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TEDWomen 2016

Erika Gregory: The world doesn't need more nuclear weapons

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Today nine nations collectively control more than 15,000 nuclear weapons, each hundreds of times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We don't need more nuclear weapons; we need a new generation to face the unfinished challenge of disarmament started decades ago. Nuclear reformer Erika Gregory calls on today's rising leaders -- those born in a time without Cold War fears and duck-and-cover training -- to pursue an ambitious goal: ridding the world of nuclear weapons by 2045.

- Nuclear reformer
Bringing cross-disciplinary tactics and innovation to a moribund defense industry, N Square’s Erika Gregory seeks to wean the world from its nuclear stockpiles. Full bio

Let me ask you all a question.
00:12
How much weapons-grade nuclear
material do you think it would take
00:16
to level a city the size of San Francisco?
00:20
How many of you think
it would be an amount
00:23
about the size of this suitcase?
00:25
OK. And how about this minibus?
00:29
All right.
00:34
Well actually, under
the right circumstances,
00:35
an amount of highly enriched uranium
about the size of your morning latte
00:38
would be enough to kill 100,000 people
00:43
instantly.
00:46
Hundreds of thousands of others
would become horribly ill,
00:48
and parts of the city
would be uninhabitable for years,
00:52
if not for decades.
00:55
But you can forget that nuclear latte,
00:57
because today's nuclear weapons
are hundreds of times more powerful
01:00
even than those we dropped
on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
01:06
And even a limited nuclear war
involving, say, tens of nuclear weapons,
01:10
could lead to the end
of all life on the planet.
01:16
So it's really important that you know
01:21
that right now we have
over 15,000 nuclear weapons
01:24
in the hands of nine nations.
01:29
And if you live in a city
or near a military facility,
01:32
one is likely pointed right at you.
01:36
In fact, if you live in any
of the rural areas
01:40
where nuclear weapons are stored globally,
01:43
one is likely pointed at you.
01:45
About 1,800 of these weapons
are on high alert,
01:48
which means they can be launched
within 15 minutes
01:52
of a presidential command.
01:56
So I know this is a bummer of an issue,
02:00
and maybe you have that --
what was it? -- psychic fatigue
02:03
that we heard about a little bit earlier.
02:06
So I'm going to switch gears
for just a second,
02:08
and I'm going to talk
about my imaginary friend,
02:10
who I like to think of as Jasmine,
02:13
just for a moment.
02:16
Jasmine, at the age of 25,
02:17
is part of a generation that is more
politically and socially engaged
02:20
than anything we've seen in 50 years.
02:24
She and her friends think of themselves
02:26
as change agents
and leaders and activists.
02:28
I think of them as Generation Possible.
02:32
They regularly protest
about the issues they care about,
02:36
but nuclear weapons are not one of them,
which makes sense,
02:39
because Jasmine was born in 1991,
at the end of the Cold War.
02:42
So she didn't grow up hearing a lot
about nuclear weapons.
02:46
She never had to duck and cover
under her desk at school.
02:50
For Jasmine, a fallout shelter
is an app in the Android store.
02:53
Nuclear weapons help win games.
02:58
And that is really a shame,
03:00
because right now, we need
Generation Possible
03:03
to help us make some really important
decisions about nuclear weapons.
03:06
For instance, will we further reduce
our nuclear arsenals globally,
03:11
or will we spend billions,
03:17
maybe a trillion dollars,
03:20
to modernize them so they last
throughout the 21st century,
03:23
so that by the time Jasmine is my age,
she's talking to her children
03:26
and maybe even her grandchildren
03:29
about the threat of nuclear holocaust?
03:31
And if you're paying any attention
at all to cyberthreats,
03:34
or, for instance, if you've read
about the Stuxnet virus
03:37
or, for God's sake, if you've ever
had an email account or a Yahoo account
03:41
or a phone hacked,
03:45
you can imagine the whole new world
of hurt that could be triggered
03:47
by modernization in a period
of cyberwarfare.
03:52
Now, if you're paying
attention to the money,
03:55
a trillion dollars could go a long way
03:58
to feeding and educating
and employing people,
04:01
all of which could reduce the threat
of nuclear war to begin with.
04:04
So --
04:08
(Applause)
04:09
This is really crucial right now,
04:12
because nuclear weapons --
they're vulnerable.
04:15
We have solid evidence
04:19
that terrorists are trying
to get ahold of them.
04:20
Just this last spring,
04:24
when four retirees
and two taxi drivers were arrested
04:25
in the Republic of Georgia
04:30
for trying to sell nuclear materials
for 200 million dollars,
04:32
they demonstrated that the black market
for this stuff is alive and well.
04:35
And it's really important,
04:40
because there have been
dozens of accidents
04:41
