AUSTIN - North Korea's most recent nuclear weapon test has the world on high alert, and the next U.S. president will face the task of keeping the world safe from a nuclear apocalypse.
The trouble is, they could just as easily start one.
The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed 100,000 human beings. Today's weapons are up to a thousand times more powerful, and the United States has thousands of them on alert and ready to deploy at a moment's notice. University of Texas Professor Alan Kuperman tells KVUE it's enough power "to essentially destroy the world, several times over."
Kuperman is an expert on nuclear nonproliferation, and explains the decision to unleash doomsday is entirely in the president's hands. The commander-in-chief need only confirm his command with his secretary of defense and transmit both of their nuclear "gold codes" to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to initiate a chain reaction.
"The exact procedure is classified, but it's believed that about four military officers would have to enter their codes, and at that point, the missile can be launched. It would take just a few minutes from the time the president decided to launch," said Kuperman.
The decision could be in response to an attack or to preempt one, but it could also be for just about anything.
"There's nothing that demands that he order a launch of nuclear weapons and there's nothing that prevents him," said Kuperman.
States such as North Korea are moving closer to potential nuclear conflict. Kuperman warns the next president will be faced with deciding how to pacify the belligerent government without goading them into using their nuclear weapons.
He or she will also face a decision regarding reducing the total number of nuclear weapons worldwide. The U.S. has been on "alert" -- ready to strike quickly and preemptively -- for a half century, and Kuperman believes that posture may now be more likely to accidentally set off a conflict than prevent one.vCounterterrorism expert Fred Burton, vice president for intelligence at Austin-based geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor, suggests one reason rogue actors have not deployed a nuclear device yet: "Having one is one thing, but the ability to deliver it is another. That's what the Cold War was all about."
The world has come terrifyingly close to the brink. President Kennedy's delicate defiance of hawkish advisors likely avoided World War III.
But would the next president be so patient?
"I think people need to think about who would be that calm leader in a crisis," said Kuperman, "But I'm not going to tell them who to vote for."
(© 2016 KVUE)