13 July 2010
Life, the Universe and (Avoiding) the End of Everything
John Hallam
[email protected]
[email protected] 


So Just why the hell is the apocalypse STILL on the Agenda?

First, let's have a cheery look at the end of the world.

Just why is it still even worth talking about? What 'end of the World?' Didn't all that nightmare disappear for good at the end of the 1980's?

Nuclear weapons are still, and have been ever since their large-scale deployments in the 1960's, about the end of pretty much everyone and everything, or at least of all that we, as distinct from an anaerobic bacterium, might consider to be useful, interesting, and valuable.

The end not only of civilisation but  of humans, as well as many other complex  land - based living things, which in 1982 was  a shocking seemingly new  possibility when Schell wrote the classic 'Fate of the Earth', is - astonishingly, bizarrely; - still on the agenda, as the US and Russia continue to maintain thousands of warheads on alert status, as the 2010 NPR,(Nuclear Posture Review) acknowledging squarely that they remain on alert, declines to lower their level of operational readiness, (1) and as progress toward the elimination of these instruments of global omnicide remains glacial.

They are not literally about the 'end of the world' as after their use, the world - this planet that is - will still be here, and rotating on its axis, notwithstanding some Hollywood disaster movies and the end of the Mayan calendar next year - which may signify the end of an aeon or may signify nothing at all. Even the coronal mass ejections predicted for 2012 will at worst (hopefully anyway) destroy no more than all global telecommunications, the net, and perhaps the global financial system (with luck).

The same result could be achieved by half a dozen to a dozen megaton-sized nuclear weapons exploding in outer space: The electromagnetic pulse, just like a coronal mass ejection, would destroy both satellite-based communication systems and black out electrical systems (not only delicate electronics but right up to high-tension switchyards) on earth, taking us back to a pre-electrical age.

This is a great deal less than the end of everything and some might even find the change attractive. (Though I have become addicted to the net, and if we were to return to medieval conditions, would miss it.).

However the explosion of a dozen or so nuclear weapons in space would be almost certainly the mere opening salvo in a far more comprehensive apocalypse, which remains to this day squarely on the global agenda. The awareness of this apocalypse has disappeared since 1990, but the apocalypse itself remains, with an occasional timely report such as that of the ICNND to bring it once more to our attention until we turn to more important things such as the sex - lives of footballers.. ICNND notes that:

"The problem of nuclear weapons is at least equal to that of climate change in terms of gravity - and much more immediate in its potential impact"(2)

The replacement at least for a few centuries, of technological civilisation by pre-1850 conditions, while it would ruin lives and would be the end of SOME peoples world, still does not -quite - qualify for 'the end of the world', though it does qualify as much more than a minor apocalypse.

Jonathan Schell notes that Nuclear weapons have been associated with the 'end of the world' or at least with the 'apocalypse' in some form, for many decades.. Writing back in 1983, he says that:

"The widespread belief that a nuclear holocaust would in some sense bring about the end of the world has been reflected in the pronouncements of both American and Soviet leaders in the years since the invention of nuclear weapons�."(3)


"The destruction of human civilisation, even without the biological destruction of the human species, may perhaps rightly be called the end of the world, since it would be the end of that sum of cultural achievements and human relationships which constitutes what many people mean when they speak of 'the world'. The biological destruction of mankind would of course be the end of the world in a stricter sense" (4)

Schell goes on to say that:

"As for the destruction of all life on the planet, it would be not merely a human but a planetary end-the death of the earth" (5)

However, I am forced to say that my friend and colleague Steven Starr a number of years ago hauled me over the coals over talk about 'the end of life', in an e-mail which I reproduce only from has and my fallible memory, thus:

"John, don't talk about the end of all life. It is complex life forms at the top of the food chain which are at risk, including most humans and large animals.  Simpler forms of life will likely survive."

I stand corrected. I'm sure I remember (But my memory is fallible) Steve saying something about  'might be mostly anaerobic bacteria.', but maybe I misremembered. (6) (7)

It has long been recognised that the large-scale use of nuclear weapons (ie more than 1000 warheads of 200Kt-1Megaton size) for their default function of 'city - busting' would:

  1. Will kill between 1 and 3-4 billion people in 40-90 minutes;
  2. Will in 40-90mins -Convert most large cities, mostly but not exclusively in the Northern Hemisphere, into firestorms that would burn until nothing is left to burn.(from whence comes the above body - count); (8)
  3. Loft roughly 180 million tonnes of very black, sunlight-absorbing, soot into the stratosphere where it would seem likely to stay for a decade. A stable stratospheric smoke layer would form that would heat the upper atmosphere and block warming sunlight from reaching the earth.

The black soot will severely drop global temperatures both in northern and in tropical and subtropical regions, the extent of the effect being most marked in the north and gradually dropping in the southern hemisphere. Loss of warming sunlight at the surface of the earth would produce ice-age temperatures within a matter of days.. Minimum daily temperatures in the heartlands of North America and Eurasia would fall below freezing for one to three years. Growing seasons would be eliminated for a decade or longer. All food production would cease,  and most humans would perish from nuclear famine.  (9)(10)

In addition, massive destruction of the Ozone layer would take place even in the case of a regional (India-Pakistan) war involving 50-100 15-40Kt weapons. (11)

The best place to be is Antarctica or the South Sandwich Islands, the Falklands, Patagonia, or the South Island of NZ.

Toon and Robock of Rutgers University as well as my close friend and colleague Steven Starr have written extensively about this, with the latest computer simulations based on the most recent NASA climatic models, being done by Toon and Robock in 2006, showing that a possibly accidental use of 2000 warheads by the US and Russia would lead to global climatic effects that could last for decades.

These scientists have predicted that the detonation of 4000 x one hundred kiloton weapons would loft up to 180 million tonnes of smoke into the stratosphere, and that even a 'successful' nuclear first strike would be suicidal for the attacking nation because of the resulting environmental and climatic consequences.

This research has been published in peer-reviewed journals, but has attracted nowhere near the attention that it should have given the momentous, though hardly unprecedented, nature of the conclusions,  essentially a re-run and update of the old nuclear winter of the 1980s, which we now see got it dead right and even was a touch overoptimistic.  (12)  (13)

Toon and Robock summarise their more recent work on their website thus:

"Nuclear winter is a term that describes the climatic effects of nuclear war. In the 1980's, work conducted jointly by Western and Soviet scientists showed that for a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union the climatic consequences, and indirect effects of the collapse of society, would be so severe that the ensuing nuclear winter would produce famine for billions of people far from the target zones. This realisation led to the end of arms race and the end of the Cold War. Since that time, the number of nuclear weapons in the world has now decreased to 1/3 of the peak number of more than 70,000 in the 1980's, and is planned to be only 6% of that level by 2012.

There are several wrong impressions that people have about nuclear winter. One is that there was a flaw in the theory - that the large climatic effects were disproved. Another is that the problem, even if it existed, has been solved by the end of the nuclear arms race. But these are both wrong.

What's New.

Based on new work published in 2007 and 2008 by some of the pioneers of nuclear winter research, we now can say several new things about this topic.

  • Nuclear arsenals with 50 nuclear weapons, such as currently possessed by India and Pakistan and 6 other nations, threaten more fatalities than in previous wars to any nation attacked. With global delivery systems any such nation is as dangerous as any of the superpowers.
  • A nuclear war between any two countries using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, such as India and Pakistan, could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. This is less than 0.05% of the explosive power of the current global arsenal.
  • Nuclear arsenals with 50 nuclear weapons can produce a global pall of smoke leading to global ozone depletion. The smoke, once in the stratosphere, heats the air, which speeds up reactions that destroy ozone, and also lofts reactive chemicals by altering the winds.
  • A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today, or even after reductions planned for 2012 under the SORT treaty, could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet.
  • The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than we previously thought. New climate model simulations, which have the capability of including the entire atmosphere and oceans, show that the smoke would be lofted by solar heating to the upper stratosphere, where it would remain for years.
  • The spread of nuclear weapons to newly emerging states threatens not only the people of those countries, but the entire planet."(14)

Even a 'mini' nuclear war, say between India and Pakistan, involving a 'mere' 100-150 or so appx 15-40Kt weapons on each side, 0.3% of global nuclear arsenals, and 0.03% of megatonnage, would according to a recent article in Scientific American by Toon and Robock, and studies by Ira Helfand of IPPNW: (Who assume a total of only 100 15Kt weapons though I think that numbers are already likely to exceed these):

  • Cause the complete destruction of both India and Pakistan as functioning societies;
  • Bring about either 50 million,(according to Toon and Robock) or 150 million or  even up to 300 million,(according to a number of other estimates including both NRDC and US DoD using more pessimistic assumptions (and more than 50 weapons)) 'prompt' casualties (including my many Indian friends), depending exactly which horrible scenario you decide to model;
  • Cause global climate change capable of killing up to a further one billion people. (15) (16) (17) (18)

A major US-Russian nuclear exchange of the kind that would have resulted (but for heroic and quick-thinking military personnel such as Colonel Stan Petrov) somewhere between a dozen and half a dozen times (but this can only actually ever happen once - there are no second chances) - from miscalculation, computer error and/or blind panic - the ultimate 'bad-hair-day' as it were, at Stratcom, Cheyenne Mountain, Serpukhov-15 or Kosvinsky Mountain - would certainly terminate what we call civilisation, and would indeed  lead to questions as to our survival as a species. In addition, the abrupt drop in temperatures, (possibly to as low as zero at the equator), would destroy tropical ecosystems completely, together with 95% of all land-based living species, even at current New START warhead levels, in a similar manner to the impact of a largish asteroid.

(There is a figure in a 1985 report by the then Soviet Academy of Science   complete with cover illustration by Albrecht Durer of the 4 Horsepersons of the Apocalypse, which appears to show below - zero temperatures at the equator, 90 days after a large nuclear exchange) (19) (20) (21) (22)

To get a feel for this kind of event, see 'The Road' or 'The Testament of Eli', two somewhat realistic post - apocalypse movies, noting that what makes movies such as this interesting - the continued survival of at least some humans - is not to be taken as a given. But without humans there is of course,  no movie.

Schell notes in'The Fate of the Earth , that:
"Up to now, every risk has been contained within the frame of life: Extinction would shatter the frame. It represents not the defeat of some (particular) purpose, but an abyss in which all human purposes would be drowned for all time"  (23)

To put things in proper perspective there is the article in the October2008 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists whose title says it all, really: 'Minimising the risk of human extinction'. After noting that humans will anyway be lucky to survive beyond a million or so years, the article gives us a rather important 'to do' list to maximise our chances in the next century or so, which  apart from urging us to keep watching briefs on large incoming asteroids, experiments at LHC (Large Hadron Collider) that might possibly cause the entire solar system to disappear in a flash of gamma rays and exotic particles, on nanotech especially self-replicating 'grey goo', and on biotech, and of course to take action to mitigate and prevent climate change, places at the very top of that 'to do' list the lowering of the operational status of nuclear weapons systems (number one) and the elimination of nuclear weapons (number two). (24)

UN and NPT Alphabet Soup

Now I've done the really cheery bits, so now for the mind-glazing alphabet soup. But don't glaze over just yet: Attention to this may be what gets humans off the hook at least for the moment, and the efforts of governments and NGOs worldwide through the UN and the NPT frameworks to maximise the chances of human survival seem inevitably to spawn more and more arcane acronyms.  Yet success in this arena could not be for any more important goals.

We've just had a series of high - level meetings on nuclear weapons, and of these the most consequential surely, has been the NPT Review Conference of May 2010 at which this author attended for week two of its four weeks, holding a workshop on operating status of nuclear weapon systems on 13 May which was addressed by the NZ and Swiss Ambassadors, Commander Robert Green, Nancy Gallagher of University of Michigan, Steven Starr of PSR and myself

An NGO representative (I cannot for the life of me remember who,  so this will be forever unreferenced), asked by media during an important nuclear weapons negotiation at the UN, back in 1996 or thereabouts,  'how it felt to be making history' gave a classic 'Schellian' reply: 'I am not making history. I am making history possible'. (25) This quote, even if it were to prove apocryphal, (and I am not clever enough to have made it up), shows beautifully what is at stake. Working for specific goals is making history. Making history possible is what makes the pursuit of any and every goal possible. Unfortunately making history possible turns out to involve the ingestion of much alphabet soup at UN meetings and diplomatic receptions.

The stakes for which nuclear weapons are rightly objects of concern truly don't get any higher. While forgotten by the wider public since 1990,  this has not been forgotten by governments,  and receives regular,  if ritualistic, repetition at nuclear-weapons-related conferences. While attending this years NPT Review Conference, at one point in the proceedings more or less at random I realised that in the space of about 15 minutes I'd heard three Governments say  that in one way or another,  the fate of humans depended on the elimination of nuclear weapons or that they are the number one short term threat to civilisation and survival. Such statements have become routine.(26)

The final declaration of the NPT 2010 Review Conference registers its concern - that is, the concern of every government in the world with the exceptions of India, Israel, Pakistan and the DPRK - thus:
"80. The Conference, while welcoming achievements in bilateral and unilateral reductions by some nuclear-weapon States, notes with concern that the total estimated number of nuclear weapons deployed and stockpiled still amounts to several thousands. The Conference expresses its deep concern at the continued risk for humanity represented by the possibility that these weapons could be used and the catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from the use of nuclear weapons."(27)

The NPT Final Declaration was in the words of George Perkovitch, and Deepti Choubey, 'An incremental success'. Some commentators including early comments by ICAN were much more critical, and I confess I joined in that early criticism. I don't think this was entirely warranted (28) (29)  (Especially I don't think that it is true that the 2010 NPT Revcon final dec does not advance at all from the year 2000 final dec and is merely 'treading water'. This really is not fair.)).

I note that in fact my 'Slightly Heretical' evaluation of the NPT Revcon seems not to be far out of line of the bulk of comment made once the diplomatic dust had as it were, settled.  I am tempted to re-christen it 'Not even slightly Heretical', or 'Not very Heretical at all'.(30)

I would point to:

  • The Language already quoted on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons use, that goes far toward de-legitimising the possession of nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons states tried hard to remove this but failed.
  • more detailed language on operational status/operational readiness, albeit watered down (Partly at the behest of Russia) from earlier drafts.
  • Two clear mentions of a nuclear weapons convention both on its own, and as an 'interlocking framework of agreements', and as part of the Ban Ci moon five - point plan.
  • A clearer, more unambiguous commitment to going to global nuclear zero.

These are all significant advances on the Year 2000 final declaration and the 13 points.

Rebecca Johnson evaluates the NPT Review conference thus:

"That any substantive agreements were adopted at all is no small victory. The last successful review conference was in 2000. Taking place two years after the nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan shocked the nonproliferation regime, the 2000 NPT Review Conference agreed on a final document that contained a 13-paragraph program of action on nuclear disarmament-the result of tough negotiations between the permanent five (P-5) nuclear weapon states and the New Agenda Coalition (NAC), which included Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden. Five years later, in an adversarial political environment compounded by the Bush administration's rejection of previous U.S. commitments, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the "13 Steps" agreed by NPT governments in 2000, the 2005 NPT Review Conference was an abject failure, with no agreements on implementing the treaty more effectively.

Much was therefore riding on the 2010 NPT Review Conference.

Almost all of the 190 NPT parties wanted this conference to be a success, but the debates demonstrated deep differences in their views about what is required to prevent the spread and use of nuclear weapons and carry forward an effective nonproliferation regime for the future." (31)

My own assessment of the 2010 NPT Review conference,  based on having attended one week of its four weeks as well as previous such conferences was that:
"The final declaration is   not a backward step, not a regression, but a modest (some will say a too modest) step in a vaguely positive direction. As the Nigerian Ambassador said to me:

'It's half a loaf of bread. We'd prefer the full loaf but its not starvation'.(pers comm)"(32) (33)


"Many commentators have been highly critical of the adequacy of the document that was finally adopted. Those who criticise it most strongly from the disarmament side should perhaps, see what is being said about it from the side of the neocons. One gains a slightly different perspective by seeing how it is regarded (very unfavourably) by the Heritage Foundation and by Dr Chris Ford, former Bush administration disarmament ambassador, who both damn it as somehow hazardous to US security interests and who excoriate its mention of a nuclear weapons convention. Both also critique its 'unbalanced' 'overemphasis' on disarmament as against nonproliferation. One could make the perverse case that if the right finds so much wrong with it there must be something right with it!"

and further:

"unobservant people such as myself who may at times miss the subtler nuances,  might conclude that it does indeed support in some less definite way, both a nuclear weapons convention and the five-point plan. If an  unsubtle observer such as myself can conclude that after five or six readings of the final dec, it does indeed give the strong impression that it looks kindly on a nuclear weapons convention and the five point plan, what are we to assume of foreign ministers who may not have time to read it at all, or advisers who skim it?"

To be sure, many of the action points of the original action plan emanating from subsidiary body-1 and from MC-1 have been in various ways toned down, made 'aspirational' or in some cases deleted or gutted. Often points for concrete action are changed to 'discuss'. Sentences that ask for action to be taken are even rewritten to make it seem at first glance as if the action has already been taken and is being welcomed. (34) (35)

So....After the modest progress of the NPT Review Conference are we teetering on the brink of a terrible abyss, or sensibly pulling back from it? Who is closest to the crumbling edge? It would seem that the revcon may have gone some way to pull us back.

Unfortunately, here we come across the 'activists dilemma' which I believe bedevils n the nuclear weapons issue in particular.

It is this:

As long as it looks as if the world really truly might end next Thursday or maybe at best the week after, hundreds of thousands of people will take time out of their lives to march, write letters, lobby, and speak.

Once we step back just a millimetre from the brink, we stop marching, and nukes are replaced as a 'hot' item by a twin apocalypse, climate change.

Modest success becomes our enemy and demobilises us.

At the same time however, if we do NOT experience success we also become demoralised and conclude that nothing works, and that we may as well either jump off the harbour bridge or eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we (may or may not) die.

Short term desire for a strong or growing nuclear disarmament movement would bid me say that we are as much on the brink as ever.  In the long term,  that too would not work.

The reality is that while there has been some modest progress and recent developments are cautiously positive, our successes are hard-won and fragile, and much,  much,  more remains to be done which if not done,  may lead us to slide back toward the brink.

So I do NOT want to say 'Now you can relax'. Nuclear disarmament is an unfinished task, and the apocalypse is STILL on the agenda. Nor do I wish to say that nothing works or that we have not experienced any successes - we have, and those successes are perhaps the very reason we are still here, and must be acknowledged and celebrated.

There are currently still some 23,000 nuclear warheads, tactical and strategic, in the world, of which 95% are still in the hands of Russia and the US. This is significantly less than the once insane figure of around 75,000 warheads some 30 years ago. But it is still a lot more than are needed to bring about the 'end of the world' in an all too meaningful way. 

