TEOTWAWKI 1: The Nuclear Option

On September 26, 1983, a man named Stanislav Petrov saved the world.

This was the height of the Cold War, and every little diplomatic or military incident that occurred would lead to fevered speculation about the intentions of the global superpowers. The Cold War was a game of chess, except both players had hand-grenades; fighting and struggling for slight strategic and tactical advances even as both sides had the power to annihilate each other. At any moment of any day, hundreds of nuclear missiles were on hair-trigger alert, aimed at the major cities of the opposition. One wrong move — one false step — and millions of people would die in hours. Never before in the field of human history had so much rested on decisions made by so few.

As part of the chess game, it was necessary for the two leaders opposing each other to be utterly inscrutable. For the nuclear deterrent to be effective, both sides would have to believe that the other was capable of ordering an all-out thermonuclear war. Ronald Reagan was testing out his psychological operations; US warplanes flew provocatively to the brink of Soviet airspace and turned back only at the last moment. The aim was to test out the Soviet radar capability, and exert psychological pressure on the USSR. Yuri Andropov, the aging, paranoid leader of the Soviet Union, was deeply concerned as Reagan began a military build-up. The Strategic Defence Initiative — Star Wars — was Reagan’s planned space-based missile shield, and Andropov worried that if it was deployed, it would violate mutually assured destruction. Was the US preparing to make a first strike? To make matters worse, just three weeks before, the Soviets had shot down a passenger airliner with a US Congressman on board, killing 269 people — many of them Americans — who had strayed into Soviet airspace by mistake. Quoting Cold War security expert Bruce Blair:

“Relations between the great powers had deteriorated to the point where the Soviet Union as a system — not just the Kremlin, not just Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, not just the KGB — but as a system, was geared to expect an attack and to retaliate very quickly to it. It was on hair-trigger alert. It was very nervous and prone to mistakes and accidents.”

The Russians believed that the US was planning a first strike that might attempt to destroy Soviet nuclear capabilities as well as their civilian populations. It was in this febrile atmosphere that Stanislav Petrov, a lieutenant colonel for the Soviets, was on duty at his post. He was monitoring Oko — the Soviet satellite early-warning system. His job was to warn the Soviet military authorities if there were any incoming US missiles; the response would be a massive retaliatory strike, as soon as the warning was detected — as the doctrine of mutually assured destruction insisted. Once the missiles were in the air, the Soviets would have minutes, not hours, to respond.

Shortly after midnight, the unthinkable happened: a US missile showed up on the screen. The day Petrov had hoped would never arrive was here; all-out nuclear war was about to begin. Moscow, New York; Kiev, Los Angeles; the towers of Leningrad St-Petersburg and the White House in Washington DC: Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London, and the city of Warsaw in Poland, the city that even the Nazi SS could not completely destroy… all of these places would be burned, vaporized, filled with the screams of the dead, dying, and those condemned by radiation poisoning… and then, after the fires had burned, a terrible silence would fall…

It was down to Petrov. He had to tell his commanders. He had to give the order. This is what he said of that night:

“The siren howled, but I just sat there for a few seconds, staring at the big, back-lit, red screen with the word ‘launch’ on it,” he says.

The system was telling him that the level of reliability of that alert was “highest”. There could be no doubt. America had launched a missile.

“A minute later the siren went off again. The second missile was launched. Then the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Computers changed their alerts from ‘launch’ to ‘missile strike’,” he says.

If, that night, Petrov had followed protocol, you would not be listening to this now. But instead, he hesitated. The computerised warning system was new, and in those days, people had less blind faith in computers than they do now. There were no supporting signals on radar that confirmed the missiles had been launched — although waiting for those might prevent the USSR from launching its retaliation strike. But something else didn’t make sense: what was the logic in launching just one missile, or even five? They were expecting the attack to come, but they were expecting it to be all-out. But perhaps this was merely the first wave. The decision that Petrov took in the next few minutes — with sirens screaming and the threat of total annihilation looming — was arguably the single most important decision taken in the history of mankind. He decided that it was a false alarm, and reported a systems malfunction to his high command rather than a missile strike.

The next few minutes were the longest of Petrov’s life. If he was wrong, the first nuclear warheads would explode over the cities of his countrymen in minutes. But he’d called it right. Stanislav Petrov had just saved the world.

He was not rewarded. Petrov later said that the incident exposed embarrassing failures in the missile defence system — and it did very nearly cause the end of civilization as we know it, which is a pretty big mistake — so rewarding Petrov would have meant punishing his superiors for their lapses. He retired from the military and lived on his pension. His story did not come out for ten years, until after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said that even his wife didn’t know until the news became public — that her husband was all that stood between the world and global thermonuclear war. He’s still alive today; if you ever happen to see him, I suggest you buy him a drink.

