More in-depth background reading about risks and benefits of nuclear technology

Nuclear Winter with Alan Robock and Brian Toon

The UN voted last week to begin negotiations on a global nuclear weapons ban, but for now, nuclear weapons still jeopardize the existence of almost all people on earth.

I recently sat down with Meteorologist Alan Robock from Rutgers University and physicist Brian Toon from the University of Colorado to discuss what is potentially the most devastating consequence of nuclear war: nuclear winter.

Toon and Robock have studied and modeled nuclear winter off and on for over 30 years, and they joined forces ten years ago to use newer climate models to look at the climate effects of a small nuclear war.

The following interview has been heavily edited, but you can listen to it in its entirety here or read the complete transcript here.

Ariel: How is it that you two started working together?

Toon: This was initiated by a reporter. At the time, Pakistan and India were having a conflict over Kashmir and threatening each other with nuclear weapons. A reporter wanted to know what effect this might have on the rest of the planet. I calculated the amount of smoke and found, “Wow that was a lot of smoke!”

Alan had a great volcano model, so at the American Geophysical Union meeting that year, I tried to convince him to work on this problem. Alan was pretty skeptical.

Robock: I don’t remember being skeptical. I remember being very interested. I said, “How much smoke would there be?” Brian told me 5,000,000 tons of smoke, and I said, “That sounds like a lot!”

We put it into a NASA climate model and found it would be the largest climate change in recorded human history. The basic physics is very simple. If you block out the Sun, it gets cold and dark at the Earth’s surface.

We hypothesized that if each country used half of their nuclear arsenal, that would be 50 weapons on each side. We assumed the simplest bomb, which is the size dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — a 15 kiloton bomb.

The answer is the global average temperature would go down by about 1.5 degrees Celsius. In the middle of continents, temperature drops would be larger and last for a decade or more.

We took models that calculate agricultural productivity and calculated how wheat, corn, soybeans, and rice production would change. In the 5 years after this war, using less than 1% of the global arsenal on the other side of the world, global food production would go down by 20-40 percent for 5 years, and for the next 5 years, 10-20 percent.

Ariel: Could you address criticisms of whether or not the smoke would loft that high or spread globally?

Toon: The only people that have been critical are Alan and I. The Departments of Energy and Defense, which should be investigating this problem, have done absolutely nothing. No one has done studies of fire propagation in big cities — no fire department is going to go put out a nuclear fire.

As far as the rising smoke, we’ve had people investigate that and they all find the same things: it goes into the upper atmosphere and then self-lofts. But, these should be investigated by a range of scientists with a range of experiences.

Robock: What are the properties of the smoke? We assume it would be small, single, black particles. That needs to be investigated. What would happen to the particles as they sit in the stratosphere? Would they react with other particles? Would they degrade? Would they grow? There are additional questions and unknowns.

Toon: Alan made lists of the important issues. And we have gone to every agency that we can think of, and said, “Don’t you think someone should study this?” Basically, everyone we tried so far has said, “Well, that’s not my job.”

Ariel: Do you think there’s a chance then that as we acquired more information that even smaller nuclear wars could pose similar risks? Or is 100 nuclear weapons the minimum?

Robock: First, it’s hard to imagine how once a nuclear war starts, it could be limited. Communications are destroyed, people panic — how would people even be able to rationally have a nuclear war and stop?

Second, we don’t know. When you get down to small numbers, it depends on what city, what time of year, the weather that day. And we don’t want to emphasize India and Pakistan – any two nuclear countries could do this.

Toon: The most common thing that happens when we give a talk is someone will stand up and say, “Oh, but a war would only involve one nuclear weapon.” But the only nuclear war we’ve had, the nuclear power, the United States, used every weapon that it had on civilian targets.

If you have 1000 weapons and you’re afraid your adversary is going to attack you with their 1000 weapons, you’re not likely to just bomb them with one weapon.

Robock: Let me make one other point. If the United States attacked Russia on a first strike and Russia did nothing, the climate change resulting from that could kill almost everybody in the United States. We’d all starve to death because of the climate response. People used to think of this as mutually assured destruction, but really it’s being a suicide bomber: it’s self-assured destruction.
Ariel: What scares you most regarding nuclear weapons?

Toon: Politicians’ ignorance of the implications of using nuclear weapons. Russia sees our advances to keep Eastern European countries free — they see that as an attempt to move military forces near Russia where [NATO] could quickly attack them. There’s a lack of communication, a lack of understanding of [the] threat and how people see different things in different ways. So Russians feel threatened when we don’t even mean to threaten them.

Robock: What scares me is an accident. There have been a number of cases where we came very close to having nuclear war. Crazy people or mistakes could result in a nuclear war. Some teenaged hacker could get into the systems. We’ve been lucky to have gone 71 years without a second nuclear war. The only way to prevent it is to get rid of the nuclear weapons.

