Nuclear Weapons Issues (for easier reading)

Activities and readings to help students develop a minimal literacy on nuclear weapons issues and to give them a chance to discuss and consider their opinions on nuclear issues.

This activity is an easier-to-read version of the activity Nuclear Weapons Controversy, also on this website.

To the Teacher:
Students probably know that nuclear weapons have great destructive power. They may also know that they produce radioactivity,. But students may not be aware of how lethal and long-lasting radioactivity is or how devastating its effects can be. They probably know little or nothing about past U.S. nuclear weapons policy or controversial changes in it since President Bush began his administration.
The lessons here are intended to develop in students at least a minimal literacy on nuclear weapons issues and policies and to give them an opportunity to discuss, make judgments, and respond to issues of the greatest importance to Americans and to the world.


1. Distribute Student Reading 1 for students' responses.
2. Discuss students' responses without indicating their correctness or incorrectness.
  • What answers are they sure of? How do they know?
  • What misinformation do students have? Why?
  • What do they not know or understand?
After students respond to each statement, especially the first one, it may be useful to ask for details. For example, ask students who think #1 is false what the differences are. Ask students who think #2 is true what the name of the treaty is and what they know about it; or ask students who think #2 is false for the basis of their response. Such a process will help to make clear what students know, what they don't, and where they are misinformed. In connection with #1, you may want to read the following excerpt from Shigeko Sasamori's account of her experience on August 6, 1945 at Hiroshima. It appears in Norman Cousins' book Present Tense: An American Editor's Odyssey.
"When the bomb dropped, I was in junior high school, seventh grade (and walking with a friend)....I heard the airplane and I looked up and saw something drop. At the same time—almost the same time—a strong explosion. I felt it knock me down. The next thing I knew, all was dark, red and gray; it was what you can imagine you see inside of a burning fire, when you open a burning furnace—like that. Red and black and gray all around me....
"Then I looked around and I could see people moving. And what those people looked like you never could imagine—like nightmares. I thought I had been sent to some other country, another space. People didn't look like people anymore. All their clothes were torn, they were bleeding, their skin hanging off, covered with ashes and dust and hair burnt off. Just incredible. Like a monster. Not running fast, but just barely moving. The faces silent. I didn't hear any sound....
"People are under the house, they are not dead, but they can't get out. They scream for help, but who can help? Everybody is hurt. After I crossed the river, I tried to go to my school....I finally got to the schoolyard. I sat down; then I don't remember when they brought me inside the door. It was days until I was treated. No food. Every once in a while they gave me a little water on my lips. They didn't give me water to drink. I didn't know which was day or which was night.
"On the fourth day, I heard my mother calling my name, and I answered her and they took me home....Four days, nothing to eat, no treatment, and one third, more than one third of my body was burnt....Of course, when I first saw my face, I couldn't believe it. I felt like ice-cold buckets of water poured into my body....I was very lucky. They never found my friend."
3. Distribute Student Reading 2 for reading and study. When students have finished, ask them to mark their responses on Student Reading 1 a second time.
4. Review responses to Student Reading 1. Are there questions or problems? Clarify.
5. Assignment: Student Reading 3

Student Reading 1:

A Questionnaire

Directions: Mark each of the following statements T (true), F (false), or DK (don't know)
1. The only difference between nuclear bombs and other bombs is that nuclear bombs are more powerful.
2. The U.S. has signed a treaty to work for nuclear disarmament.
3. The U.S. has pledged never to use nuclear weapons against a country that does not have nuclear weapons.
4. The U.S. has pledged never to be first to use nuclear weapons against any other country.
5. The U.S. has voluntarily stopped testing nuclear weapons.
6. Most nations in the world now have nuclear weapons.
7. The U.S. is the only nation ever to have used nuclear weapons against another nation.