Petrov’s story is incredible. It is also far from unique. It is this, and incidents like this, that make nuclear weapons my number one apocalypse in these TEOTWAWKI specials. You may well believe that no rational human beings would ever order a nuclear strike. You may well believe in what you might call the Pax Atomica, the atomic peace. Since any nuclear-armed power using nuclear weapons guarantees their own annihilation, surely no commander would ever order their use? The terrifying truth is that no one has to order the use of nuclear weapons. If it happens, it’s just as likely to happen by accident, through miscommunications, misunderstandings… the law of averages and the law of large numbers. The experts in this field don’t just believe that some kind of nuclear error is likely, eventually. They think it’s a miracle that it hasn’t occurred already.

If only Petrov’s was the only story. January 24, 1961. A B-52 bomber is flying over North Carolina, carrying its nuclear cargo. The nuclear weapons of the time worked like this: a ring of conventional explosives surrounded the nuclear payload. When the conventional explosions detonated, they’d compress the nuclear material which would then go supercritical and explode with the force of four million tonnes of TNT. The B-52 was carrying two of these bombs — each of them two hundred times more powerful than the bomb that had been dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. It was during a routine mid-air refuelling that the crew realized there was a fuel leak in the wing.

Initially, they hoped to make an emergency landing. But it soon became clear that this wasn’t going to be possible — they couldn’t dump fuel from the other wing, and this meant that the plane was heading for a fatal tailspin. Major Tulloch, in charge of those on board, ordered his crew to bail out. Three of them were killed in the process. But the worst was yet to come.

As the tailspin progressed, centrifugal forces in the cockpit pulled at a small lanyard. This was attached to the bomb release mechanism. The forces of the crash and tailspin had some effects on the bomb itself. Its arming wires were removed; as far as the bomb was concerned, it was being dropped on a legitimate target. Nuclear bombs of that era contained barometric, pressure-activated switches that ensured they burst at the right height. As the bomb fell from the plane, the barometric switches were triggered. The bomb also contained a back-up; if it hit the ground, to ensure detonation, crystals that are piezoelectric — which means they produce a current when pressure is applied — would send a firing signal. The bomb smashed into the ground in North Carolina. The crystals were crushed, and they released their firing signal.

On one of the bombs, only the arm/safe switch — one out of four safety switches — had prevented the detonation from taking place. On the other bomb…

Well, Lt. Jack Revelle, who was in charge of bomb disposal for these devices, can tell you that story.

“Until my death I will never forget hearing my sergeant say, “Lieutenant, we found the arm/safe switch.” And I said, “Great.” He said, “Not great. It’s on arm.””

The US military had accidentally dropped two nuclear bombs on North Carolina. On one of them, only a single electric switch had stood between that device and the explosion. On the other, that switch had been thrown by mistake. Only in 2013 did Freedom of Information requests allow us to realize how close the bombs were to exploding and raining deadly fallout over the continental united states. If the bombs had detonated, strong winds would have swept deadly radioactive fallout into New York, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Human beings forget things incredibly easily. I’m young enough that the USSR had already collapsed by the time I was born, and, because of that, people felt that the threat of nuclear war had receded. Even talking about it somehow seems — anachronistic, a cold war throwback. We have lived for just twenty-odd years with this reduced level of threat. History doesn’t end; it goes on, and on, and on. And accidents, as we’ve seen, will happen — especially as systems grow more and more complicated, and people grow less and less alert to the threat. But just a few years ago children, in schools, were being taught how to duck and cover under desks in the case of a nuclear attack.

We don’t know what a modern thermonuclear war would look like. But the warheads of today are hundreds of times more powerful than the ones that devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. And the accounts from those bombings are horrifying beyond belief by themselves.

Dr. Michihiko Hachiya of Hiroshima survived the nuclear bombing. Here’s what he said.

I tried. It was all a nightmare — my wounds, the darkness, the road ahead. My movements were ever so slow; only my mind was running at top speed.

In time I came to an open space where the houses had been removed to make a fire lane. Through the dim light I could make out ahead of me the hazy outlines of the Communications Bureau’s big concrete building, and beyond it the hospital. My spirits rose because I knew that now someone would find me; and if I should die, at least my body would be found. I paused to rest. Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Perhaps they had been in the bath. But then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw — complete silence.

Setsuko Thurlow was only a child when the bomb was dropped:

On August 6, 1945, I was a 13-year-old grade 8 student at Hiroshima Jogakuin and a member of The Student Mobilization Program. I was one of a group of 30 students assigned to help at the army headquarters. We were on the second floor of the wooden building about a mile from the hypocentre, about to start our first day of work. At 8:15 a.m., I saw a bluish-white flash like a magnesium flare outside the window. I remember the sensation of floating in the air. As I regained consciousness in the total silence and darkness, I realized I was pinned in the ruins of the collapsed building. I could not move. I knew I was faced with death. Strangely the feeling I had was not panic but serenity. Gradually I began to hear my classmates’ faint cries for help, “Mother, help me!”, “God, help me!” Then suddenly, I felt hands touching me and loosening the timbers that pinned me. A man’s voice said, “Don’t give up! I’m trying to free you! Keep moving! See the light coming through that opening. Crawl toward it and try to get out!” By the time I got out, the ruins were on fire. This meant that most of my classmates who were with me in the same room were burned alive. A solider ordered me and a few surviving girls to escape to the nearby hills.

