Shattering the nuclear sword

“Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident, or miscalculation, or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.”- John F. Kennedy, speech to the UN, September 1961.

“Countdown to Zero” is one of the best accounts of the dangers of nuclear weapons for the layman that I have recently seen. The film which opened last week takes a comprehensive yet succinct look at the risks posed by nuclear weapons, and is set against the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s speech to the United Nations in which he quoted the words cited above. JFK talked about a “Sword of Damocles” hanging on our head that is secured by a flimsy thread. As the film emphasizes, the most important operative words in Kennedy’s speech are “accident, miscalculation or madness” which can all cut the thread holding the sword. To illustrate how this could happen, the film showcases interviews with leading arms control experts and policy personnel, including former CIA agent Valerie Plame, Harvard professor Matthew Bunn, nuclear terrorism expert Graham Allison, WMD expert Joseph Cirincione and world leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev and Tony Blair.

The fact is that no matter how responsible the leaders of countries with nuclear weapons may be and how well-protected the weapons may seem, the extremely complex nature of the system always increases the chances of miscalculation, accident or madness. The film gives concerning examples. For instance, a few years ago, nuclear weapons instead of regular ones were loaded on a plane in North Dakota and flown almost halfway around the country without anyone noticing it. The Cuban Missile Crisis is of course well-known, lesser known are the Palomares incident and half a dozen others when nuclear weapons were accidentally dropped from mid air. Fortunately none detonated. But the danger is pervasive and the film also recounts some chilling events. The most heart-stopping is an incident in 1995 recounted by Cirincione, when the Russians mistook the flight of an experimental rocket from Norway for a nuclear launch. The codes were ready, everyone in the Russian hierarchy was convinced, and all that remained to launch a nuclear strike against the US was President Yeltsin’s approval. Thankfully for the world, Yeltsin was “not drunk” and he did not trust the officials’ judgment enough, leading to a narrow brush with catastrophe. The problem is that the complex protocols embedded in the use of nuclear weapons allow much opportunity for misunderstandings and accidents and very little time for response and corrective action. Even a President would have typically no more than a few minutes to make a decision, thus increasing the possibility of triggering armageddon. The simplest and most ludicrous of causes can set off false alarms; in one case, the setting off of a nuclear alert was the result of a malfunction in a single computer chip costing less than a dollar.

One of the most jaw-dropping instances I remember was from Richard Rhodes’s book. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, was woken up in the middle of the night and told that there were 1500 Soviet nuclear missiles headed for the US. As Brzezinski was contemplating what to do next, the caller called back and said that the number of missiles had been upgraded to 15000. Hearing this, Brzezinski just sat on his bed; there would be no point in alerting anyone. Of course, it turned out to be “computer malfunction”.

Apart from such misunderstandings, the other reason why nuclear weapons pose such a great danger is of course because they may fall into the hands of terrorists, and deterrence does not apply to such stateless actors. Al Qaeda has been trying to get their hands on nukes for years. What makes the situation worse is the relatively easy accessibility of enriched uranium in the former Soviet Union. After the Cold War ended, many nuclear facilities in the former Soviet republics found themselves orphaned, severed from central control, with their workers out of a job. While many of the facilities were later secured with US cooperation, many others were ludicrously insecure, with barely a padlock preventing access to nuclear material; in the words of a former Soviet official, “potatoes were guarded better”. Selling a few grams of uranium to potential buyers would allow impecunious laid-off workers from these facilities to make a lucrative buck. The film documents that there have been literally dozens of instances when former nuclear workers have been caught trying to smuggle a few grams of nuclear material across borders in Russia and Central Asia. In addition, countries like Iran, North Korea and Pakistan are happy to trade nuclear-related technology to wannabe buyers.

This nuclear material is notoriously hard to detect. As the film says, smuggling a few kilograms of enriched uranium by shielding it in a lead pipe is child’s play. This is mainly because the relatively weak radiation from uranium can be almost completely shielded by lead, but also because this uranium could be hidden in any one of a whopping 100,000 shipping containers entering the US every single day. Finding a few kilos of U-235 in a heavily shielded lead casing in one of these countless containers is an unimaginably difficult problem to solve. Set the detectors on high and one would not detect the low-intensity radiation. Set it on low and one would detect almost everything else (including fruits, papers and wood) which emit comparable ambient levels of radiation.

If terrorists manage to get past the most difficult step of acquiring nuclear material, they can easily build a crude nuclear bomb. Plus, paraphrasing Churchill, terrorists don’t have to do their best, they just have to do enough. Exploding a crude bomb in the port itself would not be what they have in mind, but it would still be enough to bring about chaos and panic, possibly collapsing the financial and economic system of a country.

So what can be done to address this life-threatening problem? One of the biggest truisms about nuclear weapons which separates them from other WMDs is that if you don’t have uranium or plutonium, you cannot build these weapons, period. Thus in theory, you completely solve the problem if you secure the material. Programs for securing material from the former Soviet republics have been instituted for years, but funding has embarrassingly been a problem. Plus there is no accurate estimate of how much material may have been stolen after the Soviet Union collapses. Securing this material would be the first thing to do. Secondly, countries who want to peacefully pursue atomic energy must be provided nuclear material by an international body under the strictest of safeguards.

But most importantly, there is one almost perfect solution which there is no getting around: reduce the nuclear arsenals of the world to zero. Nada. Zilch. There is no doubt that the US and Russia which still stock the lion’s share of nukes should take the lead, a point which has been belabored often to scant effect. This should especially be ludicrously easy for the US which still has thousands of nukes on hair-trigger alert and which has conventional forces that could easily overwhelm any other country’s defenses and offenses. If there is one country that does not need any nuclear weapons, it’s the US, followed by Russia. The psychological impact of the US renouncing every single nuclear weapon would be hard to overestimate (Nixon did it with chemical and biological weapons in the 70s). It would be tremendous and would offer the US an unprecedented moral authority to ask others to do the same. While it may not be easy for countries like India and Israel which share extensive boundaries with unstable and dangerous regimes, such an act will signify huge potential. This was a dream that President Reagan often talked about. As idealistic as it sounds, it should be feasible at least for the US. Most refreshingly, amid all the partisan bickering that we keep hearing about, such an initiative has gained traction with a wide swathe of influential statesmen from both parties. In a compelling document last year, several former highly influential bipartisan officials like Henry Kissinger, George Schultz, William Perry and Sam Nunn called for the abolishment of nuclear weapons. President Obama has latched on to this dream. It remains to be seen what he actually does about it.

As JFK said in his speech, “the weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us”. In 1986, during the very promising Reykjavik meeting when Reagan and Gorbachev came within a hairsbreadth of getting rid of all nuclear weapons, Reagan told Gorbachev about a dream that seems straight out of a movie. He said that once the world has decided to get rid of all nuclear weapons, he and Gorbachev would meet again in Reykjavik, each holding the last nuclear missile in their hands. They would both be so old that they would hardly recognize each other. Gorbachev would squint at Reagan and say “Ron, is that you”?. And Reagan would say, “Mikhail?”. And then they would both destroy the last two nuclear bombs on the planet, and the whole world would have a giant party.

We will have the champagne ready.



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