It is a strange paradox that nations appear to be safer with nuclear weapons than without. Political scientist John Mearsheimer noted in 1993 that Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons would leave it exposed to being threatened by Russia. And if Russia did not have nuclear weapons, a third world war may become more probable – currently Vladimir Putin’s threats of nuclear war have prevented the erection of a “no fly zone” – aka shooting down Russian planes.

North Korea’s government remains in place and relatively unmolested precisely because of its weapons. Moreover, nuclear weapons have only been used twice by a democracy in the time of world war. Subsequently, they have remained, in the words of Mao Zedong, paper tigers.

Consider the heated exchange between former US President Donald J Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Both threatened nuclear extermination but neither followed through, and both went on to forge a strange friendship.

Kim Jong Un walks away from what state media report is a “new type” of intercontinental ballistic missile in this undated photo released on March 24, 2022, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. Credit: Reuters

Yet, a denuclearised world would still be a safer world. After all, would Putin have behaved the way he had if Russia did not possess a nuclear arsenal – larger than the US? Moreover, the idea that nuclear weapons are a threat on paper alone overlooks the various times nuclear weapons have nearly been deployed.

There were repeated instances in the Cold War when nuclear weapons were seriously considered. American politician Barry Goldwater,who ran against Democrat Lyndon B Johnson, threatened the use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam, and many military strategists were eager to test out nuclear weapons, too.

Let us not forget that a Soviet submarine nearly launched nuclear torpedos at the US navy on October 27, 1962. It is due to the resolve of Vasily Arkhipov that the crisis was averted. The proximity of nuclear destruction during the Cuban missile crisis has never been forgotten, but its hold over us is not as great as it should be.

There are many more instances where the world came close to nuclear weapons being deployed, often due to technological or human error. Wikipedia has a whole page dedicated to “nuclear close calls” as it euphemistically terms potential megadeath. Yet, the world remains oblivious to the lurking threats imposed by the existence of nuclear weapons, reminding one of Bertolt Brecht’s wartime poem “To Those Born After”: “The man who laughs/Has simply not yet heard/ The terrible news.”

We can wait and “laugh” until the moment it reaches us, kills us, mutates our future generations, rendering slow violence as part of their daily existence, or we can raise our voice, make our leaders hear the horrors of the nuclear weapon and force them to abandon such genocidal projects. We do have a choice to laugh in the present or to resist for the future life on the planet.

Of course, how can we ignore the very real possibility of a nuclear weapon accidentally going off. Infamously, nuclear bombs have been accidentally dropped by the US air force on the United States.

For instance, in 1958 an atomic bomb was dropped on a farm in Mars Bluff, South Carolina – luckily it did not detonate. Two hydrogen bombs were dropped on North Carolina on January 23, 1961, which mercifully did not go off.

There have been more recent incidents as well. A CNN headline from 2013 reads, “Missile doors left open while officer slept”. The full story is even more chilling as the doors were left open while a crew member collected a food delivery. Nuclear weapons are not as safely protected as the sedative narratives that let us believe so.

Belief and weapons always make wrong company and cannot be let off to go to bed together. How can one believe in such slippery narratives when the past shows a gory picture, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki to Chernobyl?

For so much of the twentieth century, there was a recurring dread of annihilation, of nuclear apocalypse. Yet, amid the horror of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, we have repeatedly heard calls for more nuclear weapons, and attempts to normalise the possibility of nuclear war.

Within the South Asia context, there has always been a possible nuke-threat. Keeping in view Pakistan’s recurrent threat of using nuclear weapons, the recent misfire of India’s missile could have easily paved way for a retaliatory action. These events should be enough to create more awareness about the possibility of nuclear wars in near future.

Yet, a society that is driven by and structured on the narratives of nuclear weapons is as much a threat to others as to its own existence since radiation does not recognise any racial or national boundaries. Unlike humans, radioactive radiation can reach out to all humans, albeit in horrifying ways.

From an ecological and global perspective, it stands to reason that fewer nuclear weapons mean less danger and threats. The fewer the weapons, the lesser the threat of extinction.

But denuclearisation should not focus exclusively on nuclear weapons. Nuclear powerplants are increasingly threatened by the simultaneously natural and unnatural disasters of climate change (recall the urgency after Fukushima). The scenes of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on fire from shelling, remind us that war could also unleash accidental nuclear disasters.

Staff work on black plastic bags containing radiated soil, leaves and debris from the decontamination operation in Tomioka town in Fukushima prefecture, near tsunami-hit Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in February 2015. Credit: Reuters

A nuclear war would be catastrophic, but so would be nuclear accidents. While accidents cannot be avoided, nuclear power imaginations can certainly be erased.

The journey from nuclear power to denuclearisation requires both political and social will. It imposes on us a challenge to be cognizant of the horrors of radioactive life, a kind of life in which breathing itself becomes undemocratic and fascist.

During the end of the Cold War, there was a renewed faith in people power: in people dismantling walls and barriers, and a hope for denuclearisation. This may seem naive today, but that does not make it less urgent.

Every defeated injustice at one point seemed triumphant and impossible to overturn – it was accepted as part of the nature of things. We must not scoff at utopianism, if we wish there to be those born after.

Aleks Wansbrough teaches at Sydney College of the Arts, University of Sydney, Australia. He contributes to a range of publications, including The Conversation and Green Left.

Om Prakash Dwivedi is the Head, School of Liberal Arts, Bennett University, Greater Noida, India. He tweets at @opdwivedi82