I turned around and saw the outside world. Although it was morning, it looked like twilight because of the dust and smoke in the air. People at a distance saw the mushroom cloud and heard a thunderous roar. But I did not see the cloud because I was in it. I did not hear the roar, just the deadly silence broken only by the groans of the injured. Streams of stunned people were slowly shuffling from the city centre toward nearby hills. They were naked or tattered, burned, blackened and swollen. Eyes were swollen shut and some had eyeballs hanging out of their sockets. They were bleeding, ghostly figures like a slow-motion image from an old silent movie. Many held their hands above the level of their hearts to lessen the throbbing pain of their burns. Strips of skin and flesh hung like ribbons from their bones. Often these ghostly figures would collapse in heaps never to rise again. With a few surviving classmates I joined the procession carefully stepping over the dead and dying.

At the foot of the hill was an army training ground about the size of two football fields. Literally every bit of it was covered with injured and dying who were desperately begging, often in fain whispers, “Water, water, please give me water”. But we had no containers to carry water. We went to a nearby stream to wash the blood and dirt from our bodies. Then we tore off parts of our clothes, soaked them with water and hurried back to hold them to the mouths of the dying who desperately sucked the moisture. We kept busy at this task of giving some comfort to the dying all day. There were no medical supplies of any kind and we did not see any doctor or nurse. When darkness fell, we sat on the hillside, numbed by the massive scale of death and suffering we had witnessed, watching the entire city burn. In the background were the low rhythmic whispers from the swollen lips of the ghostly figures, still begging for water.

In the centre of the city were some 7,000 to 8,000 students from grades 7 and 8 who had been mobilized from all the high schools in the city to help clear fire lanes. Out in the open, close to the explosion, which was about one million degrees at the centre of the explosion 500 metres above the ground, nearly all of them were incinerated and were vaporized without a trace, and more died within days. In this way, my age group in the city was almost wiped out. My sister-in-law was a teacher supervising her students at this task. Although my father and I searched for days turning over dead and burned bodies, we never found her body. She left two little children as orphans.

Others were terribly burned but lived for several days or weeks. My sister and her four-year-old son were crossing a bridge at the moment of the explosion and both were horribly burned, blackened and swollen beyond recognition. We could later recognise my sister only by her voice and by a unique hair-pin in her hair. They lingered for several days without medical care of any kind until death at last released them from their agony. The image of my little nephew, Eiji representing the innocent children of the world, compels and drives me to continue to speak of Hiroshima, no matter how painful it may be. Soldiers threw their bodies in a ditch, poured on gasoline and threw a lighted match. They turned the bodies with bamboo poles, saying, “The stomach is not burned yet”, “The head is only half burned”. There I was, a 13-year-old girl, standing with my parents, witnessing the most grotesque violation of human dignity on my sister and little nephew with no tears or other appropriate emotional response. A friend of mine, Miss Sasaki, later told me of returning the next day to where her home had stood and finding the skeletons of her entire family and not being able to shed any tears. The memories of this kind of behaviour troubled me for many years until I studied the psychological reaction to massive trauma.

The unique and mysterious effect of the atomic bomb was radiation which affected many people. For example, my favourite uncle and aunt were in the suburbs and had no external injuries. But a couple of weeks later they began feeling sick with the appearance of purple spots on their bodies, nausea and loss of hair and so forth. We did not know then that the sickness was due to radiation. According to my mother who cared for them until their deaths, their internal organs seemed to be rotting and dissolving and coming out in a black liquid. Later we were told that if purple spots appeared on our bodies, this was a sure sign that we would soon die. Every morning, our routine was anxiously to examine our bodies for the dreaded purple spots.

Only those at the very center of the blast can hope for a quick death; for everyone else, slow, painful suffering due to horrific burns or radiation poisoning. When working on the first atomic bombs, a physicist — Louis Slotin — was performing a type of experiment called “tickling the dragon.” In these experiments, the plutonium core of an atomic bomb is brought close to critical reactivity, and then brought back from the brink. His hand slipped; there was a blue flash and a burst of bright radiation and heat. Slotin instinctively dropped the core, but it was too late; he had already been irradiated by a fatal dose of neutron radiation. A few milliseconds was all it took. Over the next nine days, Slotin suffered an “agonizing sequence of radiation-induced traumas”, including severe diarrhea, reduced urine output, swollen hands, erythema, “massive blisters on his hands and forearms”, intestinal paralysis, and gangrene. He had internal radiation burns throughout his body, which one medical expert described as a “three-dimensional sunburn.” By the seventh day, he was experiencing periods of “mental confusion.” His lips and fingernails turned blue and he was put in an oxygen tent. He ultimately experienced “a total disintegration of bodily functions” and slipped into a coma. He died, the second victim of the same core. Others in the room would later die prematurely of cancer, and some were badly injured in the accident. Particularly dangerous, strontium-90 has a radioactive half-life of 29.1 years. It is absorbed easily by plants and animals, and mimics calcium in the human body — it accumulates in our bones and causes leukemia and can contaminate agricultural land for generations; any food grown on a post-nuclear planet would carry the terrible risk of fallout with it. Now imagine this kind of medical crisis extending to thousands of people, in every major city of the country you live in. As the firestorms spread, a thousand times more energy would be released in the burning of the cities than in the nuclear weapons themselves. That’s the kind of situation we’d be dealing with.

