The End of the World

I’ve had an interest in nuclear weapons for a long time, partly out of fascination for the complex physics and many challenges required to design and build them, but also for the frighteningly destructive power they possess. As time has gone by I’ve read more extensively on the topic and am now convinced that not only are they morally wrong, they offer no utility for humanity. I feel it is inevitable that one day a nuclear weapon will be detonated accidentally with catastrophic consequences.

What follows is the script for episode 14 of The Here and Now Podcast which covers many issues relevant to the conversation. This is just the beginning. Since recording the podcast in February 2020, more resources have appeared including the new At the Brink Podcast by Lisa Perry and her grandfather, former US secretary of defense William Perry. Both were also interviewed by Sam Harris recently on his ‘Making Sense’ podcast. I highly recommend you seek these out.

In February 2021 the New Start nuclear weapons Treaty between the United States and Russia will expire. Relations between the two nations have been souring for years. Both countries are currently investing billions in modernising their nuclear weapons arsenals. It is looking increasingly unlikely that a new agreement will be negotiated with the consequence that not only will thousands of nuclear missiles remain on hair trigger alert, but the probability of a deliberate or accidental exchange remains greater than zero.

We must continue to raise awareness of the nuclear threat and the current policies of the nuclear armed nations. Through awareness we can work toward the total abandonment of nuclear weapons to ensure the future of humanity.

Script for Episode 14 The End of the World

Dionysius II was the tyrannical ruler of Syracus. Despite being rich and powerful, Dionysius was paranoid and miserable. He was cruel and ruled with an iron fist. He enslaved his subjects, and created for himself many enemies. Fearing he would be assassinated in his sleep, Dionysius became a recluse and slept surrounded by a moat and allowed only his daughters to shave his beard. A flatterer among Dionysius’s entourage, Damocles, one day exclaimed how fortunate Dionysius was to have such power and wealth and a life of privilege. Dionysius scoffed and suggested Damocles might like a taste of his wealth and power to see just what it was really like. Damocles quickly accepted and was soon comfortably ensconced on a couch embroidered with gold thread being fed delicacies and doted on with exquisite perfumes and ointments. Thinking to himself, “this is the life” Damocles stretched back on the golden couch and noticed, there, poised, above was a glimmering sword. It was held aloft by a single horse hair, threatening to break at any moment and slice his head from his shoulders. Damocles could no longer enjoy the feast and gifts showered upon him and soon begged Dionysius to be excused. The fruits of power seemed suddenly less appealing.

This is a version of an ancient tale known as the Sword of Damocles written by the Roman statesman, Cicero, in 45 BC. Cicero presented the idea that there can be no happiness for one under constant apprehensions, alluding to the cliché that with great power comes great responsibility and the constant threat of losing it all.

Most of you will be familiar with the dramatic way the Second World War was brought to an end, yes, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. While the exact numbers are not known precisely, it is thought as many as 225,000 people were killed in these bombings, at least half on the day of the bombings, the remainder over the weeks and months that followed. Such massive casualties and destruction heralded a new era in warfare, where governments could hold in their palm the future of entire societies. The genie had been let out of the bottle.

The 1950’s heralded the true dawning of the atomic age where nations raced to build ever more powerful weapons. The ultimate result of this era of rapid development was the thermonuclear weapon, or hydrogen bomb. The original design of the H bomb, as it is colloquially known, uses an atomic bomb similar to that dropped on Hiroshima as the initiator of the massive thermonuclear chain reaction resulting in a yield, or explosive force, nearly 700 times more powerful than Little Boy, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Let that sink in. The bomb dropped on Hiroshima killed more or less instantly 80,000 people, with a similar number injured. The casualties from the use of a modern thermonuclear weapon are inconceivable, particularly when considering the increased urban sprawl and greater populations of cities today. Millions would die, and that’s just from one bomb. The policy typically employed by nuclear armed nations is to launch at least two weapons on each target to ensure the target is destroyed in case of failure of one of the weapons, redundancy is built into the system.

Extensive plans for the strategic targeting of cities, industrial and military complexes have been made since the inception of the nuclear bomb. Today virtually all cities of more than 100,000 people in the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Korea, Pakistan, India, the UK and Europe are in the crosshairs of hundreds of missiles standing ready in at least one, if not several, nations. While nuclear non-proliferation treaties have extensively reduced the number of nuclear warheads in national arsenals from a high of over 70,000 in the late 1980’s down to around 14,000 today, 3,750 of those are actively deployed, some 2,000 ready to be employed at a moment’s notice and many with far higher yields and destructive power than those bombs dropped on nearly Japan 75 years ago.

