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26APRIL 2013

John Hallam
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That nuclear weapons are in some sense a more or less immediate  threat to
human survival has been a commonplace since 1945, is diplomatic
'boilerplate' for a number of delegations – a standard phrase often
uttered without much thought as to exactly what it means – and has
now received new currency with the 2006-2007 reworking of the
'nuclear winter' hypothesis of the 1980s by Toon, Robock, et al.

The International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament
observes that:  
“Nuclear weapons are the most inhumane weapons ever concieved, inherently
indiscriminate in those they kill and maim, and with an impact deadly
for decades. Their use by anyone at any time whether by accident,
miscalculation or design, would be catastrophic. They are the only
weapons ever invented that have the capacity to wholly destroy life
on this planet, and the arsenals we now possess – combining their
blast radiation, and potential 'nuclear winter' effects – are able
to do so many times over. Climate change may be the global policy
issue that has captured most attention in the last decade, but the
problem of nuclear weapons is at least its equal in terms of gravity
-and much more immediate in its potential impact.” [1]

While Jonathan Schell, writing back in the early 1980s, noted that:
“The widespread belief that a nuclear holocaust would in some sense bring
about the end of the world has been reflected in the pronouncements
of both American and Soviet leaders in the years since the invention
of nuclear weapons”.[2]

Of more immediate salience to an NPT Prepcom audience is Ambassador
Benno Laggner's statement on behalf of 16 governments (repeated in
October  during UN First Committee on behalf of 32 governments) in
which he stated that:
“Nuclear weapons have the destructive capacity to pose a threat to the
survival of humanity, and, as long as they continue to exist, the
threat to humanity will remain....moreover it is of great concern
that even after the end of the cold war, the threat of nuclear
annihilation remains part of the 21stcentury international security environment.” [3]

I cannot commend this statement (the full text of it – available on
Reaching Critical Will) too strongly, nor the way in which the Swiss
Government, along with a small number of other middle – sized
governments, have pressed for nuclear disarmament in venues such as
this one.

The governments of nuclear weapons states on the other hand, together
unfortunately with a number of their allies including shamefully my
own country, Australia, have simply refused to engage with the
revived 'Nuclear Winter' hypothesis, and have characterised the
emphasis on 'Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences 'led by
Ambassador Laggner and other governments, as 'unhelpful'.  

This is itself profoundly unhelpful! Moving the debate on nuclear
disarmament into the 'Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences' and
'Human Survival' corner is precisely what is required to force the
nuclear weapons states  to confront the real consequences of the use
of these devices. Human survival is a concern that rightly trumps all
other earthly concerns.  And it happens to be valid. Nuclear weapons
are indeed, a clear and present danger to the survival of humans as a
species. Governments, especially NWS, must change their policies in
recognition of this overwhelmingly important consideration.  

States other than the NWS have of course been sufficiently motivated for 120
of them to have attended the conference in Oslo devoted to the
Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Weapons Use, and the Oslo
conference has done much to move the debate in the right  direction.

The key questions I want to ask in this paper – articulated most
poignantly for me by Colonel Valery Yarynich exactly a year ago,
before he died in Moscow on 13 December last year at a plasticky bar
in Praterstern Railway Station in Vienna as we attended the 2012
Prepcom – are:

1) Just what are the probabilities of an accidental apocalypse taking
place: (a) under current nuclear postures and practices; (b) under
presumably safer alternative postures (such as a de-alerted posture),
over, say, the next 20 or 50 years?

2) Just how likely is it that large-scale nuclear weapons use, should it
take place, would permanently (or for centuries) destroy what we call

3) Just how likely is it that such an exchange would terminate not
merely 'civilisation', but would actually be completely 'terminal'
for humans as well as, of course, countless other species?

Is it possible actually  to put a number on the risk of human extinction
that on-alert nuclear weapons pose, and is it possible to compare
that number with another number – say for de-alerted nuclear
weapons, and yet another for no weapons at all? [4]

This is an enormously worthy, but probably impossible, project which
should nonetheless be attempted. This is because even our
'unsuccessful' attempts tell us enormously useful things – such as
that, while the 'numbers' part may turn out to be unquantifiable,
on-alert is much more dangerous than off-alert, and that the real
threat to human survival lies in superpower arsenals rather than
terrorist ones or in so-called 'rogue' states.  And it is a project
that in the next few pages I am going to completely fail to achieve,
in part because I lack the mathematical skills, but primarily for the
reasons I outline below.  I hope, however, that I fail instructively,
and that my failure nonetheless tells us something about the nature
of the risks nuclear weapons pose to human survival and about what we
might do to diminish or eliminate those risks.

