Nuclear power and warfare


Atomic bombThe world's first nuclear explosion was within the context of the Second World War on 6th August 1945, when the Americans dropped a bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The bomb killed around 80,000 people, injured thousands more and destroyed about 80% of the city's buildings. Three days later, the USA dropped a second bomb on the city of Nagasaki, killing another 40,000 people. The Japanese had no way of dealing with these weapons, so they surrendered, bringing the Second World War to an end.

Cold War

Almost as soon as the Second World War came to an end, the Cold War began. The term ‘cold’ refers to the fact that, while there was ongoing tension between two competing sides, they did not actually resort to open warfare. The two sides had previously been World War II allies, the USA and the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). What made the Cold War particularly threatening was that both sides had nuclear weapons, which they tested openly throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

In the early 1950s, the United Kingdom became the world's third nuclear nation, after the USA and the Soviet Union. In reaction to the alarming devastation that nuclear warfare could unleash, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was founded in 1957. Its aim was that the United Kingdom should abandon its nuclear weapons, unilaterally (i.e. whether or not other nations followed the example). Politically, it tended to attract more support from Labour party voters than from any other party.
The threat of nuclear war increased people’s personal anxiety in the face of inadequate guidance about what to do in the event of attack, as well as social paranoia about communist infiltration, popularly referred to as ‘reds under the bed’. 

The Cuban missile crisis, 1962

The island of Cuba is around 90 miles off the coast of the American state of Florida. In 1962, the Americans discovered that the Russians were building nuclear missile bases there. These could be used to attack many places in the United States at the same time. 
In response, the American navy blockaded Cuba, so as to prevent the Russians from delivering materials by ship to the bases. After several days, when it looked like there could be a clash between American and Russian ships, the Russians backed down. This is the closest the world has come to a nuclear conflict to date.

Nuclear weapons treaties

In 1963, the United States, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom signed the Limited Test Ban Treaty. This was the first of many agreements to limit and control the development of nuclear weapons. The most recent was the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 2011 between the United States and the Russian Federation, effective until 2021.

Nuclear power


Nuclear power was developed for peaceful, as well as warlike, purposes. In 1956, the first nuclear power-station in the world opened at Calder Hall in the north of England and, in 1958, the first nuclear-powered submarine went from the Atlantic to the Pacific under the North Pole. From this point until the late 1980s, the use of nuclear power to generate electricity grew rapidly in developed countries. This growth then stalled for two basic reasons:
  • Nuclear power was becoming less economically attractive
  • Increasing fear about the safely of nuclear power and the problems of storing radioactive waste.

Safety concerns

Opposition to nuclear power particularly increased in response to two major nuclear accidents at reactors on Three Mile Island in the United States, in 1979, and at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union, in 1986. Another serious accident occurred at Fukishima in Japan in 2011. Radiation leaked into the air, the sea and the soil. As a result, 50,000 homes had to be abandoned.

Rogue states

In the early years of nuclear power, only a limited number of nations had the necessary technology to develop it. They were all under the influence of the two main Cold War nations, the United States and the Soviet Union. However, nuclear capability gradually spread to more unstable and unpredictable nations. In recent times, the nuclear developments of two nations in particular, have caused anxiety in the West:
  • North Korea declared that it had carried out its first nuclear test in 2006. In 2009, it announced that it had developed a nuclear weapon
  • Iran's first nuclear power plant opened in September 2011. The Iranian government insisted that its only interest in nuclear power was for peaceful purposes, but there remain concerns that the technology may be used to develop nuclear weapons.
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