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70 years on from the bombing of Hiroshima on 6 Aug and Nagasaki on 9 Aug 1945, nuclear weapons remain the most immediate short-term threat to civilization, and are still probably, if not certainly, a threat to the survival of humans as a species.
Eric Schlosser notes in a recent (2Aug'15) article that:
“Seventy years ago, the world faced little immediate danger from nuclear weapons, yet felt terrified by them. Today, remarkably little attention is being paid to an existential threat potentially greater and more irreversible than global warming”. Schlosser is right. Nuclear weapons have become a 'forgotten apocalypse'.

When news of the Hiroshima bombing came to the Los Alamos laboratory where an unprecedented scientific and technological effort involving the world’s most brilliant minds had developed the bomb, several of those involved went out into the desert and vomited. According to Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer, “for the first time physicists have known sin”. Albert Einstein warned that humans now possessed the means to cause their own destruction.

Ten years later the 'Einstein-Russell Manifesto' again warned that, unless nuclear weapons were eliminated, humanity could self-destruct. More recently, the Gareth Evans International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (ICNND) report of 2010 has warned that nuclear weapons are a 'forgotten apocalypse', but are still the most potent, and most immediate, threat to civilization and to humans as a species. The Joint Statement on Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences of Nuclear weapons sponsored by the Governments of NZ and Switzerland and now signed on to by 166 governments references the threat to human survival (as well as Civilization) no less than 5 times, notably by quoting the Einstein-Russel Manifesto.

What we call 'civilization' could be effectively put out of action at least for decades by as few as five very large (5 Mt) nuclear weapons exploded 500-1000km out in space above continental landmasses, wiping out communications and electrical systems in about a millisecond, and causing the global financial system literally to disappear. A very large solar mass ejection would do the same thing to our extraordinarily fragile cyberspace, space, communications, electrical, and financial techno-structure. A report for the US Congress has warned that such an event (nuclear or solar) could cause up to 90% of Americans to die of starvation as computerized distribution systems (and just about everything else) simply vanished.

The use of the relatively small (but rapidly growing) arsenals of India and Pakistan, currently comprising roughly 110-120 Hiroshima-sized warheads each, could cause 'prompt' casualties of around 100-150million. However, the smoke from burning cities in the subcontinent would inject itself into the upper stratosphere, where its global climatic impact would cause worldwide famine, slashing agricultural outputs in areas as far away as China, Ukraine, and the Midwest United States for up to three decades, and causing a final global body-count from famine, according to Stanford’s Ira Helfand, of up to two billion. This, with less than 0.5% of global nuclear mega-tonnage.

From time to time, both sides of the India-Pakistan divide make nuclear threats. (Most recently, former Pakistani President and head of Pakistan's military, General Musharraf, exclaimed that Pakistan hadn't developed its nuclear arsenal merely to let them off at a festival. Tension, threats and firing across the Kashmir ceasefire line take place on a daily basis as this is written.) Pakistani and Indian nuclear arsenals are the world’s most rapidly growing. India, in addition to the nuclear weapons it points at Pakistan, is developing the 'Agni' (Hindu god of fire) ICBM, which it explicitly states is aimed at Pakistani ally, China, whose missiles can already easily reach Delhi.

Finally, though US and Russian nuclear arsenals have declined to less than a third of what they once were, these two governments between them have over 90% of the global total of approximately 17,000 warheads. Each maintains just under 1000 warheads on land-based, silo-based missiles on high ('hair-trigger') alert, able to be fired within less than a minute. (The Russians say 'a few dozens of seconds'). A larger number can be fired within 'a few minutes' from submarines. These thermonuclear warheads are much much bigger than Indian and Pakistani ones, and far more sophisticated. The alert status of these silo-based forces means that in an event in which it is thought possible that a nuclear attack could be in progress (even if that turns out to be a mistake, and even if the final decision is NOT to launch) top decision-makers have absurdly short times in which to take utterly apocalyptic decisions.