involving nuclear weapons,
04:45
and I bet most of us have never heard
anything about them.
04:46
Just here in the United States,
04:49
we've dropped nuclear weapons
on the Carolinas twice.
04:51
In one case, one of the bombs,
04:55
which fell out of an Air Force plane,
04:57
didn't detonate
04:59
because the nuclear core
was stored somewhere else on the plane.
05:00
In another case, the weapon
did arm when it hit the ground,
05:04
and five of the switches designed
to keep it from detonating failed.
05:08
Luckily, the sixth one didn't.
05:12
But if that's not enough
to get your attention,
05:15
there was the 1995 Black Brant incident.
05:18
That's when Russian radar technicians saw
05:22
what they thought was a US nuclear missile
05:24
streaking towards Russian airspace.
05:27
It later turned out to be
a Norwegian rocket
05:30
collecting data about the northern lights.
05:32
But at that time,
05:35
Russian President Boris Yeltsin
came within five minutes
05:36
of launching a full-scale
retaliatory nuclear attack
05:40
against the United States.
05:44
So, most of the world's nuclear nations
05:48
have committed to getting rid
of these weapons of mass destruction.
05:52
But consider this:
05:57
the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation
of Nuclear Weapons,
05:59
which is the most widely adopted
arms control treaty in history
06:03
with 190 signatories,
06:06
sets no specific date by which
the world's nuclear-armed nations
06:09
will get rid of their nuclear weapons.
06:14
Now, when John F. Kennedy
sent a man to the moon
06:17
and decided to bring him back,
or decided to do both those things,
06:20
he didn't say, "Hey, whenever
you guys get to it."
06:23
He gave us a deadline.
06:26
He gave us a challenge
06:28
that would have been incredible
just a few years earlier.
06:30
And with that challenge,
06:33
he inspired scientists and marketers,
06:35
astronauts and schoolteachers.
06:38
He gave us a vision.
06:41
But along with that vision,
06:43
he also tried to give us -- and most
people don't know this, either --
06:45
he tried to give us a partner
06:49
in the form of our fiercest
Cold War rival, the Soviet Union.
06:51
Because part of Kennedy's vision
for the Apollo program
06:56
was that it be a cooperation,
not a competition, with the Soviets.
06:59
And apparently, Nikita Khrushchev,
the Soviet Premier, agreed.
07:03
But before that cooperation
could be realized,
07:07
Kennedy was assassinated,
07:11
and that part of the vision was deferred.
07:12
But the promise of joint innovation
between these two nuclear superpowers
07:16
wasn't totally extinguished.
07:21
Because in 1991, which is the year
that Jasmine was born
07:24
and the Soviet Union fell,
07:28
these two nations engaged in a project
07:30
that genuinely does seem incredible today
07:33
in the truest sense of that word,
07:36
which is that the US sent cash
to the Russians when they needed it most,
07:38
to secure loose nuclear materials
07:43
and to employ out-of-work
nuclear scientists.
07:46
They worked alongside American scientists
to convert weapons-grade uranium
07:49
into the type of fuel that can be used
for nuclear power instead.
07:56
They called it, "Megatons to Megawatts."
08:00
So the result is that for over 20 years,
08:04
our two nations had a program
08:07
that meant that one in 10 lightbulbs
in the United States
08:10
was essentially fueled
by former Russian warheads.
08:13
So, together these two nations
did something truly audacious.
08:19
But the good news is,
the global community has the chance
08:23
to do something just as audacious today.
08:27
To get rid of nuclear weapons
08:32
and to end the supply of the materials
required to produce them,
08:35
some experts tell me would take 30 years.
08:39
It would take a renaissance of sorts,
08:43
the kinds of innovation that,
for better or worse,
08:45
underpinned both the Manhattan Project,
which gave rise to nuclear weapons,
08:48
and the Megatons to Megawatts program.
08:52
It would take design constraints.
08:54
These are fundamental to creativity,
08:57
things like a platform
for international collaboration;
09:00
a date certain, which is
a forcing mechanism;
09:04
and a positive vision
that inspires action.
09:08
It would take us to 2045.
09:12
Now, 2045 happens to be
the 100th anniversary
09:16
of the birth of nuclear weapons
in the New Mexico desert.
09:20
But it's also an important date
for another reason.
09:25
It's predicted to be the advent
of the singularity,
09:28
a new moment in human development,
09:32
where the lines between artificial
intelligence and human intelligence blur,
09:35
where computing and consciousness
become almost indistinguishable
09:41
and advanced technologies help us solve
the 21st century's greatest problems:
09:45
hunger, energy, poverty,
09:51
ushering in an era of abundance.
09:54
And we all get to go to space
09:58
on our way to becoming
a multi-planetary species.
09:59
Now, the people who really believe
this vision are the first to say
10:03
they don't yet know precisely
how we're going to get there.
10:07
But the values behind their vision
10:11