In episode 10 on effective altruism I talked about the EA movement being concerned with existential risk, those things which threaten our very existence. In 2020 the threat of nuclear war may seem like a relic from the past, from the Cold War era when tensions ran high between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Cuban missile crisis is often touted as the closest we have come to nuclear holocaust, but there is a far darker reality that extends all the way to the present. Nuclear armed nations sit as poised today as they did back then, and when just a handful of weapons could inflict unimaginable destruction, is there really much difference between 2,000 and 70,000 nuclear weapons?

In this episode I am going to explore three aspects of the on-going existential threat of nuclear weapons, the current state of nuclear weapons policy and political positions of the nine nuclear armed states, a few of the dozens of near misses and almost end of the world moments that have occurred in the last few decades, and the reality of what employment of just a few nuclear weapons would do for not just those countries targeted, but for the entire world as a result of the nuclear winter effects on the atmosphere. At the risk of boring you with to much detail, I’m going to focus on the most alarming facts which may tend to over exaggerate the level of threat faced by humanity, and indeed all living creatures, today. But my intention is not to sensationalise the topic, but to demonstrate just how real the threat is, how lucky we have been so far, and how little it would take to irreversibly change our lives. Many will argue that climate change, overpopulation and rising inequality are the most significant threats of the current era, but I urge you to not overlook this latent threat which has been present for decades and ask the question, why?

Nuclear policy, rhetoric and current state of affairs

You might be thinking, as bad as nuclear war sounds, the odds of it actually happening are remote. We’ve come a long way since the Cold War when tensions were high and the US and Russia were poised to annihilate each other. In those days, school children practiced hiding under their desks at the sounding of a bell which signalled a nuclear attack was imminent. Back then there were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons, today there are just a few thousand and nuclear disarmament has been steady and constant in the decades since the height of the Cold War. In 1961 President John F Kennedy made a speech to the United Nations where he used the analogy of the sword of Damocles to emphasise the threat of nuclear weapons. Here is Kennedy in that memorable speech.

https://youtu.be/AQcTyJFlECI?t=96

“Today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us. . . . The events and decisions of the next ten months may well decide the fate of man for the next ten thousand years. There will be no avoiding those events. There will be no appeal from those decisions. And we in this hall shall be remembered either as part of the generation that turned this planet into a flaming funeral pyre or the generation that met its vow “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.”

In July 2017, the United Nations passed the “Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons” in which countries pledged to never develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or assist any other state in these activities including hosting the deployment of nuclear weapons. Fantastic, we did it! Humanity collectively agreed to ban nukes and get rid of them once and for all. Today, 80 nations have signed the treaty but just 34 nations have ratified it, and here’s the catch, none of them are the nuclear armed countries. To ratify the treaty a country must verifiably prove to inspectors that its nuclear programme, if any, is used only for peaceful purposes. Given that none of the signatory nations have nuclear weapons, why have only 34 ratified it? Perhaps it’s a question of UN resources or perhaps, like climate agreements and many other similar pledges, they exist as a means of political PR without little real substance once the media has moved on to the next breaking headline.

Even more disappointing is that following the announcement of the treaty, The United States, Britain and France, three of the most important nuclear powers, released a joint statement where they essentially said the treaty is naive and neglects to value the deterrence factor of nuclear weapons which has maintained a state of peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. So we have a situation where those countries who were never interested in nuclear weapons have signed a statement to say as much and those that are, have ignored it. Right. I guess the US forgot about Kennedy’s speech.

It is obviously not possible to give accurate odds on a nuclear war, we can never say with certainty what will happen next in life, and politics is a messy and unpredictable affair at the best of times. What we can do though is note what we see, and compare it to the past to at least give us some sense of where the risks lie and what their likelihood may be. This is far from an exact science, and even when pressed on the issue, researchers cannot offer much in the way of clarity, but let’s have a look at what we know. There are nine nuclear armed nations, the US of course, Russia, China, France, Britain, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea. The relationship between western powers is pretty stable, certainly there is no chance of an intentional nuclear strike between the US, France, Britain and Israel. But that’s about all the certainty we have. The relationship between the US and Russia has been going steadily downhill in recent years and it has extended to nuclear weapons policy. Since President Trump took office in 2016 he has played fast and loose with nuclear war rhetoric, challenging adversaries to a nuclear arms race, and I’m sure we’re all familiar with the disturbing tweet-a-war exchange that he recently engaged in with the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Trump has also actioned a $1.7 trillion dollar upgrade of the US nuclear weapons programme while rejecting the anti-nuclear proliferation treaty. Some pundits believe the risk of nuclear war between the US and Russia is as high today as it was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. While poor diplomatic relations set the stage for such a conflict, it is predicted to be the result of miscalculation, escalation and retaliation and a terrible nightmare not dissimilar to the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand which precipitated the First World War.

