11/21/2011 01:12 EST | Updated 01/21/2012 05:12 EST

Gorbachev's Legacy of Peace


"In one heavy nuclear missile there is the power of one hundred Chernobyl nuclear explosions, and even more."

That frightening piece of information was shared with us recently by Mikhail Gorbachev. He had just finished addressing 17,000 young people at Vancouver's We Day. It was a rare opportunity to speak with the former leader of the Soviet Union who once commanded the world's largest nuclear arsenal.

It's likely that few of the youth in the Rogers Arena that day knew who he was. Gorbachev is not so widely praised as other statesmen of his era, like Nelson Mandela, yet his impact is as enduring as the end of apartheid. Gorbachev has had to make many difficult choices in his life. Shaking his head, with eyes downcast, he admitted to us he has made mistakes and would have done many things differently if he had the chance. We asked him what his legacy would be. His reply: "Freedom, and the elimination of nuclear weapons in our time."

It's difficult for our generation to imagine life during the Cold War under the nuclear shadow. We've never heard an air raid siren. Nuclear attack drills were once common in classrooms throughout the U.S. and even parts of Canada. Kids learned to "duck and cover" under their desks -- as if that could protect them from a nuclear explosion. Families built fallout shelters in their backyards and basements.

For us, all that remains are Russian bad guys in old action movie we see in TV reruns. It's amazing how quickly a whole era has been forgotten.

When Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he inherited command of over 45,000 nuclear warheads. Some of these had a blast power of 20 megatons which, hitting a city like Toronto, could kill more than one million people within minutes.

Breaking from decades of conventional thinking, Gorbachev believed the only path to peace was to eliminate nuclear weapons. He sought out U.S. President Ronald Reagan and they agreed: "A nuclear war cannot be won, and must never be fought."

In July 1991, Gorbachev and Reagan signed the historic Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) to reduce U.S. and Soviet nuclear stockpiles. Gorbachev confided to us he was surprised by how quickly they achieved this breakthrough. "I had not expected we could move forward so rapidly with such a conservative president."

A decade later, START had resulted in the elimination of 80 per cent of the world's strategic nuclear weapons. Today, there are approximately 22,000 nuclear warheads, down from 65,000 at the peak of the Cold War. Only about 8,000 are ready to launch now. It's a huge reduction, but it still represents destructive power 700 times greater than all the bombs dropped during the Second World War put together.

Gorbachev still sees a lot of work to be done before nuclear weapons are eliminated. "I think that day is still far from us."

It is estimated that the U.S. spends $18 million a day maintaining its current stockpile of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, India and Pakistan have the bomb. Israel is widely thought to have it. And North Korea and Iran are believed to have nuclear weapons programs underway.

Disarmament expert Ernie Regehr, co-founder of global peace organization Project Ploughshares, believes there has been important progress on disarmament in recent years. In 2010, 189 countries re-committed to the elimination of nuclear weapons. And a treaty that will prohibit nuclear weapons testing, is before the U.S. Congress for ratification. In February, the U.S. and Russia signed the New START agreement, which will reduce their active nuclear weapons to an historic low of 1,550 warheads each.

However, we are still in danger. Even since the Cold War, we have come within minutes of nuclear conflict. In 1995, Russia spotted the launch of a Norwegian satellite on radar and misinterpreted it as an attack. President Boris Yeltsin was set to launch Russian missiles. The mistake was discovered just in time. In 1999, and again in 2001 and 2002, tensions between India and Pakistan led to threats of a regional nuclear war.

So how do we end the threat? Regehr says there is little public pressure to move quickly on disarmament. "The political process responds to pressure. Populations support nuclear disarmament, but they are not creating pressure," he says.

Our generation has to create that pressure. As Gorbachev himself told us, "Every generation must be ready to take the relay from the previous generation and move forward."

Gorbachev confided that democracy was the key to moving forward on nuclear disarmament. "Had it not been for our democratic reforms in our country... I think without that our foreign policy would not have changed," he said.

From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movements, the world is seeing a strong movement for democratic reform. We can harness that energy to push our leaders to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all.

Our children should not grow up learning to hide under their desks because we failed to finish what Mikhail Gorbachev started.