The threat of nuclear weapons is front-page news after years of being at the back of our minds. With the end of the Cold War, the nuclear threat receded from public consciousness. 

Baby boomers have distant memories of air-raid drills during which teachers instructed them to get under their desks in the hopes of surviving a Soviet nuclear attack. For them, the return to discussion of nuclear disarmament may seem like an outdated exercise. Sadly, it is not. Today, experts estimate that there are more than 23,000 nuclear weapons in the world, and more than 90 percent of them are in the arsenals of the United States and Russia. If unleashed, the devastation would be unimaginable.

The prospect of a thermonuclear war between the United States and Russia is remote, though not impossible. But today the growing dangers are the frightening prospect of terrorists acquiring a nuclear bomb or states like Iran and North Korea developing and deploying nuclear weapons. 

New developments 

Every new U.S. administration is required to conduct a Nuclear Posture Review that spells out plans for the arsenal and the conditions under which nuclear weapons may be used. Last month, the Obama administration released its review, which declared that the greatest nuclear threat to our nation is “nuclear terrorism” and the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations (proliferation). It set forth a long-term goal of “a world without nuclear weapons” through step-by-step mutual and verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to additional nations and securing nuclear bombs and materials from terrorists. 

The Nuclear Security Summit convened by President Barack Obama in mid-April gathered leaders from 47 nations. They committed to securing vulnerable supplies of plutonium and highly enriched uranium from terrorists within the next four years. 

Now the focus turns to preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations. This month, the Review Conference for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons is taking place in New York. The conference is held every five years by the countries that signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty to review its progress. The grand bargain of the treaty was that nuclear weapons states agreed to work toward disarmament, non-nuclear states agreed not to acquire nuclear weapons and all states were assured access to peaceful uses of nuclear technology. 

President Obama and Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty on April 8. The treaty, which must be ratified by the U.S. Senate, reduces deployed strategic warheads to 1,550 (30 percent below the existing ceiling), limits the United States and Russia to no more than 700 delivery vehicles and includes new verification requirements. It provides an incentive for other nations to strengthen their commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

‘No victors, only victims’

Catholics may be surprised to learn that the Holy See is an original signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Nuclear war is rejected in Church teaching because the use of nuclear weapons cannot insure noncombatant immunity, and their destructive potential and lingering radiation cannot be meaningfully proportionate. 

Pope Benedict XVI said in a January 2006 statement, “In a nuclear war there would be no victors, only victims.” 

Cardinal Francis George, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, welcomed the signing of the START. The threat is a timely issue that will require Senate action on this modest step toward a world without nuclear weapons. 

Stephen M. Colecchi is the director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.