Student Reading 2:

Information about the Questionnaire

1. Differences between nuclear bombs and other bombs.
The effects of an ordinary bomb are to explode and, where it has exploded, to damage and destroy buildings and other property and to wound and kill people and other creatures. The effects of nuclear bombs are much, much greater.
On August 6, 1945 at 8:16 a.m., an American plane dropped an atomic bomb that exploded about 1900 feet above the main section of Hiroshima, Japan. Instantly, tens of thousands of people were burned, blasted, and crushed to death. Other tens of thousands suffered injuries of all kinds or were doomed later to die of radiation sickness. The center of the city was flattened, and every part of the city was damaged. Half an hour after the explosion, fires caused by temperatures many times greater than the heat of the sun and by the collapse of buildings began to gather into a tremendous firestorm that lasted for six hours. At about 9 a.m. a "black rain" caused by the bomb and lasting into the afternoon fell on the western part of the city. It carried radioactive fallout from the blast to the ground. For four hours at midday, a violent whirlwind caused by the strange weather conditions produced by the explosion caused even greater damage to the city and the people who were in it.
About 130,000 people died immediately or in the next three months. About another 140,000 died over the next five years from their injuries. Since 1950 survivors have suffered high rates of cancer. Many of the approximately 4,000 people whose mothers were pregnant with them when the bomb fell and who were born after August 16 were mentally retarded and had smaller heads.
A medium-sized nuclear bomb today of one megaton (a million tons of TNT) is 80 times as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Jonathan Schell in his book The Fate of the Earth has described what would happen if such a bomb were to be exploded above the Empire State Building in New York City:
  • Almost every building between Battery Park and 125th Street would be destroyed.
  • People in the buildings would fall to the street and, like those in the street, would be crushed by an avalanche of debris.
  • People would be picked up and hurled away from the blast along with the rest of the debris.
  • As far away as ten miles from ground zero, pieces of glass and other sharp objects would be blown everywhere.
  • Winds of up to 400 mph would tear through the city.
  • A glowing fireball would broil the city below.
  • Anyone in the open within nine miles of ground zero would receive third-degree burns and would probably be killed; those closer would be vaporized or charred and killed instantly.
  • Fires would break out everywhere and before long join into mass fires.
  • Like the victims of Hiroshima, but in much greater numbers, the people of NYC would be burned, battered, crushed and irradiated in every possible way. Millions would die.
  • Most hospitals would be destroyed; most doctors and nurses would be killed or injured; most medical supplies and equipment would be destroyed; so most survivors who needed medical help would die.

If many nuclear bombs were exploded in a world-wide nuclear war, scientists predict:

  • worldwide radioactive fallout would contaminate the whole surface of the earth
  • millions of tons of dust would block the sun's rays; this would result in a general cooling of earth, sometimes called "nuclear winter"
  • a partial destruction of the ozone layer that protects us from radiation
2. Nuclear disarmament.
In 1945 only the U.S. had nuclear weapons. By 1949 the Soviet Union did. Russia now has most of the Soviet Union's thousands of nuclear weapons. Great Britain, France, and China developed nuclear weapons next. The growing number of nuclear nations and the great dangers of nuclear weapons led to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, that went into effect in 1970. "Proliferation" means growing in numbers. The NPT aimed to prevent further growth in the number of nations having nuclear weapons. In the NPT the non-nuclear nations agreed not to receive or to develop nuclear weapons. In return, the nuclear nations agreed to make serious efforts at nuclear disarmament. 187 nations, including the U.S., have signed this treaty. In May 2000 the five original nuclear weapons powers—the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, and China—made their pledge of 1970 even stronger by agreeing to "an unequivocal," or absolutely clear, decision "to accomplish the total elimination of their nuclear arsenals."
3. A U.S. pledge.
Since 1978 the U.S. has pledged not to use nuclear weapons against any non-nuclear weapons nation that has signed the NPT. Signers include Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea.
4. First-use.
The U.S. has never made a pledge not to use nuclear weapons first.
5. Nuclear weapons testing.
From 1951 to 1963 the U.S. ran more than 200 above-ground tests of nuclear weapons. So did the Soviet Union. The two nations agreed in 1963 to stop these tests. But underground tests continued. Since 1992 the U.S. has voluntarily stopped all nuclear weapons tests. But the U.S. has not agreed to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that bans all nuclear weapons tests. The CTBT has been signed by all major nations except the U.S. and China.
There are two major reasons for the test ban: 1) it is very difficult to create nuclear weapons without a test program to see if they work and 2) environmental and health concerns. For example, studies show that practically every person who has lived in the U.S. since 1951 has been exposed to radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons tests. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that this fallout will eventually cause 11,000 cancer deaths in the U.S. A majority of the U.S. Senate turned down the CTBT in 1999. Most senators thought the U.S. might need to test nuclear weapons in the future. President Bush agreed.
6. Nations with nuclear weapons.
Besides the five original nuclear weapons nations, Israel, India, and Pakistan now have nuclear weapons. It is possible that North Korea also has a few.
7. Use of nuclear weapons against another nation.
The U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 are the only uses so far of nuclear weapons in a war.