Safety issues have dogged nuclear weapons from the very start of their development right to the present day. In his excellent book Command and Control, which is a comprehensive history of nuclear weapons and nuclear errors, Eric Schlosser describes how the US military dealt with one of the first atomic bombs.

“Donald Hornig was instructed to babysit the bomb. At 9pm Hornig climbed to the top of the hundred-foot tower as the rain began to fall. He brought a collection of humorous essays. His reading was interrupted by the arrival of a violent electrical storm. Atop the tower in a flimsy metal shed, Hornig sat alone with the book, the fully armed device, the telephone, and a single lightbulb dangling from a wire. He was 25 years old and had recently earned a PhD from Harvard. Having designed the X-unit that triggered the warhead, he knew better than anyone who easily it could be triggered by static electricity. Whenever he saw a lightning bolt, he’d count the seconds until he heard the thunder. Some of the lightning felt awfully close.”

The Air Force listed 87 accidents that could have affected nuclear weapons between 1950–7. The Army and Navy didn’t even keep track of nuclear accidents. In several cases, nuclear weapons actually detonated — except they didn’t contain their plutonium cores, so only the preliminary explosion that would have set off the nuclear reaction occurred. This happened in 1950 as a bomb was dumped from a crashing B36 bomber. On at least four occasions the bridgewire detonators fired when the weapons were dropped on removal from aircraft. Carts used to carry nuclear bombs would break and roll away — in one case, perilously close to falling off a steep embankment. Even dropping a nuclear weapon could cause some types of weapon to explode if accidentally armed. A B29 crashed containing a nuclear weapon — luckily without a core — which later detonated in the resulting fire. In one incident, a plane crashed into a storage container containing several nuclear bombs. It sprayed jet fuel everywhere which quickly ignited; bomb disposal experts described it as “a miracle” that one of the explosions wasn’t triggered. There are dozens of stories like this from the history of nuclear weapons. We know about (most of??) the US ones — the Soviet ones are less well-known to us. And this is just the stuff that has since been declassified.

The army did have safety guidelines. For example, they aimed — and remember, this is just an aspiration! — to reduce the chances of a hydrogen bomb exploding accidentally to just one in ten million. This sounds like an acceptable risk — the price of freedom, maybe — until you realize that this means, if 10,000 hydrogen-bombs were stored for a decade, the odds of detonation would be 1/1000. And, if the bombs were removed from storage and flown in airplanes — as they regularly were, as we know — the odds increase to 1/5. That’s the upper limit; that’s the aim for safety. When the US and Soviet nuclear arsenals, and readiness to respond, depended on these planes: it was a miracle that there was not a nuclear error.

Next episode, we’ll talk about the strategies that humans developed to deal with these new, deadly weapons; where we are today with nuclear weapons safety — and perhaps the time when nuclear war came closest to happening: The Cuban Missile Crisis.

TEOTWAWKI END SPIEL

TEOTWAWKI: The Shadow of the Bomb (nukes part II)

When the first nuclear weapons were developed, it wasn’t known what the consequences would be of detonation. There were genuine fears that the intense heat and radiation of the first explosion could ignite the atmosphere and set the whole sky ablaze; and, although it was considered unlikely, the physicist Enrico Fermi (see our episode on his Fermi paradox) gave the odds at around “one in ten.” So perhaps when the first test went off without a hitch, and the scientists realized that they had succeeded in their aims and beaten the Nazis to the bomb, there might have been a brief sense of relief that the worst had not materialized. But it was soon replaced by terror at the forces they had unleashed. Oppenheimer, the father of the Manhattan Project, infamously quoted Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.”

