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Home Articles Features Presentation to NPT Revcon 2015 Side-Panel on Catastrophic Risks, Nuclear Weapons and Human Survival

Presentation to NPT Revcon 2015 Side-Panel on Catastrophic Risks, Nuclear Weapons and Human Survival

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Presentation to NPT Revcon 2015 Side-Panel on Catastrophic Risks, Nuclear Weapons and Human Survival 
Nuclear Risks – Accidental Nuclear War

John Hallam,
People for Nuclear Disarmament / Human Survival Project
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I had six minutes at the NGO presentation. I have longer now.

Six minutes (varying from zero minutes to 10) is around the time that a commander of missile forces, a defense minister, or a President, has to decide, after a 30 second briefing (for  US and Russian Presidents,) whether or not to launch about 2000 nuclear warheads (in the US and Russia, around 900 on–alert in silos and able to be fired, in some cases in less than a minute,  plus submarine-based warheads that can be launched in less than 10 mins) as early – warning systems indicate –  likely incorrectly – that the other 'side' has launched.

Just how the compressed time-frames put decision-makers under impossible pressures is illustrated by the following anecdote told by former Carter national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski at the Council of Foreign Relations in April2012:
“..... 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."
(emphasis mine)

If it is indeed true that the other 'side' actually has launched, then it is indeed the end of what we know as 'the world'. If (as is quite probable) the incoming missiles are merely a computer glitch,(as in Brzezinski's anecdote above) and 'our' side launches anyway, it will just as surely be the 'end of the world' as the 'other side'--if acting in accordance with “deterrence” theory-- will certainly launch in response, making 'our' belief (whether 'we' are US or Russia) that the end of the world has arrived, self-fulfilling.

Even if the 'other' side does NOT launch in response, the smoke from 'their' burning cities will still make 'our' country (and the rest of the world) uninhabitable, inducing global famine lasting for decades. Toon and Robock note in Self Assured Destruction, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 68/5, 2012, that:

“A nuclear war between Russia and the United States, even after the arsenal reductions planned under New START, could produce a nuclear winter. Hence, an attack by either side could be suicidal, resulting in self assured destruction. Even a 'small' nuclear war between India and Pakistan, with each country detonating 50 Hiroshima-size atom bombs-only about 0.03 percent of the global nuclear arsenal's explosive power-as air bursts in urban areas, could produce so much smoke that temperatures would fall below those of the Little Ice Age of the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries, shortening the growing season around the world and threatening the global food supply. Furthermore, there would be massive ozone depletion, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to reach Earth's surface. Recent studies predict that agricultural production in parts of the United States and China would decline by about 20 percent for four years, and by 10 percent for a decade.”

A conflagration involving US/NATO forces and those of Russia would most likely cause the deaths of most humans (and severely impact/extinguish other species) as well as destroying the delicate interwoven techno-structure on which latter-day 'civilization' has come to depend. Temperatures would drop to below those of the last ice-age, for up to 30 years as a result of the lofting of up to 180 million tonnes of very black soot into the stratosphere where it would remain for decades.

Human survival itself could  arguably be  problematic under a 2000+ warhead US/Russia scenario, though human ingenuity and resilience shouldn't be underestimated.

The  Joint Statement on Catastrophic Humanitarian Consequences signed  October2013 by 146 governments mentioned 'Human Survival' no less than 5 times. The most recent one gives it a highly prominent place. Gareth Evans ICNND (International Commission on Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament) Report made it clear that it saw the threat posed by nuclear weapons use as one that at least threatens what we now call 'civilization' and that potentially threatens human survival with an immediacy that even Climate Change does not, though we can see the results of climate change here and now.

A seminal BAS (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) article of October 2008 entitled 'Minimizing the Risk of Human Extinction' places two nuclear – weapons  - related actions at the very top of its rather consequential 'to–do' list. It gives topmost ranking to lowering the alert level of nuclear weapons systems, and next to top ranking to the abolition of nuclear weapons.

