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Research: The Nuclear World Today

News Story

Nathanael Linton ’19, with mentorship from Dyson Assistant Professor Jared Manasek, PhD, examines the ever-complex world of nuclear weapons, which represents and arguably larger threat today than ever before.

Nowadays, nuclear weapons are rarely front page news—an honor more often bestowed to domestic and international political developments, environmental issues, and ever-rapid technological advancement. Yet, as demonstrated through the research of recent Dyson graduate Nathanael Linton ’19 with assistance from Dyson Assistant Professor Jared Manasek, PhD, the threat of nuclear activity is arguably greater than it has ever been. Linton’s paper—Now or Never: The Anti-nuclear Movement in the Nuclear World—examines the changes in nuclear arsenal building since the end of the Cold War amidst a changing global landscape, alongside the rise of conflicting disarmament and arms-building philosophies.

“It’s really surprising how close things are, when you really look at it, to nuclear warfare possibly happening. If you read the 2018 nuclear posture review, it literally explains why the United States is once again building their nuclear weapons arsenal,” says Linton. “In my research, I was investigating some of the answers as to why this was happening.”

From a public perception standpoint, the threat of nuclear war was much more prevalent during the Cold War. As Linton notes, the media was much more “in your face about it,” largely because the USSR and the United States often practiced strategies of brinkmanship, escalating potentially dangerous events such as the 1961 Cuban Missile Crisis to the brink of active conflict. Today however, because there is no one obvious threat—but rather an array nations and entities with diverging interests and incentives—Linton argues that the situation today is considerably less stable.

This opinion is shared by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Nuclear Doomsday Clock, who have labeled the current situation as “two minutes to midnight,” a designation that has only been matched on one occasion, during the height of the Cold War in 1953.

“During the Cold War, due to the conflicts between the US and the USSR, civilians had more of an understanding about the threat of nuclear weapons,” says Linton. “I don’t think the feeling toward nuclear war is as strong as during the Cold War due to the fact that there’s not rival powers, but instead multiple global events, and you have to piece all those global events together to understand it might be more dangerous."

“One of the interesting things about Nathanael’s work is he’s really gone at this question of ‘how did it change?’” says Manasek. “I was young in the 1980s and I remember being absolutely terrified that the Soviet Union was going to nuke us. Then the Cold War ends and it seems to stop being an issue, but then it turns out to be a different, and possibly more dangerous issue.”

While delving further and further into his research, Linton also got the chance to speak to Pace’s Matthew Bolton, PhD, Director of Pace’s Disarmament Institute and world-renowned leader in the nuclear disarmament movement. Bolton and Dyson Assistant Professor Emily Welty, PhD, are heavily involved in the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017 for their tireless advocacy and commitment to taking actionable steps to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide.

Given the scope of his research, Linton was very interested in Bolton’s thoughts on disarmament as it pertains to the “Big Five”—the five countries (The United States, Russia, China, the UK, and France) that are permanent members on the United Nations Security Council. While there has been huge progress on the disarmament front thanks to groups like ICAN, the task for total disarmament remains an extremely daunting one, and would require an extreme mentality shift amongst the global superpowers.

“It’s a mentality of what the bomb represents that has to change. If the big five countries are not willing to change their mentality—and take away the value that the bomb has—if they’re willing to do that, then nuclear disarmament can happen in the future. But as of right now, government structures are still maintaining the value that the bomb represents, and trying to make it matter even more,” says Linton.

Linton hopes to continue working on this ever-evolving research as he embarks on his postgraduate career, and eventually law school. Perhaps a few years down the road, with a law degree under his belt, he will be able to draw upon his research to help spur impactful and lasting action.

“Students and individuals should be aware of what’s going on. It’s up to us to piece and string together the different events, the bigger picture, and look at the reigning mentalities of certain nations,” says Linton. “Hopefully, research like this could help add to the already growing awareness to nuclear weapons and disarmament.”