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We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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For those titillated by Strangelovian fantasies of nuclear apocalypse, the early 1980s were a golden age. That was the height of the Cold War, when nuclear arms and rhetoric escalated, and President Ronald Reagan envisioned a space-based anti-missile “shield”—promptly dubbed “Star Wars” by skeptics—that could thwart attacks by the “Evil Empire,” also known as the Soviet Union.

H-bomb detonated in 1954 "Castle Bravo" test had a yield roughly 1,000 times greater than "Little Boy," the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

In 1983, I wrote my masters thesis on the nuclear freeze movement, which sought (in vain) to halt the arms race. After graduation I reported for IEEE Spectrum and then Scientific American on nuclear weapons, which also provoked widespread coverage in mainstream media. Everyone, it seemed, was “thinking about the unthinkable,” as the security scholar Herman Kahn famously described nuclear war.

How different from today. Other than sporadic updates on the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran, the media seldom report on nuclear weapons, certainly not in comparison to the 1980s. From one perspective, the diminished coverage makes sense, since the Cold War is over, and the U.S. and Russia have slashed their stockpiles by more than two thirds. No wonder, then, that today many of us—and especially young people, assuming my students at Stevens Institute of Technology are typical—do not think or know much about nuclear weapons.

But that must change. After all, there are still more than 17,000 nuclear weapons out there possessed by nine nations, according to a recent survey in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The survey’s authors note, moreover, that “all the nations with nuclear weapons continue to modernize or upgrade their nuclear arsenals.” Factoring in the possibility of accidents and nuclear terrorism, the threat of nuclear catastrophe remains all too real.

So the time was right for Stevens to host last week’s “Workshop on Nuclear Issues Education,” where experts swapped ideas about how to inform students and others about nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. The organizers were my Stevens colleagues Edward Friedman, a physicist, and Julie Pullen, a maritime security expert; and Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, whom I recently profiled. Carnegie Corporation of New York provided funding.

Friedman opened the workshop by quoting security scholar Paul Bracken, who recently warned that “the quality of thinking about nuclear weapons has reached a dangerously low level.” Ferguson outlined plans of the Federation of American Scientists to create a nuclear-information website similar to its “Virtual Biosecurity Center,” which informs the public about biological threats. A “Nuclear Education Center,” Ferguson said, could provide information for teachers as well as journalists, government officials and others.

Frank Settle, a professor of chemistry at Washington and Lee University, gave a tour of  “ALSOS,” a digital library that “provides a vetted, annotated bibliography of over 3,000 books, articles, films, CDs, and websites about a broad range of nuclear issues.” Bethany Goldblum, a nuclear engineer at the University of California at Berkeley, talked about the Nuclear Policy Working Group, which brings together scholars from diverse fields to brainstorm about nuclear threats.

Historian Scott Knowles of Drexel University and physicist Cameron Reed of Alma College described how they teach students about the Manhattan Project and other crucial turning points in nuclear history. Both professors make students debate controversies such as the U.S. decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki–an idea I’m going to try out in my history of science and technology class.

I’ll also tell my students to check out NUKEMAP, an invention of historian Alex Wellerstein of the American Institute of Physics, another speaker at last week’s workshop. NUKEMAP lets you virtually bomb any region in the world. Just pick a spot on a map, select the size and elevation of the nuclear blast (airburst versus ground burst), and click “DETONATE.” The site shows the range of blast effects, from the fireball, within which all living things are instantly incinerated, to the cloud of radioactive fallout, the direction and reach of which depend on prevailing winds. The site also estimates casualties.

I asked the site to display the effects on New York City of a W-88, a 455-kiloton U.S. warhead deployed on submarine-based Trident missiles. NUKEMAP estimated that a W-88 airburst would cause 1,565,570 fatalities and 2,403,000 injuries. The W-88 yield is roughly one tenth that of the Dong Feng-5 warhead that China deploys on its missiles; one thirtieth that of “Castle Bravo,” the biggest U.S. test ever [see photo]; and one hundredth that of Tsar Bomba, the highest-yield Russian test.

Wellerstein (who also writes a terrific blog on “nuclear secrecy, past and present“) said some of his site’s visitors—who have virtually denotated almost 24 million bombs so far—describe it as “fun.” And it is fun, until you remember that nuclear bombs aren’t virtual. They’re not a video-game fantasy. They’re all too real.

