Richard Rhodes@Google

As part of the Authors@Google talk series that Google has organised, everyone’s favourite nuclear historian Richard Rhodes gave a talk at the company, partly on general nuclear history and policy and partly about his new book (which I reviewed here). In the end, he asked the bright folks at Google for advice about how best one could possibly implement an international system of tracking nuclear material.There were several interesting points about both history and current policy that he made that I think are worth noting as summaries (for those who may not have the time to watch the entire one hour talk)

1. Paul Nitze was a highly influential official in the State Department who served through six administrations, advising presidents on nuclear policy. After surveying the damage caused by atomic bombs in Japan and comparing it with the damage caused by strategic bombing, he erroneously concluded that atomic weapons are not much different in their effects from conventional incendiary bombing. He set the tone for policy partly grounded in this belief in 1950 when he drafted a key document named NSC 68 which outlined George Kennan’s containment doctrine and advocated increasing nuclear weapons building as the best way to counter the Soviets. Although the report was opposed for its exaggerated tone by some, the Korean War that began that year sealed the deal, and the report more or less set the tone for US nuclear policy for the next six decades. Nitze could well be called the “father of threat inflation”

2. Most of the estimates about nuclear weapon targeting made during the Cold War or at least during the early years were underestimates because they neglected the effects of fire. Fire effects and the resulting strong winds cause a firestorm in a nuclear attack, and they can contribute up to 60% of all the effects. Most initial calculations only included blast effects. In a somewhat dramatic illustration, Rhodes showed the possible blast and fire radius of an attack on Google with a 300 kT weapons. The fire radius is much larger than the blast radius, and in addition fires can spread far and wide depending on vegetation.

3. In another telling illustration, Rhodes showed the nuclear winter that would result from a “limited” exchange of about a megaton between India and Pakistan. Within a few months, the simulation shows that the average temperature of the world could drop by 5 degrees, a catastrophic result. One can scarcely comprehend the nuclear winter that would have resulted from an estimated exchange of 10,000 megatons between the two Cold War superpowers. The illustration showed that even a small regional war waged with nuclear weapons could have extremely serious global consequences.

4. The real problem with nuclear proliferation is that like any complex machine, the system can go haywire and is subject to “normal accidents”. More accounts than would make us comfortable exist of nuclear weapons accidentally armed or delivered somewhere instead of conventional weapons.5. Rhodes also noted that both the Indian and Pakistani nuclear arsenals don’t have Permissive Action Locks (PALs). This makes the situation uncomfortable. I am interested in knowing his sources for this information.

5. Rhodes again outlined an ambitious plan by many former US experts including Henry Kissinger, George Schultz and Sam Nunn for universal disarmament. These gentlemen were early advocates of security through minimal deterrents. But after 9/11, they realised that nuclear terrorism makes only universal disarmament an ideal goal to be pursued for securing peace. Rhodes makes the accurate observation that nuclear proliferation can be stopped only by satisfying nations’ security needs. However, I disagree with his projection for Pakistan’s nuclear disarmament. Senior Pakistani officials have ostensibly said that they would disarm if India would disarm. But I doubt it because the Pakistani arsenal (about 40 weapons) is as much a deterrent against India’s conventional forces superiority as it is against India’s nuclear arsenal (about 60 weapons), and India inherently has the conventional advantage because of its size and resources. I don’t see how this could stop being seen as a threat by the Pakistanis.



  1. 1

    Sadly, I think that the universal disarmament schemes being circulated right now have no chance of success. The biggest problem is that full disarmament doesn’t really have any momentum in Russia, although the Russians want new arms control treaties. These are worth pursuing, but unless the Russian government gets on board for pursuing a nuclear-weapons-free world, it’ll remain a pipe dream.

  2. 2

    True. Without Russia on board it’s going to be impossible.

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