirations, Nunn told a large crowd in the auditorium of the university’s Russell Libraries Building, which houses UGA’s special library collections.
“The thing I worry about a great deal is that we’re in a new era where states no longer have the monopoly on nuclear weapons or material or knowledge,” he said.
The best defense against that reality is keeping nuclear materials out of their hands, Nunn said.
Perry joined the crowd on a big video screen via an Internet link from his faculty office at Stanford University as he and Nunn delivered UGA’s annual Charter Lecture. The lecture is named for the 1785 UGA charter, the first such charter granted in the new United States after the Revolution.
It’s at least partly by luck that the Soviet Union and the United States never launched nuclear missiles at each other, said Perry, secretary of defense from 1994-97 under President Bill Clinton.
The United States at least three times received false alarms when the military thought the Soviets had launched a nuclear attack, and “we know of at least two (false alarms) in the Soviet Union,” he said.
The dangers back then were twofold, he said — accidental war resulting from a false alarm, and a “war of miscalculation,” which was narrowly avoided during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.
In each day of that 12-day period, “I truly believed it was going to be my last day on Earth,” Perry said.
The U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided war “as much by good luck as by good management” in 1962, he said.
We still have those two dangers today, plus two more, Perry said.
There’s a real danger a terrorist group such as ISIS could get hold of nuclear material and make a so-called “dirty bomb,” in which radioactive material is mixed with explosives and set off in a major city.
That wouldn’t kill a lot of people, compared to an atomic bomb, but it would render large areas uninhabitable, tremendously disrupt the economy and force a large migration of people, Nunn said.
“What it would do to the world economy, even one weapon, could be very destabilizing,” Nunn said. “The abandonment of a city would be a thing to behold.”
The second new danger is the possibility of a regional war, a possibility that didn’t exist during the Cold War, Perry said.
The United States and Russia must cooperate more than they have recently in order to keep nuclear material from getting into terrorists’ hands, Nunn said.
“Russia and the United States have 90 percent of the nuclear weapons. We have an obligation to work together. This is vital. This is existential,” Nunn said.
Russia has taken destabilizing actions recently, including violating the sovereignty of its neighbor, Ukraine, and “these are dangerous times,” Nunn said.
The most important way to prevent accidental war now is to get U.S. and Russian diplomatic relations back on track, Perry said.