It is a reasonable argument to say that investment in the modernisation of nuclear weapons platforms is necessary given that existing systems have long exceeded their design life, but rather than take this as an opportunity to abandon nuclear weapons, the US and Russia are engaging in programs which will serve not only to prolong their present stance on nuclear arms, but to integrate modern technology into their nuclear capabilities. Artificial intelligence being one such advancement which introduces a range of moral and technological challenges and risks to nuclear policy which may not have been considered in detail before. In a time when we barely trust aircraft and cars to operate autonomously, or even subsystems of them, would you trust AI with making the decision on whether to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, Russia currently has more than 20 production lines modernising its nuclear weapon apparatus, and it is expanding production. Russia has also been regularly testing a state of the art hypersonic missile, the Avangard, which is capable of carrying a 2 megaton nuclear warhead. For perspective, the total number of bombs dropped during the second world war by allied forces, was just over 3 million tons, but only a fraction of that was actually the explosive. A 2 megaton warhead delivers the equivalent of 2,000,000 tons of explosives. So one bomb contains the power of virtually of the bombs dropped in the 6 years of world war two and it is all concentrated on one target. It is hard to overstate the devastating power of hydrogen bombs, they are simply, horrifyingly, capable of destruction on an imaginable scale. And some countries have hundreds of them.

Russia’s new Avangard nuclear weapon delivery system is unique in that it is extremely fast and travels below low earth orbit, unlike conventional ballistic missiles. This combination of speed and altitude are touted to be able to avoid the anti-missile defence networks of the United States and others. How do countries normally respond to the development of more superior technology? They build their own, and them some. We are entering a new nuclear arms race for the 21st century.

The Russian Avangard hypersonic ballistic missile nuclear delivery system

Then there is China. Not a lot is known about China’s nuclear weapons programme, it is classified a state secret, but it is estimated they have over 250 weapons and a range of delivery systems including long range ballistic missiles. While China has a “no first use” policy, it is also upgrading its capabilities. It’s recent foray into the Spratley and Parcel Island’s, it’s on going tension with Taiwan, and continuing expansion of its Belt and Road globalisation initiative make China a threat to global security which is worth considering. China also supplied Pakistan with elements of its nuclear programme so it may well be implicated should a conflict occur in the central Asian region. Military exchanges between India and Pakistan occur almost daily in the disputed Kashmir region so one can never rule out the possibility that a conflict could one day go nuclear, particularly if Pakistan feels the much larger Indian nation is threatening to invade its borders with its 1.4 million strong army.

Iran is somewhat of a wildcard. While it is unlikely it has a nuclear weapons capability, there is always a risk, and Israel is unlikely to underestimate it. So there are numerous possible flashpoints around the world which could see conflict go nuclear should diplomatic relationships crumble. But, even more disturbingly, the more likely threat is not from an escalating conflict, but from an accident.

In fact, it is something of a miracle that there hasn’t been an accidental detonation of a nuclear weapon already. History is replete with near misses, dozens and dozens of them, the majority we know about due to the relative transparency of the US government. But there are likely to have been many more we don’t know about in the more secretive countries like China. Perhaps the first accident involving nuclear weapons was during development of the atom bomb in Los Alamos during the Manhattan project when scientist Harry Daghlian accidently dropped a carbide brick onto a plutonium core causing it to go supercritical. He received a lethal burst of radiation and died a few weeks later. That same plutonium core was used in another experiment when the scientist manually lower a beryllium casing over the core to test how close it was to criticality, when the nuclear chain reaction begins. The only safety mechanism being used on this occasion was a screw driver inserted between the top and bottom layers of the casing to stop it from closing over the core completely. The screw driver slipped, the top half of the casing dropped over the core which again went supercritical. The scientist quickly pushed the casing off but not before receiving a fatal dose of radiation. He died just 9 days later. The plutonium core became known as the demon core and was eventually melted to be used in other cores. Fortunately these incidents were limited to the few people who were nearby, but there are dozens of other near misses where the future of humanity hung in the balance and we came as close as we’ve ever come to nuclear apocalypse. Here are a few of those chilling examples.