The destruction of the information-based techno-structure and the complete disappearance of the global financial system could be accomplished with a very few large warheads (such as the Chinese DF5, of 5Mt) exploded in space, with the effects of Electromagnetic Pulse. (In fact results of EMP can also be duplicated by a very large coronal mass ejection such as took place in 1859. Studies by the US Congress (2004, 2008) indicate that in either event, up to 90% of US citizens could starve to death, as food delivery systems (and all delivery systems) failed. This, without the destruction of a single city. Most studies (including the 2004 and 2008 Congressional ones) say that electronic systems in the entire continental US could be crippled by a single large warhead exploded about 400Km out in space.)

The following is from the 2004 EMP report:
“Depending on the specific characteristics of the attacks, unprecedented cascading failures of our major infrastructures could result. In that event, a regional or national recovery would be long and difficult and would seriously degrade the safety and overall viability of our Nation. The primary avenues for catastrophic damage to the Nation are through our electric power infrastructure and thence into our telecommunications, energy, and other infrastructures. These, in turn, can seriously impact other important aspects of our Nation’s life, including the financial system; means of getting food, water, and medical care to the citizenry; trade; and production of goods and services. The recovery of any one of the key national infrastructures is dependent on the recovery of others. The longer the outage, the more problematic and uncertain the recovery will be. It is possible for the functional outages to become mutually reinforcing until at some point the degradation of infrastructure could have irreversible effects on the country’s ability to support its population.”
[Report of the Commission to Assess the threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack, Vol1 2004]

Note that in its deliberations, the commission assessed the effects on the U.S. of a SINGLE nuclear weapon.(p1)

The drastic effects of EMP, even without a single city being directly destroyed, show just how vulnerable civilization now is, not only to nuclear weapons use. but potentially to geomagnetic phenomena also. This is quite independently a civilizational risk that warrants both study and action.

Even a 'boutique' India/Pakistan nuclear exchange, involving 100-200 Hiroshima-sized warheads, could put  up to 2 billion people worldwide at risk  from famine, in part as a result of drastic declines in production of corn, winter wheat, rice, and soy production in both the US, India, and China.[Ira Helfand - Nuclear Famine- A Billion People at Risk?]

But just how likely really is such a scenario? Surely it's just science-fiction with which NGOs frighten roomfuls of diplomats? How likely really is a completely catastrophic event-sequence?

Firstly, as I'm relatively innumerate and am not Seth Baum , or Prof. Martin Hellman, on both of whose highly numerate analyses I have largely depended, I am not going to try to give you a number which anyway may not be that meaningful. But some common-sense things can be said nonetheless about catastrophic nuclear risk.

--Seth Baum  in his Vienna presentation noted that nuclear risks have been drastically underestimated. Prof Martin Hellman at Stamford, using quite different statistical techniques, came to similar conclusions. Hellman called for an NAS study to be carried out on the risk of accidental nuclear war.

--Risk is not simply a function of the probability of a given event, but is a function of probability times consequences, or 'r= p X c'.
This means that even if the probability of a global nuclear exchange is relatively low, the consequences are so grave (as we see from the above)  that only a probability of zero or very close thereto can be acceptable.

--Even if the probability of an accidental apocalypse seems reasonably low (say, 0.1%-1%) in any given year, if this is taken over an indefinitely large number of years, the risk approaches asymptotically to 100%.

--Nuclear risk has PALPABLY increased in the last 2-3 years, with the most obvious signs being the movement of the hands of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists 'Doomsday Clock' from five minutes to three minutes to midnight. In addition there have been a series of articles on nuclear war risks and nuclear deterrence in Der Spiegel (arguing that nuclear war risks now are HIGHER than during the cold war), the Guardian, Foreign Affairs, The Economist, and others. The clearest driver of increased risk is of course, the current crisis in Ukraine, with the associated nuclear threats.  Even to make such threats in and of itself arguably considerably increases risk.

Part of this increased risk has been the rising incidence of confrontations between NATO and Russian military forces.

According to the European Leadership Network:
“Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, the intensity and gravity of incidents involving Russian and Western militaries and security agencies has visibly increased. This ELN Policy Brief provides details of almost 40 specific incidents that have occurred over the last eight months... These events add up to a highly disturbing picture of violations of national airspace, emergency scrambles, narrowly avoided mid-air collisions, close encounters at sea, simulated attack runs and other dangerous actions happening on a regular basis over a very wide geographical area.”
“To perpetuate a volatile stand-off between a nuclear armed state and a nuclear armed alliance and its partners in the circumstances described in this paper is risky at best. It could prove catastrophic at worst.”   

