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 now 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. Iran, with its push to develop fuel processing capabilities for what it claims are peaceful nuclear power purposes – raises alarms around the globe. 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. President Obama has set an ambitious goal of eliminating nuclear weapons, and is engaging with the other major weapons holder, Russia, on a plan to move forward. Politicians in all the nuclear countries – and aspiring nuclear countries – need the political cover to take difficult choices on nuclear weapons. Civil society initiatives which enlists both popular opinion and influential individuals worldwide in support of elimination of nuclear weapons are a step in this direction.