Near misses

In 1979 the US nuclear alert system detected a wide scale launch of nuclear missiles from Russia. Immediately the command centres went into panic mode, which is not an official military term. Aircraft standing alert were launched and even the president’s airborne emergency command post aircraft was launch, he wasn’t on it, but it took off none the less. Fortunately the command centre was able to reach the early warning radar outpost in northern Canada and determine no missiles had been detected so the whole situation was de-escalated in less than 6 minutes. It was later found that the wrong tape was inserted into the computer system which was for simulating an attack during training exercises. Unfortunately this wouldn’t be the only time such an event would occur.

In early June of1980 the same warning system activated alerting operators that Russia had launched 2,200 missiles. Every morning and evening, the system would run a test to verify the integrity of the communication link between the command centre and the pentagon. The test message was an actual warning of a nuclear attack but with zeros inserted in the space where the number of missiles would normally be shown. On this occasion the system falsely inserted 2’s, triggering the alarm that 2,200 missiles were in the air. Fortunately, no missiles were detected by other warning systems again so the alarm was correctly discounted as false thus averting a retaliatory strike but the same thing happened again a few days later. Technicians eventually traced the problem to a faulty chip that was replaced at a cost of 46 cents. The test message was also rewritten to not refer to a missile launch. (The details of this story come from Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command & Control).

It wasn’t just the US that nearly got caught out by false alarms. In September 1983 a Soviet satellite designed to detect the infrared burst of a missile launch detected the launch of five missiles from the US and aimed at Russia. Stanislav Petrov was the supervisor on duty that day at the early warning detection centre just outside of Moscow. The alarm also sounded in the command post of the generals who would make the decision on whether the launch a retaliatory strike. In one hand Petrov held a phone connecting him to the command post where they asked if the launch alert was genuine. In the other Petrov held the intercom to his team of technicians who were monitoring the satellite network. All indications from the satellites indicated they were working normally and there was no reason to doubt the legitimacy of the alarm. Yet Petrov felt something was off. Why would the US launch only five missiles, he thought? Surely a first strike would be all out with hundreds of them. With just seconds to make a decision, he informed his commanders that it was a false alarm without any information other than his instincts to support it. He was right of course. The satellites had mistakenly detected sunlight reflecting off clouds as the heat plume from missile launches. Petrov was later reprimanded for administerial matters and was never acknowledged in the Soviet Union for his quick thinking to avert catastrophe, but he was recognised during the 2000’s by the west. He died in 2017 never believing he was a hero, he was just doing his job he said. But his job was to report the system was working, which all information available to him said it was. Petrov made a choice that day which may not always be repeated. The world owes a lot to Stanislav Petrov.

Just two months after this incident disaster almost struck again. A large exercise between NATO countries known as Able Archer was to take place which simulated an escalating conflict including the lead up to nuclear war. The exercise was high in realism, employing several communication methods not previously used and the involvement of heads of state. Unfortunately, the timing of the exercise was poor as there had been a recent increase in tensions between the US in Russia after the US deployed ballistic missiles to Europe. This led some high ranking members of the Russian military to believe the exercise was cover for an actual strike. Paranoia ran high and Russian missiles were placed on full alert as the generals sweated it out, braced for an attack that was surely coming. When Russian intelligence experts intercepted a NATO message sent as part of the exercise stating that Russian nuclear missiles had been launched, tensions reached their climax. But, the exercise came to an end and life went on. It wasn’t until later that the west learned just how wound up the Russians had been. Then US President, Ronald Reagan, was particularly shaken by the affair and was compelled to sit down with the Russian leadership to de-escalate their growing tensions. This eventually took place with landmark meetings between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1985 that led to the 1987 signing of a nuclear treaty which saw a large reduction in nuclear weapons and decades of relative calm. In October 2018 President Trump announced he was withdrawing the US from the treaty, Russia followed suit the next day. We have already mentioned the ban on nuclear weapons treaty which none of the nuclear armed powers are signatory too. It is clear that we are indeed entering a new nuclear arms race and heightened tensions, near misses, and misunderstandings are sure to follow.

Nuclear winter

For those of you who live in the southern hemisphere, the risks of nuclear war may seem remote and not particularly relevant. There was however extensive nuclear testing by Britain in Australia during the 1950’s and France in the South Pacific from 1966 to 1996, and South Africa did develop a small arsenal of nuclear warheads during the 1970’s and 80’s but these were dismantled and no testing every took place. Today, no nations south of the equator have a nuclear arsenal. As unlikely as it may seem that a country south of the equator could be the target of a nuclear attack, it is certainly within the capabilities of a long range intercontinental ballistic missile, however the real threat is not from a direct strike, but from the effects on the atmosphere from nuclear detonations and their resulting fires leading to global climate change and the so called, nuclear winter.