I hope the nuclear-education project of Friedman, Pullen and Ferguson succeeds. We need to start thinking about the unthinkable again—and about how to eradicate nuclear weapons once and for all.

Photo of Castle Bravo test from “Restricted Data,”

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. sault 11:24 am 11/18/2013

    Continuing to have thousands of nuclear weapons all over the world is a huge leap of faith that future generations will be smart and wise enough to control them without any major mishaps. This decision also locks our civilization into the costs of “babysitting” these weapons in perpetuity all while greatly complicating international relations (see Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example).

    While these weapons DID prevent or minimize the impact of several armed conflicts around the globe in the past, this is not a guaranteed outcome in the future. Getting rid of them carries its own set of complications as well, but keeping them around requires a level of vigilance that only increases as more countries join the “club”.

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  2. 2. rkipling 11:41 am 11/18/2013

    Verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons is a virtual impossibility. There is no need to elaborate on all the reasons why. The focus should be on keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of those who would actually use them.

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  3. 3. tuned 11:49 am 11/18/2013

    Oh, the conundrum once invented.
    Without nukes the U.S., or even NATO, has no hope of stopping China (or a India possibly) from conquest when their resources get bad enough.
    They outnumber us at least 4 or 5 to one, heavy on the male side.
    They have nukes, and probably neutron bomb weapons. Treaties are not closely adhered to when it comes to ultimate survival. Neutron bombs are designed as weapons of conquest, far less contamination.
    “No nukes” a nice dream, it is always a fall back for a popularity nudge.
    However, if it ever comes to that I would rather my descendants don’t have to speak a foreign language by force. I believe in being harmless as you can, but not allowing it to happen to yourself either.
    I’m OK with my kids having more than a rock, a cross, or even TNT to throw back if they absolutely must.
    They good and responsible enough.
    “Trust but verify”, eh Brutus?

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  4. 4. rshoff2 12:32 pm 11/18/2013

    unfortunately, rkipling is absolutely correct.

    As far as post cold war generations, I don’t think they are only naive about the potential for nuclear disaster, but they have become dissociated to war altogether, and ignorant about government and governance. Perhaps if the military draft returned, they would feel more vulnerable and pay more attention and feel more engaged in the world. I think the cold war has simply moved to the Middle East.

    Back to John, why do wars happen? Must they happen? And why do we have to always believe theres a bad guy? Is it in our individual make-up or is it part of a self-perpetuated cultural attitude?

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  5. 5. rshoff2 12:32 pm 11/18/2013

    …’not’ only naive….

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  6. 6. curiouswavefunction 1:23 pm 11/18/2013

    A valuable contribution to the conversation about nuclear weapons is Eric Schlosser’s recent book “Command and Control”. Schlosser documents a series of accidents in the nuclear weapons complex that drives home how fragile the arsenal is. Getting rid of these weapons is not about deterrence anymore (the US especially has more than sufficient conventional firepower now to overwhelm any adversary), it’s about the possibility of one of them going off by accident or neglect.

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  7. 7. David Cummings 1:49 pm 11/18/2013

    “Verifiable elimination of all nuclear weapons is a virtual impossibility.”

    I don’t know if I agree with the “virtual impossibility” part of this statement, but I certainly agree with the word “verifiable”.

    If it’s not verifiable, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on.

    The key to this is detection technologies.

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  8. 8. rkipling 2:09 pm 11/18/2013

    “virtual: very close to being something without actually being it”,

    I didn’t say absolutely impossible. Although I don’t see how a foolproof verification could be established to 100% assure various nations would not cheat.

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  9. 9. plswinford 3:16 pm 11/18/2013

    I believe most people don’t know the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb.

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  10. 10. rocketlauncher 3:28 pm 11/18/2013

    That is probably true plswinford.

    I guess as I was being vaporized I would most likely be wondering “Is all this heat coming from simply fission, or is it a fusion/fission combination?”


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  11. 11. rkipling 3:41 pm 11/18/2013

    Okay, well I believe most people don’t know the difference between Bigfoot and Sasquatch either. I’m not sure what that has to do with anything?