Just how likely that large-scale nuclear weapons use could indeed be
'terminal'-- for humans as a species--and just how seriously should
policymakers take such a possibility? Above all what should they DO
about it?

Just how should the possibility of actual human extinction be differentiated from
slightly less cosmic eventualities such as the mere end of latter-day
consumerist capitalism via the disappearance of the global financial
system, (possibly achievable by hackers without even one warhead),
certainly achievable with a little more damage to infrastructure  by
less than a dozen largish warheads exploded in space – or even
perhaps, by intense solar flare activity...?

Should an end to humans be differentiated from the destruction of MOST
cities, (followed by prolonged darkness and cold), but in which some
humans somehow survive on islands in the far southern oceans in New
Zealand, Tasmania, and Patagonia?

Schell as usual has an inimitable phrase for just what difference it makes:
“The destruction of human civilisation even without  the biological
destruction of the human species, may perhaps rightly be called the
end of the world, since it would be the end of that sum of cultural
achievements and human relationships which constitutes what many
people mean when they speak of 'the world'.  The biological
destruction of mankind would of course be the end of the world in a
stricter sense.”[5]

A 2008 article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists [6]
provocatively titled 'How can we reduce the risk of Human
Extinction?', has a rather consequential 'to do' list that includes
watching briefs on nanotechnology and biotech and on physics
experiments that might possibly cause the entire solar system to
disappear in a flash of exotic particles, on large incoming asteroids
– and at the top of the list, to lower the operational readiness of
nuclear weapons systems and then to abolish nuclear weapons.  

But as we've already seen, nuclear – weapons states governments avoid
talking of nuclear abolition, (or lowering operational readiness) as
a 'human survival priority', though recently the principal NGOs in
the abolition movement circulated to the US Congress and Russian Duma
a letter authored by myself and others urging those governments to do
just exactly that. Some of you will have seen that letter. In it, we
say to the Duma and Congress that:
“The undersigned  write to you to urge you to prioritise  nuclear weapons
abolition  as a human survival imperative”
“The Congress and Duma need to debate and factor into security doctrines
the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of large-scale nuclear
weapons use, now the subject of a number of multilateral statements
at the United Nations and of an international meeting in Oslo in
March. These matters, of existential importance to the rest of the
world, have never to our knowledge been discussed in the Duma or
Congress.” [7]  

And while the NWS continue to avoid talking in human survival terms,
other governments, notably the 120 represented in Oslo,  have talked
in those terms for so long that in for a such as First Committee,
it's seen as uncontroversial but unexamined and routine,
'boilerplate' – ritualised language that somehow is expected to be
there, but has lost some of its impact. Yet this language, repeated
at prepcom after prepcom, First Committee after First Committee, is
all too literally true and all too much- to-the-point. It is truer
than we know, and hopefully Oslo has put new life into it.

A number of authors have in fact tried to arrive at actual
probabilities, not for human survival/non-survival as such, but for
the probability of an (accidental or otherwise) large-scale use of
nuclear weapons. Analyses have been done by Barrett,
Baum and Hostetler , Martin Hellman, and Col. Valery Yarynich, the latter as an appendix
to the 'smaller and safer' article in Foreign Affairs with Blair,
Esin, McKinzie and others.  

It is then possible on the basis of these analyses to move toward what
Colonel Valery envisaged in that cafe in Praterstern by
asking/answering questions about warhead numbers and targeting that
lead to conclusions about city burning, nature of firestorms (and how
many firestorms and where, fuelled by what), that in turn lead to
conclusions as to how many million tonnes of soot generated, injected
how far into the stratosphere at what temperatures, which in turn
lead to conclusions as to the exact global climatic consequences of
what has been done – How dark, how cold, and for how long?

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler's analysis of the steps toward inadvertent nuclear
war is perhaps the most illuminating as they actually go step-by-step
through the sequence that leads to such an outcome, and while their
attempts to provide numbers are beyond my limited math, and may be
attempts to quantify the unquantifiable, the exercise remains worth
doing because it does at least establish rough bounds for risk, and
because it disentangles what must be known in order to evaluate that
risk and what factors affect it. [8]  

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler [9] examine the likelihood that false data and
false indications from highly automated satellite surveillance
systems operated by Russia and the US might lead decision-makers
mistakenly to launch a salvo of missiles (which would mean round
1000-1500 warheads) at the other party, in the belief that the other
party has launched theirs, and that they must 'use them or lose
them'. Taking missiles off high alert simply removes this as an option. However its presence as an option mandates  the taking of decisions (even if the decision is to take no action), in highly compressed
timeframes and – worse - biases the decision toward a launch.

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler look at these probabilities (a) outside a specific crisis and (b) during a crisis such as the Cuban Missile Crisis.
They also try to arrive at probabilities for crises.  