From time to time over the years computerized early warning systems in both the US and Russia have indicated (falsely) that the other side has launched, bringing the world to within minutes and seconds of the use of (according to Colonel Stanislav Petrov to whom we owe our survival) up to 11,000 warheads at once (with the much larger arsenals of the 1980s). The most notable occasions, in which the world was saved once by the cool judgment of just one man, took place on September 26,1983 (Sept 26 is now, appropriately, International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons); once more in October/November 1983 with the Able Archer exercise, which the Soviets thought was going to be a disarming first strike; in 1995, when a weather research rocket was mistaken for an incoming US SLBM, and also during a terrifying series of US computer glitches in the early 1980s.

An article dated 4Aug2015 noted that:
“Most urgently, about 1,800 U.S. and Russian nukes are on hair-trigger alert (i.e.
ready to go within 5 to 15 minutes of a launch order). Now with daily news of cyberattacks, keeping these weapons on launch-on-warning status is downright reckless. Numerous close calls have occurred, caused by human error, light reflected from clouds, and a science experiment whereby nuclear weapons were nearly launched. Ultimately, only dumb luck has prevented a tragic accidental launch.”

The use of US and Russian arsenals would bring about the death in roughly 40-90 minutes of anything between a number of hundreds of millions of people and over a billion, depending on precise targeting strategies.

Civilization as we know it would be completely destroyed.

The burning of the world’s largest cities would inject up to 180 million tonnes of very black soot into the upper stratosphere, dropping temperatures from their currently inflated and climbing global-warming levels to below those of the last Ice Age. The research on nuclear winter, initially performed in the 1980s and re-done with far more sophisticated computer models in 2006 and subsequently, shows that the impact is if anything, worse than we imagined it would be in the 80's, with the soot staying in the stratosphere far longer. The world's financial, communications, and electrical systems would, of course, have vanished in the first milliseconds of hostilities.

Humans, if they survived, would have the best chances in New Zealand, Tasmania, Patagonia and the Falklands. The big human survival question would be, how to stay alive when agriculture would be all but impossible not for a year or two but for decades. Whether or not humans as a species somehow survived, most humans who were not immediately incinerated during a Russia/NATO conflict that went nuclear, would certainly starve in the freezing dark of the aftermath.

The annual symposium on nuclear deterrence held in Omaha, Nebraska, five years ago had little in it on 'deterring Russia'. The most recent nuclear deterrence conference (held last week(end july'15)) had deterring Russia as its number one topic. Russia itself makes it very clear that it regards NATO and the US as its number one security threat. A few months ago NATO and Russia held mirror-imaged nuclear forces exercises in and next to the Baltic States, within kilometers of each other. Nuclear threats have been issued on a number of occasions by both parties.

Most recently, retired US and Russian nuclear forces commanders, Generals James Cartwright and Vladimir Dvyorkin co-authored a letter in which they urged that US and Russian nuclear forces be taken off high ('hair-trigger') alert in order to avert 'global catastrophe'.

Last January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, set up in 1946 by Albert Einstein and others in the wake of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, moved the hands of its iconic 'Doomsday Clock', on which midnight is the 'apocalypse', from five minutes to midnight to three minutes to midnight. The closest the clock has been is two minutes in 1956 after the testing of the first H-Bombs. It hasn't been at three since the time world nearly ended twice in 1983.

At a panel organized by the author at the UN during the May 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference (which ended with the nuclear weapons states vetoing an already gutted final declaration), the editor of the Bulletin, Rachel Bronson, confirmed that while the moving of the Doomsday Clock hands had also taken into account deep concerns over global warming, Russia/NATO frictions and nuclear threats over Ukraine had been a major factor in moving from 5 to 3 minutes. The moving of the Doomsday Clock hands is not done lightly, and involves prolonged discussions by roomfuls of Nobel prizewinners.

International and intergovernmental concerns over the possibility of nuclear conflict, including especially accidental nuclear conflict (which has come so close so many times), was highlighted most recently at a series of conferences in Oslo, Nayarit (Mexico) and Vienna, on Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences of nuclear weapons use. Coming out of these conferences covering 20013-15 have been two major diplomatic initiatives, a 'Joint Statement' signed by more than160 governments, and what was called the 'Austrian Pledge', but is now the 'Humanitarian Pledge', signed to date by 113 governments, which seeks to 'fill the legal gap', outlawing nuclear weapons. If anything positive came from the last Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference it was this.

