Deployed only twice in history, more than a half century ago, nuclear weapons retain the dubious distinction of being the fastest way ever devised to kill the most people. The threat of nuclear weapons has been compelling enough to drive a series of international agreements banning the development of nuclear capabilities. Only nine countries are believed to currently have nuclear weapons capabilities. Yet nuclear weapons – because of the power they are perceived to convey – continue to attract political attention. The Iran nuclear deal has eliminated one immediate nuclear threat, but North Korea weapons testing continues to alarm the world. The concern that nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists – for whom killing large numbers of people is generally a stated goal – adds a particularly urgent angle to the issue.
Since governments own the nuclear weapons, it will require government action and international cooperation to stop the spread of nuclear weapons. While successive U.S. presidents have undertaken reductions in nuclear weapons, the current geopolitical situation, including Russia nuclear saber rattling, raises concerns. Politicians in all the nuclear countries – and aspiring nuclear countries – need political cover to take difficult choices on nuclear reductions. Civil society initiatives which enlist both popular opinion and influential individuals worldwide in support of elimination of nuclear weapons are a step in this direction.