Today is International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons.
Global Warming will take about 100-150 years to make the planet uninhabitable for humans if we don’t do anything about it. Nuclear weapons can make the world uninhabitable in 45-90 minutes, and do it out of computer error.
The world nearly ended – twice
On September 26, 1983 it very nearly happened. (The world nearly ended TWICE in 1983, the second time because the ‘Able Archer’ exercises, which rehearsed nuclear war were thought by the Soviet Union to be the real thing).
We owe our continued existence on 26th Sept 1983, to an obscure Russian Colonel, Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who happened to be on duty that night because he was filling in for someone else. As sirens wailed and lights flashed, and his computers indicated a series of US launches from North Dakota, he said he had a ‘gut feeling’ that ‘there was a mistake somewhere’. He was dead right – it had been light reflecting off unusual vertical cloud formations directly over US launch sites that looked to Soviet satellite surveillance exactly like a bunch of US missile launches.
Had Colonel Stan reported it as a launch, an unstoppable computerized sequence would have been initiated that would have launched between 10 and 15,000 warheads at the US its NATO allies, Japan and Australia. Civilization would have been destroyed.
September 26 was made into the International day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear weapons by UNGA resolution in 2013. A High Level Meeting on Nuclear Disarmament will take place at UN Headquarters NY on 26th. Governments have been urged to attend at the highest level.
Colonel Stan’s brush with the apocalypse wasn’t the only one – terrifying incidents have also taken place in US nuclear command and control centers, notably one in which US defense secretary Brzezinski was woken at 3am with the news that 2000 Soviet warheads were incoming. It turned out to be a malfunction in a chip in Colorado. The mistake was discovered seconds before Brzezinski would have woken Carter with a request for a launch.
The world also nearly ended because of a Norwegian research rocket that was mistaken for an incoming US first strike on the Kremlin in 1995.
There are upwards of a dozen occasions on which the world has come so close to a massive nuclear launch that …in some parallel universe it is cold and dark and humans aren’t there any more.
Fast forward to now
It’s generally held amongst nuclear weapons ‘wonks’ that we are closer to nuclear weapons use of some kind than we have been since the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963, when the ‘odds’ of nuclear war were estimated by Kennedy as between one in three and 50/50.
That does NOT mean the world is necessarily going to end tomorrow. We hope and pray that absolutely nothing happens.
It DOES mean we should be very very concerned and should absolutely prioritize doing something about it. There are a whole lot of commonsense measures that can be taken to make an accidental (or not so accidental) apocalypse – out of madness, malice, miscalculation, malfunction or malware – less probable.
Not using nuclear weapons to blackmail others would be one thing; refraining from highly provocative military exercises close to Russian borders (and obtaining a commitment from them to do the same) would be another; better, or resumed, mil-to-mil communication would be another; taking nuclear weapons off high alert; and, mutual (or even unilateral) ‘No-first-use’ commitments.
These are immediate term band-aid fixes that nonetheless might just prevent the accidental end of everything. Australia should be vigorously promoting all of these measures – measures that cost little or nothing, and do not affect our balance of trade.
The ultimate fix is of course, to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.
This is best done via the TPNW or ‘Ban Treaty’ which far from ‘undermining’ the NPT, strengthens it and fulfills Art VI.
Australia should be signing the TPNW, ratifying it, and urging others to do likewise. We urge Australia and ALL governments including especially the nuclear weapon states themselves to sign, ratify and above all to implement the TPNW.
Our future depends on it.
UN Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner
People for Nuclear Disarmament
Human Survival Project
Co-Convener, Abolition 2000 Working Group on Nuclear Risk Reduction
Australian Coordinator, Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament (PNND)