So far, so good. However already a couple of conceptual problems are
starting to arise,  namely that it's hard to define exactly what
might be meant by a 'crisis' (there has been only one Cuban Missile
Crisis, but many other crises that are quite different in structure
from the CMTC), and in fact, most of the documented 'near misses'
have in fact taken place quite outside any formally defined 'crisis'
yet they have been no less perilous.  

The numerous US computer incidents, Colonel Stan Petrov's brush with the
apocalypse at Serpukhov-15 on 26Sept 1983, and the 1995 Norwegian
Weather Research Rocket incident all took place  outside any specific confrontation or crisis,(though Col Stan's incident was close to the Able Archer exercise and in a period of very high tension) yet any
one of them could all too easily have gone to a resolution that was
completely terminal.  

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler do I think, partly cover themselves by working
with the probability of accidental nuclear war 'during a crisis' and
then 'outside a crisis', but I suspect that the argument just
traversed may lead to much HIGHER numbers than we assume,  for the
likelihood of an inadvertent apocalypse OUTSIDE a specifically –
defined crisis. It may also mean that the little box on Barrett, Baum
and Hostetler's flowchart that asks whether or not there is a crisis
may be rather less important and meaningful than at first appears.  

Prof. Martin Hellman similarly, tries to ask 'what is the likelihood of a
Cuban Missile Crisis Type Event?', when this question, while not
entirely without utility is much less meaningful and much less
crucial than it at first seems – both because of the aforesaid
difficulty in defining a 'CMTC event' adequately and again, because
so many of the truly terrifying near misses took place absent any
specific crisis. This definitional question becomes even more
important, as one of Barrett, Baum and Hostetler's modelling options
is to 'exclude launch response in a non-crisis'. Barrett, Baum and
Hostetler are wise to set more store on the model that does not do
this, as it would lead to serious underestimates of inadvertent
launch probabilities.

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler [10] make use of what may be a much more useful
rule of thumb, when they suggest that the likelihood of an accidental
apocalypse (i.e. the launch of 1000+ warheads based on
misinformation) depends on the likelihood of false data about the
status of the 'other sides' weapon systems (false indications of a
launch especially) being taken seriously, and being taken up the
chain of missile assessment conferences right to the point at which a
commander in chief is woken at 3am with a request for an order to
launch after a 30 second briefing and with 3 minutes to make a

I have no idea how it is possible even in principle to assign numerical
values to what will come out of that, but note that the entire
process is heavily though maybe not irrevocably, biased in favour of
a decision to launch. However both Barrett, Baum and Hostetler's
step-by-step through the process, and Hellmans rough estimates of the
probability of a 'CMTC-Type event' at least force one to think in a
disciplined way about it, and maybe it is possible to use these
complementary approaches to establish upper and lower bounds.  Both
Barrett, Baum and Hostetler and Hellman do however in my view lay too
much stress on the idea of a 'crisis',  when that concept both lacks
adequate definition and when so may perilous events clearly took
place outside a 'crisis'. It would be better to focus analysis on the
specific events themselves.  

Lets look at a few obvious things.

--In the last 65 years, there has been just one CMTC event, in which, for
roughly 3 weeks, the likelihood of 2-300 x 1Mt  nuclear weapons use
by the US and Russia seemed to be 'between one in three and even'.
In fact however, unknown to the 'between one in three and even'
estimate, a number of sub – events, in one of which a nuclear –
armed torpedo was nearly fired at a US warship by a submarine that
was being depth-charged, and in another of which the scramble alarm
at a US airbase hosting nuclear – armed fighter bombers was set off
by a bear, took place. In each case the world was saved by specific
individuals – by a base commander who sat on the main runway in his jeep blipping his headlights, and by the refusal of one of three
persons needed to authorise use of a nuclear torpedo to do so.

--Would the 'Able Archer' exercise of the end of 1983, in which NATO leaders
practiced for WWIII, constitute a 'crisis'? The Soviet leadership
viewed Able Archer as a possible opening of a NATO nuclear attack –
a 'splendid first strike' on Russia, and plans for Able Archer were
changed at the last moment in view of intelligence reports to that
effect.  Intelligence by a Soviet 'mole' within NATO also helped
convince the Soviets that in fact armageddon was NOT in the immediate
offing. Colonel Stan Petrov's brush with armageddon the previous
month also probably helped to induce a salutary caution.  But how to
quantify any of that??? These are specific events involving specific
people, some of whom (Col Petrov) are well able to talk about what
made them decide as they did decide.