Student Reading 3:

U.S. Nuclear Policy, Then and Now

Directions: Read and pay special attention to changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy that President Bush has been making. Make notes on each change and the reason for it. Write down also any questions that you have about the reading.
THEN: The basic U.S. nuclear weapons policy was developed soon after World War II because of the conflict between the U.S. and the Soviet Union called the cold war. This policy was called "deterrence." Deterrence boiled down to the idea that if the U.S. had a powerful enough force of nuclear weapons, no enemy nation—especially the Soviet Union—would dare to attack. So the U.S. developed nuclear weapons for land-based missiles and submarine-based missiles and also had nuclear weapons on jet planes. Leaders of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union knew that if they attacked the other their own country would be destroyed.
U.S. nuclear policy also allowed for treaties or agreements with the Soviet Union that would be good for each side. They included 1) cutting the number of missiles and nuclear bombs each side had, 2) stopping nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere above the earth 3) preventing the creation of missile defense systems because they might lead the other side to fear it could be attacked and not retaliate and 4) making international agreements like the NPT.
NOW: But now, say President Bush and his advisors, the cold war is over. The U.S. and Russia are friendly. And even though Russia still has thousands of nuclear weapons, the U.S. no longer sees it as a threat. The President says that now the U.S. needs to protect itself against terrorist attacks or an attack by an unfriendly small nation like North Korea, Iran, or Iraq. He says this is why the U.S. has told Russia that it is abandoning the treaty that forbids missile defenses and is trying to build a missile defense system. The Pentagon has prepared a document called "The Nuclear Posture Review." It contains a new nuclear strategy, parts of which have been made public. Here are some highlights.
1. The report emphasizes that "nuclear weapons play a critical role" in a defense of the U.S., its allies, and friends.
2. It emphasizes the need to develop nuclear weapons that can penetrate deeply into the earth. These could be used to destroy underground stocks of biological or chemical weapons. The report says that there wouldn't be much radioactive fallout if such weapons were used because they would be relatively small and exploded underground.
3. The Nuclear Posture Review calls for better intelligence and targeting systems for nuclear strikes.
4. It names North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya as nations that have been hostile to the U.S. for a long time. It says that these nations sponsor terrorists and all of them have weapons of mass destruction.
5. It also names China and Russia as possible future enemies.
6. It says that the U.S. may need to test both new and old nuclear weapons to make sure they work.
7. It says the plan is to cut the U.S. stockpile of nuclear weapons to 1700-2200, but to keep many warheads in storage just in case.


1. What questions do students have about the reading? Can they be answered? If so, how?
2. Divide the class into groups. Each group should share their notes on changes in U.S. nuclear weapons policy and the reasons given for them. Each group should then name a reporter to summarize the points made.
3. Reconvene the class and ask each group to report. Following each report, ask if other reporters have any additions or corrections. Discuss.
4. Assignment: Student Reading 4 and a review of earlier readings.

Student Reading 4:

