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RUHS, CIF shed light on global nuclear threat

For as long as most of us can remember, the threat of nuclear weapons and their potential to obliterate humanity has been a fear trigger felt worldwide.

And for generations, it has been young people who have been at the forefront in the call to eliminate these weapons – leading protests, demanding disarmament and advocating for nuclear nonproliferation.

Jayden at CIF

Despite these efforts, the global inventory of nuclear warheads remains abundant. According to a recent article in Forbes magazine, Russia boasts 5,977 such weapons, followed closely by the U.S. with 5,428. Other members of the so-called “Nuclear Nine” include China (350), France (290), United Kingdom (225), Pakistan (165), India (160), Israel (90) and North Korea (20).

But the battle against nukes isn’t over, and young people continue to be a driving force toward  establishing a more peaceful world.

Among the progressive efforts toward nonproliferation is Critical Issues Forum (CIF) — an international, project-based education program that “aims to promote awareness of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons through disarmament and nonproliferation education.” 

Facilitated by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif., CIF boasts chapters around the world. In addition to 25 high schools in the U.S. (most in California), the contingent includes 10 schools in Russia and nine in Japan.

CIF’s lone American Midwest chapter resides in the School District of Janesville at Rock University High School (RUHS), located on the Blackhawk Technical College. RUHS joined CIF as a full member in 2009, and over the years nearly 80 students have participated in the program.

Jensen at CIF

Through this portal, high schoolers discuss the current situation with foreign peers and subject experts intent on ridding the planet of its nuclear arsenal.

“This class really empowers students, because they are listened to like they are the experts,” said Erin Jensen, RUHS humanities teacher and co-advisor for the school’s CIF chapter. “They have people from around the world – people who are doctors, professors and scientists that are masters in this field – showing up to listen to them. If that’s not empowering, I don’t know what is.”

The CIF course at RUHS is a full-year program consisting of twice-weekly sessions. During classes, students are encouraged to think outside the box while searching for nonproliferation and disarmament solutions.

After completing an introductory mini-project that shows their knowledge of nuclear weapon science and history, the students complete a final project that interprets the yearly theme. This year’s theme was “Bringing Intersectional Approaches to Youth Education for Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation.” 

For both projects, RUHS students decided to create a podcast, "Going Beyond the Bomb", in which they discuss the harm of nuclear weapons and how we must find ways to live a life without them. Episodes 1-3 break down the science and history of nuclear weapons while episodes 3-6 focused on U.S. survivors of nuclear mining and testing – the Western Shoshone, Navajo and Marshallese tribes.

“The western Shoshone people of the United States are the most bombed nation in the world,” Jensen explained. “They had multiple bombs dropped on their land (in Nevada) alone. The Navajo (in Nevada and New Mexico) are a very close second, and the Marshallese from the Marshall Islands (in the Pacific Ocean) had more than 67 bombs tested throughout the Marshall Islands (from 1945-58).”

Students present their findings during a conference with other CIF-member schools. In the past, students have traveled to HIroshima and Nagasaki in Japan, and most commonly to Monterey, Calif. Since the onset of COVID, conferences – including this year’s – have been held virtually.

Whether in person or through computer screens, the international interaction RUHS students receive offers insight into how governmental and societal reactions to certain topics differ from country to country.

Claire at CIF

“The first year I was here, there was a final conference we had with people from all of the different schools (involved in CIF),” said RUHS sophomore Claire Dieckhoff, who has been in CIF for two years. “The Ukraine war had been going on, so a lot of the Russian people could not show their faces. They were scared, obviously, to be part of a peace conference. I remember there was a Russian teacher who talked a lot, almost in a joking way, about how it was dangerous for her to be part of CIF. That was really interesting to me.”

Stephanie Villarello, RUHS’ science teacher and a co-advisor for its CIF chapter, believes the world might be in position for a perfect storm of change on this issue. Not only are students more emboldened than in the past, they also have access to technology and communication methods that provide a metaphorical megaphone for their opinions.

“I think (high school students) can help move the needle because of their influence,” she said. “Being loud on social media is something they are really good at. Is it going to be a quick fix? No. But I think they can get us one step closer than we were last year or 10 years ago.”

Villarello also sees the internet as a vital piece of the puzzle. With access to unlimited information, students can develop a comprehensive understanding of complex topics while confidently questioning their own findings.

“They will ask, wait … the U.S. has how many nuclear weapons? Russia has how many nuclear weapons?” Villarello said. “How many weapons would it take to wipe out the entire population of Earth? Oh …19 strategically placed, and we have 3,000? And how much do these cost us every year to maintain … trillions of dollars? What else could we do with that money? We see so many needs in the U.S. and globally that, even if we could just reduce that number 1%, how much would that free up for these other really important issues?”

Dieckhoff is among those asking such questions. She disagrees with those who argue nuclear weapons are a necessary evil in today’s world.

“There are plenty of weapons already,” she said. “If you need to be in a war for whatever reason, there are other options. If you just get rid of them (nuclear weapons), people will find other ways to threaten war, and they will be less completely destructive.”

RUHS junior Jayden Rodriguez admits that when it comes to nukes, he has a “healthy, but not irrational” fear. 

“It’s not like I wake up every morning with a looming threat that maybe a nuke is going to hit today,” he said. “But I live in the U.S., where the threat is not as prevalent. If you live in a country overseas, that threat could be more serious.

“Even though it’s a threat everybody has some inkling or understanding of, it’s one most can tell is not talked about enough.”

For sophomore Ana Paula Dominguez Antonio, eradicating nuclear weapons wasn’t the initial reason for her interest in CIF. But she believes the information she is gaining from it will help her in the future.

“I joined this class because I want to make a change in the world,” she said. “I have an interest in pursuing nuclear engineering (as a career), and I want to learn how to use nuclear science and technology to benefit the world today.”

Whatever their reasons for involvement, RUHS students’ passion for and dedication to CIF continues to inspire Jensen.

“The biggest thing we can do with any kind of heated or controversial topic is get the young people involved and make it accessible for them,” she said. “They shouldn’t be shielded from the things that are going to affect them in life. 

“The moment you give kids a chance, the sky’s the limit.” 

To learn more about Critical Issues Forum, visit