Toon: We have all these countries with 100 weapons. All those countries can attack anybody on the Earth and destroy most of the country. This is ridiculous, to develop a world where everybody can destroy anybody else on the planet. That’s what we’re moving toward.

Ariel: Is there anything else you think the public needs to understand about nuclear weapons or nuclear winter?

Robock: I would think about all of the countries that don’t have nuclear weapons. How did they make that decision? What can we learn from them?

The world agreed to a ban on chemical weapons, biological weapons, cluster munitions, land mines — but there’s no ban on the worst weapon of mass destruction, nuclear weapons. The UN General Assembly voted next year to negotiate a treaty to ban nuclear weapons, which will be a first step towards reducing the arsenals and disarmament. But people have to get involved and demand it.

Toon: We’re not paying enough attention to nuclear weapons. The United States has invested hundreds of billions of dollars in building better nuclear weapons that we’re never going to use. Why don’t we invest that in schools or in public health or in infrastructure? Why invest it in worthless things we can’t use?

Obama’s Nuclear Legacy

The following article and infographic were originally posted on Futurism.

The most destructive device that humanity ever created is the nuclear bomb. It’s a technology that is capable of unparalleled devastation; it’s a technology that The United Nations classifies as “the most dangerous weapon on Earth.”

One bomb can destroy a whole city in seconds, and in so doing, end the lives of millions of people (depending on where it is dropped). If that’s not enough, it can throw the natural environment into chaos. We know this because we’ve used them before.

The first device of this kind was unleashed at approximately 8:15 am on August 6th, 1945. At this time, a US B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. It killed around 80,000 people instantly. Over the coming years, many more would succumb to radiation sickness. All-in-all, it is estimated that over 200,000 people died as a result of the nuclear blasts in Japan.

How far have we come since then? How many bombs do we have at our disposal? Here’s a look at our legacy.

Former Defense Secretary William Perry Launches MOOC on Nuclear Risks

Today, the danger of some sort of a nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger.” – William J. Perry, 2015

The following description of Dr. Perry’s new MOOC is courtesy of the William J. Perry Project.

Nuclear weapons, far from being historical curiosities, are existential dangers today. But what can you do about this? The first step is to educate yourself on the subject. Now it’s easy to do that in the first free, online course devoted to educating the public about the history and dangers of nuclear weapons. This 10-week course, created by former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and 10 other highly distinguished educators and public servants is hosted by Stanford University and starts October 4, 2016; sign up now here.

This course has a broad range, from physics to history to politics and diplomacy. You will have the opportunity to obtain a Statement of Accomplishment by passing the appropriate quizzes, but there are no prerequisites other than curiosity and a passion for learning.  Our faculty is an unprecedented group of internationally recognized academic experts, scientists, journalists, political activists, former ambassadors, and former cabinet members from the United States and Russia. Throughout the course you will have opportunities to engage with these faculty members, as well as guest experts and your fellow students from around the world, in weekly online discussions and forums.

In Weeks 1 and 2 you will learn about the creation of the first atomic bomb and the nuclear physics behind these weapons, taught by Dr. Joseph Martz, a physicist at the Los Alamos National Laboratories, and Dr. Siegfried Hecker, former Los Alamos director and a Stanford professor. Drs. Perry, Martz and Hecker describe the early years of the Atomic Age starting from the first nuclear explosion in New Mexico and the atomic bombing of Japan, followed by proliferation of these weapons to the Soviet Union and the beginning of the terrifying nuclear arms race underpinning the Cold War. You also will learn about ICBMs, deterrence and the nuclear triad, nuclear testing, nuclear safety (and the lack of it), the extent and dangers of nuclear proliferation, the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, and the continuing fears about “loose nukes” and unsecured fissile material.

In Weeks 3 and 4 of Living at the Nuclear Brink, Dr. Perry outlines the enormous challenges the United States and its allies faced during the early frightening years of what came to be known as the Cold War. Then Dr. David Holloway, an international expert on the development of the Soviet nuclear program, will lead you on a tour of the Cold War, from its beginnings with Soviet nuclear tests and the Berlin Crisis, the Korean War, the Berlin Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, probably the closest the world has come to nuclear war. Dr. Holloway will then cover the dangerous years of the late 1970s and early 1980s when détente between the Soviet Union and the West broke down; both sides amassed huge arsenals of nuclear weapons with increasingly sophisticated delivery methods including multiple warheads, and trust was strained with the introduction of short-range ballistic missiles in Europe. Finally, Dr. Holloway and Dr. Perry will describe the fascinating story of how this spiraling international tension was quelled, in part by the new thinking of Gorbachev, and how the Cold War ended with surprising speed and with minimal bloodshed.

