Last week’s international conference aimed at securing nuclear materials illustrates just how much the world has changed in the last half-century or so.
Even as a child, I harbored a certain healthy distrust of government.
I recall experiencing a mild fear each time I passed the fallout shelter in the basement of the school.
This fear stemmed from the fact that there was always a danger that the government of the US or the Soviet Union would do something stupid and get us all killed.
Whether or not it was justified, the threat of a nuclear war was a real concern for many of us in those days.
As a young student, I can recall reflecting bitterly on the thought that the politicians and the generals were probably going to destroy the world before I was old enough to fully experience it.
As it turned out, the US and the USSR managed to not demolish the planet.
I suspect that this was largely due to the fact that both governments realized that once the missiles began to fly, neither country would survive. There was just enough fear on both sides to keep things in balance.
The Soviet Union eventually unraveled, and the cold war faded into history.
The world we live in today is very different than the one we knew back then.
However, the threat of a nuclear disaster is still with us, and it is perhaps even more dangerous now than it has ever been.
Instead of two global superpowers squaring-off against one-another like a couple of sumo wrestlers, the new threat is likely to come from small groups of fanatics.
It is not surprising that these terrorist groups are eager to get their hands on nuclear weapons.
Terrorists spend a lot of their time plotting ways to create chaos and kill people.
It is much more frightening to think of nuclear weapons in the hands of these knuckleheads than it is to think of these weapons in the hands of a government.
And, lest anyone should get the idea that I am disrespecting someone’s religion, let me clarify this point.
If someone straps a load of explosives around his body and detonates it in a crowded public place, killing many random people, he is not practicing religion. He is just plain nuts.
The goal of psychos like that is to spread hatred, fear, and murder, not religion.
The cult-like nature of these groups further supports this conclusion.
If everyone in these groups participated in the kind of suicide bombing that has become so prevalent in recent years, the groups would soon disappear through attrition.
However, one observes that it is not the cowardly leaders of these groups that do the heavy lifting.
They must continue to recruit young and impressionable disciples to go out and kill themselves for the good of the organization.
It would be disastrous if nuclear weapons fell into the hands of these lunatics.
Unfortunately, there is a lot of material out there to be had.
About 500 tons of plutonium, and 1,600 tons of highly enriched uranium are scattered around the world. Some say this is enough material to make 120,000 nuclear bombs.
That is a lot of potential mayhem, and the fact that the US and Russia have been trying unsuccessfully to get this stuff locked down for about a decade is not a good sign.
The recent nuclear summit brought together 47 countries to come up with a plan to halt the spread of nuclear weapons and keep them out of the hands of terrorists.
One of the goals is to secure the nuclear materials within four years, which seems optimistic in view of past performance.
One hopes, however, that these world leaders will find a way to get the problem resolved, and that they will do so soon.
A lot of this material is currently stored in places that are facing economic hardship, which increases the possibility of the materials falling into the wrong hands if the price is right.
If that day comes, there is no telling what might ensue.
And, even as the world comes together to neutralize the existing threat, the nuclear problem continues to evolve.
The current technology used to enrich uranium for weapons takes a lot of space and energy, making it fairly easy to find plants designed for this purpose.
There is new technology that uses lasers to separate out the isotope of uranium that is needed.
This new technology is much easier to hide, which means it could potentially spread more easily without detection.
One hopes that the recent nuclear summit will be the start of a successful effort to control proliferation.
It is sometimes difficult to have much faith in our fearless leaders, but in this case, they might be the only hope we’ve got.
We may not be able to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, but if we are able to at least secure the materials, it may keep us all from suffering some very unpleasant consequences.