By Candice Leigh Helfand

WASHINGTON (CBSDC/AP) — President Barack Obama recently welcomed the new Iranian government’s pursuit of a “more moderate course,” saying it should offer the basis for a breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear impasse with the United Nations and the U.S. He signaled a willingness to directly engage Iran’s leaders, tasking Secretary of State John Kerry with pursuing that diplomacy with Tehran.

“The roadblocks may prove to be too great, but I firmly believe the diplomatic path must be tested,” Obama said last week during an address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Last Friday, Obama made good on his promise of direct engagement when he spoke with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani during a telephone call that marked the first contact between leaders of the two nations since 1979, and expressed optimism regarding both Iranian-American relations in and of themselves as well as the continuation of discussions surrounding Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

In America, the concept of nuclear warfare was, for several decades, a frequent topic of media coverage and a prominent issue leveraged for American propaganda during the Cold War, which spanned 1945 to 1990. In the years following World War II – when the U.S. used two nuclear weapons to strike the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in what are still, to date, the only uses of nuclear weapons during war by any nation against another nation – the U.S. began development of its own nuclear weapons program at a significantly elevated rate.

Widespread fear of a nuclear attack gripped Americans at times of escalated tension as many even constructed their own well-stocked bomb shelters in preparation of a fallout. But fear ultimately faded away as the Cold War became a distant memory and the rules and methodologies of warfare changed.

Obama’s recent efforts to spark a dialogue between himself and Rouhani brought the issue back to the limelight, as have incidents of testing and verbal threats offered by North Korea’s Kim Jong Il and his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, over the past few years. As recently as last month, reports of the development of crucial components to nuclear weapons in North Korea surfaced.

But do Americans continue to fear the threat of nuclear attack from countries in possession of such weapons, or have such menaces taken a backseat to national concern regarding the weapons and methodologies of modern warfare?

Several studies suggest not, including one CNN poll conducted in 2010 that indicates 63 percent of Americans at the time were only mildly worried or not worried at all about “the possibility of nuclear war.” A still significant but ultimate minority of 36 percent of respondents said they worried about the prospect a lot.

There are thousands of nuclear weapons in existence, though many are in our possession. The Federation of American Scientists reports that, at present, Russia and the U.S. have the largest number of nuclear weapons in their stockpiles, at 8,500 and 7,700 weapons respectively. After those two, numbers drop off significantly. France, who comes in third after the U.S., has only a reported 300 nuclear weapons to its name.

Dr. Lisbeth Gronlund, the co-director and a senior scientist of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, suggested that there may all the same be cause for concern while speaking with CBSDC.

“The biggest nuclear threat to the American people might well be a Russian accidental or unauthorized attack or one in response to a false warning of a U.S. attack,” she said before mentioning the long-range missiles both countries have aimed at one another. “This posture is very risky because it allows each country to launch on warning of an incoming attack—and there could be a false warning. High alert levels also make an accidental or unauthorized attack more likely. If something goes wrong—and things do go wrong—the result could be a large U.S. or Russia attack on the other nation.”

She added, “By maintaining its weapons on high alert, the United States encourages Russia to do so as well. We are risking the destruction of our society by clinging to this cold war policy. The U.S. should change its policy and encourage Russia to follow suit.”

George Lewis, a senior research associate at the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, told CBSDC that he has several primary concerns in regards to nuclear weapons, including “existing weapons getting into the wrong hands” and “states getting into situations where nuclear use occurs.”

“[Also], in a world with thousands of nuclear weapons, where governments possess nuclear weapons for a long while without them being used, it is not safe,” he said. “To have thousands of nuclear weapons around, even if they may be perfectly under control, is a very dangerous thing.”

He does not, however, feel that there is an imminent threat of a planned nuclear attack against the United States.

“I think the danger is really more [the weapons] getting into the wrong hands,” he said. “If [that happens], you get into a crisis situation, but I don’t think anyone is [at risk] of doing that besides North Korea – and I don’t know how likely even that would be.”

Gronlund highlighted several other potentially volatile situations in relations to nuclear weapons possession.

“The fact that India and Pakistan are nuclear-armed and have hostile relations is also a real cause for concern. Things can go wrong,” she said. “There is also reason to worry that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal may be vulnerable to theft.”

Both experts also mentioned the nature of how nuclear weapons have development over the years.

“The weapons that the U.S. dropped on Japan were atomic weapons. They relied on the fissioning of atoms,” Gronlund said. “Since then, the U.S. (and Russia, China, Britain and France) have developed more powerful hydrogen bombs that rely on both fission and fusion.”

Lewis stated that there now exists a much larger variety of nuclear weapons, with a “much wider range of explosive powers.”

“In World War II, the weapons we used were 15, 20 kilotons. Now, bombs are less than a tenth of that,” he observed, while also noting their increased potential for widespread destruction if detonated.

“The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had an explosive power equal to that of about 16,000 kilograms (16 kilotons) of TNT,” Gronlund added in agreement. “Today, the explosive power of most U.S. weapons ranges from 100 to 455 kilotons — or 6 to 30 times that of the Hiroshima bomb.”

Not everyone views nuclear weapons as inherently threatening, however.

Ahsan I. Butt, an assistant professor of government and politics at George Mason University, made a presentation at the Belfer Center Library of the Harvard Kennedy School late last month in which he asserted that nuclear weapons have the potential to “equalize strengths between strong and weak countries, as well as negate the advantages of conventional superiority.”

According to the Harvard Crimson, Butt also said that weak states would especially benefit from the possession of nuclear weaponry.

(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2013 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)


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