In Week 5, you will hear from acclaimed national security journalist Philip Taubman about the remarkable efforts of scientists and engineers in the United States to develop technical methods for filling the gap of knowledge about the nuclear capabilities of the Soviet Union, including spy planes like the U-2 and satellite systems like Corona. In Week 6, you will hear from a recognized expert on nuclear policy, Dr. Scott Sagan of Stanford. Dr. Sagan will explore the theories behind nuclear deterrence and stability; you will learn how this theoretical stability is threatened by proclivities for preventive wars, commitment traps and accidents. You will hear hair-raising stories of accidents, miscalculations and bad intelligence during the Cuban Missile Crisis that that brought the world much closer to a nuclear catastrophe than most people realized.

Weeks 7 and 8 are devoted to exploring the nuclear dangers of today. Dr. Martha Crenshaw, an internationally recognized expert on terrorism, will discuss this topic, and examine the terrifying possibility of the nuclear terrorism. You will see a novel graphic-art video from the William J Perry Project depicting Dr. Perry’s nightmare scenario of a nuclear bomb exploded in Washington, D.C. Week 8 is devoted to current problems of nuclear proliferation. Dr. Hecker gives a first-hand account of the nuclear program in the dangerously unpredictable regime of North Korea, and goes over the fluid situation in Iran. The most dangerous region may be South Asia, where bitter enemies Pakistan and India face off with nuclear weapons. The challenges and possibilities in this confrontation are explored in depth by Dr. Sagan, Dr. Crenshaw, Dr. Hecker, and Dr. Perry; Dr. Andrei Kokoshin, former Russian Deputy Minister of Defense in the 1990s, offers a Russian perspective.

In the final two weeks of Living at the Nuclear Brink, we will explore ways to address the urgent problems of nuclear weapons. Dr. Perry describes the struggles by U.S. administrations to contain these dangers, and highlights some of the success stories, notably the Nunn-Lugar program that led to the dismantling of thousands of nuclear weapons in the former Soviet Union and the United States. James Goodby had a decades long career in the U.S. foreign service; he covers the long and often frustrating history of attempts to limit and control nuclear weapons through treaties and international agreements. Former Secretary of State George Shultz describes the momentous Reykjavik Summit between Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, in which he participated, and gives his take on the prospects for global security. Finally, you will hear an impassioned plea for active engagement on the nuclear issue by Joseph Cirincione, author and President of the Ploughshares Fund.

Please join us in this exciting and novel online course; we welcome your participation!

For more, watch Gov. Jerry Brown discuss the importance of learning about nuclear weapons, and watch former Secretary of Defense William Perry introduce this MOOC.

Nuclear Weapons FAQs

Eric Schlosser on Nuclear Weapons

Hiroshima after the atomic bomb destroyed the city.

“…if we believe that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable, then in some way we are admitting to ourselves that the use of nuclear weapons is inevitable.” –Barack Obama, 2009

Today’s Nuclear Dilemma

In a paper just released by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists entitled, Today’s nuclear dilemma, Eric Schlosser considers the possible consequences of a new nuclear arms race, which now appears to be underway.

After the Cold War ended, most of the world supported calls to reduce nuclear arsenals, and such a reduction did occur. Even as recently as 2009, the United States supported a further decrease in nuclear weapons. However, today’s foreign policies are now driving countries with nuclear arsenals to look toward a modernization of their weapons. China, France, the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea, Russia and the United States are increasing their stockpiles of nuclear missiles and warheads. The United States alone is planning to spend $1 trillion on upgrading its nuclear weapons over the next 30 years.

A major argument in favor nuclear weapons is one of deterrence. Yet studies indicate that today’s tactical non-nuclear weapons are far more effective at achieving military goals than a nuclear strike would be. At the same time, religious ideologies today can favor mass destruction and martyrdom, which could increase the chances of a nuclear weapon’s use.

With so many weapons around the globe, an intentional nuclear attack may not be the greatest risk. Nuclear history is rife with accidents and close calls, which could have inadvertently killed millions of people or launched a global nuclear war. This threat could become an even greater risk as countries continue to add more advanced nuclear weapons to their arsenals.

As horrifying as a nuclear war might be, it could pale in comparison to the threat of a nuclear winter. According to Schlosser, “A relatively small-scale nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, involving about a hundred weapons, could cause a global ‘nuclear winter’ and kill more than a billion people.”

Schlosser concludes his paper with the idea that though the fear of nuclear war is negligible today, “the danger is far greater” than it has been in the last 70 years.

Read Schlosser’s full article here.

Schlosser in an investigative journalist most famous for his book, Fast Food Nation, but he has more recently been exploring the dangers of our current, worldwide nuclear weapons situation. In 2013, he published Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, which was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist.