PORTLAND — Two of the greatest threats we face are fundamentally entwined – nuclear weapons and economic instability.

Tragically, the nuclear threat is of our own creation. We spent trillions of dollars through decades of confrontation with the former Soviet Union, building massive nuclear arsenals and following a policy of “mutually assured destruction,” threatening others with mass murder and ourselves with mass suicide.

Through a combination of diligence and luck, we survived the Cold War. Over the last few years, some progress has been made in reducing the nuclear threat.

The most recent encouraging development is in negotiations with Iran. As with all arms control agreements, verification of progress will be key. Meanwhile, the New START agreement is on track to reduce U.S. and Russian arsenals to 1,550 deployed strategic weapons on each side over the next six years.

However, thousands of tactical nuclear weapons are still deployed around the world, and thousands of larger weapons are still held in reserve – more than 17,000 nuclear weapons altogether – leaving us at tremendous risk.

According to a new report being released by Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, the use of a tiny fraction of that arsenal would devastate the planet. Perhaps the greatest current risk from nuclear weapons is of a so-called limited nuclear war in South Asia. Although that’s on the other side of the world from us, we would all share in the catastrophe.

In new studies reviewed by the Physicians for Social Responsibility and International Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, climate scientists concluded that if Pakistan and India used half their arsenals and detonated 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs on each other’s territory, smoke from their burning cities would be carried high into the atmosphere and cause reduced growing seasons throughout the Northern Hemisphere.

This dramatic climate disruption would likely last for a decade, resulting in massive food shortages putting up to 2 billion people at risk of starvation and threatening the rest of us with social and economic chaos.

Why do we continue to put ourselves at such great risk? To reduce the threat, we must reduce the size of these still bloated nuclear arsenals.

In an interview last year, Gen. James E. Cartwright, a retired commander of the U.S. nuclear forces, pointedly noted: “The world has changed, but the current arsenal carries the baggage of the Cold War. What is it we’re really trying to deter? Our current arsenal does not address the threats of the 21st century.”

Isn’t it well past time to let go of outdated Cold War thinking and reshape our national security strategy to face our current challenges?

Fortunately, taking steps to reshape our nuclear weapons strategy will not only enhance our national security, it also will save us billions of dollars and help address the other grave threat we face: the budget crisis.

Sens. Angus King and Susan Collins must now decide if we will spend billions more on excess nuclear weapons that the former commander of those forces says we no longer need, or if we will use those precious tax dollars to ensure our real security, abroad and at home.

For example, deciding not to re-build our oldest nuclear gravity bomb, called the B-61, could save us $10 billion, while simply delaying development and production of a whole new generation of nuclear submarines and bombers would save us an estimated $35 billion.

In the coming weeks, our Maine senators will have the opportunity to address the nuclear threat and the national budget crisis at the same time. Both of them must apply their characteristic thoughtful approach to these most pressing national challenges.

Mainers need to insist that the federal budget can and should include less spending for nuclear weapons and more spending for improving our security and ensuring that federal dollars are available to fund essential services that support our families and our economy.

— Special to the Press Herald