A full-scale nuclear war (assumed between the US and Russia although there are obviously other permutations) would simulate the kind of supervolcano eruption that we dealt with at the start of this series; vast amounts of ash, dust, and smoke would be thrown up — up to 150 million tonnes of smoke — which would likely push the climate off the brink and into another Ice Age. Surface temperatures would be projected to drop by 20 degrees over North America, and 30 degrees over most of Eurasia; any agricultural zones here would be completely destroyed. Combine this with the fact that all major population centers would be horribly irradiated, any survivors would become badly injured refugees, and radioactive fallout would rain from the sky killing plants, animals, and any humans who ventured outside — there would be almost no chance of survival in the long-term, unless you were locked in a bunker with decades’ worth of food. Some of the radioactive isotopes have half-lives of thousands of years — vast regions of the Earth’s surface would not be habitable for decades or even centuries. Earth would perish in fire, poison, and smoke; and then it would perish in ice and radioactivity. It is difficult to imagine a more hellish scenario for the planet. We cannot know what political conditions will be like even twenty years from now — and if you don’t believe me, imagine predicting the world of today in 2015 — but there need not be a deterioration of relations between the great powers. Such a war could easily be triggered by accident. Even a small-scale war with 100 Hiroshima sized weapons would cause a global temperature drop of 1.25C — and we have discussed in previous shows the impact that such small-sounding changes can potentially have.


Since humans realized the consequences of full-scale nuclear war, people have been trying to come up with new strategies to deal with it. Arguably the worst time was in the 1950s, when both the USSR and the USA developed H-bombs and there were no understood “rules of the game”. You have to remember that we are in an era of (relative) peace — in the 1950s nearly everyone living could remember the horrors of the Second World War, and the last time that civilian populations were attacked with nuclear weapons, and all the dreadful stories of Nazi atrocities. It is a miracle that there were any rational actors at all. Perhaps it’s only the horror of the First and Second World Wars that left the pacifist urge strong enough to prevent nuclear war — yet there were plenty, especially in the US, who felt that the only option for world peace was for a massive pre-emptive strike against the Soviet Union before they developed the capacity to retaliate. Even noted atheist and pacifist Bertrand Russell endorsed this position. It was only after the USSR demonstrated its atomic capabilities that he began to argue in favour of total abolition of nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile the doctrine of mutually assured destruction was developed — the idea that the only way nuclear war could be rendered impossible was if it was symmetric. Yet even as this shaky peace held, people were looking at ways of getting around it. Could you destroy all of their nuclear bombers on the ground, prior to launch? Could tactical nuclear weapons be fired to destroy incoming bombers? Could weapons be sufficiently camouflaged, or placed on roving submarines so that they were impervious to attack? Was it really necessary to launch an all-out strike to secure victory? When it was discovered, in the Kennedy administration, that the USSR only had a few functioning intercontinental ballistic missiles — this did not decrease tensions. Instead, the US was concerned about a “decapitation attack” that would focus on the country’s leadership. With the President and his Cabinet dead, who would give the order to retaliate? In the confusion, a fleet of Soviet bombers could sweep up the rest of the country. Both sides were looking for a winning strategy. When China became a nuclear power and entered the fray, the rhetoric from Beijing was that China’s larger population would allow them to survive a nuclear exchange and overrun the remaining countries in the post-apocalyptic world. Yet no-one found a strategy that they felt could reliably protect them — and it’s a good job too, because if one side did possess a winning strategy, who knows what would have happened?

At the same time, sensing the game-changing nature of these weapons, people were arguing that the only solution was a sort of one-world utopia. A New York Times bestseller was a collection of essays — One World or None — which demanded international control of the atomic bomb. And 54% of the American people wanted “the United Nations to become a world government with the power to control all military forces, including the United States” — can you imagine that? President Eisenhower, although unwilling to admit it publically, was not willing to engage in a nuclear war. “You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.” But it was necessary to prepare for total war. Nobody really knew what would happen, but some hawks — like Curtis LeMay — felt that only by having hundreds of thousands of nuclear weapons could the US truly be safe. Then they would have a hope of eliminating the USSR’s nuclear and military capacities in a strike without the destruction being mutually assured. Every target would have to be pounded with multiple nuclear weapons, in case some were intercepted; the yields would have to be so large that even a target that was missed by miles would be incinerated. In the USSR, development began on a “dead man’s switch” system — a retaliatory strike that could detonate even after the central authorities had been wiped out. The issue with these huge stockpiles was maintaining any kind of command or control.

The early-warning system of the USSR was not the only one that malfunctioned, from time to time. The NORAD early-warning system once flashed up with a threat level of 5. This means, according to the computer and protocols, that there was a 99.9% chance that the US was under nuclear attack. The vice commander asked a crucial question — where was Nikita Khruschev? At the time, he was the leader of the Soviet Union. And he was in New York, attending the United Nations. This was the main reason that the base commanders decided that it was indeed a false alarm — launching an attack that killed your own leader was pretty dark, even by Soviet standards. The computerized defence system had mistakenly identified dozens of long-range missiles heading towards American cities. It was, in fact, detecting the Moon. On another occasion, a worker at NORAD accidentally loaded the wrong tape into one of its computers. Fighters and bomber crews were scrambled; missile teams were put on high alert. The tape had been one of a training exercise; it had caused the computers to report a realistic nuclear missile strike from the USSR was taking place.

