American physicist J Robert Oppenheimer was a remarkable man, accomplished in a number of fields. However, he is remembered for one feat alone, something he would eventually come to regret: his role in inventing the nuclear bomb.
He started his project with idealistic fervour, viewing it as a way to save the world from the Nazis and to protect western civilisation. After the bomb was invented, and after two were used by his country, the US, against Japan in 1945, he changed his mind.
During an interview in later life, he delivered this famous expression of regret: “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. [Krishna] is trying to persuade the prince [Arjuna] that he should do his duty, and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’.”
Mr Oppenheimer would probably be even more concerned today. Nine countries are thought to possess nuclear weapons, some of which have severe geopolitical tensions with others. A number of other nations, including in the Middle East, are also thought to be developing nuclear weapons programmes.
This is cause for concern in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC). On Monday, member states said they will spare no effort to keep the Middle East free of nuclear weapons, something that requires "political will". Abdulaziz Al Wasil, Saudi Arabia's permanent representative to the UN, also said that the kingdom, the GCC's biggest power, would pursue “co-operation with the countries of the region to achieve that desired objective”.
Tensions outside the Middle East make today an apt time to highlight the dangers of nuclear escalation. Although it is highly unlikely, the war in Ukraine risks pitting Nato nations, three of which have nuclear weapons, against Russia, which is thought to have the highest number of warheads globally. News on Tuesday that missiles had fallen inside Poland – killing two civilians – escalated tensions further, although for now it remains uncertain who fired them. US President Joe Biden said it is "unlikely" that they were fired from Russia.
The situation in the Middle East is not nearly as volatile, but, as with anything involving nuclear arms, there is always the potential for dangerous escalation.
And there is concern over alleged clandestine programmes. Israel is believed to hold between 80 and 400 nuclear warheads, although it does not disclose its capabilities. Iran is under US and international sanctions for its enrichment of uranium, although Tehran says it has no intention of creating weapons out of it.
This should not to distract from the promise of peaceful forms of nuclear technology in the region. Nuclear energy is a reliable form of power generation that does not emit carbon. It can help states reach their climate goals. The UAE, Saudi Arabia and Jordan are all at various stages of developing such programmes, and there is an internationally established means of doing so safely, in the form of the UN’s 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty.
This is the kind of nuclear technology the region needs, not the "destroyer of worlds" that Mr Oppenheimer so bitterly regretted.