Reducing the Risks of Nuclear War through Education

By Luisa Kenausis, Scoville Fellow

Nuclear weapons present an existential danger to the world. Over a few generations now, the world has wrestled with tough questions about these weapons: do they make us safer or less safe? Can we continue to rely on nuclear deterrence to protect us? How can we reduce the risks of nuclear weapons being used due to miscommunication, technical failure or human error? And where should we be focusing our efforts to prevent nuclear war?

I have my own ideas about some of the answers, but these and other questions will continue to plague policymakers and citizens for decades to come as we struggle to find the safest way to think about and treat nuclear weapons. In the meantime, I’ve turned part of my attention to a slightly smaller question: What can we do now to pave the way for effective nuclear weapons policy in the future? I believe a key part of the answer lies in education — and in particular, education about nuclear weapons.

Generally speaking, most students in the United States know relatively little about nuclear weapons. With North Korea’s nuclear weapons program making advances and headlines in 2017, thoughts and fears of nuclear war are back on the rise, but high school and university curricula barely touch these world-changing weapons beyond perhaps a brief mention of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombings of Japan.

This gap in the education of today’s students poses a problem. In a matter of years, these students will be the leaders, policymakers, and voting citizens of our country, and we are failing to prepare them to prioritize and address the complex challenges of nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Weapons Education Project seeks to correct this by working to introduce information about nuclear weapons into the classroom.

I first got involved with the Nuclear Weapons Education Project as a student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) around three years ago, when Professor Aron Bernstein (of the Department of Physics) was organizing a small group of volunteers to discuss how nuclear weapons education could be implemented, on MIT’s campus and at other universities. We focused on the idea of introducing nuclear weapons information into a variety of college classes — by adding one or two lectures focused on nuclear weapons, crafting homework or exam questions that relate to nuclear weapons, or hosting film screenings and class discussions. The group of volunteers also planned and began work on an informative Nuclear Weapons Education Project website, an ongoing endeavor at MIT.

In the last few years, Prof. Bernstein has visited universities around the country and given physics colloquia on the Nuclear Weapons Education Project. The results of this travel include an active network of physicists and educators at around a dozen schools, who are actively engaged with the Nuclear Weapons Education Project and seeking to advance the goal of educating students on nuclear weapons at their home institutions.

Here at the Center, I’m still committed to the ideas and goals of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project, but I’m looking at a different group of students in need of nuclear education: high school students. Targeting students in top-ranked universities may help increase the knowledge base of tomorrow’s nuclear policymakers, but it will not lead to greater understanding of these potentially world-ending weapons in the American public — that will require much broader educational efforts that reach many more students. For now, I’m working with Dr. Sara Kutchesfahani and Erin Connolly at the Center on a plan to visit local high schools and offer a lecture on nuclear weapons to interested social studies and world history classes.

The long-term goals of the Nuclear Weapons Education Project are large and ambitious, but our definitions of success are smaller. If our efforts lead to a handful of students becoming deeply engaged with nuclear weapons issues, that is a success. But more broadly, we hope to help students and citizens become more aware of, and interested in, nuclear weapons policy. If we truly intend to someday solve the complicated problem of nuclear weapons, an informed and engaged public will play a vital role — and for that, we need education.