It is well to note that as of now, Iran still currently has no warheads (and says it has no intention to obtain them), the DPRK possibly has ten and as it has supplied the Pakistani delivery system, (The Ghauri missile is simply a Nodong)  I have difficulty believing that it has no delivery system itself.  Pakistan has somewhere between 60 and 100,  and India roughly the same (with the edge in delivery systems and warheads now belonging to Pakistan and estimates of 60-80 warheads probably now too low), Israel has somewhere between 100 and 300 warheads,  China somewhere between 150 and 300 warheads seemingly closer to the lower figure, France has around 300 warheads trending downwards toward 250, and the UK around 150 warheads these days, entirely in submarines, and (as in the case of France also), with the 'notice to fire' altered in 1998 from 'minutes' to 'days'. (36)

Of the 22,000 US and Russian warheads, there is a considerable 'bounce' in the numbers, resulting from the question of 'when is a warhead no longer a warhead?' When it is moved from the 'operational' category to the 'non-operational' category (it can be moved back in days or even hours)? When it is removed from its delivery system (but gravity bombs are routinely kept not attached to aircraft) ? When it is in some way 'de-activated' (but a few turns of a screwdriver could activate it once more)? or when it is decisively made permanently non-operational (a good way is to fill it with molasses, it seems).

Of those 22,000 US and Russian warheads, a relatively small fraction (5-8,000) are in the 'operational' category, with all the vagueness and caveats that implies.

Some approx 2000 warheads each can be said to be on high alert, able to be fired in minutes.(37)

Russia has something of a preponderance in total warhead numbers, though the number on alert on each side is near to the same. However, Russian command and control systems, though 'harder' than US ones, are generally in worse shape, and Russia still relies on cold - war era SS-18 and 19 missiles (still entirely capable of lobbing a megaton - sized warhead on Sydney), which it is only slowly replacing with the state of the art Topol-M missile, while replacing its SLBMs with the Bulava missile with which it has had trouble. (though the most recent Bulava test seems to have been successful). Russia is also home to the cheerily-named 'Perimeter', or 'Dead-Hand' 'doomsday machine', a system that, when activated, essentially monitors the communications of its own general staff or National Command Authority,  and if that communication system goes dead is supposed to launch everything, via a couple of communication missiles that trail long aerials.

Presumably there is a human someplace in the loop who can pick up a phone to General Staff and verify if they have in fact been vaporised or are merely having a coffee - break. And it does seem to be the case.

According to Steve Starr's paraphrase of Colonel Valery Yarynich, who helped to design Perimiter, there do seem to be some considerable  further precautions..(38)

According to Yarynich, Perimiter is designed to launch all Russian nuclear forces which survive a nuclear attack.. Perimiter is designed  to be triggered  after several conditions  are met in a short, well-defined,  period. First, a pre-authorisation order is given from the Russian National Command Authority when/as a nuclear attack is detected or suspected to be taking place, or about to take place.  Second, complete  loss of communication with the National Command Authority occurs over many redundant channels of communication, including land lines, satellite, and radio communications; Third, nuclear detonation detection systems confirm that a nuclear attack has occurred.  At this point, a number of communication rockets are launched which will relay a direct launch order to all surviving Russian nuclear forces, which will then launch the weapons without further human involvement. (39)

We noted that the US and Russia maintain approximately 2000 warheads each on high alert, essentially the land-based ICBM component of their missile forces. The operational procedures that would call for a launch in two minutes of those ICBMs involve lightning- fast - (unrealistically so) - decision-making by senior officials and presidents, who have as little as 8 minutes (or less) to make apocalyptic decisions after a 30 second briefing by the chief of STRATCOM. The recent Nuclear Posture Review, while (alas!) not proposing any relaxation in nuclear weapons operating posture (in spite of calls to do so from almost  the entire planet in UNGA,(141-3) the ICNND, the Blix Report and the Canberra Commission), DID concede that a 30 second briefing followed by eight minutes max to decide the fate of the world was not really satisfactory, and admitted the need for greater presidential decision-making time. And that is kind of progress. But the only way to do that is, admitting it or not, to lower operational readiness, even if by another name.

Thus according to the 2010 NPR:
"Maximising decision time for the President can further strengthen strategic stability at lower  force levels. Thus, the NPR considered changes to existing nuclear policies and postures that directly affect potential crisis stability, including alert postures and the Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) system."(40)

and: (A bit more hopefully):
".... the NPR-initiated studies that may lead to future reductions in alert posture. For example, in an initial study of possible follow-on systems to the Minuteman III ICBM force, the Department of Defence will explore whether new modes of basing may ensure the survivability of this leg of the Triad while eliminating or reducing incentives for prompt launch."(emphasis mine)(41)

The NPR also ended the huffing and puffing over whether or not the US DOES have its ICBMs on high alert, stating that:
"'The NPR examined possible adjustments to the current alert posture of U.S. strategic forces.  Today, U.S. nuclear-capable heavy bombers are off full-time alert, nearly all ICBMs remain on alert, and a significant number of SSBNs are at sea at any given time. The NPR concluded that this posture should be maintained.' (42)  (43) 

This is particularly significant in view of the outright denials that have come from some quarters over the actual status of US ICBM forces.

