By Ramin Skibba and Stephen Young
Following weeks of intense debate in the United States, the international agreement to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, supported by all California Senators and Bay Area Representatives, will go forward. It is an historic arrangement that demonstrates the world’s resolve to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. However, it will not solve all the nuclear threats that face the world.
With the Iran agreement now entering its implementation phase, it’s important to ask what other steps can be made to reduce the still considerable risks posed by nuclear weapons. The place to start is with countries already possessing nuclear weapons, pressing them to reduce the threat that their massive stockpiles still represent. Removing nuclear weapons from “hair-trigger alert” would be an important first step.
After World War II, a Cold War began between the United States and Soviet Union, involving a nuclear arms race that resulted in the development and stockpiling of tens of thousands of extremely destructive weapons. Yet while the Cold War ended long ago, 16,000 nuclear weapons remain on the planet, mostly in U.S. and Russian arsenals. The atomic bombs detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy years ago released more energy than 10,000 tons of TNT. Most nuclear weapons today are much more powerful than those used against Japan, which killed and injured hundreds of thousands of people.
The energy from a nuclear bomb originates from nuclear fission. As Dr. Skibba explained to his physics students, this is when a heavy unstable nucleus splits into lighter nuclei. A critical mass of highly enriched uranium will produce an uncontrolled chain reaction, leading to a massive explosion. Current weapons also utilize nuclear fusion reactions and are much more destructive. The physicists Lise Meitner and Hans Bethe discovered fission and fusion in the mid-20th century and notably campaigned against the nuclear arms race.
Today, despite rising tensions with Russia and President Vladimir Putin, the chance of an intentional nuclear conflict with either Russia or China is very small. Instead, the greater risk is their accidental, unintentional or unauthorized use. Brewing crises, misunderstandings or misleading data can lead to grave miscalculations with vast consequences.
In spite of this, the U.S. and Russia each have an estimated 900 intercontinental missiles ready to be launched in minutes. The policy of “hair-trigger alert,” a relic of the Cold War, means that launch crews maintain nuclear missiles in silos and submarines round-the-clock so they could be fired and airborne within minutes. This is unnecessarily dangerous. It significantly increases the chances of an accidental launch, or a deliberate one in response to erroneous or ambiguous warnings from early warning sensors, which have happened in the past.
Humans and governments now rely heavily on machines, computers and technologies that can and do fail at times. Many close calls have occurred involving nuclear weapons that fortunately did not lead to nuclear disaster, but the expanding threat of cyberweapons and the potential vulnerability of nuclear systems is becoming a growing concern for the Pentagon.
The consequences of detonating any nuclear weapons would be devastating for humans, the environment and the economy. Although people have different opinions about the utility of nuclear weapons, we should agree that every effort should be made to prevent an accidental nuclear war or exchange of missiles.
As Commander-in-Chief, President Barack Obama can independently end the hair-trigger alert policy. In fact, both he and George W. Bush pledged to do so during their campaigns for president, but neither took the final step. Now is the time to do so.
Carl Sagan once said, “Imagine a room awash in gasoline, and there are two implacable enemies in that room. One of them has 9,000 matches; the other has 7,000 matches…If it weren’t so tragic, it would be laughable. What is necessary is to reduce the matches and to clean up the gasoline.” Taking U.S. nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert—reducing the matches—is a reasonable first step the president could take that would make us all safer and would put pressure on Russia and other countries to follow suit.
Ramin Skibba is a San Diego-based science writer and physicist. Stephen Young is a senior analyst with the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.
[This is a longer version of an op-ed we published in the San Francisco Chronicle with the title, “President Obama, take nukes off hair-trigger alert,” on 16 October 2015. If you cite or quote this piece in any way, please give proper attribution to the newspaper. Thanks to Lois Kazakoff for editing assistance and thanks to Sean Meyer at the Union of Concerned Scientists for his help as well.]