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American students aren’t taught nuclear weapons policy in school. Here’s how to fix that problem via The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Erin ConnollyKate Hewitt

“How many countries have nuclear weapons?” we asked. Students shouted out answers: one, seven, 34, all of the countries in the world.

“Which countries have nuclear weapons?” We heard responses that included the United States, Japan, Iran, Turkey, Germany, Syria, Costa Rica, Canada, Iraq, Italy, South Korea, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates — along with Islam and Africa, which are not countries.

We expected students in colleges and high schools near Manhattan Project sites to have some foundational knowledge of nuclear weapons, their history, and current issues. We were wrong.

Nuclear weapons represent an existential threat to the United States, but the policy discussion surrounding them has largely left the public space. The jargon and reports are intimidating, which we came to terms with ourselves when we entered this field. Nuclear weapons policy is not easily accessible; this is nothing new, and scholars like Carol Cohn, an expert on gender and global security issues, have explained why. But if experts want the public to be engaged in nuclear policy debates, education and inclusivity are critical. There is no more time to waste, so the two of us decided to start educating the public ourselves.

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In the classroom. Creating a comprehensive presentation that would interest students and leave time for questions in a single class period was no small project. We began the process by deciphering nuclear history and current policy debates, putting them into bite-size pieces that students could easily digest in 45 minutes. Once this monumental task was finished, we set our sights on Washington State’s Tri-Cities area, where one of us (Hewitt) grew up—and where the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki was produced, at the Hanford Site. Anticipating that the general population might have limited knowledge on nuclear issues, we hoped communities built on nuclear technology might have a vested interest. The Hanford Site presented itself as the logical launch pad for our initiative to educate the next generation on nuclear weapons issues.

Over the course of 22 presentations in four days, we found students to be engaged and curious, but also surprised by the information we presented. This topic was new for most of them, and their questions were thoughtful and concerned. Many believed Iran had a nuclear weapon, some wondered why we “didn’t just nuke North Korea,” and others countered that we have a “shield” to shoot down missiles as they approach the United States.

We carefully explained each of these issues. There was, in fact, an international agreement in place to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and contrary to some reports, this agreement was working. Iran has no nuclear weapon. In fact, the International Atomic Energy Agency has confirmed 10 times that the Iran nuclear deal is working. “Nuking North Korea” seems like a simple solution, but we worked through the facts. We do not know where all of North Korea’s nuclear (not to mention chemical and biological) facilities are located. We know that Seoul could be destroyed by conventional means alone. In terms of a shield, the United States has spent more than $45 billion on the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system to protect the country, yet it has only “a limited capability to defend the US homeland” from missile threats in the best of conditions. The US Government Accountability Office has said the system needs significant improvements in order to be reliable. Diplomacy has proven to be the most effective guardian of the US homeland.

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