Going nuclear

A new UBC course tackles nuclear warfare. Photo: Creative Commons
UBC Prof.
Two UBC professors have joined forces for a new course that challenges students to ask big questions about nuclear weapons.

Is nuclear war inevitable? Can nuclear weapons be abolished? And how do we know when countries are developing a nuclear bomb? A new multidisciplinary course aims to help students answer some of these questions.

Living With Nuclear Weapons (Poli 369T), a joint initiative between Matthew Yedlin from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Allen Sens from the Department of Political Science, offers students both the scientific principles and global perspective of nuclear weapons and arms control.

Countries that possess a nuclear weapon are included in what’s called the ‘Nuclear Club.’  Are nuclear weapons as much about social status as it is about security?

Sens:It depends on who we’re talking about. The overriding rationale for acquiring a nuclear weapon is security, rightly or wrongly. That was the rationale for the United States bomb–the fear that Nazi Germany would get one first. The Russian bomb was largely because the Americans had one, so the Soviets got one too. China, see above.

But I think with the United Kingdom and France, other motives were at play with regards to wanting to preserve great power status. France also didn’t want to have to rely on the United States much, so it was as much a national expression of French national independence as it was about national security.

Israel? Security. Wanting to have their own bomb as the ultimate deterrent. Ironically in their region of the world if there was a nuclear war, no one’s getting out of there. The geography of the region is just too small for anything other that disaster to occur. South Africa? Same thing, isolated country that needed security and saw it as a last resort.

There’s a very powerful prestige element when it comes to some of the motives of some of the nuclear-weapon states. But in other cases, it’s much more driven by security from the threat of an outside force.

It’s those motives that we’ll look to uncover in the course.

How did the idea for this course first come about?

Yedlin: The idea for the course came when I attended a seminar offered by the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, an organization that monitors the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. They want to train the next generation in aspects of nuclear weapons control and wanted to design courses related to their work.

Sens: I’ve always wanted to teach a course on nuclear weapons because of their significance in our world. And I could do it pretty effectively, but what I’ve always thought would be missing would be a vital math and science component. So when this idea came through the pipes, I thought it was too good an opportunity to pass up.