The specter of an erratic, impulsive person with the nuclear launch codes at his fingertips has people talking about nuclear weapons again. That’s a good thing. There are nearly 20,000 warheads and missiles distributed around the world. They are capable of killing hundreds of millions of people in one afternoon. They are a greater and more imminent threat to life on the planet even than climate change. They are, to put it simply, an existential peril.
So of course it’s scary to think someone who is likely to say or do anything that pops into his or her head might be in a position to set off the final conflagration that results in mass murder on a scale impossible even to contemplate, with nuclear winter to follow, and widespread radiation contamination that will last for hundreds of millions of years.
But if that’s your biggest worry about nuclear weapons, you haven’t been paying attention.
Don’t be too hard on yourself. A lot of the scariest stuff about nuclear weapons is discussed in classified briefings, things too devastating for our tender ears to hear—even though the policies and plans being discussed could turn our tender ears and the rest of our tender bodies, along with our children and everyone we know, to ash in a millisecond.
Here are five things worth worrying about more than Donald Trump’s crazy.
- Anyone else with the launch codes. The downside to crazy Trump is he makes everyone else look saner. But saner is not necessarily rational. To buy into current US policy, you have to buy into an irrational policy that virtually guarantees any time we use nuclear weapons to advance our agenda or protect our interests, we are committing not only homicide, but suicide. Right now, more than 1,000 US nuclear warheads are on hair-trigger alert. Our policy reserves the right to “First Use,” meaning we can launch without a nuclear provocation, say, for instance, a pre-emptive strike. And our policy includes a nuclear umbrella that has promised many, many countries we will come to their defense if they are attacked—South Korea, for instance, and Japan. Central and South America, and eastern European countries in NATO. Would we, really, start a nuclear war because we gave our word? This is a profoundly important question, not debated in public—the fate of the Earth, literally, hangs in the balance.
- Accidental launches, miscommunications and mistakes. The story of nuclear weapons is a story that includes way too many mistakes and accidents. Few people know we came within minutes of a nuclear launch in 1995, when Russia misread a weather satellite launch from Norway. Even fewer know of US accidents that have lost nuclear weapons over land and sea in other countries. Or that our “command and control” is so slack that six nuclear warheads were mistakenly flown across the US—officially, they were missing for several hours. Not even the pilot realized he had them. You might shrug it off and say, “No harm, no foul,” except for this: what if they had been diverted elsewhere, by someone else, and no one noticed for hours? What if they hadn’t been found “safely tucked away on a US Air Force jet hundreds of miles from home—what if they had been taken somewhere else and weren’t found? Investigations have repeatedly found misbehavior on the part of US military personnel assigned to staff the missile silos that would launch Armageddon—the bottom line is it doesn’t necessarily take an act of the President to trigger disaster.
- Dirty bombs. Nuclear weapons can kill millions without exploding in a thermonuclear mushroom cloud. Because their ingredients are, even without being detonated, among the deadliest toxins known to humans. The health risks of plutonium are measured in the millionths of a curie—a tiny amount, dispersed in the air, can kill hundreds or thousands of people, and cause cancers in many, many more. So a terrorist who gets hold of a bomb may not be able to detonate it without launch codes, but if he or she is willing to risk suicide, plutonium, lithium deuteride, and highly enriched uranium could be removed from the warhead and repurposed to make a dirty bomb—a terror weapon that, exploded in a crowded place, would poison and kill thousands and thousands of people.
It is impossible to eliminate the possibility of a dirty bomb as long as there is a “market” for fissile materials. With thousands of nuclear weapons deployed around the world, in various states of security — did you realize the uprising in Turkey in July 2016 placed 50 US nuclear warheads stationed at Incirlik air base at risk? That protesters denied military and other forces access to the base for several hours? That electrical power from outside the airbase was cut off for days?—the possibility of a sale or theft of radioactive materials on the black market is real.