Lowering operational readiness has indeed been pushed for by a range of high - level commissions into nuclear weapons and WMD, most recently by the Blix Commission (recommendation 17) and by the ICNND who note that :"The Prospect that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could be triggered by a false alarm is fearful and not fanciful"

The ICNND gives a great deal of attention to the issue of operating status of nuclear weapon systems, noting that:
"..... the U.S. and Russia each have over 2,000 weapons on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched immediately - within a decision window of just 4-8 minutes for each president - in the event of perceived attack. The command and control systems of the Cold War years were repeatedly strained by mistakes and false alarms. With more nuclear-armed states now, and more system vulnerabilities, the near miracle of no nuclear exchange cannot continue in perpetuity." (45)

"-Force Deployment and Alert Status. Changes should be made as soon as possible to ensure that, while remaining demonstrably survivable to a disarming first strike, nuclear forces are not instantly useable. Stability should be maximised by deployments and launch alert status being transparent. (46)

-The decision-making fuse for the launch of any nuclear weapons must be lengthened, and weapons taken off launch-on-warning alert as soon as possible.(47) "

The ICNND continues:
"most extraordinarily of all, over 2000 of the US and Russian weapons remain on dangerously high alert, ready to be launched on warning in the event of a perceived attack, within a decision window for each country's President, of four to eight minutes. [in some situations, zero minutes - jh] We know that there were many occasions when the very sophisticated command and control systems of the cold war years were strained by mistakes and false alarms. We know how destructive cyber attacks on defence systems could be with today's sophisticated technology- and can guess how much more so such attacks might be in the future.  It is hard to believe that the luck of the cold war - the near miracle of no nuclear exchange - can continue in perpetuity.'   (48)

and still more seriously and in detail:
'2.39 - Strategists and operation planners usually make a distinction between short-notice alert and launch-on-warning(LOW) or Launch under attack (LUA) policy, (also popularly if inaccurately described as 'hair-trigger-alert'.) The former relates to all combat-ready weapons, that MAY be launched quickly (in a few minutes) after receiving the order, primarily ICBM,  and SLBMs at sea.(as per the NPR - JH)

The latter is associated with weapons that MUST be launched quickly upon receiving information about an opponent's attack in order to avoid destruction on the ground. With ICBM flight time being about 30 minutes and SLBM fifteen to twenty minutes, LOW provides political leaders with decision - making time of only four to eight minutes (after deducting time for missile attack detection and confirmation, and the time for the response launch sequence and fly-away.) And this time would be available only if the leaders are safe and ready, and everything works perfectly according to planned procedures. Russian strategic doctrine relies on LOW; the US, while not relying on it, maintains the policy. It places a premium on the quality of warning systems, which have not always been reliable in the past. Former defence secretary William Perry, a member of this commission, directly recalls three  major such experiences, one of them involving NORAD computers indicating that 200 ICBMs were on their way from the USSR to the US. The prospect that a catastrophic nuclear exchange could be triggered by a false alarm is fearful and not fanciful. (emphasis mine-JH)

The ICNND's stand on operational readiness of nuclear weapons systems owes much to efforts by Steven Starr and myself, who emailed and faxed masses of material to them, and to Professor Peter King, without whose efforts and internal contacts we'd still have gotten nowhere.  However all this would have been for nothing if we didn't have a strong case, and if people within the Commission had not been convinced by it. The attention the ICNND pays to this truly apocalyptic issue (and the independent investigation they clearly did) finally underlines just how important this issue really is.

Peter's own summary takes us right back to the language of the NPR:
"Together with checking further weapon proliferation, a life and death imperative of the nuclear age is to ensure that the ability to withhold nuclear use under and after nuclear attack is always available to les grandes responsables (both civilian and military) in the nuclear fraternity. We know, however, that les grands deux of the Cold and Post Cold War periods are not only over-armed, over-alert and doctrinally primed to fling thousands of megatons at each other on almost a moment's notice, but have entrenched routines of nuclear command and control virtually designed to deny a serious withholding option to civilian leaders. In its obsession with deterrence and a supposedly "delicate" (!) balance of terror mainstream strategic analysis has helped legitimate a hair-trigger strategic posture. If so-called "existential deterrence"-fear of losing one or a few big cities-is largely responsible for keeping the nuclear peace, such as it is, the first priority for strategic theorists and policy makers must be to ensure a usable nuclear withholding option and explore in serious depth the case for exercising it. (49)

Peter emailed Gareth Evans as follows:
"If the dire threat of needless Armageddon and nuclear winter and the implausible foundations of nuclear deterrence theory were better understood the way would be open to a consensual move towards a much tougher anti-proliferation regime and drastic reduction and de-alerting of super and ex-super power arsenals."(50)

Lowering operating status/operational readiness has been the subject of 4 resolutions on a regular basis in the General Assembly, including in 2007 and 2008, the Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapons Systems resolution that came as a result of lobbying by this author and others and is sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Switzerland. I understand it will again be submitted in 2010, (Personal conversations with Swiss, Chilean and NZ Ambassadors) having been suspended in 2009 in order to facilitate a favourable outcome by the NPR. When adopted in 2008 it was adopted by 141-3.(with Australia voting yes)  The other resolutions that refer to Operating Status are the Reducing Nuclear Dangers resolution sponsored by India, Renewed Determination sponsored by Japan and Australia, and the NAM resolution.(51)

The other truly consequential recent nuclear-weapons-related event was of course, the signature (with ratification now mired in the US Congress and utterly insane and unfactual comments being made by some republicans) - of the New START Treaty between the US and Russia (who held a very good briefing about it at the NPT Review Conference which I attended).

