January 22, 2009 – As President-Elect Obama takes office this week, he faces a long list of enormous challenges, from economic recovery to health care, Iraq, Afghanistan and global warming. Nuclear disarmament is far from the top of the agenda. It should be number 1.

One night last year, I came across a short video made by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. As a way of illustrating the impact of a nuclear detonation, the video showed a map of Times Square, in New York City. It had a black dot to mark a potential “ground zero” which turned out to be only a few blocks from where I was sitting in my apartment. As the implications of this sank in, I felt the presence of my young children sleeping in the next room — their unprotected bodies — and in that moment, my appreciation of the reality of nuclear weapons became less abstract, more flesh and blood.

We don’t like to think about it. The thought of a nuclear attack, the devastation and unspeakable suffering it would unleash, is deeply disturbing. Not to mention the potential for escalation. Given the current number of warheads, the potential to destroy all life on Earth (several times over) is real. This is understandably difficult and unpleasant to imagine – almost unthinkable.

Yet, without becoming hysterical, it’s essential that we become conscious of this grave threat to humanity and take up the task of working for the elimination of nuclear weapons with all the urgency the situation warrants.

Although It’s difficult to imagine that a nuclear weapon might actually be used, the possibility is all too real. Violence is exploding in the Middle East.

Tensions are high between India and Pakistan (both nuclear powers). Thousands of weapons are on launch on warning status, making a purely accidental nuclear war a real possibility, and a bomb with many times the destructive power of the one used in Hiroshima can be carried in a briefcase.

The need to overcome the threat of nuclear destruction is much more urgent than climate change (which is also very serious) and should be the # 1 priority of the nuclear powers. The U.S. can and should play a crucial leadership role. By ending the recent U.S. stance of blocking progress, the Obama team could jump-start a bold international process of progressive disarmament, with the clear aim of eliminating all nuclear weapons as soon as possible. Within this context, it will be possible to build international cooperation for the control of “loose nukes” nuclear materials, and proliferation.

While governments need to do their part, grassroots initiatives like the World March for Peace and Non-violence are extremely important in raising awareness. This awareness among the peoples of the world could be decisive in putting disarmament high on the agenda, in much the same way that global warming has now entered mainstream consciousness.

When we imagine a nuclear attack, if we imagine it at all, we tend to think it will happen “someplace else.” That night last year, I realized this is an illusion. It could happen here in my neighborhood. It could happen anywhere. And just as I don’t want my children to be harmed, I don’t want that for the child of any other parent either. By facing the unthinkable nuclear danger, we can give our children and grandchildren a world without these monstrous weapons and perhaps pave the way for reducing conventional weapons and militarism as well.