Why Nukes Are Still Just As Scary As They Were in the 60s

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I think people today, especially younger people, don’t think of nuclear weapons as a real threat the way that people who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile crisis did. Remember the days when campuses would erupt in “no nukes” protests? When activists would lie across train tracks to stop trains from delivering bombs to missile sites? The crises are hidden now. The protests small, when there are any. The Cold War has ended, the assumption goes, and with the Berlin Wall fell the threat of World War Three. I had been operating under this tacit assumption for some time: that a Dr. Strangelove-style disaster was, if not impossible, then nearly so. But as I recently heard someone point out, if the probability of something is not zero, it will eventually happen. So it’s not an antiquated concern; the nuclear threat is as present as it was when Kennedy said this to the UN, if not moreso:

As the documentary film Countdown to Zero eloquently and frighteningly lays out, that “Sword of Damocles” still hangs above our collective heads, despite significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S., and the decision of countries like South Africa to get rid of their arsenals altogether. Kennedy cites “miscalculation, mistake, or madness” as reasons the next bomb could go off, and the film discusses each in turn. Mistake and miscalculation are why we’ve had a number of quiet but very serious close calls in the two decades since the Cold War supposedly ended — the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger, such that if just enough mistakes or miscalculations were made in the right order, hundreds of millions in both countries could be dead within thirty minutes. It almost happened in 1995, in what’s known as the Norwegian Rocket Incident:

From PBS.org:

It was one of the most frightening moments since the Cuban missile crisis. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. A missile they couldn’t identify. The Russians have always viewed U.S. nuclear submarines as the greatest threat; a Trident missile launched from that area could reach Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. At the Russian radar station, the crew saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would. Their trajectory seemed to be carrying them towards Moscow. In Moscow, a signal went out to the nuclear briefcases which always accompany President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials. Russia had established a deadline: they’re supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes.

There were only 5 minutes left. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders. Orders were given to go into a state of combat readiness and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order. For 4 minutes, the Russian commanders waited for the order to launch. The Russian strategic plans permit launching Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the mysterious objects fell into the seas. The decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted; the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later, the Russians learned that the unidentified object had been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

In other words, one day in 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was by all accounts frequently drunk, and was characterized by one diplomat as a “robot on drugs,” had the proverbial red button placed before him. If he’d been in a less rational state of mind, or if he’s listened to the advice of his military commanders, there would have been a nuclear holocaust.

Other nuclear alerts have been triggered by flocks of migrating geese, meteor showers (in 1960), and a malfunctioning computer chip costing 46 cents (1980). Pentagon officials admit that even today, equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year.

As for madness, let’s look at Pakistan. It is a nuclear power with some seventy bombs in its arsenal. Its government is highly unstable. It’s a hotbed for religious radicalism. Osama Bin Laden lives there. Bin Laden has stated that his ultimate goal is to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of four million American citizens, which according to his calculations, would just about even out the body count in his holy war. It’s pretty clear that terrorist organizations are not going to be able to kill that many people with airplanes or conventional weapons. They will need a nuclear bomb.

There’s lots of talk about terrorists smuggling a “dirty bomb” into the states. The government has spent billions of dollars installing radiation detectors at American ports, which scan the great numbers of shipping containers that come into the country every day. They are very good at detecting elements like Cesium, which you’d use to make a dirty bomb. Various reports have argued that while such bombs would cause plenty of panic and certainly some deaths, they would be nowhere near as destructive as an actual nuke. You can make perhaps a few thousand people very, very sick with a dirty bomb. You cannot level a city.

Highly enriched uranium, however — which you need to make a “real” bomb — is much easier to sneak past those sensors. When encased in lead, its radiation signal is quite weak. Porcelain, china, even kitty litter give similar signals. (Every day there are thousands of false alarms at ports involving household products like those.) The whole thing, even sealed in lead, would be about the size of a football. If it was hidden in a shipment of kitty litter, they’d never find it. (According to this article, we’re working on better detectors.) Once you had the material inside the country — say, in the heart of the target city — making the device that sets it off is not an insurmountable challenge. You need about a million dollars worth of equipment and the help of a few dozen people trained in various aspects of weapons technology. This sort of tech might’ve been a big secret in the 1950s — it’s not anymore.

So what can the world do to prevent a nuclear holocaust, accidental or intentional? The Global Zero foundation has a step-by-step plan (and a nice little petition you can sign if you feel so inclined) which involves a combination of further nuclear reductions (the ultimate goal being zero) and much better and more secure policing of the world’s existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, the key to bomb-making.

To close, here’s a nice little featurette on Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the bomb,” and the incredible regret he came to feel in the decades following the Manhattan Project.

February 21, 2011 - 7:00am
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