ACTION ALERT: Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Moving Forward and Reducing Risk
August 7, 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists
The United States and Russia both have more than 4,500 nuclear weapons, most much more destructive than those dropped on Japan. What's worse is that more than a thousand of these weapons remain on 'hair-trigger alert,' increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear missile launch or a deliberate launch in response to a false warning. It's time for the president to take our land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert.
Hiroshima & Nagasaki: Moving Forward and Reducing Risk Union of Concerned Scientists
(August 6, 2015) -- Seventy years ago today, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima -- followed by Nagasaki three days later -- with devastating consequences. While it might seem that nuclear weapons are no longer a serious concern, they continue to represent a real and urgent threat.
The United States and Russia both have more than 4,500 nuclear weapons, most much more destructive than those dropped on Japan. What's worse is that more than a thousand of these weapons remain on 'hair-trigger alert,' increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear missile launch or a deliberate launch in response to a false warning.
President Obama is clearly focused on making the world safer from nuclear weapons, as evidenced by the recent agreement with Iran. Now on this critical anniversary, as the world acknowledges the horrific consequences of these weapons, it's time for another critical step -- it's time for the president to take our land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert.
Tell Congress: Stop the Nuclear Absurdity
As we commemorate the seventieth anniversaries of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings, it is absurd that the United States and Russia maintain many hundreds of nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert, ready to be launched in a matter of minutes.
For this special issue commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the first and only times nuclear weapons have been used in conflict, we asked physicist David Wright, co-director of our Global Security Program, some questions about the fact that both the United States and Russia keep hundreds of long-range nuclear missiles on 'hair trigger' alert. That means both countries can launch those missiles within minutes, ostensibly to avoid losing them in the event of a surprise attack.
As a result, today an accidental or mistaken launch may be the most likely way a nuclear exchange would start. And, as Wright explains, there have been a number of technical glitches and human errors in both Russia and the United States over the last few decades that could have triggered a nuclear launch.
To avoid this dangerous situation in the future, Wright and his colleagues are calling on President Obama to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair trigger alert.
Q: The United States and Russia have put in place safeguards to guard against accidental launches. Won't those prevent a launch?
D.W.: There are a couple concerns. One is that as cyberattacks become more sophisticated hackers may be able to circumvent the safeguards and send a launch signal to the missile. This is a possibility that experts with a deep knowledge of US nuclear systems are currently discussing, so it's difficult to dismiss.
A second concern is that either mistaken or misinterpreted data from warning systems may lead people to incorrectly believe there is an attack. This can result from either a technical or human error. If the president believes an attack is actually happening and decides to launch a retaliatory strike, all of the safeguards that prevent an unintended launch will be overridden as a part of the normal launch process.
Q: How likely is it that US or Russian warning systems would give such incorrect data that the either country would think it is under attack?
D.W.: Unfortunately, this has already happened a number of times in both countries over the past few decades, in some cases leading the countries to initiate the retaliatory launch process. Fortunately, in all cases so far both countries realized in time that the attack was not real and avoided catastrophe. But we know that one of those cases, which took place in 1983, very nearly led to a launch.
Sunlight reflecting off clouds unexpectedly produced a flash of light that Soviet early warning radars, which checked out as working correctly, interpreted as a missile launch. Had the officer on duty who received the launch warning strictly followed protocol, the Soviets almost certainly would have launched a retaliatory strike.
In another case, the incident was due to an unexpected failure within the warning system itself. A worker at a US military center accidentally placed a practice tape in a computer, sending simulated data indicating a Soviet nuclear attack to US missile command centers.
The problem is that warning systems and their computer networks are very complex and can fail in unexpected ways that are difficult to understand and resolve quickly. Given the goal is to launch a retaliatory strike quickly, very little time is available. Taking ICBMs off hair trigger alert would take the pressure off making a quick decision that could have dire consequences.
Q: So what's the solution?
D.W.: The Obama administration should show some leadership and remove US land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert status, since they are most vulnerable to attack. That can be done simply by using a safety switch in US missile silos that keeps the missiles from launching.
President Obama can do that immediately and without congressional approval, and it would make the world a much safer place, regardless of what Russia and other nuclear states ultimately do. He doesn't have to wait, and he shouldn't. He needs to act.
David Wright is a nationally known expert on the technical aspects of missile defense systems, missile proliferation, and space weapons. In 2001, he was a co-recipient of the American Physical Society's Joseph A. Burton Forum Award for his arms control research and his work with international scientists. He received his doctorate degree in physics from Cornell University in 1983 and worked as a research physicist from 1983 to 1988. Russia Used Atomic Bomb to Stop Fire!
(December 1, 2013) -- In 1966, the former Soviet Union suffered blowouts on five natural gas (methane) wells and despite their best efforts, including hydraulic fracturing, were unable to quench the flames. The Soviets lowered a specially made 30 kiloton nuclear bomb into a 6 kilometres (20,000 ft) borehole. The nuclear explosion took 23 seconds to put out the fire.
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