--There have been an unknown (because all US events from 1985 have been
classified) number of events that took place quite independently of
any specific crisis, but any one of which could easily have been

During those events, nuclear – armed fighter-bombers were taxied to the
edges of runways with motors running, minuteman crews were ordered to
be launch-ready, and the  'doomsday plane' (NEACP) was launched. In
both the US and Russia, sirens have wailed, lights flashed,  and
people have shouted in panic across nuclear command centres.  

The Post '85 US classification prevents us from getting a proper
contemporary perspective on US events and paradoxically we know more
about what has happened in Russia. A possible guesstimate for the
number of these events might be 20-40 (???). But it's a guesstimate,
a wild extrapolation,  where what we really need is definite

A selection follows of some events that we do know:

-Colonel Stanislav Petrov's 'brush with the apocalypse', the September 26 1983
Serpukhov-15 incident, in which an unusual formation of vertical
clouds directly over US launch sites in North Dakota with the sun at
180 degrees looked exactly like a launch to the sideways looking (the
Soviets were immensely proud of that) surveillance satellite. Colonel
Stan literally saved the world by not initiating a launch sequence
because 'I had a feeling in my gut that there was a mistake

How to assign a probability to the gut feeling of a respected and highly
competent Russian colonel who is experiencing the most stress a human
can endure, and who against all odds makes the right decision?
Humanity owes this man an enormous debt. The 'Divine Providence'
school of explanation would gleefully cite the fact that Col Stan
wasn't even supposed to be on duty that day but had swapped his shift
with an officer junior to him, who being more junior, would have
'gone by the book', and we would not be here to talk about it.[11]  

Another major brush was the Norwegian Weather Research Rocket incident of
1995.  Essentially the story is that the Norwegians launched a
weather research rocket to study the Aurora Borealis, that just
happened to consist of a secondhand first stage of a US ICBM. A
letter was sent from the Norwegian ministry of science to Russia's
ministry of defence, but it never got to Russian perimeter radar, who
did exactly as they were trained to do and assumed it was a submarine
– launched US missile, that would either vaporise the Kremlin or
else explode in space above european Russia and take them back to
medieval times with electromagnetic pulse.  

Boris Yeltsin was thus awakened at whatever ungodly hour it was, and (so I
understand) an unknown aide uttered the immortal words 'excuse me Mr
President, let's wait another minute' (beyond the deadline when they
were supposed to enter a command to launch). This was agreed to and
the rocket plunged into the arctic ocean just exactly as the fax from
the Norwegian ministry of science (that no -one relevant had read)
said it was supposed to.  Everyone exhale.

Again, how to assign a number to that? All one can do is to learn as much as
possible about what actually did take place.

Still other incidents, this time in the US and released before 1985,
include a fault in a chip in a switching station in Colorado that had
the main combat computer indicating 'thousands' of incoming Soviet
missiles. This happened over an 18 month period three times, and each
time, nuclear armed fighter bombers were taxied to the edges of
runways, minuteman launch crews were ordered to be launch-ready, and
the National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP) otherwise known
as the 'doomsday plane' was launched.

A somewhat similar incident involved the mistaken insertion of a
'practice tape' for 'doomsday' (one has to rehearse for such things)
into the main command computer at NORAD. The only reason we know it
even took place was, it seems, because a congressional committee
happened to be there at the time and they described what ensued as
'blind panic'.

Finally, Zbigniew Brzezinski describes how he was, sometime in 1979, awoken at
3am by his 'military assistant', a general, who said simply, 'sorry
to wake you sir. We're under nuclear attack'. The computers at NORAD
were indicating 200 or so Soviet missiles incoming. Brezinski was
then supposed to use the next 3 minutes to 'verify' the attack and
was then supposed to wake the president, who would have a further 3
minutes to decide whether or not to launch a number of thousands of
warheads at the then Soviet Union. At the two minutes and fifty
seconds mark a second call came to Brzezinski, saying it had been a
false alarm, and 'I went back to sleep'.  Asked what would have
happened if the second call had been a little late, he said 'we might
have had a problem'.  Indeed so.

His account is as follows:
I remember being woken up one night at 3:00 a.m. to be told by my
military assistant that we are under nuclear attack. It obviously
didn't happen, since we're all here. (Laughter.) There would have
been... 85 million Americans and Soviets dead six hours later....

"Part of my job was to coordinate the response if something like that
happened, to notify the president. I had three minutes in which to
notify him. During those three minutes, I had to confirm it in a
variety of ways. And then he would have four minutes to decide how to
respond. And then 28 minutes later, some of us would be dead and we'd
be living in a different age...

I got a message from my military assistant, a general, who simply woke
me up at 3:00 a.m. at night on the red phone and said, "Sorry to
wake you up. We're under nuclear attack." (Scattered laughter.)
That kind of wakes you up.... And he adds 30 seconds ago, 200 Soviet
missiles have been fired at the United States...

