American students aren’t taught nuclear weapons policy in school. Here’s how to fix that problem.

By Erin Connolly, Kate Hewitt | June 11, 2018


“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.

Ducking the issue. Our generation has grown up largely unaware of nuclear weapons policy debates. The Cold War generation had a very different experience. Practicing duck-and-cover drills in school, they were constantly reminded of this existential threat. While the drills were ineffective for protecting people from a major blast or subsequent radiation, they were effective in terms of raising public awareness about the national security threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The abandonment of duck-and-cover drills might not be a big deal, but it meant that nuclear weapons were left out of public education altogether. This has affected how Americans engage with the issue as adults.

Ignoring nuclear weapons is an unsustainable approach; the public must be aware of this existential threat to the United States and what policies officials have chosen to address this threat. But awareness of these issues is intrinsically linked to issue exposure. For example, one of us (Connolly) found nuclear weapons by chance through a course in college; the other grew up in a town built on nuclear weapons technology but only truly dove into the subject through university studies. When we were exposed to it, we found nuclear weapons policy to be interesting (hence our career choice) but complex. Recognizing the need to increase both exposure and accessibility, we became determined to educate the next generation by providing enough background and information so that students could engage on the issue and feel comfortable looking deeper than the headlines.

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.

Equipped for engagement. The next generation is constantly bombarded by news, alerts, and social media updates. When it comes to nuclear policy, however, young Americans are almost completely unaware of the choices to which they are tacitly consenting. The US federal government plans to spend $1.2 trillion over the next 30 years to modernize its nuclear arsenal, and today’s young people will bear much of that cost. While the US arsenal must be updated and secure, there are certain aspects that may be unnecessary—yet lawmakers have little accountability for their spending on nuclear weapons, and this has created a situation in which millions of dollars have been wasted. North Korea has become a public concern, but few people know what the threat truly is, or what a viable path forward would look like. The fact that many students believe Iran has a nuclear weapon shows how headlines can mislead the public.

We want to equip students with the information to engage on these issues and discuss them with family and friends, to ask questions of their representatives, and even to consider careers in the field. Nuclear policy affects everyone, yet only one American gets to decide whether to launch an attack, and only a handful of people decide how much money taxpayers will spend on nuclear weapons.

For the public to be engaged in nuclear policy debates, education is critical. That is our mission: to provide students and the public with tools they can use to make informed decisions regarding their money and their future. Fewer than one percent of the students we surveyed knew which countries had nuclear weapons, let alone that the United States and Russia hold more than 90 percent of the current global stockpile. The knowledge gap between the public and policymakers has become too wide—we are here to narrow it. Washington State marked the beginning: 1,100 students down and millions to go.

And in answer to the question posed at the beginning of this essay, there are nine countries with nuclear weapons.

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Mark Petnuch
Mark Petnuch
4 years ago

I taught atomic history in my 7-8th grade science classes for years on my own through the late 80’s and all of the 90’s. I used my texts and references that often had FAS and ‘Bulletin’ origins. Also included my VHS tapes like ‘Atomic Cafe’ , even ‘Dr.Strangelove’ to highlight what Civil Defense efforts ans SAC war plans were like vs. the reality of nuclear weapons use. Living, teaching in Chicago suburban area I had lots of local places to reference and field trips to places like Fermi Lab and Red Gate Woods. But nearly all of that was left… Read more »

4 years ago

Nuclear war is “unthinkable”. That’s why so few even want to think about it. I remember every other issue of Newsweek and Time had cover stories about treaties, dangers, etc. This subject should never have gone away because it has never stopped being relevant. I couldn’t believe the level of disinterest when Reagan made his over the top statements and threats. We all damn near died. God help us.

Ian Turnbull
4 years ago

Dear Atomic Bulletin, there is a glitch somewhere in the ‘Post Comment’ system: this post about “including Israel” is not mine. I had logged in, thinking to post, but in the end, turned away. However, since I am hear, I’ll mention my big concern: that while we have developed an excellent knowledge of the physics of the atom, the metaphysics of this small family system of particles (that we know as ‘atoms’) is entirely ignored. It only requires a modest amount of introspection to determine that the energetic forces in each and every atom are identical to the forms of… Read more »

Rose Gottemoeller
Rose Gottemoeller
4 years ago

Excellent project : congratulations Erin and Kate, keep at it! RG

John Amidon
John Amidon
4 years ago

I strongly disagree with the thought, “While the US arsenal must be updated and secure, there are certain aspects that may be unnecessary . . . ” We need to disarm. We need nuclear abolition. We have signed a treaty that require us to do so. Stating that the US arsenal must be updated and secure is incredibly limited and dangerous thinking and in violation of the US Constitution.

Megan Rice
Megan Rice
4 years ago
Reply to  John Amidon

Let’s just implement the Nuclear Non-proliferation and communicate what it holds us all responsible to do – internationally: eliminate/transform now with no further delay, all weapons of mass destruction into life-enhancing alternatives .
– and possibly eliminate the unimployment problems in many countries – esp the nuclear industrial complex.


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