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Reform U.S. nuclear weapons policy before it's too late

The Russian president boasted that the weapons are capable of bypassing any missile defense system

The way our federal income taxes are spent reflects the priorities of our elected officials. This tax season, those officials saw fit to spent $61.5 billion on nuclear weapons ($1.4 billion from Maryland alone). The money was used to further an effort to revamp the country’s nuclear weapons complex but not to make necessary environmental and safety improvements.

Some of the upgrades made to our nuclear program in the past few years look like plans for a “first strike” according to some observers, and experts fear our actions might be destabilizing. Of course, our buildup is being mirrored by Russia, which has responded to what it sees as threats, thus causing a new arms race.

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The winners are the arms manufacturers, in this country: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, General Dynamics and Raytheon. What do we get? Protection from being attacked by nuclear weapons? Certainly not in Baltimore, which contributed $105 million to the 2018 nuclear weapons complex tax. Here, in the shadow of Washington, we can be sure of one thing: We will be close to ground zero for whatever response Moscow is able to deliver if we launch a nuclear weapon. And even if there are no deliberate launches by either side, we still have to worry: There have been dozens of accidents involving nuclear weapons or missiles and false alarms that have left minutes to figure out what to do. A Norwegian weather satellite, a training tape left in place by mistake and a broken computer chip have all been interpreted — initially — as incoming missiles. And last year in Hawaii, a set of errors led to a cellphone alert of an imminent missile attack that took 30 terrifying minutes to correct.

The U.S. has 6,550 nuclear weapons. Yet, we are threatened by North Korea, which is believed to have fewer than 60. The fact is, with nine nuclear nations possessing more than 14,000 combined nuclear weapons, we cannot make the world safe from nuclear war, nuclear winter leading to mass starvation or the end of civilization as we know it. Not by having a launch-on-warning strategy; not by our declared willingness to use nuclear weapons first if a conventional war is not going well; not by tearing up treaties like the INF Treaty, which has kept short and medium range missiles out of Europe for three decades; not by arming our submarines with “small” — near Hiroshima-sized — nuclear warheads, creating the illusion in some delusional leaders that these weapons are OK to use; and not by Vice President Mike Pence declaring with regard to Venezuela that “all options are on the table.”

On Hiroshima Day last year, Baltimore became the first major city to endorse the Back from the Brink campaign’s five steps to reform our nuclear policy:

  1. Renounce first use of nuclear weapons;
  2. End presidential authority to initiate a nuclear launch;
  3. Get weapons off of hair trigger alert
  4. End the $1.3 trillion nuclear weapons build up
  5. And negotiate disarmament with nuclear armed nations.

Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; Salt Lake City and the state of California have followed. Recently, Maryland Del. Pam Queen, supported by many state delegates and the late Speaker Mike Busch in one of his last actions, sent a letter with 50 signatures to our congressional delegation to support bills in Congress that end nuclear weapons first use and prohibit low yield nuclear weapons. Now Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, has introduced a resolution in Congress to support the U.N. Nuclear Weapons Ban and the growing Back from the Brink campaign.

Only a movement of civil society in this country will get a majority of Congresspeople to endorse this. Baltimore has done its part. If only we could demand our $105 million in taxes back and apply the money to that which enhances life in this city, not which threatens it. We can only hope that one tax season in the near future, the nuclear tax will disappear — and we will still be here.

Dr. Gwen L. DuBois (gdubois@jhsph.edu) is president of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. She was also a citizen lobbyist at the United Nations Draft Conference to Ban Nuclear Weapons.

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