But there were subsequent confirmations and clearly within – well,
within actually almost two minutes prior to me calling him on the
third minute, it was clear that this was a false alarm. So I did
nothing. I went back to sleep. (Laughter)"

But then came the real punch line. The interviewer asked, "And if
the confirmation had been a little late, could we have had a
problem?" Brzezinski's answer: "We might have had." [12]

All of these incidents have been false alarms or false data that nearly
ignited a massive exchange of nuclear warheads (and in none of them
thus far, are we talking about a single 'rogue launch', but about the
validly ordered launch of thousands of warheads). They could have
done so but for various reasons that often border on the miraculous,
they didn't.  

There is just one more incident, a little unlike the others as it does
involve the possibility of a 'rogue launch'. A minuteman launch crew
were performing a practice launch countdown, when it mysteriously
turned into the real thing and would not stop.  In this case, the
resourceful launch control officer managed to delay it until he could
position heavy military vehicles right on top of silo doors, making a
launch physically impossible. Again I do just wonder how to quantify
what was a brilliant and world-saving initiative.[13]

And....given that this canter through would-be apocalyptic near-misses contains so
many of them plus an unknown number that we are not permitted to know
about, just what does that say about the continuing likelihood of an
inadvertent apocalypse, and thus about the probability of human
survival into an indefinite future?  

An examination of these incidents in detail has indeed led some (notably
General Lee Butler who for a number of years commanded US Strategic
nuclear forces), to conclude that we literally shouldn't be here at
all and that even our survival thus far is a result of “blind good
luck and divine providence ….actually, I think almost entirely
divine providence.”  

Divine providence or not, what else a study of these incidents tells us is
that there are just too many of them!  Allowing for the
classification of them since 1985, we have almost one major incident
per year, or at least every two years. While I really want to be wary
of assigning precise numbers, the likelihood of an inadvertent
nuclear exchange would seem to me to be considerably in excess of a
near miss once every fifty years, or even one every ten years,  as
the frequency of a 'CMTC event' might be used to suggest.   A near
miss every 3-5 years is probably still an over-conservative
guesstimate. We may indeed, as General Butler suggests, be improbably
lucky to be here at all.

Barrett, Baum and Hostetler caveat their attempt to quantify the risk of an
accidental apocalypse by saying that:
“...the overall risk model probably results in a significant under-estimation
of the overall risks of inadvertent nuclear war because of the many
possible failure modes that the model in this paper does not account for.” [14]

Hellman too believes that the overall risk of dying as a result of nuclear
war is some 200 times the risk of living near a nuclear power plant.[15]

I think the point has now been well established that:
--The risk of inadvertent nuclear war is nonzero but hard to quantify
precisely as it depends on highly specific event sequences and on
human judgement.
--There have already been a disturbingly large number of near misses, such
that to some observers (notably a former chief of STRATCOM) our
survival thus far already looks improbable.
--There are concrete measures that could be taken by the NWS, and in
particular by the US and Russia that would do much to decrease those
risks, (De-alerting, establishment of a joint data exchange centre),
but they are not being taken and/or are being actively resisted.

In the words of the ICNND:
“The prospect that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could be triggered by a
false alarm is fearful and not fanciful.”[16]

Indeed so.

This then leads us to the next step as it were, in looking into the abyss:
We need to ask just what factors might:
--Lead to a large exchange of nuclear weapons
--Bring about the incineration of a very large number of cities that would in
turn bring about the lofting of up to 180million tonnes of very black
soot into the stratosphere (and incidentally incinerate 1-3billion
people in less than 2 hours).
--As a result, drop global temperatures to levels last seen in the last
ice – age, at least for over a decade.

It might be commented that even this radical surgery to global climate,
while it would wipe out many many species (especially in the
tropics), and while it would certainly cause famines  in which a
large percentage of humans would probably die, especially but not
exclusively in developing countries that might otherwise be
relatively unscathed, - that it would nonetheless not lead to actual
human extinction, though it would be certainly the end of what we
call 'civilisation', possibly for centuries.

Professor Alan Robock, Brian Toon, Ira Helfand, and a number of others are much
more expert than I on the precise climatic consequences of the
burning of a large number of cities that are set alight in a roughly
40-90 minute timeframe by 50-150kiloton warheads, or in the case of
the subcontinent by 15-50kiloton warheads.

However some things can be said about how it actually plays out.