New START and its voluminous annexes are soporific reading.

Neither New START nor the 2010 NPT Review Conference's final declaration could be said to be exactly radical. Both are however in my view modest (if rather too modest) moves in more or less the right direction. Both have been greeted with poisonous venom by the US hard right, who seem unfortunately to set the terms of the debate especially in the US Congress who have to ratify New START. This very venom should suggest to those of a more rational mindset that perhaps the NPT Review final dec and New START have some merit even if they do not go as far as we'd like!

Yet all that New START really does, is to lower US and Russian land-based ICBM, Bomber, and SLBM  warhead numbers from around 2000 to 1500 (Tactical nukes are not counted, and the limits apply to operational warheads only). There is a curious counting rule whereby bombers are counted as only one warhead, in spite of the fact that a bomber can take up to 24 warheads, though bombers are not normally loaded with nuclear warheads. Still, by attributing warheads to bombers, real warhead numbers could considerably exceed 1500.(52)

New START says nothing at all about the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems in spite of considerable lobbying on that subject by myself and others.  The best we get in terms of real strategic stability and confidence building is a promise by Obama and Medvedev on the margins of the treaty negotiations,  to consider again the setting up of the Joint Data Exchange Centre, (JDEC)  where US officers are to look at Russian radar screens and Russian officers are to look at US radar screens (at least, this was the original understanding), thereby making less likely,  miscalculations that could prove terminal.

The white-house press - release reads as follows:

"�.The United States of America and the Russian Federation intend to continue cooperation to establish a mechanism to exchange data on launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles obtained from their national early warning systems. The ultimate goal of such cooperation would be the creation of an international system to monitor, and exchange data on, the launches of ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles. U.S. and Russian experts will meet soon to begin this process. "(53)

This has now been agreed to four times by both governments: we will see whether or not it will ever be a reality, and believe it when we see it.

One might say that both the NPT final dec and the NPR and New START do constitute modest - too modest - progress, progress that is heavily qualified and that needs to continue, but nonetheless, progress of some sort toward a world in which, hopefully, the apocalypse CAN be taken off the agenda.

But right now it is still ON the agenda. It is, still, literally a menu item on Presidential nuclear briefcases. As long as the Presidents of the US and Russia are followed by men in dark glasses  (in the US a military officer or CIA agent - in Russia, a KGB colonel no less, in a black cape) with industrial strength pieces of baggage with protruding aerials (who must always be in the same or an immediately adjacent room), and as long as plans for the 'apocalypse' are refined and practiced for by military, the apocalypse will indeed remain on the menus of those briefcases. It is we who put it there. 
Whatever the path may be up the not-very-hard-to-climb 'mountain' of global nuclear zero, we have to actually walk it. And to walk and keep walking, in an upward direction is more important than to debate forever which is the 'right' path.  The NPT final dec, the NPR, New START and the ICNND are all helpful or potentially so. Their promise must be fulfilled.

Otherwise, even if it is not literally the 'end of the world' (which will after all still be there), it might just, if someone has enough of  a bad day, be the end of everything humans find to be important including possibly ourselves.

To recycle Schell in the Fate of the Earth:
"�.if these effects should lead to human extinction, then all the complexity will give way to the utmost simplicity - the simplicity of nothingness. We-The human race - will have ceased to be" (54)

And those are quite high enough stakes.