If the situation was bad in the United States, it was worse in her NATO allies. Many of these countries — for example, Italy — had strong Communist parties who had an obvious motivation for stealing a nuclear weapon. Weapons were often transported and handled by military personnel from the different nations — some of whom were at war with each other, as in the case of Turkey and Greece. In one incident, a hurried nuclear test was carried out in the Sahara desert by French forces in Algeria; they were afraid of a potential coup which would cause the weapons to fall into the wrong hands. Algeria was fighting for its independence at the time. The weapons were poorly-maintained and the instruction manuals were in English — often incomprehensible to the troops who handled them. Sometimes inspectors would find screwdrivers and wrenches inside the bombs. On one occasion an inspector looked on, amazed, as a group of NATO weapons handlers pulled out the arming wires on a nuclear bomb as they removed it from a plane. This started the arming sequence; if the bomb was dropped on the ground by mistake, it could have detonated.

My point in focusing on these errors is not to malign or disparage the military or their safety procedures for handling nuclear weapons — although there have been lapses. The point is that, when you have a hell of a lot of nuclear weapons that need to be on high alert, deployed and re-deployed, in regions across the world — when the numbers are large enough — mistakes are inevitable. Given the numbers of weapons, and given time, the one in a billion probabilities add up until the overall chance of some kind of mistake occuring approaches certainty. It is a miracle that there have not been any accidental detonations to date. I’m not sure we can continue to trust our luck. And this is quite apart from the idea that war could be intentionally triggered, or that a weapon could fall into the wrong hands. For years at the height of the Cold War, it would have only taken two officers, or the crew of a single B-52 or Soviet bomber — to go rogue. That’s all it would have taken to eliminate the human race. Over 1,500 of them lost their security clearance due to drug use, including on some occasions LSD and cocaine.

If you don’t count the two near-misses due to malfunctioning missile radars — and whatever other incidents we never got to hear about — then the closest we came to nuclear war was probably the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert MacNamara, who was there, said that he later estimated humanity’s chances of being killed in a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis as somewhere between 1 in 6 and 1 in 4. Those aren’t “eh, it’ll never happen” odds; those are betting odds.

The Cuban Missile Crisis kicked off after the US deployed ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey. Just the year before — frustrated and threatened by the Communist island of Cuba just off their coastline — the US had attempted to topple the Castro regime with the ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion. The idea was that the CIA would covertly sponsor a lot of exiles from Cuba, who disliked the regime, to overthrow the government. There would then be a thin veneer of plausible deniability — President Kennedy could claim he wasn’t directly invading Cuba. Unfortunately, the world quickly realized that the airplanes bombing the Cuban airfields were really US planes with false-flag Cuban markers. The Soviets warned of a nuclear strike if US forces were further committed, and so Kennedy withdrew further support from the invasion. This left the Cuban exiles, who had been recruited and trained by the CIA, in a terrible situation, and three days later, they were defeated.

In response to this embarrassing debacle, the Kennedy government became even more aggressive in its rhetoric against Cuba, and the Cuban authorities requested that the USSR should deter future invasions by placing missiles on the island.

The Cuban Missile Crisis indicates the misunderstandings that can take place between two nuclear-armed powers. This was around the time that nuclear weapons were transitioning from being delivered by bombers to using intercontinental ballistic missiles. Kennedy had run on the platform of avoiding a “missile gap”, believing that the Soviets were far advanced in terms of this technology. In reality, the USSR only had 20 IBCMs, and didn’t trust them to be anywhere near accurate enough to hit the continental US. This is why the missiles in Turkey and Italy were such a concern. The US thought that they were just restoring parity, but, in reality, they meant the US was far more capable of a first strike than the USSR. You can have rational actors, then, with imperfect information, which leads to misunderstandings and escalations.

Given all that had happened, Khrushchev approved of the missile deployment on the island in July 1962. They were smuggled in under the guise of supplies for Cuba, but by October the US had spotted them in aerial reconnaissance photos. The Crisis began on October 15th when JFK was notified. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, in charge of military affairs, recommended a full invasion of Cuba — calling the bluff of the Soviets, who had made guarantees in public and private to the Cuban leadership that they would respond to an invasion of Cuba with a nuclear force. JFK felt, probably rightly, that such an action would have to provoke a Soviet response — whether a nuclear attack, or invading West Berlin — and this could easily escalate into a full-scale conflict. The situation was worse than anyone knew at the time — over 100 tactical nuclear warheads were delivered to Cuba, and the local Soviet commander had the ability (although not the authority) to launch them without additional codes from Moscow.

After announcing to the nation and the world that the missiles had been discovered, things got a little heated — Kennedy began planning an invasion of Cuba, while the Soviets were threatening nuclear retaliation if one took place. US bombers were on 24/7 missions at the Soviet border, on constant alert, ready to strike if the order was given. A blockade around the island of Cuba was established, and US and Soviet ships were in a tense standoff, potentially at risk of firing on each other. Any small misunderstanding could have escalated into a full-scale nuclear war; and there were people on both sides urging the leaders on, to an invasion of Cuba or to fire on the blockade, which could have snowballed into a full conflict.

