The importance of teaching about nuclear weapons

This article is adapted from an American Association of Physics Teachers talk on Aug. 3, 2004. Physics and Society is the quarterly newsletter of the Forum on Physics and Society of the American Physical Society.

There is no way to deal with the policy and the moral issues related to the use of nuclear weapons without understanding the technical background, at least to the extent that (as I tell students), the politicians representing them, their staff, and the executive leading private companies involved must understand them. The technical knowledge is essential in itself and it also provides a common basis for broader discussion. There are a few major topics under the heading of nuclear issues, and each has an underlying technical component. The dangers are nuclear terrorism, launch of a nuclear weapon owing to warning system failure, and nuclear war, in any of several forms. The positive side includes nuclear energy if it is done right, nuclear medicine and industrial applications.