An obsession that has shaped much of foreign policy formulation in Washington over the last decade has been the drive to prevent a nuclear ‘catastrophe’ — that being the world-destablizing effect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.
What makes this obsession farcical, disingenuous, and dangerous is that the individuals at the vanguard of this effort possess large arsenals of nuclear weapons. We are being told that we should worry much more about a nuclear threat than a nuclear reality.
There is a certain parallel with the gun lovers’ argument that guns don’t kill people — people kill people. Similarly, there is a far greater fear of who might control nuclear weapons than the weapons themselves.
One of several indications that we continue to live in the nuclear age with a large measure of comfort is the frequency with which these weapons of massive destruction are referred to as nukes. Like all nicknames, nuke evokes a sense of familiarity; a notion that the danger such weapons pose is so remote that they should provoke little fear — unless, that is, they were to fall into the wrong hands.
There are currently 10,000 nuclear weapons scattered around the globe and of these, around 1,800 are ready to be launched in between 5 to 15 minutes. The fact that none of these have been intentionally or accidentally detonated fosters the illusion that we have little to worry about — that an issue that few people concern themselves with need be of little concern because the people who are in charge of these weapons have created fool-proof systems of command and control, making accidents impossible.
The writer Eric Schlosser points out, however: “The people for whom this is still a threat, the people who are most anti-nuclear, the people who are most afraid about this, are the ones who know most about it.”
Schlosser is author of the newly released Command and Control, whose publication coincides with yesterday’s “exclusive” in The Guardian on a secret document, revealing how close America came to a catastrophic nuclear accident in 1961 when a Mark 39 hydrogen bomb almost exploded in North Carolina on January 23, 1961.
Ed Pilkington writes: When he started on his nuclear researches, Schlosser conceived the book as something contained and compact. It would be the tale of one of the most serious accidents in the nuclear age, when, in September 1980, a Titan II missile, similar to the one he had witnessed taking off from Vandenberg [in 1999], exploded in its silo in Arkansas following routine repair work that turned bad. The missile was carrying a thermonuclear warheadwith a yield 600 times that of “Little Boy”, the bomb dropped over Hiroshima. The warhead was blasted hundreds of meters into a ditch, but failed to detonate.
As he started digging his way down into the rabbit hole, he began stumbling on other examples of mistakes and near-misses. One led to another until he found himself sitting on a mushroom cloud of disturbing nuclear accidents. When he requested under the Freedom of Information Act the release of an official record of all the incidents that had befallen the American nuclear arsenal in the 10 years to 1967, he was astounded to find it extending to 245 pages.
The stories he came across suggest that nothing but a miracle has prevented an accidental Hiroshima or Nagasaki taking place on US soil. In 1958 a Mark 6 atom bomb was accidentally dropped into the backyard of the Gregg family in Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Three years later, two hydrogen bombs, with a combined power of more than 500 Hiroshimas, were accidentally dropped over North Carolina after a B-52 broke up in mid air. Neither bomb detonated when they landed in a meadow, but a later secret investigation concluded that in the case of one of the devices only a single low-voltage switch stood between the US and catastrophe. In 1966 a hydrogen bomb was dropped inadvertently over the coast of Spain, also from a stricken B-52; it took six weeks of intensive searching before it was found and retrieved from the ocean bed.
As the mass of detail piles up, an important lesson emerges from the book. The way Schlosser explains it to me is that “our ability to create dangerous things exceeds our ability to control them. We are talking about hubris – our lack of understanding of our own flaws and lack of humility in the way we approach technology.”
Not to mention the 443 nuclear reactors which will melt down when decaying electric grids fail under the pressure of extreme weather events.
What’s really frightening is that this is all just a function of basic statistics. Low-probability events become certainties when there’s a sufficiently large number of events. Fly B-52’s many, many times, and some are going to fall apart. Fiddle around with enough unarmed H-bombs and some are going to go off.
This runs counter to some deeply-rooted intuition, some human inability to grasp the mathematics of aggregate behavior, which manages to equate extremely low probability with impossibility by simply ignoring frequency of repetition. (The flipside is that salient events that have actually happened are reflexively regarded as probable and likely to recur even without a large base of occasions.)
It is truly alarming that the sophisticated experts — those who understand the statistics — are the most frightened.