Important variables will be:

--precise targeting strategies. Are cities primary targets, or are they mere
collateral damage in a counterforce strike? It seems that even in a
counterforce strike, the US is said to lose up to 50% of its urban

--Size of warheads. Though bigger warheads obviously do more damage, it does
not 'scale', and 10 X15kilotons does considerably more damage than

--Size of the city targeted and density of population. Toon and Robock's
simulations show that, when targeted by 15kiloton and by 100kiloton
warheads, Chinese cities produce both the largest casualty numbers
and the largest quantities of soot, followed by Indian, Pakistani,
and Egyptian cities and then by Moscow, Tokyo, and New York. What
seems to matter most is the cities density of population, which seems
to correlate strongly with fuel load. [17]  

Again, paradoxically, many somewhat smaller warheads are better at producing
massive amounts of soot than fewer larger warheads.[18]  [19]

Clearly there are enough variables that the outcome of any particular nuclear
exchange, accidental or deliberate, is highly unpredictable. However
we know enough to say with reasonable confidence that:

--An India–Pakistan nuclear exchange involving between 100 and 200
warheads between 5 and 50kilotons,(Robock et al model 50 x 15Kt
warheads each but India and Pakistan have expanded their arsenals to
at least double that -)  with the larger ones primarily targeted at
major cities (Delhi, Mumbai, Islamabad, Karachi), and the smaller
ones primarily used against tank formations, would, apart from
vaporising many of my large number of Indian friends and colleagues,
produce a prompt body-count of between 50 million and 150million. It
would inject between 5 and 10 million tonnes of black soot into the
stratosphere, over the ensuing days as the cities burned.  

This would produce global climatic effects somewhat like the 'year without
a summer' (1815), caused by the eruption of Mt Tambora in Indonesia,
which caused frosts and snow in summer in NE United States and
Western Europe, inspiring Mary Shelley to write 'Frankenstein'. At
current levels of food production and demand, this could in turn
according to projections by Ira Helfand of PSR, [20] give rise to up
to a billion further deaths worldwide from famine. Ozdogan Et Al show
major impacts of a Pakistan-India nuclear winter in midwest USA, on
maize, soy, and other crops with major shortening in growing season
and drought. [21]

A major US-Russia nuclear exchange involving 'operational' arsenals of
2-3000 x 100-300kiloton weapons, (with perhaps 40-50 x 5megaton
Chinese warheads) targeting mostly US, Russian, European, Japanese,
and Chinese cities, would produce prompt casualties anywhere between
a few hundred million and billions depending on precise targeting. It
would loft up to 180 million tonnes of black soot into the
stratosphere, and would depress global temperatures to levels not
seen since the last ice – age. Minimum daily temperatures in North
America and Eurasia would fall below freezing for one to three years,
and growing seasons would be eliminated for a decade or longer,
meaning that food production would cease. Most humans would perish
from famine.  Toon and Robock note  that:
“...we estimate that the direct effects of using the 2012 arsenals would
lead to hundreds of millions of fatalities. The indirect effects
would likely eliminate the majority of the human population.”[22]  

Even a 'successful' nuclear strike would STILL be suicidal for the
attacking nation,(and everyone else)  because of the climatic
consequences. Toon and Robock note that:
“Nuclear winter theory tells us that it would be suicidal for country A to
launch a full-scale nuclear attack on country B regardless of whether
country B responds in kind. The resulting climate changes, triggered
by smoke, would be so damaging to food and water supplies that
infrastructure break- down would assure starvation in the attacking
country as well as the rest of the world. Call it self-assured
destruction, or SAD.”[23]  

This makes nonsense of claims by some (especially Lieber and Press) in the
nuclear strategy community that it might be in the interest of the US
to conduct a first strike against Russia. Lieber and Press argue
“….technological innovation has dramatically improved the ability of states to launch
“counterforce” attacks— that is, military strikes aimed at
disarming an adversary by destroying its nuclear weapons....”  
“...for nuclear analysts weaned on two seeming truths of the cold – war era
– that nuclear arsenals reliably deter attacks via the threat of
retaliation and that nuclear weapons use is tantamount to mass
slaughter – the implications of the counterforce revolution should
be jarring.”[24]  

It is notable that, at least in the article in which this statement
appears,  no evidence whatsoever is advanced that might actually make
anyone think it might be true. Just where is this 'counterforce
revolution and what is it? And indeed, the evidence is that the dead
opposite is in fact true. The analyses performed recently by
Kristensen and McKinzie in the UNIDIR paper just released, and in
2010 by Yarynich, Blair, and others (100 nuclear Wars') shows
decisively that the 'seeming truths of the cold war' about the
likelihood of retaliation remain unambiguously the case. Unacceptable
levels of retaliation (meaning the loss of most of the attacking
country's population), and therefore 'mass slaughter' remain the
outcome of any nuclear attack, and any attempt to attain 'nuclear
primacy' a la Lieber and Press, remains what it has always been
namely lunacy.  However, what Robock et al argue in their most recent
BAS contribution, is that even in the complete absence of any retaliation whatsoever,
the (global) effects of even a counterforce strike – precisely the
kind if strike that Lieber and Press argue that the putative
'counterforce revolution' makes it possible to do consequence –
free – will cripple the attacking country.  

Again, the simulation work done by Colonel Yarynich, Blair and others on
de-alerted nuclear weapons not only shows that deterrence is
maintained because there is always a capability to inflict
unacceptable damage amounting to tens to hundreds of millions of
casualties on an attacker even after a 'splendid first strike', but
that for the very same reason, a 'counterforce' first strike can
never be assurred of success and the likelihood of a retaliation that
will cause the attacking country the loss of most of its population
is in all cases unacceptably high. [25]

Lieber and Press in their most recent article do not reference or otherwise
acknowledge either the work of Col.Yarynich, Blair, Mc Kinzie,
Kristensen et al, nor the work of Robock et al, both of which make
nonsense of their case.

This would mean that a very large proportion of all humans – certainly
as already suggested, in the billion plus frame – could, after the
'ultimate bad day' at Norad, Stratcom, Serpukhov-15 or Kosvinsky Mt,
be expected to perish from lack of food over the ensuing decade. It
is indeed, a little hard to see how humans could survive at all if
the result of a large scale nuclear exchange were a full decade in
which food would not grow at all, anywhere. And even if there were
isolated pockets in which food grew, the overwhelming majority of
humans would, indeed, perish.  

And of course, all of the infrastructure of contemporary consumerist
capitalism would be entirely gone. One wonders just how the young, so
incredibly net-dependent, would cope if it simply was not there at
all – (indeed, not just the net, but electricity) – The disabling
of all electrical and electronic infrastructure and devices is
something that can be achieved without the destruction of even one
city, (along with the literal disappearance of the global financial
system) by the explosion of a few large weapons in space.

And note that the creation of ice-age conditions as well as the
destruction of most humans can be achieved with as few as 2-3000
warheads – a fraction of cold – war arsenals.

Note also that what we are looking at – the certain destruction of
contemporary consumerist, technological society and the death of
most, if not all, humans – is an event that in any given year, has
a non-zero probability, and has at times loomed terrifyingly close.

All that  needs to take place, in order for such an inadvertent
apocalypse to unfold, as Barrett, Baum and Hostetler's analysis makes
clear, is, on the US side:
--The mistaking of false data concerning a launch by the other side, for a
real launch at the level of missile display conference
--The promotion of the mistaken data to the level of a missile attack
--A request to a harassed decision-maker at 3am or in the middle of an
election speech, for an order to launch, with 3 minutes to make a
decision that no human should ever have to make.  An equivalent event
sequence would be required to unfold on the Russian side. As we have
seen such event sequences have already unfolded a number of times.

It's come close, as Brezhinski admitted, in his account of his own brush
with nuclear war. It has been close on a disturbingly large number of
occasions. It may be as General Lee Butler says, that we are lucky,
even divinely blessed, to have come thus far.

(-And if as Butler suggests, our survival thus far is in fact miraculous,
just how large is the supply of miracles? When does divine providence
run dry?)

Finally, note that these considerations all assume that 1000-1500 on each side
of US and Russian missiles are (as they are now) in fact
'launch-ready', poised to be launch-able in seconds, and that the
compressed decision-making times all come from the building into
nuclear postures and plans, of this quasi-instantaneous response
capability. If that posture changes and with it the plans that call
for quasi-instantaneous response, decision-makers are no longer faced
with the need to take inhuman and apocalyptic decisions in
ridiculously compressed timeframes. And while some (such as former
ambassador Chris Ford)[26]   argue that lowering alert status means
there would be a 're-alerting race' during a serious crisis, there
will be such a race anyway,[27]   and the rigorous modelling work
done by Yarynich, Mc Kinzie and others shows quite clearly that we
are orders of magnitude safer and better off with nuclear weapons
removed from high alert status.

In this context, it is good to note Hans Kristensen's excellent paper
released on 23rd on de-alerting, which refutes the arguments of Ford
and others on 're-alerting races' decisively, showing it to be a
'straw man'. That the world is orders of magnitude safer with nuclear
weapons not on high alert is simply irrefutable.[28]  [29]  

The recent report by Nunn, Ivanov, Brown, and others gives considerable
attention to the question of 'prompt launch status' which it regards
as a 'piece of cold-war autopilot'. The report states that:
“If the United States and Russia gradually remove nuclear weapons from
Prompt Launch status...the threat of rapid mutual assured destruction
as well as the chance of accidental, mistaken, or unauthorised launch
can be sharply reduced.”[30]  

Removal of strategic weapons systems from high alert status is arguably the
single short-term action that would do most to improve the chances
for humans to avoid extinction, as the 2008 BAS article on avoiding human extinction suggests.

