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Two weeks ago I participated in an interesting conference about the former Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant. Most of the conference addressed health and environmental issues, but I was preoccupied with the reason for the plants very existence — nuclear deterrence.

On the issue of nuclear deterrence, political differences between supporters and critics of the Rocky Flats plant have not diminished during the two decades since the facility closed. Supporters continue to believe that the nuclear weapons fashioned at the Rocky Flats plant helped prevent a nuclear holocaust. Critics still think these weapons actually made such a catastrophe more likely, and that the weapons even now constitute a deadly nuclear incubus upon humanity.

The theory behind nuclear deterrence was called (quite appropriately) mutual assured destruction, or MAD. As critics — of which I am one — often pointed out, the MAD theory has numerous flaws.

Militarily effective deterrence required that nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert. Thus a false warning or an erroneous signal could quickly precipitate a catastrophic nuclear exchange. Political leaders could never be certain that their nuclear arsenal was sufficient to withstand a preemptive attack by the enemy. Thus they were perpetually motivated to build ever more sophisticated and deadly weapons. Conversely, political leaders were tempted to seize temporary advantages in weapons technology by attacking the enemy.

The unending political tension created by MAD inhibited any constructive interaction between nuclear adversaries and encouraged negative interpretations of all the opponent’s actions.

Even if we assume that MAD inhibited full-scale nuclear exchanges between the superpowers, it certainly did not prevent bloody regional wars like those in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, it clearly increased the likelihood of such conflicts. Moreover, the precedents established by the nuclear weapons policies of the United States and the Soviet Union strongly encouraged other countries to acquire a nuclear deterrent: “If the superpowers require nuclear weapons, so do we.” Thus bilateral MAD inexorably morphed into multilateral MAD. Consequently several current international conflicts entail the danger of nuclear warfare: India-Pakistan, Israel-Iran, North Korea-USA, China-Japan, Russia-USA. And there could be many more potential nuclear conflicts in the near future.

Our world will not be safe from atomic warfare until the nuclear deterrence strategy is thoroughly discredited, and until nuclear weapons are entirely eliminated. A tragic legacy of the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant is that it made this urgent task far more difficult.

The Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center’s “Peace Train” column runs every Friday in the Colorado Daily.

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