Risks of Nuclear War

February 11th, 2018 | Research Director

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Doomsday Clock: It’s Now 100 Seconds to Midnight.
The international security situation is now more dangerous than it has ever been, even at the height of the Cold War. The iconic Doomsday Clock symbolizing the gravest perils facing humankind is now closer to midnight than at any point since its creation in 1947. To underscore the need for action, the time on the Doomsday Clock is now being expressed in seconds, rather than minutes. In 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the Doomsday Clock from two minutes to midnight to just 100 seconds to midnight and explained: “Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.”

Civilization-ending nuclear war—whether started by design, blunder, or simple miscommunication—is a genuine possibility. Climate change that could devastate the planet is undeniably happening. And for a variety of reasons that include a corrupted and manipulated media environment, democratic governments and other institutions that should be working to address these threats have failed to rise to the challenge.

Rachel Bronson, president and CEO, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “It is 100 seconds to midnight. We are now expressing how close the world is to catastrophe in seconds – not hours, or even minutes. It is the closest to Doomsday we have ever been in the history of the Doomsday Clock. We now face a true emergency – an absolutely unacceptable state of world affairs that has eliminated any margin for error or further delay.”

Former California Governor Jerry Brown, executive chair, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, said: “Dangerous rivalry and hostility among the superpowers increases the likelihood of nuclear blunder. Climate change just compounds the crisis. If there’s ever a time to wake up, it’s now.”

Concerns about nuclear war continued to be shared by some very smart people. Stephen Hawking believed that climate change and the continuing possibility of nuclear war were the two things that put human civilization in grave danger, adding that nuclear war was likely the greatest threat to humanity. Noam Chomsky has repeatedly said much the same thing. And a great many other well-informed people concur with these assessments.

The danger today is not simply that nuclear weapons continue to exist, making nuclear war possible. Virtually all nations that possess stockpiles of nuclear weapons are today investing heavily in extensive programs to expand and modernize these arsenals, programs which will cost an estimated trillion dollars or more before they are finished. Given this level of investment, research, planning, and commitment, there is absolutely no reason to think that the world’s nuclear arsenals are going to disappear any time soon.

In fact, we are told repeatedly that the world’s safety actually requires the continued existence of these weapons, at least in the hands of a few key nations. Because we cannot “uninvent” these weapons of mass destruction, only “mutually assured destruction” provides the needed deterrence to prevent their use.

“Nuclear deterrence works. It works robustly. It works reliably. And most of all, it works in a crisis,” writes Ward Wilson in Five Myths About Nuclear Weapons. “At least, those are the assumptions that exist in many people’s minds… But a closer look at the facts of various crises leads to a remarkable but undeniable conclusion: the conviction that nuclear deterrence makes crises more stable is not based on facts.”

Wilson makes a strong case that nuclear deterrence is, in fact, far more fragile than most people assume. And relying upon it as the primary strategy for preventing nuclear war is a tremendous gamble at best, especially given the many millions of lives that could hang in the balance.

Robert Kennedy, one of only a handful of people who actually participated in a Cold War nuclear crises (the Cuban missile crisis), made much the same point. In his 1968 campaign book, To Seek a Newer World, written five years after the Cuban missile crisis, he expressed his concerns most elegantly:

“Those who disparage the threat of nuclear war ignore all evidence of the darker side of man, and of the history of the West — our history. Many times the nations of the West have plunged into inexplicable cataclysm, mutual slaughter so terrible and so widespread that it amounted nearly to the suicide of civilization… Twice within living memory of living men, the nations of Europe, the most advanced and cultured societies of the world, have torn themselves and each other apart for causes so slight, in relation to the cost of the struggle, that it is impossible to regard them as other than excuses for the expression of some darker impulse… The destruction of two World Wars was limited only by technology. Now nuclear weapons have removed that limit. Who can say that they will not be used, that a rational balance of terror will restrain emotions we do not understand? … Nuclear war may never come, but it would be the rashest folly and ignorance to think that it will not come because men, being reasonable beings, will realize the destruction it would cause.”

The underlying point we make here is that nuclear war continues to be a serious threat that we should not ignore. Relying on a “balance of terror” as the deterrent to keep us safe foolishly ignores the lessons of history, including the recent Cold War years where we came frightfully close to nuclear war on several occasions.

A new arms race
As Reuters noted in a recent special report, “President Barack Obama rode into office in 2009 with promises to work toward a nuclear-free world. His vow helped win him the Nobel Peace Prize that year.” However, by the time Obama left office in January 2017, the risk of Armageddon hadn’t receded. Instead, Washington was well along in a modernization program that is making nearly all of its nuclear weapons more accurate and deadly.

Today, the Soviet-era land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (SS-18, SS-19, and SS-25) are being replaced with different versions of the SS-27 and a new “heavy” ICBM – the RS-28 Sarmat dubbed the Satin 2,” with a range and number of warheads exceeding all its Soviet-era predecessors.

Vladimir Putin has also recently announced that Russia has now developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile with unlimited range and high-speed maneuverability, allowing it to pierce any current missile defense. And they’ve developed a high-speed “intercontinental” underwater drone capable of carrying a nuclear warhead that could target both aircraft carriers and coastal facilities. Another new weapon called Avangard is an intercontinental hypersonic missile that would fly to targets at a speed 20 times the speed of sound, strike “like a meteorite, like a fireball” according to Putin.

“We have been extremely concerned with what we have seen as the evolution of Russian military policy as it relates to potential use of nuclear weapons,” David Trachtenberg, the US deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, recently said. “Russian nuclear doctrine seems to actively consider the possibility of limited nuclear use. Russian military exercises … in some cases have involved levels of activity involving strategic nuclear forces that we haven’t seen since the heyday of the Cold War.”

Not insignificantly, Russia will also continue to retain significantly more “undeployed” nuclear warheads in its arsenal above the deployed limit set by the New START treaty for February 2018. So will the United States.

Under modernizing started by Obama, the US transformed its main hydrogen bomb into a guided smart weapon, made its submarine-launched nuclear missiles five times more accurate, and gave its land-based long-range missiles so many added features that the Air Force in 2012 described them as “basically new.” And to deliver these more lethal weapons, military contractors are building fleets of new heavy bombers and submarines. The budget for all this is enormous.

As of January 2018, the total number of nuclear weapons possessed by nine states – the U.S., Russia, the U.K., France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea – was 15,395. Approximately, 4,120 of them are operationally deployed, according to the annual report of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. Russia and the U.S. outnumber the rest of the nuclear countries with 7,290 and 7,000 nuclear weapons respectively, while both countries also had over 1,700 deployed ones that remain on hair-trigger alert. China ranked fourth with 260 nuclear weapons, none deployed.

The world has been lucky so far to escape the launch of nuclear weapons through miscalculation, but the odds of such a catastrophic accident are increasing, the former US energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, said recently.

Moniz, a nuclear physicist who now heads the Nuclear Threat Initiative, recently added that the margin for error in avoiding disaster was getting thinner because of the introduction of new, smaller weapons, the broadening of circumstances in which their use is being contemplated, and a lack of high-level communications between major nuclear weapons powers.



From Nature – Aug. 28, 2018
United States woefully unprepared for nuclear strike, say scientists

“The United States is not prepared to deal with the aftermath of a major nuclear attack, despite North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and the increasing tensions between nations overall. That was the blunt assessment of public-health experts who participated in a meeting last week on nuclear preparedness, organized by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The gathering is “an acknowledgment that the threat picture has changed, and that the risk of this happening has gone up”, says Tener Veenema, who studies disaster nursing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, and co-chaired the conference in Washington DC.”

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