(1) 2010 US NPR p25
(2) ICNND ,Synopsis, xvii
(3) Schell, The Fate of the Earth, Picador, 1982 p6
(4) Schell Op Cit, p6-7
(5) Schell Op Cit p7
(6) Steve Starr, Pers. Comm. From memory
(7)  For Steve's work on nuclear winter and high-alert nuclear weapons systems see www.nucleardarkness.org ]
(8) For extensive discussion of this see Sagan and Turco, 'A Path Where No Man Thought - Nuclear Winter and the End of the Arms Race' Random House 1990 -esp the opening illustration of a burning city]
(9)  See Starr, www.nucleardarkness.org
(10) Steve Starr, Pers. Comm (editorial comment)
(11) Steve Starr, Pers. Comm (editorial comment)
(12) Alan Robock, Luke Oman, George L. Stenchikov, 'Nuclear Winter Revisited' 2008
(13) Alan Robock, Luke Oman, and Georgiy L. Stenchikov, 'Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences', Journal of Geophysical Research - Atmospheres, Vol. 112, No. D13, 2007
(14) Toon and Robock, Rutgers Univ summary of work 2008 http://climate.envsci.rutgers.edu/nuclear
(15) Ira Helfand, 'An Assessment of the Extent of Projected Global Famine Resulting from Limited Regional Nuclear War', Royal Society of Medicine2007, IPPNW/PSR
(16) Toon and Robock, 'Local Nuclear War Global Suffering' Scientific American, Jan 2010
(17) Toon and Robock 'Climatic Consequences of Regional Nuclear Conflicts', Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics Discussion, 2006
(18) 'The Consequences of Nuclear Conflict between India and Pakistan', Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC),
(19) 'The Night After, 1985, Mir Publishers, Fig 16 on p70,
(20) See also Starr, 'Catastrophic Consequences of Nuclear Conflict,' INESAP April 2008,
(21) Starr, Deadly Climate Change From Nuclear War: A threat to human existence',
(22) Toon and Robock, 'Climatic Effects of Nuclear Conflict (Rutgers),
(23) Schell, Fate of the Earth, p95
(24) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 'Minimising the Risk of Human Extinction' Oct2008
(25) I first saw this brilliant comment in an email from a UN negotiation on the Abolition2000 list back in 1996, when the CTBT was being negotiated. I cannot remember who actually said it.
(26) See the Reaching Critical Will website (www.reachingcriticalwill.org) for all statements made by governments during the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Statements saying that either civilisation or human survival are threatened in some immediate sense by nuclear weapons are common especially amongst members of the NAM group, and are made regularly by a number of governments. The arcane goings on at UN conferences are regularly ignored by media, especially when they involve such unimportant matters as the continuance of civilisation and the species..
(27) NPT/CONF.2010/50 (Vol. I) Final Document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference, p18  The nuclear weapons states tried hard to remove this language from the NPT final declaration. It is surely of considerable significance that it is still there (ie that they failed). A massive diplomatic effort by, amongst many other governments, the Swiss, is partly responsible. Dr Schoenberger of the Swiss delegation deserves full credit for this.
(28) See my A Slightly Heretical Report On the NPT Review Conference'- on PND's website - www.pndnsw.org.au
(29) See also comment by ICAN and ACF on their websites and by PND on www.pndnsw.org
(30) There is not a huge amount of daylight after all between reports on the NPT Revcon put together by myself, Deepti Choubey, Perkovitch, Rebecca Johnston, and Susi Snyder. There was much disappointment I think, once the final dec hit the deck, because so many of the early drafts had benchmarks, timings, etc - all of which disappeared from the final version. And it is unfortunate that much of the final version is a hymn of praise to nuclear POWER, a fact which badly marrs an otherwise very useful document.
(31) Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/Aug2010,  Rebecca Johnson Assessing the 2010 NPT Review Conference, p18
(32) Pers Comm - email from Ambassador Lawrence Olufemi Obisakin after the 2010 NPT Review Conference.
(33) Quoted in 'John Hallam - A Slightly Heretical Report on the 2010 NPT Review Conference'.
(34) See my 'A Slightly Heretical Report on the  May2010 NPT Review Conference, available on www.pndnsw.org.au, where I discuss many aspects of the revcon
(35) See also ReachingCriticalWill website for complete documentation of the revcon, and the Acronym website blog, as well as the UN website for the final declaration.
(36) FAS, NRDC, and SIPRI all provide estimates/guesstimates of warhead numbers.. My feeling is that most guesstimates of Indian and Pakistani warhead numbers are too low, and that the numbers are closer to 100 than to 60, with Pakistan slightly ahead of India in warhead numbers and delivery systems .
(37) See estimates by Steve Starr (www.nucleardarkenss.org) and by Dr Bruce Blair.
(38) Steve Starr email pers. Comm.
(39) SEE C3: Nuclear Command, Control Cooperation by Valery E. Yarynich, Center for Defense Information
( http://www.cdi.org/index.cfm)1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20036-2109, June 2003

(40) 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review Report p25
(41) 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review Report p26
(42) 2010 US Nuclear Posture Review Report p25
(43) See also my 'Taking The Apocalypse off The Agenda - ICNND and NPR - Paper for May 2010 NPT Review Conference, May 2010
(44) ICNND p27
(45) ICNND Section 2 p26-29
(46) ICNND 7.12-15; 17.40-50
(47) ICNND17.43
(48) ICNND 1.4 p3
(49) Peter King, CPACS Working Paper No 9/1 p1
(50) Peter King, Op Cit p22
(51) (See Reaching Critical Will website for texts and voting records for all UNGA resolutions on nuclear disarmament)
(52) See text of New START Treaty and annexes, on US State Dept website
(53) White House Press Release 24 June 2010
(54) Schell, Op Cit p96

Global Network