The recent 'mock' attack on what seems to have been a peace festival on the Danish island of Bornholm underlines this ELN statement.

--Minuteman missile forces and Russian strategic rocket forces (as well as Indian and Pakistani nuclear forces) rehearse the 'apocalypse' on a regular basis. It's not imaginary for them. It's what they DO.

Missiles are fired from test sites, from missile silos, and from mobile launchers and submarines, a number of times a year by both the US and Russia.  In the past these exercises have been routine. Most recently, they have become increasingly public and threatening: Almost a form of political theater.

According to Ian Kearns of the European Leadership Network:
"A dangerous game of military brinkmanship is now being played in Europe.” “If one commander or one pilot makes a mistake or a bad decision in this situation, we may have casualties and a high-stakes cycle of escalation that is difficult to stop."

A somewhat different story to that of Russian aggression is recounted by Dr Christoff Lehman of Global Research, according to whom on 7April,  a NATO (US) reconnaissance plane was intercepted approaching Russian territory over the Baltic Sea and  forced to turn back by SU27's. It seems that – (as NATO accuses Russia of doing) – the planes transponder had been turned off. Presumably both sides play these risky games.

Theodore Postol, a US physicist recently warned at a conference on nuclear risk last Feb in this city (NY) that the current risk of a US/Russia nuclear exchange is greater than during the Cuban Missile crisis. Even if Postol is only 10% right it is clear that nuclear risks right now are at an unacceptable level. And whether Russia, the US/NATO or both (most likely) are to 'blame', those rights and wrongs and mutual blaming pale into insignificance in comparison to what, potentially, is at stake. 

It is a fatal paradox of deterrence as routinely conceived – that in order to maintain 'strategic stability' we have to (incredibly but really) threaten the 'end of the world'. In order to keep the end of the world off the agenda (i.e., frighten our potential adversaries into not doing anything we don't like) we have to keep the end of the world ON the agenda.(so they are frightened enough)  But that means that the end of the world is indeed, really,  ON the agenda…an absurd and fatal paradox. These US and Russian exercises along the borders of the Baltic states should give rise to very deep concern.

--There have already been too many 'near misses'. Deterrence depends on the absolute  impossibility of  mistakes. Under deterrence theory, decision-making is presumed to be absolutely rational and informed by perfect data and mistakes and malfunctions never happen. Yet precisely the opposite is what we in fact observe to be the case. Mistake, miscalculation and malfunction seem to be the rule not the exception.

Statistically speaking we probably already shouldn't be here.  A  study of those near misses leads one to conclude that the only reason we ARE here is by what General Lee Butler terms 'Divine Providence'. Without committing to any particular theology, we might well profitably ask, 'just when does our miracle supply run out?'

Are we right now, tempting fate or the Diety just a little too much? Or is 'Divine intervention' infinite and never-ending? Should we find out? If so, this is an experiment that can be done only once (especially if it fails). 

Obvious 'near miss' incidents include a number of sub–incidents during the Cuban Missile Crisis in one of which WW-III was nearly initiated by a wandering bear that activated a B-52 scramble-alarm; incidents with computer tapes for 'doomsday' in 1979, (resulting in what a Congressional committee who happened to be present at the time called 'blind panic') and with a malfunctioning computer chip in 1980 and 81 (it happened three times). On the Russian side there was the famous incident involving Col. Stan Petrov of Sept26 1983; the Able Archer war scare just over a month later, and the Norwegian Weather Research Rocket incident of 1995, in which we are reputed to owe our existence to an unknown adviser who said 'excuse me Mr President, let’s wait another minute'.

These incidents are described in greater detail in the Chatham House publication 'Too Close for Comfort', launched in this very place, as well as in a number of my own panel presentations. Chatham House lists in some detail incident after incident in which a nuclear exchange is narrowly averted. From time to time further incidents keep surfacing.

