Physicists have discovered that everything in the universe interacts based on four fundamental forces. These forces are the electromagnetism, gravity, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force.
The electromagnetic force is the one we use most. All chemical reactions (including combustion of fossil fuels) are based on the electromagnetic force. It all comes down to electrons being rearranged and traded. We have created and achieved many things based on this force, but it may just be the beginning.
Gravity is relatively mysterious. We know we can make electricity by having water flow downhill or use rockets to get away from the pull of the planet, but that’s about it. The future potential is huge once we can create and manipulate gravitational waves and gravitons.
Our knowledge of nuclear interactions is growing; both the strong and weak nuclear forces interact on the nucleus level. Nuclear technology exploits these nuclear reactions. From the mundane smoke detector to the far reaches of space, nuclear has many civilian applications. Electricity generation alone has the frontiers of generation IV fission plants, small-scale cold fusion, and large-scale “hot” fusion. However, all of these possibilities and achievements hang under the spectre of nuclear weapons and their use.
The US infamously developed and used the first nuclear bombs to attack Japanese civilians and end World War II. This new technology abruptly changed warfare. As other nations rushed to develop their own weapons, leaders came to recognize the extreme destruction that would result if war broke out.
In 1968, the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) began to be adopted. It’s purpose was to get nations to develop only peaceful applications of nuclear technology. However, the countries that had already developed weapons (USA, Russia, UK, France, and China) got special treatment. While they promised to work towards destroying their weapons, there was no timeline.
Some countries would continue their efforts to develop their own weapons rather than resign to be second-class under the treaty. India, Pakistan, North Korea, and very likely Israel have developed weapons since. While the NPT likely limited the development of weapons by more countries, these four countries remain outside the treaty and are unlikely to join it.
All nuclear weapons require either enriched uranium (U-235) or weapons-grade plutonium (Pu-239). Part of the concern with Iran’s nuclear program is that some of the machines needed to enrich fuel for nuclear power generation can be used to make weapons too. Fortunately, most power plants worldwide use light water reactor technology; this process results in plutonium that cannot be used in weapons.
On the other hand, some of the knowledge for creating nuclear weapons is widely available on the internet. Furthermore by learning the civilian technology, countries can build expertise for weapons development without actually engaging in the activity. Several countries have this “breakout” ability, but we’re focused on Iran due to their radical leadership.
Today, although only 9 countries possess nuclear weapons, 56 countries operate nuclear reactors. It is clear that nuclear technology is valuable for reasons other than war. Nuclear medicine has been widely used since the 1950s. The argument is even made that nuclear weapons have prevented further world wars. That said, the leaders that control nuclear weapons must recognize that the mutual destruction of a bilateral exchange would have worldwide consequences.
No nation is an island
The actions of a few now can affect a whole planet. The technology of nuclear weapons is here and everyone is getting better at it. While we should endeavor for a new agreement to reduce warheads worldwide, we must also act as a single humankind dedicated to the prosperity of all and not as the violent tribes of our past.
Luckily, nuclear technology offers far more hope than despair. As the world becomes more interconnected, we may risk more but the probability of destruction lessens.
We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.