Nuclear winter was first coined in a 1983 scientific paper published by a group of scientists including the popular cosmologist, Carl Sagan. Using models developed for understanding the impacts of volcanic eruptions, the scientists were able to model the effects of a nuclear exchange on global climate patterns. While nuclear blasts are incredibly hot and would obviously set their target cities burning, the ash, dust and smoke of such extensive fires would create a band of smoke that was predicted to encircle the earth in just one or two weeks leaving no country unaffected, regardless of how far it may have been from the initial strike. This would obscure radiation from the sun from reaching the earth leading to global cooling at the surface and warming in the upper atmosphere that would burn up the ozone layer. Temperatures on the surface would plummet to -25 degrees below zero plunging the earth into a mini ice age, and this would last for months, or perhaps, years. 

Crops and vegetation would die quickly followed by animals and humans. The dystopian future of Hollywood movies and doomsday novels would become reality.

Modern super computers and more accurate models which consider ocean currents, weather patterns and a host of other complex variables have more recently revealed the effects of a nuclear winter in more detail and allowed scientists to understand the impacts of smaller scale wars, such as between India and Pakistan. Both countries have around 50 nuclear weapons each but very large cities and populations. Modern building materials and consumer products found in cities are highly flammable and it is not well understood just how much smoke would be generated from city wide fires on this scale, however it is not hard to believe that only a few nuclear weapons detonated in large cities would have devastating consequences for the atmosphere, let alone the cities themselves.

The problem is the extreme temperatures of a nuclear blast will set fire to virtually everything, even asphalt. Once these fires start, they generate their own wind which acts to fan the flames and create more intense residual fires that will burn through what’s left of cities not destroyed by the initial pressure wave and heat. The smoke and soot produced by these fires is high in a black carbon which is very efficient at absorbing radiation. As the soot absorbs radiation from heat, it rises through the atmosphere. If it stopped at the tropopause, the layer between the moist troposphere and the dry stratosphere of the upper atmosphere, most of it would fall back to earth with rainfall. But it doesn’t, it keeps rising into the stratosphere where it would encircle the earth and stay for years.

Brian Toon, one of the original authors of the 1983 paper continues to study nuclear winter and is at pains to educate governments and policy makers on the threat even low levels of nuclear warfare would have on global climate and agriculture. In a recent episode of the Future of Life podcast he said the following:

“Right now, the United States has about 300 cities that have more than 100,000 people; Russia has about 200 cities with more than 100,000 people. We could destroy all of Russia’s moderate-sized towns and cities with around 200 nuclear weapons. If you think some of them might not work, okay, maybe we’d need 400 nuclear weapons, assuming half of them failed — although most people don’t think the failure rate would be anywhere near that big. And Russia could destroy the United States with 300 weapons. The number of weapons you need to destroy another country is not very large. You don’t even need that many weapons to cause a nuclear winter; we think you could probably do it with 100 weapons in large urban areas.”

Remember that the current nuclear arsenal is somewhere in the order of 12,000 weapons, at least 2,000 of which are on full alert ready to launch at any time. If countries as large as the United States and Russia could be virtually destroyed with a few hundred, then imagine how few would be needed for a smaller country? In the Second World War it became apparent to war planners that targeting industrial complexes was not enough, they needed to target cities and civilian populations. The atomic bomb was precisely the weapon needed for the job and while there are undoubtedly strategic targets of nuclear weapons, their primary function is to destroy cities. Let’s not kid ourselves, a nuclear weapon is not going to be used to destroy a power station or a communications relay, these are weapons with massive destructive power that can start fires which will burn a city to the ground. It’s not just about the initial blast, but what happens afterwards. In fact, the energy released by the burning of a city is far greater than released by the weapon itself, it is simply the method by which this catastrophic chain of events is triggered.

Turning to a hypothetical nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, scientists have calculated that average global temperatures would decline by around 1.5 degrees Celsius. Before you starting thinking that sounds like a good solution to climate change, remember that is an average. In some continents temperatures would drop far more. This would result in a decline in global food production of 20-40 percent in the first 5 years and 10 – 20 percent in the next 5. That from detonation over cities of just 1% of the global nuclear arsenal. 1%. Even if one country nuked their adversary and they did not respond, say the US launched its 400 weapons at Russia, and Russia did not retaliate, it would be a suicide bombing. The resulting climate catastrophe would lead to global starvation, including in the United States, there is no positive outcome for global humanity, regardless of the reasoning for the initial launch of the nuclear weapons. To begin a nuclear war, is suicide, and this is a critical point.