and the willingness to ask "How might we?"
10:14
have inspired a generation of innovators.
10:17
They're working backward
from the outcomes they want,
10:20
using the creative problem-solving methods
of collaborative design.
10:24
They're busting through obstacles.
10:28
They're redefining
what we all consider possible.
10:30
But here's the thing:
10:35
that vision of abundance isn't compatible
10:37
with a world that still relies
on a 20th-century nuclear doctrine
10:41
called "mutually assured destruction."
10:48
It has to be about building
the foundations for the 22nd century.
10:52
It has to be about strategies
for mutually assured prosperity
10:58
or, at the very least,
mutually assured survival.
11:04
Now, every day, I get to meet
people who are real pioneers
11:09
in the field of nuclear threats.
11:14
As you can see, many of them
are young women,
11:16
and they're doing fiercely
interesting stuff,
11:19
like Mareena Robinson Snowden here,
who is developing new ways,
11:22
better ways, to detect nuclear warheads,
11:26
which will help us
overcome a critical hurdle
11:29
to international disarmament.
11:31
Or Melissa Hanham, who is using
satellite imaging
11:33
to make sense of what's going on
around far-flung nuclear sites.
11:36
Or we have Beatrice Fihn in Europe,
11:41
who has been campaigning
to make nuclear weapons illegal
11:43
in international courts of law,
11:48
and just won a big victory
at the UN last week.
11:49
(Applause)
11:52
And yet,
11:56
and yet,
11:57
with all of our talk in this culture
about moon shots,
11:59
too few members of Generation Possible
and those of us who mentor them
12:03
are taking on nuclear weapons.
12:07
It's as if there's a taboo.
12:10
But I remember something Kennedy said
that has really stuck with me,
12:13
and that is something to the effect
12:18
that humans can be as big as the solutions
12:20
to all the problems we've created.
12:22
No problem of human destiny, he said,
12:24
is beyond human beings.
12:27
I believe that.
12:31
And I bet a lot of you here
believe that, too.
12:33
And I know Generation
Possible believes it.
12:36
So it's time to commit to a date.
12:40
Let's end the nuclear weapons chapter
12:45
on the 100th anniversary of its inception.
12:48
After all, by 2045, we will have held
billions of people hostage
12:53
to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
12:57
Surely, 100 years will have been enough.
13:00
Surely, a century of economic development
13:03
and the development of military strategy
13:07
will have given us better ways
to manage global conflict.
13:10
Surely, if ever there was a global
moon shot worth supporting,
13:14
this is it.
13:19
Now, in the face of real threats --
13:21
for instance, North Korea's recent
nuclear weapons tests,
13:24
which fly in the face of sanctions --
13:27
reasonable people disagree
13:29
about whether we should maintain
some number of nuclear weapons
13:32
to deter aggression.
13:35
But the question is:
What's the magic number?
13:38
Is it a thousand?
13:42
Is it a hundred? Ten?
13:44
And then we have to ask:
13:47
Who should be responsible for them?
13:49
I think we can agree, however,
13:51
that having 15,000 of them
represents a greater global threat
13:53
to Jasmine's generation than a promise.
13:57
So it's time we make a promise
14:01
of a world in which we've broken
the stranglehold
14:04
that nuclear weapons have
on our imaginations;
14:07
in which we invest
in the creative solutions
14:10
that come from working backward
from the future we desperately want,
14:13
rather than plodding forward
from a present
14:16
that brings all of the mental models
and biases of the past with it.
14:19
It's time we pledge our resources
as leaders across the spectrum
14:24
to work on this old problem in new ways,
14:29
to ask, "How might we?"
14:33
How might we make good on a promise
14:35
of greater security
for Jasmine's generation
14:38
in a world beyond nuclear weapons?
14:41
I truly hope you will join us.
14:46
Thank you.
14:49
(Applause)
14:50
Thank you.
14:54
(Applause)
14:55

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About the Speaker:

Erika Gregory - Nuclear reformer
Bringing cross-disciplinary tactics and innovation to a moribund defense industry, N Square’s Erika Gregory seeks to wean the world from its nuclear stockpiles.

Why you should listen

As a Juilliard drama graduate, serial entrepreneur Erika Gregory might seem like an unlikely candidate to disrupt the nuclear weapons industry. But given an establishment built on Cold War stereotypes and motivated by profits, outside innovation may be just what the world needs to shrink our still-growing atomic-weapons stockpile.

Now in her role as the Managing Director of N Square Collaborative, the brainchild of five of the world's largest peace and security funders, Gregory is exploring cross-disciplinary, collaborative approaches to nuclear weapons threat -- from engaging emerging technology innovators to recasting the way nuclear weapons are portrayed in games and other media.

More profile about the speaker
Erika Gregory | Speaker | TED.com