Since their inception, nuclear weapons have been rightly considered the ultimate weapon of mass destruction. And this is no understatement – after WWII, Albert Einstein regretted ever having written that letter to Roosevelt in 1939, when he notified the president that German scientists were conducting research into nuclear weapons development and that the U.S. should begin its own research into atomic energy. Due to his pacifist tendencies, Einstein ended up never gaining clearance to partake in the Manhattan Project, and he became an avid activist against the further proliferation of these weapons, which have the potential to destroy the entirety of the planet. Eventually, the science behind the enrichment of uranium became publicly known and other nations began building their own arsenals – this spiraling turn of events led us into the Cold War, when we came face to face with a potential nuclear war, had JFK not followed his gut in not invading Cuba. Since that Tuesday morning of October 16th, 1962, the world entered a period in history where the possibility of nuclear war became gradually slimmer due to a number of international treaties signed by various presidents to curb the build-up of nuclear arsenals. However, the doomsday clock will likely move closer to midnight with the events that took place last week – Vladimir Putin declared having put his nuclear weapons on “high alert” as he wages war in Ukraine.
The understand the severity of his statement, we need to look no further back than August of 1945. In the span of 3 days, the U.S. dropped 2 nuclear bombs in the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing an estimated 226,000 people upon strike and consequentially leading to a spike in cancer and birth defects within the surviving population in the decades that followed due to excessive exposure to radiation. This was the first and only times nuclear weapons were ever used to wage war, and due to its catastrophic impacts, it became an “out of bounds” measure in offensive military tactics.
The way nuclear weapons work is through breaking the nucleus of an atom apart (fission), or through combining two nuclei together (fusion, also known has thermonuclear or hydrogen weapons), which leads to massive releases of energy (the explosion). The nuclear fuel used to cause these reactions is often uranium-235 and plutonium-239 (although the latter only occurs naturally in trace amounts, making uranium the more popular choice). To use uranium in a nuclear weapon one must employ a costly process known as enrichment, in which the isotopes are separated and concentrated in centrifuges. This is timely and extremely expensive, being the biggest barrier in the construction of such weapons. The thermal radiation released in these chemical reactions during an explosion cause significant damage within seconds, while the delayed effects inflict extensive damage in humans and on the environment for years to come. That is why numerous nuclear arms control treaties have been signed over the years to prevent the usage of such weapons.
The first nuclear treaty ever signed was in 1959 with the Antarctic Treaty, prohibiting nuclear explosions and the disposal of nuclear waste in the Antarctic continent. From there, nations went on to sign treaties prohibiting the placement of nuclear weapons in outer space, making Latin America a nuclear free zone, prohibiting placing nuclear weapons on the ocean floor, and many others. But the treaties on arms reductions that came after the Cold War were the ones that have kept Russia and the U.S. on an even playing field and engaged in “peaceful tension”.
The 1986 Reykjavik Summit between U.S. president Ronald Regan and Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev resulted in two key treaties that effectively capped nuclear arm arsenals: the INF Treaty and START I. These were historical agreements that were the precursors to the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (2003) and the New START treaty (2010), which all sought to disarm and stop the proliferation of such weapons. However, in 2019, under the Trump Administration, the U.S. withdrew from the INF treaty, what was a major step backwards in keeping the world safe.
Today we live in a world where 9 countries own nuclear arsenals, totalling more than 13,100 weapons, enough to obliterate the world many times over. But when we talk about “destroying the world”, we need to understand how these weapons would actually cause such a devastating event. Firstly, if you’re at the target radius of an explosion, you’d get incinerated by the fireball or the blast wave; secondly, if you survive, you’d be lethally killed by the excessive amounts of radiation absorbed into your cells; thirdly, if somehow you’ve survived all of this, you might die of starvation because the economy would have collapsed and no food would be able to grow due to radiation or supply chains simply being devastated; fourthly, if you managed to get through the first few weeks, the entire ecosphere of the Earth would be collapsing leading to a Nuclear Winter and you’d then die of cold or outer space radiation due to the destruction of the ozone layer; fifthly, chaos would ensue and people desperate for food might come kill you to steal everything you have; and lastly, diseases and epidemics would rage unrestrained, what could also eventually come to infect you and kill you.
So, when someone steps out of synch with the world agreements on nuclear proliferation, or making the slightest threats that their arsenals are on high alert, all the alarms should be going off in people’s heads. This is nothing to bluff with or to politicize – this is how life on Earth as we know it could end. But, knowing all of this, even the most sadistic dictator would think twice before pressing the red button. In a world where 8 other nations own nuclear arsenals, that would be suicide. However, what makes these situations so fragile are the risks of a false alarm.
In the U.S., the only person who can order a nuclear attack or retaliation is the President. Today, only two countries abide by the “No-First-Use” pledge (India and China), meaning they would never initiate a nuclear attack. But the NFU policy isn’t enough to prevent a nuclear war – all nations reserve the right to retaliate. And since modern nuclear weapons can reach most places on Earth within 7-10 minutes, this leaves leaders of countries with less than 5 minutes upon intelligence of an attack having reached them to make a decision on whether to retaliate (and essentially initiate nuclear war) or not (at which point all of their nuclear arsenals could be compromised or the executive branch of a government destroyed). That is why in the U.S. you will always see the “nuclear football” (from where they can place nuclear orders, which cannot be overturned once sent out) next to the president at all times.
But given our capacity to make mistakes and the rising threat of cyberwarfare, false intelligence of an attack isn’t just possible, it has happened before. In 1983, the nuclear warning system of the Soviet Union malfunctioned and reported an intercontinental ballistic missile with four more missiles behind it having been launched by the United States. Stanislav Petrov, the Soviet Air Defence officer on duty, chose to wait for corroborating evidence before relaying the information up the chain of command, however none arrived. This sole man made the decision to trust his gut in believing that this was a false alarm, what effectively prevented the Soviet Union from launching an attack on the U.S. and its NATO allies, stopping a nuclear war from happening.
That is how close we can come from annihilating ourselves.
William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton, wrote an eye-opening book called The Button: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump, where he goes into depth on how the most serious of policies around nuclear proliferation have largely gone unnoticed by voters and what we should be doing about it to prevent a future catastrophe. The strangeness of our comfort with the status quo and our capacity to divert our attention in the political discourse has proven our inability to prioritize what’s important and a violation of both our self-interest and fellow feeling.
Although Putin’s threats from last week don’t really change Russia’s previous nuclear stance nor push NATO to change theirs (since the U.S., U.K. and France have submarines equipped with nuclear missiles circulating world waters at all times in undisclosed locations ready to launch), it should put all of us on high alert given the catastrophic consequences of the slightest of errors.
In The Fate Of The Earth, Jonathan Schell perfectly describes our complacency in regards to nuclear weapons:
“These bombs were built as weapons for war, but their significance greatly transcends war and all its causes and outcomes. They grew out of history, yet they threaten to end history. They were made by men, yet they threaten to annihilate men. They’re a pit in which the whole world can fall, a nemesis of all human intentions, actions and hopes. Only life itself, which they threaten to swallow up can give the measure of their significance. Yet, in spite of the immeasurable importance of nuclear weapons, the world has declined on the whole to think about them very much. We have thus far failed to fashion or even to discover within ourselves an emotional, or intellection or political response to them. This peculiar failure of response in which hundreds of millions of people acknowledge the presence of an immediate unremitting threat to their existence and to the existence of the world they live in but do nothing about it.”
This was true in 1982, when this book was written, and it is true today, when we have just heard the world’s biggest autocrat threatening to end life on earth as we know it.