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We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable

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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," http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/2013/06/21/castle-bravo-revisited/.

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

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