In recent years, greater attention has been given to the possibility of cyberspace attacks on nuclear command and control systems. The Vienna conference was addressed on that subject by Camille Francoise, and Jason Fritz addresses the problem in Hacking Nuclear Command and Control, written for the ICNND. The issue of cyberspace risks is addressed by a resolution adopted by the IPU, whose membership includes members of parliaments of both nuclear-armed states and those involved in 'extended deterrence' relationships. 

The IPU Assembly adopted a final resolution, which, among other things:

--Noted that: military ICT systems for the deployment and use of force are susceptible to acts of cyber warfare that could lead to third parties intercepting and deploying such systems to cause unauthorized, illegal and destructive use of force… and especially concerned that the hacking of nuclear weapon command-and-control systems could result in the unauthorized launch and detonation of nuclear weapons and cause unparalleled catastrophes;

The IPU Expressed concern about: the suggestion by military planners that nuclear deterrence be maintained as an option for dealing with the existential threat of a cyberattack,

The IPU recommended that: parliaments from nuclear-weapon States call on their governments to rescind launch-on-warning policies, stand down nuclear weapons from high operational readiness and extend the decision-making time for nuclear-weapon use in order to prevent unauthorized activation and deployment of nuclear weapon systems, pursuant to the negotiation of agreements to prohibit the use of nuclear weapons and achieve their elimination.

In the current context of nuclear risk this IPU resolution could be literally world-saving.

A number of things can be done to eliminate or reduce nuclear risk.

In addition to the below, you are particularly referred to the IALANA paper on 'Nuclear Disarmament – The Road Ahead', and in particular to recommendation one, calling for an immediate worldwide moratorium on exercises and war-games involving nuclear forces, and on the testing of nuclear delivery systems, and on making statements that make or imply a threat to use nuclear weapons in any circumstances.

--First of all nuclear weapons can and should be eliminated yesterday. If nuclear weapons no longer exist then the risk of a catastrophic nuclear conflict, deliberate or inadvertent, can only be zero,at least in the short to medium term. This does not mean that all conflict will cease or that nirvana will instantly ensue. It merely means that lesser conflicts will no longer pose the risk of spiraling into an event sequence that risks human survival itself.

Nuclear weapons are an existential threat to all humans including those not directly involved in any conflict. They must be treated as such and outlawed.

--Secondly, various stopgap risk reduction measures can be taken on the understanding that they are way-stations in a rapid movement to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

These include (but are not confined to):

--No longer targeting cities. Cities are not only the place where civilization 'lives' in the most real sense, but if targeted they are in addition the source of the bulk of the 180million tonnes of dark black smoke that will blot out the sun for decades after a large scale nuclear exchange. Mayors For Peace has detailed proposals about this contained in the Ypres Declaration.

--Taking nuclear weapons off high alert. I mentioned the six minutes of decision-making time. This is an artifact of quick-launch, high-alert procedures that leave no time to ascertain whether or not an indication that the other has launched is really really the end of the world approaching at three times the speed of sound, or merely a malfunctioning chip someplace. Much discussion has already taken place about increasing decision-making time. Both the most recent nuclear posture review and (from an entirely different angle) the Swiss study 're-framing de-alert' focus on decision-making time. Even thoughtful opponents of de-alerting such as former ambassador Chris Ford acknowledge its desirability.   Lowering alert status is precisely about increasing decision-making time. Once more, in the current atmosphere of US/NATO vs Russia military confrontation, adequate decision-making time – a whole lot longer than 6 minutes – will absolutely be required to assure the avoidance of catastrophe.

--Establishing the Data Exchange Center that the US and Russian Governments have now agreed to set up three if not four times (first agreed in 1998 in the aftermath of the 1995 Norwegian research rocket incident), but which still has not been established.

--Moving the patrol areas of SLBMs further away from potential targets.( Mosher Schwartz and Howell 2003) This would certainly increase warning times and make fingers on triggers less itchy.
--No First Use agreements/declarations.
Whatever we do – and some action is always better than none in this department though ALL of the above and more should be implemented as part of a quick path to zero – the catastrophic risk posed by nuclear weapons has always been nonzero, and has recently grown, probably by orders of magnitude.
Sooner or later the miracle supply really will  run dry.

Unless we act.