Eventually, after a lot of sleepless nights for all involved, Khrushchev and Kennedy found the remedy; a secret deal. The USSR would remove the missiles from Cuba; the US would secretly dismantle and remove the missiles from Italy and Turkey. But the day this was agreed in secret was, in fact, the riskiest day of the Cuban Missile Crisis — and few people knew this until years later.

On that day, the 27 October 1962, a Soviet submarine, B-59, equipped with nuclear torpedos was being pursued by the US Navy in international waters. To avoid the US Navy, they’d sunk deep in the ocean — so deep that they couldn’t pick up on radio transmissions from the surface. The USS Beale dropped depth charges on the submarine in an attempt to force it to come to the surface and identify itself. For all that the crew of the B-59 knew, the nuclear war that many expected due to the escalating Cuban Missile Crisis had begun. The depth charges damaged the air conditioning unit of the submarine, which began to overheat unbearably and carbon dioxide to build up in the vessel. The captain of the submarine, who had no way of knowing the depth charges weren’t intended to destroy the submarine, decided that war had begun, and gave the order to fire their nuclear torpedo.

On any other submarine in the flotilla, his orders would have been obeyed immediately. But this particular submarine also hosted a man called Vasili Arkhipov, who was in command of the whole fleet and technically had the same rank the captain. He was not in favour of launching the nuclear torpedo and, after what you can imagine was probably a pretty tense standoff, they surfaced to await orders from Moscow. Had he not done that, it’s very possible that the US Navy ships would have been vaporized by nuclear force, triggering a full-scale nuclear war that would have obliterated hundreds of cities, and hundreds of millions of people. And you’ll remember from our first episode that Arkhipov isn’t even the only person who can reasonably claim to have saved the world.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, information was liberalized. The threat from nuclear war between the two major superpowers may have receded, but information about the number of nuclear accidents and errors began to leak out. And more and more people were allowed to see the top-secret US war plans. One of them was General Butler, who said:

“With the possible exception of the Soviet war plan, this was the single most absurd and irresponsible document I had seen in my life. I came to fully appreciate the truth; we escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention, and I suspect the latter in the greatest proportion.”

But with the end of the Cold War, people are thinking less and less about nuclear weapons. The systems are aging; they’re being less funded; they are not in the public consciousness, or the subject of frequent political discussion. A recent Guardian report about the aging control systems for these devices might spark a little alarm:

“The US Strategic Automated Command and Control System, which is used to send and receive emergency action messages to US Nuclear forces, runs on a 1970s IBM computer platform.”

It still uses those massive, 8-inch floppy disks. Shockingly, the US Government Accountability Office said: “Replacement parts for the system are difficult to find because they are now obsolete.” And many people no longer know how to operate these systems, as their creators retire.

Yet the fact remains that there is enough missile capacity left to destroy the human race several times over. And new threats, from North Korea, from India and Pakistan, and from Iran need to be considered. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons are entirely controlled by the military. It is not impossible to imagine a coup might take place and destabilize a nuclear power. North Korea recently demonstrated that it has created an intercontinental ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the United States — and though we still have some way to go before they can create a miniaturized warhead that could survive re-entry, and they will surely not have enough faith in their targeting ability for quite some time before they could consider striking the US — it has again exposed our vulnerabilities in a world where these weapons exist. What do you do when it appears that a regime you don’t like is on the brink of developing enough of a nuclear capability to really be on a par with the dominant, global superpower — and being a party to this idea of Mutually Assured Destruction? Some people argue that the only way around it is a pre-emptive strike that destroys this regime before they get there; but North Korea’s example shows that we really can’t risk the possibility that — even if the US is safe — Seoul or Tokyo being destroyed with a nuclear bomb. The safety of the world depends on the idea that Kim Jong-Un and Donald Trump are both rational actors.

In 2003, as Eric Schlosser quotes, half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety tests — despite being given a three-day warning of inspections. He also points out that 9/11 exposed that the US is still vulnerable to a decapitation style attack — in a genuine emergency, orders consistently were not received and communication broke down.

In 2008, a UN resolution was passed that would “de-alert” the nuclear weapons of the major powers. This would take them off high, hair-trigger alerts that shorten the decision-making time but also render mistakes and errors more likely. It was voted for by 134 countries — but blocked by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, which have vetoes. In the rebuttal to this veto, these nations said:

“Common sense tells us that there is no way to construct a command and control system — that employs thousands of human beings and computers — which is completely impervious to failure. Nothing is fool-proof to a sufficiently talented fool.

Recent authoritative scientific studies predict that if the U.S.-Russian high-alert missiles are ever launched, and their warheads detonated over cities, the environmental consequences of this nuclear war would cause the destruction of most, if not all, human beings. This is unacceptable because there is not now and has never been a national or political goal that justifies the complete destruction of all nations and peoples.

