When is the last time you gave serious thought to the dangers posed by nuclear weapons? Probably not since those awful years under Ronald Reagan, when it seemed we were this close to a nuclear-level confrontation with the Soviets, and when at least one top official blithely observed that Japan after all had recovered just fine after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Now, as Cold War nostalgia replaces Cold War terror, as our attention is riveted on insurgents running amok in the Middle East, and as drones look like the latest weapon of choice, nuclear weapons are on the back burner. But they shouldn’t be, and not just because of North Korea’s small arsenal or Iran’s potential.
In my first post I proposed that global climate change is the number-one threat to humankind. But for some observers, the possible use of a nuclear weapon, by design or accident, outranks even climate change as the most urgent threat. These days we’re inclined to think that a premeditated use of a nuclear weapon is inconceivable, since the leaders of a country that launched it would surely know that it would suffer a devastating attack in return. Thus, the usual argument goes, the only rational reason for possessing such a weapon is to deter its use by another country. However logical that may sound, it ignores at least two possibilities: first, that a nation’s leaders will, on the basis of rational calculation, deploy and use a nuclear weapon first (i.e., preemptively) in self-defense, perhaps believing that the attacked country would not counterattack; second, that a nuclear weapon will be detonated accidently, precipitating either a great loss of life or an unintended nuclear war.
The second of these two possibilities is my main subject here. It supports the following proposition: The mere possession of a nuclear weapon poses an incalculable threat to humanity.
One type of nuclear weapon accident is “broken arrows,” the Pentagon’s term for loss or theft of a nuclear weapon due to crashes by aircraft and submarines carrying one. By one count, 32 such accidents involving the US military have occurred since 1950 (www.atomicarchive.com/Almanac/Brokenarrows_static.shtml). Most of these happened early in the Cold War. A second type is nuclear “near misses,” the result of breakdowns in communication and safety precautions. This type is a constant. A just-released study of thirteen near misses, from the 1962 US-Soviet missile crisis over Cuba and India-Pakistan confrontations in 1999 and 2002, to the 2009 collision of British and French nuclear submarines, concludes that the risk of war or catastrophic loss of life is a good deal higher than we might imagine (www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/199200).
With over 17,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled in nine countries—the US, Russia, China, France, Britain, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea—and a few other countries (such as Iran) possibly seeking to have them, the danger of a nuclear-weapon detonation, whether by accident or miscalculation, is always around. (The figure is from Ploughshares, at www.ploughshares.org./world-nuclear-stockpile-report). We prefer not to think about such a catastrophe, particularly since so many other sources of widespread destruction are available and seem more likely to be used, such as chemical and biological weapons. But the new Chatham House study cited above suggests otherwise.
A widely cited book published last year—Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control—gives us frightening details on the perils of handling nukes. Besides reviewing the postwar history of US administration of nuclear weapons, Schlosser interviewed people at every level of their control, including soldiers responsible for maintaining the missiles in underground silos. His book is a reminder that nuclear weapons, like any other complicated piece of technology (but of course not like any other in its capacity for destruction), pose countless potential, often unpredictable problems. Not least of them is the psychological pressure on the soldiers who guard them and who must always think about one day being ordered to unleash them. But not only soldiers, for we mustn’t forget that leaders in charge of nuclear launch codes might also be mentally impaired, such as Richard Nixon and Boris Yeltsin, who were heavy drinkers. In a word, too many things can go wrong, many things have gone wrong, and we’re terribly lucky that since 1945, a nuclear weapon hasn’t accidentally exploded near a city or been used as a weapon of war.
Part of the subtitle of Schlosser’s book refers to the “illusion of safety.” With good reason: He cites official, once-classified reports about the safety of nuclear weapons by concerned specialists ever since the 1950s. Consistently, these specialists identified numerous potential hazards that raised the risk of a major nuclear accident. As one of them wrote in the 1970s, “We are living on borrowed time.”
One of the conclusions of the Chatham House study is that in some near-miss cases, only prudent judgment by individuals saved the day. Decision making during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, is often referred to as a model of calm deliberation. Actually, the Kennedy team, we now know, stumbled along in the “fog of war.” We were indeed lucky then; but as in any gamble, luck runs out at some point.