This is a unique episode of the podcast, which host Shelly Lesher pushed quickly through production to give listeners insight into the nuclear concerns involved in the current war in Ukraine. At the time of recording, it is Wednesday March 2, 2022, and Russia has recently attacked Ukraine. President Putin has placed his country's nuclear forces on high alert, and Belarus has reaffirmed its offer to house Russian tactical nuclear weapons. Shelly's university hosted an expert from the American Physical Society's Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction. This expert, Matthias Grosse Perdekamp, is a member of the coalition's project team, and he graciously agreed not only to speak at the university about nuclear threat reduction, but to talk with Shelly about nuclear war, nuclear treaties, and the situation in Ukraine.
Before turning to these topics, though, Shelly asks Matthias about the Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction. The coalition represents an effort by the American Physical Society to re-engage the physics community with the realities of arms control, and the project team works on recruiting members, planting the seeds for grassroots efforts to impact nuclear policy, and the like. At the heart of these efforts, Matthias explains, is the conviction that the people making decisions about how to use the far-reaching applications of science need foundational knowledge of the science involved and of the ramifications for using different applications of it. Thus, politicians making decisions about nuclear weapons need to have all the relevant facts before them; they need to know, for instance, that even a limited nuclear war would have a terrible effect on the climate and lead to damaging fallout.
While a limited war is a possibility in situations like the conflict between India and Pakistan, the stakes are much higher when the US and Russia come into the picture. The strategic arsenals of Russia and the US are matched at 1550 warheads, and all out war between these powers would spell global disaster. The only solution, of course, is to avoid this outcome! Other, more specific steps forward involve treaties, arsenal reductions, and non-proliferation. Some such measures have already been put in place, and Matthias comments on the history of nuclear treaties, the resource of the Congressional Research Service, and the workings of a non-proliferation treaty. These steps taken have not been without flaws, of course. After the fall of the Soviet Union, for instance, the Budapest Memorandum bound the US and others to provide security to Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine surrendering its nuclear arsenal to Russia. The Memorandum was arguably broken when Russia took Crimea in 2014. However, the agreement still technically stands, and it is a fitting picture of a broader truth: our efforts to navigate nuclear weaponry have not been perfect, but we have made real progress, and what remains is to keep pressing forward!
Special thanks to Jeffrey Kerkman at UWL for recording this episode.
Learn more about Matthias Grosse Perdekamp.
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Production costs for this episode were provided through National Science Foundation Grant PHY-2011267.