Regardless of the degree of risk, however small it might be, it is immoral and illogical to take this chance. No nation or nations have the right to jeopardize the survival of humanity and life on Earth.”

It is a miracle that we have avoided nuclear war, or nuclear error. A large part of this has to be credited to the militaries involved. The decision-making of individuals like Petrov, and heads of state who acted with cooler heads, and the safety protocols that have meant none of the many accidents I have described led to a nuclear explosion. But accidents will happen. And, if we have learned anything, we should know that people cannot be trusted. You might trust the individuals — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Theresa May, Emmanuel Macron, Modi and Hussain — and, soon enough, Kim-Jong Un — not to allow things to escalate to the scale of nuclear war. You may trust the people of today. But what about the leaders that could arise tomorrow?

One idea that was presented to prevent the use of atomic weapons I particularly liked — proposed, of course, at the height of the Cold War — was from Harvard Law Professor Roger Fisher.

“There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is — what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.””


Another, similar proposal suggested that even having to kill someone wouldn’t be sufficient deterrence for some leaders. Instead, we should ensure that the people in the chain of command of nuclear-armed countries must have some of their loved ones living in a rival country — as, essentially, very-well-taken-care-of political hostages to prevent a nuclear war. Mr President, you might be able to give the order and retreat to your bunker, but the blood on your hands will be that of your family.




The mutually assured destruction doctrine has kept us safe. And, in fact, it’s probably responsible for the fact that conflict between the world’s major superpowers has been limited to small, proxy wars rather than all out annihilation. Just as the peace that arose due to the Roman Empire’s dominance and occupation of so much territory was referred to as the Pax Romanum, people refer to this as the Pax Atomica. But we all remember what happened to the Roman Empire — the world turned, the world changed, and it fell apart. What if some new technology means that mutually assured destruction no longer applies? Is it so unrealistic to imagine, for example, that one country develops a system that can reliably shoot down missiles? That’s what Ronald Reagan wanted to do with the Strategic Defence Initiative, Star Wars; and then, suddenly, that country is free to strike with a much lower risk of retaliation. When Gorbachev complained to Reagan that Star Wars would allow the US to strike the USSR with impunity, Reagan replied that of course, if Star Wars worked, they would freely give it to the Soviets for them to use as well. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. The whole point of mutually assured destruction is convincing the other side that you’ll wipe them out if they ever dream of striking; you have to adopt an incredibly belligerent stance. That meant that when Star Wars was mooted, the Soviets were genuinely afraid that the US would develop this — and then launch a first strike to wipe out the USSR. What if political leaders decide that they now have such supremacy they could reasonably strike and destroy all of the existing facilities on the other side, to prevent retaliation?

Let’s say you trust all of your political leaders, and every political leader who will arise in the future — even when we’ve seen how easy it is for a state to fall into the hands of a small, extremist cabal many times in history… What about the possibility of an accidental nuclear war? The Global Catastrophic Risk Institute studied this scenario with the available information that they have on nuclear protocols. In the scenarios they ran, the annual probability of an accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia ranged from 0.00001, which would give a nuclear war on average once every 100,000 years — or 0.07. A 7% chance of an accidental nuclear war occurring each year. If that’s true, you’d expect one on average every 14 years. If that’s true, it’s a miracle that we’ve not been wiped out already. [CAN YOU FIND THIS STUDY?]

This is an intractable problem. I don’t see any credible way that all sides will truly agree to disarm themselves. They may reduce risks through better communication, better cooperation, and more politics. But when the first nuclear test was successful, the world changed forever. Right now, we might even be able to forget about it for large periods of time. We can always debate these things in an abstract, intellectual way — play-acting at being war-gamers, master strategists, and bibbling about grand ideals like mutually assured destruction and rational actors. In our thinking, though, we need a dose of blood — the same way the President who has to stab his friend to launch a nuclear strike realizes the gravity of the situation more than the one who rattles off some obscure launch code. We need this blood, because if we’re not careful, there will be blood: unimaginable destruction. The entire species — the fate of the planet — is always unfolding in the shadow of the bomb.

Thanks for listening to this TEOTWAWKI series. I hope that I haven’t given you all too many nightmares. I should also point out that most of the most deadly apocalyptic scenarios I have described are completely within human control. They should act not as grimly depressing horrors, but as warnings. If we do not improve, this could be what awaits us.

I want to leave off this series with the words of Martin Rees, who works at the Centre for Existential Risk, from his book about existential risks.

“Choices on how science is applied — to medicine, the environment, and so forth — should be debated far beyond the scientific community. This is one reason why it is important that a wide public should have a basic feel for science, knowing at least the difference between a proton and a protein. Otherwise, such debate won’t get beyond slogans, or will be conducted at megaphone level via sensational headlines in tabloid newspapers.”

I’m having so much fun with this series that it’s not quite over yet… We’ll be back soon, with some bonus TEOTWAWKI episodes, before returning to “normal” physical attraction shows. Until then; stay safe.

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