The world’s media and much of the political (and NGO) 'elite' have in recent months been completely transfixed by the efforts of one country that has over 8000 operational warheads with just under 1000 on high alert (ie, the US) to prevent another country that has NO nuclear warheads and says it has no plans to get any (and that both the CIA and Israel’s Mossad agree now has no plans to get any) from getting the nuclear warheads that it (and the CIA and Mossad) already says it isn't even trying to get.

It is notable and indeed praiseworthy that Iran has now issued a ringing call for the abolition of nuclear weapons both by the nuclear weapons powers and in the Middle East. This isn't the first time that Iran has issued such a call or tried to take a leadership role in global intergovernmental attempts to eliminate nuclear weapons. These are not the actions of a country intent on obtaining a nuclear arsenal. The contrast with avowedly nuclear North Korea, who defiantly stated that their nuclear arsenal was not for bargaining away, is clear. The DPRK seem likely both to augment their nuclear arsenal at a more rapid rate and may well conduct a fourth nuclear test.

In the meantime, the US and Russia, with over 90% of the world’s nuclear warheads continue to pose an ongoing and increasing threat to both civilization and human survival. They also continue to oppose tooth and nail any serious attempts to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle. (As exampled by their torpedoing of the already gutted NPT Revcon final statement, ostensibly over the Middle East. In reality even the eviscerated final statement, far from being a 'P5 Statement' was too much, and an excuse to veto it was welcome.)

Immediate prospects for further nuclear reductions look bleak, though truly inspired and strong leadership (eg from Obama) might still be able to bring that about. However the most likely outlook for both is continued modernization of nuclear forces, in the US at least, at colossal – absurd – expense, (of a trillion dollars over the next 30 years), as well as the development (in reality if not in name), of new nuclear warheads and delivery systems. The development – again at colossal expense – of hypersonic systems by one or both sides is a distinct prospect. The danger is that a resumption of the cold-war nuclear arms race at a higher technological level will take place when what is truly required is for that arms race to be put into reverse, and above all for risk reduction measures of the kind talked about by Generals Cartwright and Dvyorkin to be instituted.

The best way forward seems to be to support plans both for a Nuclear Weapons Ban and for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, anticipating that, while there is no single correct route to the elimination of nuclear weapons,(there are many and they can be traveled all at once) as soon as progress is made on any way forward it will be bitterly opposed by the nuclear weapons states. If nuclear weapons are eliminated, a nuclear 'apocalypse' is simply impossible, at least while a ban treaty holds good. Hans Blix, former head of the IAEA, recently (July29) wrote in strong support of a ban on nuclear weapons use, arguing that 'the gradualist approach has failed'.

In the short term however there is an urgent need for nuclear risk reduction measures of the kind that the letter from Generals Cartwright and Dvyorkin speaks of. The most important single one of these is the lowering of nuclear weapons alert status, so that decision-makers no longer have to take truly apocalyptic decisions within time frames of a few short minutes,(dictated by a missile's half-hour flight time) based on faulty or no data, whilst senior military scream hysterically across launch control centers and no-one has the slightest idea what is really happening.

Other risk reduction measures would include the building and operationalisation of the joint missile data exchange center in Moscow announced now four times (since 1998) but never built, the adoption of 'no first-use' policies, and the non-targeting of urban areas.

Until Governments (including especially nuclear weapons state governments) grasp that nuclear abolition is far from being a vague and fuzzy thing to be achieved in 'some far-off century', but a pressing and immediate human survival priority, we will keep on playing Russian and American (and Indian, Pakistani and Chinese) roulette with the future of everyone and everything.

70 years on from Hiroshima, a Nuclear Weapons Ban and Nuclear Weapons Convention must be given the truly existential priority they deserve.

John Hallam h61-2-9810-2598
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