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  12. 12. rshoff2 3:46 pm 11/18/2013

    Our experience of the world is in retrospect. It’s our analysis of the events after they occur (no matter how breifly) that defines consciousness. Anything else is simply a reaction. (I’m fortunate enough to be a slow thinker. :0 So, I can tell the difference between a reaction and conscious processing)

    We would never get the opportunity to ponder reality during vaporization. For all practical purposes, if vaporized, we won’t even be aware of it, much less figure out what’s happening.

    Now for those a little more distant from ground zero…. It would be much worse.

    And for all practical purposes, rkipling is realistically speaking, correct.

    just sayin’

    But we can argue over a word while it’s raining down nukes and self- absorbed capitalists are looking up wondering (or not), what the heck is going on?!

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  13. 13. rocketlauncher 3:59 pm 11/18/2013

    Thank you rshoff2 for a nice belly laugh!

    You did see the little smiley face at the end of my sarcastic post?

    It is obvious you got my point, that it makes no difference.

    In all seriousness however; even since the end of the cold war I have never stopped worrying that some madman or psychopath will get a nuke into a city somewhere and push the button. I fear it is only a matter of time.

    Is it simply natural for intelligent civilizations to come to that? Is that why we don’t see any evidence of intelligent civilizations in our galaxy; because they usually or always end up destroying themselves? That would be a real bummer.

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  14. 14. rshoff2 4:25 pm 11/18/2013

    @rocket – Yes, The cynical absurdity flows both ways! Thank you for getting it and putting it to good use!

    Surely there must be life as intelligent as we are in the universe. Probably our own backyard. But what is intelligent? Are humans intelligent? Would other life be intelligent in ways humans can’t appreciate? The only intelligence humans seem to exhibit is that of survival. It’s a very narrow and myopic type of intelligence. The only reason we know anything about the stars is out of curiosity. Grand curiosity that drives vision? No! It stems from the curiosity of whether that four legged creature is about to eat us or if that bright orange berry would be poisonous.

    We prefer to view ourselves in a glamorous light though. We would like to think we are the seat of intelligence in the universe. Now there’s a belly laugh!

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  15. 15. SteveO 4:46 pm 11/18/2013

    @rshoff2, @rocketlauncher

    While I don’t think we should overestimate our intelligence or importance in the galactic scheme of things, I wouldn’t want to underestimate it either.

    There have been some really big challenges that our species have weathered, even the threat of mutual annihilation when people my age pretty much assumed that there was going to be a nuclear war at some point. I am confident that we will continue to figure things out (if inefficiently, inelegantly) and more or less muddle through, learning to be more than we were all the while.

    Don’t fall victim to that self-indulgent nihilism!

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  16. 16. David Cummings 5:32 pm 11/18/2013

    rkipling, good point on the difference between “virtual impossibility” and “absolute impossibility”.

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  17. 17. rshoff2 6:25 pm 11/18/2013

    SteveO, I think you said it all with two words. Our ‘species’ and ‘weathered’. The first word implies a vary narrow view that pertains to ourselves only. The second word is passive. What have we actually done? Nothing so far, except ‘weather’. We have survived inspire of ourselves, but our luck is wearing thin.

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  18. 18. rshoff2 6:26 pm 11/18/2013

    ‘in spite of ourselves’ …. darn spell check.

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  19. 19. jerryd 10:49 am 11/23/2013

    Sorry folks but not enough nukes can, will go off to do real damage.

    And you have many of them in the hands of people caring for them that unlikely even 50% get to the target of far fewer of them actually work after reentry , transport.

    The US, Russia, Brits, France, Israel won’t use more than a few to teach those setting off the first it doesn’t pay.

    As for China, India taking over the world China got it’s butt whipped be Vietnam, has no ability to move the few troops or sea power so hardly a threat. They can’t even care for themselves.

    India can’t govern itself. Plus it’s a lot easier to kill a lot of people than a few plus they have no reason to attack other than Pakistan but even that is unlikely.

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  20. 20. bucketofsquid 4:09 pm 11/25/2013

    @rkipling – “The focus should be on keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of those who would actually use them.”

    The only country to ever use nuclear weapons is the USA. Clearly we must be disarmed and prevented from having nuclear energy sources that produce weapons grade fuel. Every peace loving USA citizen must demand that India, Russia and China send troops to seize our arsenals of nukes and decommission our nuclear power plants immediately.

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