It is difficult to underestimate the problems associated with North Korea's recent nuclear weapons test. Following a small atomic explosion in a mountainous area of North Korea of less than one kiloton -- the Hiroshima bomb was 13 kilotons -- the U.S. administration is encouraging draconian economic sanctions to be enacted against a desperately poor country where millions of people are malnourished and that will further ostracize a paranoid regime, while the rest of the world looks on with horror as the nuclear arms race threatens to spiral out of control.
While lateral proliferation is indeed an incredibly serious problem as ever-more countries prepare to enter the portals of the nuclear club, one consistent outstanding nuclear threat that continues to endanger most planetary species is ignored by the international community.
In fact, the real "rogue" nations that continue to hold the world at nuclear ransom are Russia and the United States. Contrary to popular belief, the threat of a massive nuclear attack -- whether by accident, human fallibility or malfeasance -- has increased.
Of the 30,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, the United States and Russia possess 96 per cent of them. Of these, Russia aims most of its 8,200 strategic nuclear warheads at U.S. and Canadian targets, while the U.S. aims most of its 7,000 offensive strategic hydrogen bombs on Russian missile silos and command centres. Each of these thermonuclear warheads has roughly 20 times the destructive power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, according to a report on nuclear weapons by the National Resources Defense Council, a U.S. environmental group.
Of these 7,000 U.S. strategic weapons, 2,500 are deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles that are constantly maintained on hair-trigger alert ready for immediate launching, while the U.S. also maintains some 2,688 hydrogen bombs on missiles in its 14 Trident submarines, most ready for instantaneous launching.
According to the Center for Defense Information, a group that analyzes U.S. defence policy, in the event of a suspected attack, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command has only three minutes to decide if a nuclear attack warning is valid. He has 10 minutes to locate the president for a 30-second briefing on attack options, and the president then has three minutes to decide to launch the warheads and to consider which pre-set targeting plan to use.
Once launched, the missiles would take 10 to 30 minutes to reach their Russian targets.
An almost identical situation prevails in Russia, except unlike the combined U.S. and Canadian NORAD early-warning equipment, the Russian system is decaying rapidly, its early-warning satellites are almost non-functional and it now relies on a relatively primitive over-the-horizon radar to warn it of an imminent secret first-strike attack from the United States.
The Russian military and political leaders are suitably paranoid about this extraordinary post-Cold-War situation. So much so that in January 1995 president Boris Yeltsin came to within 10 seconds of launching his nuclear armada when the launch of a Norwegian weather satellite was misinterpreted in Moscow as a pre-emptive U.S. nuclear attack.
Most towns and cities with populations over 50,000 on the North American continent are targeted with at least one hydrogen bomb. Only 1,000 bombs exploding on 100 cities could induce nuclear winter and the end of most life on earth. There are fewer than 300 major cities in the Northern hemisphere.
Such is the redundancy of nuclear weapons. A U.S. Foreign Military Studies Office report of January 2002, "Prototypes for Targeting America, a Soviet Military Assessment," states that New York City, for example, is the single most important target in the Atlantic region after major military installations. A U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report, commissioned in the 1980s but still relevant, estimated that Soviet nuclear war plans had two one-megaton bombs aimed at each of three airports that serve New York, one aimed at each of the major bridges, two at Wall Street and two at each of four oil refineries. The major rail centres and power stations were also targeted, along with the port facilities.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency estimates that New York City would be obliterated by nuclear blasts and the resulting firestorms and fallout.
Millions of people would die instantly. Survivors would perish shortly thereafter from burns and exposure to radiation.
Terrifyingly, the early warning systems of both Russia and the U.S. register false alarms daily, triggered either by wildfires, satellite launchings or solar reflections off clouds or oceans. Of more immediate concern in both the United States and Russia is the threat of terrorists or hackers entering and disrupting the computerized early warning systems and command centres.
Therefore, as the world tries to come to terms with a possible tiny new entrant into the nuclear club, the U.S. Security Council, the U.S. administration, the U.S. Congress, the Canadian government and the Kremlin fail to recognize the most serious danger -- thousands of hydrogen bombs maintained on tenuous hair-trigger alert.
What has induced this state of global psychic numbing, and why are these issues never officially addressed?
Now that Russia and the U.S. maintain a friendly working relationship, it is time to reinvigorate the extraordinary precedent established by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavic in 1988, to urgently agree to abolish nuclear weapons bilaterally.
Only then will the nuclear superpowers have the moral authority to legitimately and actively promote multilateral nuclear disarmament through the United Nations and to police other countries to discourage lateral proliferation.
France and China have already agreed to abolish their nuclear weapons should the superpowers disarm. Israel, Pakistan and India, who have not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, would need extra pressure.
Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has called for a clear road map for nuclear disarmament to be established.
Time is not on our side.
Helen Caldicott is a pediatrician and president of the Washington-based Nuclear Policy Research Institute. She is the author of Nuclear Power is Not the Answer.