Nuclear weapons and the illusion of ‘safe hands’

At the beginning of 2004, Graham Allison wrote:

The Bush administration has yet to develop a coherent strategy for combating the threat of nuclear terror. Although it has made progress on some fronts, Washington has failed to take scores of specific actions that would measurably reduce the risk to the country. Unless it changes course — and fast — a nuclear terrorist attack on the United States will be more likely than not in the decade ahead.

A decade later hardly anyone seems to be pushing that particular panic button and yet the world still bristles with an estimated 17,300 nuclear weapons.

Apart from the fewer than 10 weapons North Korea is estimated to possess, the rest of the world’s nuclear arsenal is supposedly protected by ‘safe hands.’ How safe those might be in Pakistan is highly debatable and likewise there is little reason to have complete confidence in nuclear security in India, Russia, or Israel. But most Americans are probably confident that the nuclear arsenal in this country is the most carefully protected in the world, and maybe it is — on paper.

But it turns out — and this should come as no surprise — that the real nuclear peril here and everywhere else derives not from the designs of madmen, but rather from human frailty. Or to put it in words every American understands: because shit happens.

We already know that in 1961 two hydrogen bombs with a combined power of more than 500 Hiroshimas were accidentally dropped over North Carolina. Subsequently, a “secret investigation concluded that in the case of one of the devices only a single low-voltage switch stood between the US and catastrophe.”

The New York Times now reports that 34 of the U.S. Air Force officers who are directly in control of launching nuclear weapons have been suspended because they were found to be cheating on “proficiency tests that assess their knowledge of how to operate the warheads.”

This comes just weeks after an Air Force general was fired because of his drunken antics.

The officer, Maj. Gen. Michael J. Carey, was removed as commander of the 20th Air Force, which maintains and operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, after being accused of drinking heavily, insulting his guests, consorting with someone identified as the “cigar shop lady,” and slurring his speech while weaving in Red Square, “pouting and stumbling.”

Last May the Air Force disclosed that it removed 17 officers assigned to stand watch over nuclear-tipped Minuteman missiles after finding safety violations, potential violations in protecting codes and attitude problems.

And last November, The Associated Press reported that Air Force officers with nuclear launch authority had twice been caught napping with the blast door open. That is a violation of security regulations meant to prevent a terrorist or intruder from entering the underground command post and compromising secret launch codes.

When these are the vulnerabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, there’s little reason to assume that these weapons are being guarded any more carefully elsewhere.

Posit a threat as external and no effort or expense will be spared to erect every imaginable barrier whose claimed effect will be to enhance everyone’s safety.

But when a much larger threat comes from within and comes from the simple fact that people make mistakes — that no system is absolutely unbreakable — and the only rational solution is one that hardly any politician has the guts to advocate: global nuclear disarmament.

It isn’t a question of whether this can be accomplished; it’s simply a question of whether this will happen before or after a catastrophic nuclear accident.

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