I recently attended the annual Dialogue of the Breakthrough Institute, a think tank that challenges conventional green thinking. What appeals to me most about Breakthrough isn’t its specific positions—such as its embrace of nuclear energy—but its optimism. As I’ve argued on this blog, optimism motivates activism better than pessimism--and it is warranted by human progress.

But optimism based on denial is counter-productive--which brings me to an exchange I had at the Dialogue with Stewart Brand, a counter-culture icon and Breakthrough Institute senior statesman. The exchange took place in a session of a dozen or so people discussing “opportunities” offered by the “Anthropocene,” a term coined to describe the modern era of profound human transformation of Earth.

Toward the end of the session, I mentioned my concerns about war and militarism, noting that nuclear weapons continue to threaten humanity. Brand replied that the risks of nuclear war--and even the effects of nuclear detonations--have been exaggerated. If nuclear war breaks out, humanity will bounce back; after all, Hiroshima and Nagasaki are now flourishing.

In the 2013 pro-nuclear-energy documentary Pandora’s Promise, Brand notes that as a child he was terrified of nuclear weapons, which he ended up conflating with nuclear energy. “You had this very strong residue that this is not primarily an energy source. This is a primarily a weapon that we feel very badly about." Brand apparently thinks our fears of nuclear weapons—as well as of nuclear energy--have been irrationally inflated. If I have mischaracterized his views, I trust he’ll correct me.

Brand is not the only person I admire who argues that our fears of nuclear annihilation have been excessive. Political scientist John Mueller makes this claim in his 2009 book Atomic Obsession. Mueller is absolutely right that “nuclear alarmism” has had disastrous consequences. U.S. fear of nuclear war led, perversely, to its arms race with the U.S.S.R., and to the catastrophic U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But I squirm when Mueller, like Brand, downplays the actual effects of nuclear weapons, estimating that a Hiroshima-size bomb would "blow up" about one percent of New York City, "terrible, of course, but not the same as destruction 100 times greater."

No doubt some visions of nuclear Armageddon—like the 1959 film On the Beach, in which radiation wipes out humanity—were exaggerated. But those who emphasize our ability to survive nuclear attacks remind me of General “Buck” Turgidson, who in the 1964 film Dr. Strangelove assures the U.S. President that the U.S. can win a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. “I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed,” Turgidson says. “But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops.”

To grasp the effects of nuclear weapons, check out NUKEMAP, a website created by nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein, my colleague at Stevens Institute of Technology. NUKEMAP, which calculates the effects of nuclear blasts anywhere in the world, estimates that a Hiroshima-size (15 kiloton) device detonated above Manhattan would kill 263,000 people and injure 512,000. A ground burst would kill fewer people immediately but would generate much more radioactive contamination and fallout.

In the 1950s, the U.S. and Soviet Union developed fusion weapons orders of magnitude more powerful than the fission bombs dropped on Japan. By the early 1960s, the Soviet arsenal included 2.42-megaton, missile-mounted warheads. One detonated above New York today would kill 2,400,000 people and injure about 4 million, according to NUKEMAP.

If you think Cold War fears of nuclear Armageddon were excessive, read Wellerstein’s blog post on the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. In spite of the superiority of U.S. nuclear forces, he notes, “the Soviets still could have easily killed tens of millions in the United States and in Europe” [italics in original]. Wellerstein concludes that the crisis was “even more dangerous than most people realized at the time, and more dangerous than most people know now.”

According to a 2013 report of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, in 1962 the U.S.S.R. possessed 3,346 warheads in all, and the U.S. possessed 25,540. Over the next two decades, the average yield of U.S. and Soviet warheads dropped, but the total number of warheads surged to almost 60,000. In 1983, the world came perilously close to nuclear war once again, due to Soviet fears that the U.S. was planning a pre-emptive strike.

Today, the number of U.S. and Russian warheads has fallen to about 16,000, according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The seven other nuclear-armed states--China, United Kingdom, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea—possess another thousand or so weapons.

Reductions in the U.S. and Russian arsenals are heartening, and the likelihood of a massive nuclear war seems greatly reduced. But the U.S. plans to spend $1 trillion to upgrade its nuclear arsenal, money that could be spent on education, health care and clean-energy development. The U.S. plan is also likely to “trigger a response by Russia and China to build up their weapons programs,” Peter Rickwood of the watchdog group “Atomic Reporters” told me last year.

Moreover, a world with even a single nuclear weapon is an unsafe, unstable world. The current Russian arsenal includes the 800-kiloton Topol warhead, one of which, detonated above New York, would kill 1,500,000 people and injure twice as many, according to NUKEMAP. Given the drastic overreaction of the U.S. to the 9/11 attacks, the detonation of even one low-yield device could have devastating political, economic and military consequences.

At the end of Pandora’s Promise, Stewart Brand enthuses over a U.S. program to buy warheads from Russia and turn them into reactor fuel. “Half of our nuclear power comes from re-processed Russian warheads,” he says. “Ideally, every single nuclear weapon in the world, eventually, can get turned into electricity.”

That’s the kind of optimism I like. Rather than assuring us that we can survive nuclear attacks, optimists such as Stewart Brand and John Mueller should spell out how we can eradicate nuclear weapons once and for all.

We fear nuclear weapons too little, not too much.

Postscript: I have received comments from several people at the Breakthrough Dialogue:

Charles Mann, journalist (who was at the session where Brand spoke about nuclear weapons): Maybe Stewart expressed himself inexactly. I have had much the same conversation with him, and I took away not that he thinks we are "too afraid" of nuclear weapons per se, but that we are afraid of nuclear technology in general in a hopelessly muddled way. There are good reasons to be worried about nuclear power, from the issue of waste disposal to the inequitable way we make siting decisions (Kristin Shrader-Frechette, among others, has written extensively on this). But there are also good reasons to be worried about other sources of power, especially coal (in my view, anyway). My belief is that Stewart is saying that the penumbra of fear created by the existence of nuclear weapons has prevented us from comparing these risks in a useful way, and that if we were more rational we wouldn't make the de facto decision, as Germany has recently, to swap nuclear power for coal-fired electricity.

Personally, I'm not sure he is correct. I've heard the argument that humans aren't always rational, and the the near-religious taboo on nuclear weapons has been a powerful factor in keeping governments from using them, and that endorsing nuclear power would weaken this taboo, perhaps fatally. But the main point is that Stewart can't truly be charged with minimizing the risks of nuclear weapons, at least on a good day.

Steve Fuller, sociologist University of Warwick: Thanks for this, John -- yes, put Stewart Brand and Buck Turgidson in dialogue! It is interesting how much those 'good anthropocene' arguments sound like those of Herman Kahn and his economist-sidekick Julian Simon, especially in The Resourceful Earth (1984 -> a response to Jimmy Carter's Global 2000 Report). The key difference seems to be that Kahn/Simon were incredibly suspicious of any state involvement -- other than staying out of the way -- whereas Breakthrough has the state very much a player in transitioning to a more eco-abundant future.

Oliver Morton, journalist, The Economist: I wonder if we fear nuclear weapons too much but nuclear war too little. 

Further Reading:

Ecomodernists” Envision Utopia--but What about War?

We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable.

Leader of Venerable Scientific Watchdog Group Renews Focus on “Nuclear Dangers.”

Atomic Reporters Curb “Egregious” Coverage of Nuclear Perils.