Taking nuclear weapons off alert and their abolition would therefore be, to
steal a phrase, not so much 'making history' as 'making history
possible'. Like abolition it is a human survival imperative, or at
least an action that makes our chances very significantly better.
Without it we are left, essentially, in continued dependence on
'divine providence'.

And the abolition of nuclear weapons is, as ritualistic statement after
statement has intimated so truly, a human survival priority.

As every apocalypse movie – maker will know, without at least one or
two dishevelled humans moving through the burned out ruins of
civilisation, there is no movie, only cold and darkness.  

But as Schell points out so eloquently,  there is a difference in kind,
between even the death of MOST humans, and the termination of humans
as an entire species:  
“Up to now, every risk has been contained within the frame of life:
Extinction would shatter the frame. It represents not the defeat of
some (particular) purpose, but an abyss in which all human purposes
would be drowned for all time” [31]  


[1] ICNND,p3

[2]Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth, Picador, 1982, p6

[3] Swiss statement to 2012 NPT Prepcom, Pers. Comm. - Available on Reaching Critical Will website

[4] John Hallam and Colonel Valery Yarynich(deceased) – Memory of conversation in a bar at Praterstern Rlwy Station Vienna, May 2012

[5] Schell, Fate of the Earth, p6

[6] Anders Sandberg, Jason G. Matheny, and Milan M. Circovic, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 9 Sept 2008,

[7] Letter by NGOs to Strategic Forces Subcommittees of US Congress and Russian Duma, January 2013, John Hallam, Prof. Peter King, Alyn Ware

[8] Anthony M. Barrett, Seth. D. Baum, and Kelly R. Hostedler, 'Analysing and Reducing the Risks of Inadvertent Nuclear War between the United States and Russia', Science and Global Security(forthcoming), 6 January 2013

[9] ibid

[10]ibid, Figures 2 and 3

[11]There is a film about Colonel Stanislav Petrov, readily available on the web, (producer Mark Romeo) entitled ' The Man who Saved the World'

[12]Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Council of Foreign Relations April 2012(transcript)  

[13]I learned of this incident from a number of sources,(including Forden), but including, astonishingly,  from the Buddhist meditation teacher of the launch control officer concerned, who resigned from the US military after the incident. I was on a bus trip to Canberra, and sat next to the meditation teacher, who said '...have I got a story for you! I had this big muscular obviously US military guy in my vipassana class and asked him his story...'!

[14]Barrett, Baum and Hostetler Op Cit, p9

[15] Martin Hellman Risk Analysis of Nuclear DeterrenceThe Bent of Tau Beta Pi Spring2008

[16] ICNND2.39  

[17]Toon Op CitFig1

[18]OB Toon, RP Turco, A. Robock, C. Bardeen, L. Oman, and GL Stenchikov, Atmospheric Effects and Societal Consequences of Regional Scale Nuclear Conflicts and acts of Individual Nuclear Terrorism',Atmos. Chem Phys, 19April2007

[19]Owen B. Toon, Alan Robock, Richard P. Turco, 'Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War,Physics Today Dec2008 Fig.1 Casualties and Soot

[20]Nuclear Famine – Global Consequences of Limited Nuclear War, PSR 2012

[21]Mutlu Ozdogan, Alan Robock, Christopher J. Kucharik, Univ. Wisconsin/Rutgers, 'Impacts of a Nuclear War in South Asia on Soybean and Maize Production In the Midwest United States'

[22]Physics Today Dec 2008p37

[23]Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 68(5), Self Assured Destruction – the Climate Impacts of Nuclear War

[24]Kier A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press, Strategic Studies Quarterly, Spring 2013, p3-14  

[25]One Hundred Nuclear Wars – Stable Deterrence between the United States and Russia at Reduced Nuclear Force Levels off AlertTechnical Appendix to Smaller and Safer – A New Plan for Nuclear Postures in Foreign Affairs, Vol89No5

[26]Chris Ford, 'Playing for Time at the Edge of the Apocalypse' Hudson Institute Briefing Paper  Nov2010

[27]Hans Kristensen Paper on De-Alerting for UNIDIR 2013

[28] Hans M. Kristensen, and Matthew Mc Kinzie, Reducing Alert Rates of Nuclear Weapons, UNIDIR, May2013

[29](This author also spent much time and attention refuting Ford – see my last years Vienna prepcom presentation '...From
the Planning Department of Hell')(available on PND website). Kristensen (Op Cit), also is a highly effective refutation of Ford and others who argue similarly.

[30] Browne, Ischinger, Ivanov, Nunn, Building Mutual Security2013, p10

[31]Schell, Op Cit,