Nuclear winter may be relatively short lived, perhaps 10 to 15 years until the smoke dissipates enough for temperatures to increase again. But the loss of the ozone layer would mean far more radiation reaches earth with profound effects on life. In addition, the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere takes many, many hundreds of years to dissipate so winter would be followed by rapid warming and all of the impacts of it. When natural processes take centuries if not thousands of years to become established, having such extreme climate changes would cause unimaginable damage to our ability to grow crops and food to feed the global population. The entire global food production chain would collapse. Global stores of grain and rice would last for around 60 days, after that mass starvation would begin to kick in. Small scale events that have occurred in recent times following extreme winters, or droughts have led to starvation events in the Middle East and Africa and these often precipitate civil unrest and conflict. Scale that up to a global level, and it is not difficult to see how nuclear winter would affect even the most distant populations from the original nuclear blasts and for those that survived the nuclear attacks themselves, their immediate future would be a fight for food.

Back in the 1980’s it was estimated that following a nuclear exchange the global population would drop to a few hundred million people as that is all that could be sustained from local, small scale agriculture production. Consider our reliance on global trade today. If those logistic networks were to shut down, or at least slow immensely, nations would be hampered in a range of ways. There would be an inability to import fuel, medicines, textile products, food, raw materials and so on. A country like New Zealand, which seems safely isolated from the rest of the world, would be particularly affected as its food production would decline to the point of collapse and it relies on overseas imports for many of its basic needs as it lacks local manufacturing capabilities for many essential products. Consider everything from hypodermic needles to electric generators, fuel and even light bulbs. None of these things, and millions of other products required for a normal functioning society, are manufactured in New Zealand or kept in reserve in case of a global catastrophe. In a nuclear winter, global supply chains through shipping and air freight would slow as resources are diverted back to the country of origin or countries closer to it. New Zealand’s isolation would therefore be its downfall.

And we haven’t even considered economic markets which would collapse along with their conventional trade relationships.

As we come to the end of this episode I’ve painted a pretty dark picture of the potential consequences of nuclear weapons. Many will argue that the preventative mechanisms in place have meant that the many near misses and accidents that could have seen an accidental detonation or miscalculated launch of nuclear weapons are indeed effective and that modernisation of systems will surely make the chances of an accidental nuclear war even more remote. That may be a correct evaluation but let’s think about risk versus reward. If even a small scale nuclear war would be devastating for the planet and its inhabitants, then what plausible scenario is there to start one? Since the end of world war two, we’ve seen a nuclear posture of deterrence where the threat of nuclear war is enough to avoid it being a serious topic of conversation among nuclear armed nations. So what is the point? Nuclear arms programmes cost billions or even trillions of dollars to develop and maintain and now we see countries investing even more to update them. Rogue states like North Korea and Iran use the political argument that some countries have nuclear weapons as reason to arm themselves and there are any number of risks associated with the management of nuclear weapons, their launch systems, storage, detection and defence systems and handling of production, dismantling and disposal. Despite the risks, the relative safety and obscurity of nuclear weapons today is testament to the respect nations and their scientist, engineer and military specialist custodians have for them, but really, what purpose do they serve, what possible benefits do they provide humanity?

Science has brought us technologies which have made our lives better in so many ways, but this one has not. Just as that sword hung by a thread above Damocles head, nuclear weapons are suspended above every citizen of our precious planet and whether through accident or intention, we can never go back to the time before catastrophe when we had a choice to prevent our own demise.

The doomsday clock is ticking and as long as nuclear weapons exist it will continue.

Will it one day reach zero? What story will the future tell of us?

Banning nuclear weapons is a moral imperative for humanity and we must do it before our time runs out.

Show Notes

Kennedy’s 1961 UN Speech

Treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons

International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN)

How high is the risk of nuclear war between Russia and US?

Accidental nuclear war timeline

Nuclear Winter: Global consequences of multiple nuclear explosions

Nuclear winter may bring a decade of destruction

Rapidly expanding nuclear arsenals in Pakistan and India portend regional and global catastrophe

Nuclear Winter with Alan Robock and Brian Toon – FOL Podcast

US confirms INF treaty withdrawal

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