It is this kind of scenario, the possible diversion of nuclear materials, that has brought people like Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, William Perry and scores of other military, security and diplomatic officials to the conclusion that we must abolish our nuclear weapons because their very existence makes us less secure, not more secure.
- The new nuclear arms race. You should know that our nuclear stockpiles are not static. Over the years, arms control agreements have reduced the number of US warheads and bombs from the tens of thousands to less than ten thousand, and the number of deployed warheads is even less.
At the same time, the United States is committed to “modernizing” every facet of its nuclear weapons program—building new multibillion dollar bomb production plants, upgrading and modifying our current nuclear warheads, designing and building new missiles to deliver warheads, and investing hundreds of billions in new jets, submarines and bombers. All told, plans call for spending a trillion dollars over the next thirty years—four million dollars an hour, every hour, for thirty years!
Our plan to modernize hasn’t gone unnoticed. Russia and China are taking steps (albeit spending a lot less money) to upgrade and extend the lives of their nuclear stockpiles. We have entered a new global nuclear arms race, led by the policies and actions of the United States.
- Inevitability. Although US and Russian nuclear policy is nothing if not irrational, that does not preclude us from applying a touch of simple logic to nuclear weapons. Do you think the likelihood of nuclear war is very small—but not zero? Most people would agree with you. But that means the probability of a nuclear war at some time—unless we get rid of them—is 100%. The question is “what does ‘at some time’ mean?” It doesn’t mean never, because the probability is not zero. Does it mean forty years from now? Or forty minutes?
There are lots of safeguards and procedures to guard against accidental launch; and we hope for leaders who are rational enough to refuse an impetuous launch. And we might hope a nuclear-armed leader faced with an apparent launch—like Boris Yeltsen was in 1995 when Russian radar read a weather satellite launch as a possible nuclear missile because somewhere along the line the standard communication lines had broken down—would guess conservatively, even if it means risking his entire country.
But it’s just that—a hope. Because the safeguards and procedures meant to secure our stockpile and control launches depend on humans. Who make mistakes. As in: “To err is human.” That’s not just a cute way to brush off our mistakes—it’s a fundamental truth about human nature. We are not able to be perfect every time.
When three anti-nuclear activists entered the Y-12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in the middle of the night in July 2012 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, if they had taken a left turn instead of a right after crossing the Perimeter Intrusion Detection and Assessment Zone, they would have entered a ramshackle warren of deteriorating buildings where the US is actively manufacturing thermonuclear cores for the W-76 warhead. Unnoticed. If they had been armed, with malign intent, the resulting catastrophic chaos would be a mark in history greater than 9/11—an explosive device that caused the collapse of Building 9212 would have unleashed a cloud of radioactive dust that would have poisoned not only Oak Ridge, but nearby Knoxville, Tennessee, and who knows how far the wind would have carried the toxins—which would remain deadly for more than a hundred million years! If they had stolen even one warhead, or a dozen kilograms of highly enriched uranium, they would have triggered a global manhunt lasting until they were captured or until they used their uranium in a major metropolitan area to plant the seeds of hundreds of thousands of cancers.
The intrusion at the bomb plant was an important lesson to everyone who thinks nuclear weapons make us safe and secure.
These weapons, deadlier than we can even comprehend, depend on human beings to control them, safeguard them, and make decision about their use. In Oak Ridge, on that July night, expensive security systems, complicated physical barriers including four fences, high-tech warning equipment, and a guard force of hundreds failed to stop an 82 year-old nun and two 50+ year-old men from penetrating every security barrier and spending twenty minutes uninterrupted inside the lethal-force-authorized zone.
The security we think nuclear weapons provide is an illusion, just like all the security at Y-12. The cost of living under that illusion, without thinking about it, could be our very existence.
So next time someone asks about Donald Trump’s finger on the button, remember that behind that question of the political moment is a much more important question. Nuclear weapons are real. They threaten our very existence, and the threat grows every day, no matter who is President of the United States. Shouldn’t we do something—like everything we possibly can—about that?