Support and Opposition

Directions: Read and study the following list of pros and cons on the new U.S. nuclear policy. Review the earlier readings. Then think carefully about the following questions. Decide how you would answer each. Make notes on your answers. Come to class prepared to support your opinions:
1. Should the U.S. develop new nuclear bombs? Why or why not?
2. Should the U.S. cut its nuclear stockpile to a minimum? Why or why not?
3. Should the U.S. start testing nuclear bombs again? Why or why not?
4. Should the U.S. ever use nuclear bombs again? Why or why not?
5. Should the U.S. take serious steps to lead other nuclear powers to fulfill their pledge of an "unequivocal" effort to eliminate their nuclear arsenals completely? Why or why not?
FOR the new nuclear policy:
"...We want to make it very clear to nations that you will not threaten the United States or use weapons of mass destruction against us or our allies."
—President Bush
"We should not get all carried away with some sense that the United States is planning to use nuclear the near future." The Pentagon has offered plans and the President will decide what to do.
—Secretary of State Colin L. Powell
"This is...not a plan. This preserves for the President all the options that a President would want to have in case this country or our friends and allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction."
—General Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
AGAINST the new nuclear policy:
There is no way any small nuclear bomb could penetrate the earth deeply enough to destroy biological and chemical weapons and hold in the explosion. Such bombs would throw up a cloud of radioactive dirt and debris.
—Robert Nelson, Federation of American Scientists
"Did the decision-makers in Washington reflect, when they gave themselves the right to launch nuclear attacks...that they might inspire those targeted to do likewise to us? Did they forget that there is no defense against nuclear arms and no rescue for those attacked by them?"
—author Jonathan Schell
"If the Nuclear Posture Review is the best that we can do, it is a political roadmap to ultimate catastrophe." Bush administration policies like trying to build missile defenses, refusing to agree to the CTBT, developing new nuclear weapons and threatening nuclear use against non-nuclear nations are a threat to the world.
—Jonathan Granoff, president, Global Security Institute


1. Conduct a moving opinion poll with students. It is a way to get students up and moving as they place themselves along a STRONGLY AGREE-STRONGLY DISAGREE continuum according to their opinions about specific statements. Create a corridor of space in your room from one end to the other end that is long enough and wide enough to accommodate the whole class. Make two large signs and post them on opposite sides of the room: STRONGLY AGREE; STRONGLY DISAGREE.
Explain to students: "We are going to have a moving opinion poll. Each time I read a statement you are to move to the place along the imaginary line that comes closest to your opinion. If you strongly agree, move all the way to one side of the room; if you strongly disagree, move all the way to the opposite side of the room. You can also go to somewhere in the middle of the room if you have mixed feelings about the statement. After everyone is in place, I will invite people to say why they are standing where they are. This is not a time to debate or grill each other. It is just a way to check out what people are thinking and get a sense of the different ways people view the issue."
You may want to use all or just some of the following statements. The object of changing statements is to introduce qualifying conditions and contexts and see if students' opinions shift. You may also want to begin with statements that indicate personal preferences on matters of much less moment than nuclear weapons policy and give students an opportunity to familiarize themselves with a moving opinion poll, especially if they haven't participated in one before.
Sample statements:
  • The best TV program is "The Simpsons."
  • Basketball is America's most exciting sport.
  • Getting music for free by downloading it from a computer is unfair to musicians and record companies.
Nuclear weapons policy issues:
  • The U.S. should depend on the nuclear bombs it has now and not build any new ones.
  • The U.S. should develop new nuclear bombs when our leaders think we should.
  • The U.S. should get rid of nuclear bombs and use only ordinary weapons for its defense.
  • The U.S. should cut its nuclear weapons stockpile to a minimum if other nuclear weapons countries are willing to do the same.
  • The U.S. should cut its nuclear weapons stockpile to a minimum no matter what other countries do.
  • The U.S. should continue voluntarily not to test nuclear weapons.
  • The U.S. should sign the CTBT.
  • The U.S. should test nuclear bombs whenever it needs to.
  • The U.S. should use nuclear weapons against any enemy.
  • The U.S. should use nuclear bombs only against an enemy who also has nuclear bombs.
  • The U.S. should never again use a nuclear bomb.
  • The U.S. should lead a worldwide effort to eliminate nuclear weapons in all nations.
2. Assignment:
Write a letter to President Bush in which you explain your views on nuclear weapons to him. You might use any of the above statements as the letter's main theme. Or you might write about some other aspect of nuclear policy.
To the Teacher: You can find the sources for the quotes in these lessons and ideas for student investigations of other nuclear issues in "Nuclear Weapons Controversy: Three Lessons on New U.S. Policy," an activity on this website. You will also find ideas for additional student responses to what they have learned. ESR Metro has available two publications on nuclear weapons issues: "Nuclear Controversy: Sourcebook for an Inquiry Curriculum" and "Nuclear Controversy: Five Lessons and a DBQ". Further information on the missile defense issue is available on this website.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: