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.

Trillion Dollar Nukes

Trillion Dollar Nukes

Would you spend $1 trillion tax dollars on nuclear weapons?

How much are nuclear weapons really worth? Is upgrading the US nuclear arsenal worth $1 trillion – in the hopes of never using it – when that money could be used to improve lives, create jobs, decrease taxes, or pay off debts? How far can $1 trillion go if it’s not all spent on nukes?

The application below helps answer those questions. Click on the icons on the left to ‘shop’ for items to add to your cart. See something you want to add? Just click on the title, and it will automatically be placed in your cart. To view your items or make changes, click on the shopping cart. From there, you can increase or decrease the amount of money allotted to each. If you want to maintain deterrence, but don’t support the whole upgrade, then just don’t spend all of the money – whatever is left over can be what you think nuclear upgrades are worth. When you’re done, click on the shopping cart, and share on social media to let your voice be heard!

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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.

Podcast: What Is Our Current Nuclear Risk?

A conversation with Lucas Perry about nuclear risk


  • Ariel Conn— Ariel oversees communications and digital media at FLI, and as such, she works closely with members of the nuclear community to help present information about the costs and risks of nuclear weapons.
  • Lucas Perry—Lucas has been actively working with the Mayor and City Council of Cambridge, MA to help them divest from nuclear weapons companies, and he works closely with groups like Don’t Bank on the Bomb to bring more nuclear divestment options to the U.S.


In this podcast interview, Lucas and Ariel discuss the concepts of nuclear deterrence, hair trigger alert, the potential consequences of nuclear war, and how individuals can do their part to lower the risks of nuclear catastrophe. (You can find more links to information about these issues at the bottom of the page.)


Ariel:  I’m Ariel Conn with the Future of Life Institute, and I’m here with Lucas Perry, also a member of FLI, to talk about the increasing risks of nuclear weapons, and what we can do to decrease those risks.

With the end of the Cold War, and the development of the two new START treaties, we’ve dramatically decreased the number of nuclear weapons around the world. Yet even though there are fewer weapons, they still represent a real and growing threat. In the last few months, FLI has gotten increasingly involved in efforts to decrease the risks of nuclear weapons.

One of the first things people worry about when it comes to decreasing the number of nuclear weapons or altering our nuclear posture is whether or not we can still maintain effective deterrence.

Lucas, can you explain how deterrence works?

Lucas: Sure, deterrence is the idea that to protect ourselves from other nuclear states who might want to harm us through nuclear strikes, if we have our own nuclear weapons primed and ready to be fired, it would deter another nuclear state from firing on us, knowing that we would retaliate with similar, or even more, nuclear force.

Ariel:  OK, and along the same lines, can you explain what hair trigger alert is?

Lucas: Hair trigger alert is a Cold War-era strategy that has nuclear weapons armed and ready for launch within minutes. It ensures mutual and total annihilation, and thus acts as a means of deterrence. But the problem here is that it also increases the likelihood of accidental nuclear war.

Ariel:  Can you explain how an accidental nuclear war could happen? And, also, has it almost happened before?

Lucas: Having a large fraction of our nuclear weapons on hair trigger alert creates the potential for accidental nuclear war through the fallibility of the persons and instruments involved with the launching of nuclear weapons, in junction with the very small amount of time actually needed to fire the nuclear missiles.

Us humans are known to be prone to making mistakes on a daily basis, and we even make the same mistakes multiple times. Computers, radars, and all of the other instruments and technology that go into the launching and detecting of nuclear strikes are intrinsically fallible, as well, as they are prone to breaking and committing error.

So there is the potential for us to fire missiles when an instrument gives us false alarm or a person—say, the President—under the pressure of needing to make a decision within only a few minutes, decides to fire missiles due to some misinterpretation of a situation. This susceptibility to error is actually so great that groups such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have been able to identify at least 21 nuclear close calls where nuclear war was almost started by mistake.

Ariel:  How long does the President actually have to decide whether or not to launch a retaliatory attack?

Lucas: The President actually only has about 12 minutes to decide whether or not to fire our missiles in retaliation. After our radars have detected the incoming missiles, and after this information has been conveyed to the President, there has already been some non-negligible amount of time—perhaps 5 to 15 minutes—where nuclear missiles might already be inbound. So he only has another few minutes—say, about 10 or 12 minutes—to decide whether or not to fire ours in retaliation. But this is also highly contingent upon where the missiles are coming from and how early we detected their launch.

Ariel:  OK, and then do you have any examples off the top of your head of times where we’ve had close calls that almost led to an unnecessary nuclear war?

Lucas: Out of the twenty-or-so nuclear close calls that have been identified by the Union of Concerned Scientists, among other organizations, a few that stand out to me are—for example, in 1980, the Soviet Union launched four submarine-based missiles from near the Kuril Islands as part of a training exercise, which led to a triggering of American early-warning sensors.

And even in 1995, Russian early-warning radar detected a missile launch off the coast of Norway with flight characteristics very similar to that of US submarine missiles. This led to all Russian nuclear forces going into full alert, and even the President at the time got his nuclear football ready and was prepared for full nuclear retaliation. But they ended up realizing that this was just a Norwegian scientific rocket.

These examples really help to illustrate how hair trigger alert is so dangerous. Persons and instruments are inevitably going to make mistakes, and this is only made worse when nuclear weapons are primed and ready to be launched within only minutes.

Ariel:  Going back to deterrence: Do we actually need our nuclear weapons to be on hair trigger alert in order to have effective deterrence?

Lucas: Not necessarily. The current idea is that we keep our intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are located in silos, on hair trigger alert so that these nuclear weapons can be launched before the silos are destroyed by an enemy strike. But warheads can be deployed without being on hair trigger alert, on nuclear submarines and bombers, without jeopardizing national security. If nuclear weapons were to be fired at the United States with the intention of destroying our nuclear missile silos, then we could authorize the launch of our submarine- and bomber-based missiles over the time span of hours and even days. These missiles wouldn’t be able to be intercepted, and would thus offer a means of retaliation, and thus deterrence, without the added danger of being on hair trigger alert.

Ariel:  How many nuclear weapons does the Department of Defense suggest we need to maintain effective deterrence?

Lucas: Studies have shown that only about 300 to 1,000 nuclear weapons are necessary for deterrence. An example of this would be, about 450 of these bombs could be located on submarines and bombers spread out throughout the world, with about another 450 at home on reserve and in silos.

Ariel:  So how many nuclear weapons are there in the US and around the world?

Lucas: There are currently about 15,700 nuclear weapons on this planet. Russia and the US are the main holders of these, with Russia having about 7,500 and the US having about 7,200. Other important nuclear states to note are China, Israel, the UK, North Korea, France, India, and Pakistan.

Ariel:  OK, so basically we have a lot more nuclear weapons than we actually need.

Lucas: Right. If only about 300 to 1,000 are needed for deterrence, then the amount of nuclear weapons on this planet could be exponentially less than it is currently. And the amount that we have right now is actually just blatant overkill. It’s a waste of resources and it increases the risk of accidental nuclear war, making both the countries that have them and the countries that don’t have them, more at risk.

Ariel:  I want to consider this idea of the countries that don’t have them being more at risk. I’m assuming you’re talking about nuclear winter. Can you explain what nuclear winter is?

Lucas: Nuclear winter is an indirect effect of nuclear war. When nuclear weapons go off they create large firestorms from all of the infrastructure, debris, and trees that are set on fire surrounding the point of detonation. These massive firestorms release enormous amounts of soot and smoke into the air that goes into the atmosphere and can block out the sun for months and even years at a time. This drastically reduces the amount of sunlight that is able to get to the Earth, and it thus causes a significant decrease in average global temperatures.

Ariel:  How many nuclear weapons would actually have to go off in order for us to see a significant drop in temperature?

Lucas: About 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons would decrease average global temperatures by about 1.25 degrees Celsius. When these 100 bombs go off, they would release about 5 million tons of smoke lofted high into the stratosphere. And now, this change of 1.25 degrees Celsius of average global temperatures might seem very tiny, but studies actually show that this will lead to a shortening of growing seasons by up to 30 days and a 10% reduction in average global precipitation. Twenty million people would die directly from the effects of this, but then hundreds of millions of people would die in the following months from a lack of food due to the decrease in average global temperatures and a lack of precipitation.

Ariel:  And that’s hundreds of millions of people around the world, right? Not just in the regions where the war took place?

Lucas: Certainly. The soot and smoke from the firestorms would spread out across the entire planet and be affecting the amount of precipitation and sunlight that everyone receives. It’s not simply that the effects of nuclear war are contained to the countries involved with the nuclear strikes, but rather, potentially the very worst effects of nuclear war create global changes that would affect us all.

Ariel:  OK, so that was for a war between India and Pakistan, which would be small, and it would be using smaller nuclear weapons than what the US and Russia have. So if just an accident were to happen that triggered both the US and Russia to launch their nuclear weapons that are on hair trigger alert, what would the impacts of that be?

Lucas: Well, the United States has about a thousand weapons on hair trigger alert. I’m not exactly sure as to how many there are in Russia, but we can assume that it’s probably a similar amount. So if a nuclear war of about 2,000 weapons were to be exchanged between the United States and Russia, it would cause 510 million tons of smoke to rise into the stratosphere, which would lead to a 4 degrees Celsius change in average global temperatures. And compared to an India-Pakistan conflict, this would lead to catastrophically more casualties from a lack of food and from the direct effects of these nuclear bombs.

Ariel:  And over what sort of time scale is that expected to happen?

Lucas: The effects of nuclear winter, and perhaps even what might one day be nuclear summer, would be lasting over the time span of not just months, but years, even decades.

Ariel:  What’s nuclear summer?

Lucas: So nuclear summer is a more theoretical effect of nuclear war. With nuclear winter you have tons of soot and ash and smoke in the sky blotting out the sun, but additionally, there has actually been an enormous amount of CO2 released from the burning all of the infrastructure and forests and grounds due to the nuclear blasts. After decades, once all of this soot and ash and smoke begin to settle back down onto the Earth’s surface, there will still be this enormous remaining amount of CO2.

So nuclear summer is a hypothetical indirect effect of nuclear war, after nuclear winter, after the soot has fallen down, where there would be a huge spike in average global temperatures due to the enormous amount of CO2 left over from the firestorms.

Ariel: And so how likely is all of this to happen? Is there actually a chance that these types of wars could occur? Or is this mostly something that people are worrying about unnecessarily?

Lucas: The risk of a nuclear war is non-zero. It’s very difficult to quantify exactly what the risks are, but we can say that we have seen at least 21 nuclear close calls where nuclear war was almost started by mistake. And these 21 close calls are actually just the ones that we know about. How many more nuclear close calls have there been that we simply don’t know about, or that governments have been able to keep a secret? We can reflect that as tensions rise between the United States and Russia, and as the risk of terrorism and cyber attack continues to rise, and the conflict between India and Pakistan is continually exacerbated, the threat of nuclear war is actually increasing. It’s not going down.

Ariel:  So there is a risk, and we know that we have more nuclear weapons than we actually need for deterrence. Even if we want to keep enough weapons for deterrence, we don’t need as many as we have. I’m guessing that the government is not going to do anything about this, so what can people do to try to have an impact themselves?

Lucas: A method of engaging with this nuclear issue that has a potentially high efficacy is divesting. We have power as voters, consumers, and producers, but perhaps even more importantly, we have power over what we invest in. We have the power to choose to invest in companies that are socially responsible or ones which are not. So through divestment, we can take money away from nuclear weapons producers. But not only that, we can also work to stigmatize nuclear weapons production and our current nuclear situation through our divestment efforts.

Ariel:  But my understanding is that most of our nuclear weapons are funded by the government, so how would a divestment campaign actually be impactful, given that the money for nuclear weapons wouldn’t necessarily disappear?

Lucas: The most important part of divestment in this area of nuclear weapons is actually the stigmatization. When you see massive amounts of people divesting from something, it creates a lot of light and heat on the subject. It influences the public consciousness and helps to bring back to light this issue of nuclear weapons. And once you have stigmatized something to a critical point, it effectively renders its target politically and socially untenable. Divestment also stimulates new education and research on the topic, while also getting persons invested in the issue.

Ariel:  And so have there been effective campaigns that used divestment in the past?

Lucas: There have been a lot of different campaigns in the past that have used divestment as an effective means of creating important change in the world. A few examples of these are divestment from tobacco, South African apartheid, child labor, and fossil fuels. In all of these instances, persons were divesting from institutions involved in these socially irresponsible acts. Through doing so, they created much stigmatization of these issues, they created capital flight from them, and also created a lot of negative media attention that helped to bring light to these issues and show people the truth of what was going on.

Ariel:  I know FLI was initially inspired by a lot of the work that Don’t Bank on the Bomb has done. Can you talk a bit about some of the work they’ve done and what their success has been?

Lucas: The Don’t Bank on the Bomb campaign has been able to identify direct and indirect investments in nuclear weapons producers, made by large institutions in both Europe and America. Through this they have worked to engage with many banks in Europe to help them to not include these direct or indirect investments in their portfolios and mutual funds, thus helping them to construct socially responsible funds. A few examples of these successes are A&S Bank, ASR, and the Cooperative Bank.

Ariel:  So you’ve been very active with FLI in trying to launch a divestment campaign in the US. I was hoping you could talk a little about the work you’ve done so far and the success you’ve had.

Lucas: Inspired by a lot of the work that’s been done through the Don’t Bank on the Bomb campaign, in junction with resources provided by them, we were able to engage with the city of Cambridge and work with them and help them to divest $1 billion from nuclear weapons-producing companies. As we continue our divestment campaign, we’re really passionate about making the information needed for divestment transparent and open. Currently we’re working on a web app that will allow you to search your mutual fund and see whether not it has direct or indirect investments in nuclear weapons producers. Through doing so, we hope to not only be helping cities and municipalities and institutions divest, but also individuals like you and me.

Ariel:  Lucas, this has been great. Thank you so much for sharing information about the work you’ve been doing so far. If anyone has any questions about how they can divest from nuclear weapons, please email Lucas at lucas@futureoflife.org. You can also check out our new web app at futureoflife.org/invest.

[end of recorded material]

Learn more about nuclear weapons in the 21st Century:

What is hair-trigger alert?

How many nuclear weapons are there and who has them?

What are the consequences of nuclear war?

What would the world look like after a U.S and Russia nuclear war?

How many nukes would it take to make the Earth uninhabitable?

What are the specific effects of nuclear winter?

What can I do to mitigate the risk of nuclear war?

Do we really need so many nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert?

What sort of new nuclear policy could we adopt?

How can we restructure strategic U.S nuclear forces?

Nuclear Weapons and the Myth of the “Re-Alerting Race”

The following article was originally posted on the Union of Concerned Scientists’ blog, The Equation.

One of the frustrations of trying to change policy is that frequently repeated myths can short-circuit careful thinking about current policies and keep policy makers from recognizing better alternatives.

That is particularly frustrating—and dangerous—when the topic is nuclear weapons.

Under current policies, accidental or mistaken nuclear war is more likely than it should be. Given the consequences, that’s a big deal.

We’ve posted previously about the dangers of the US policy of keeping nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert so that they can be launched quickly in response to warning of attack. There is a surprisingly long list of past incidents in which human and technical errors have led to false warning of attack in both the both US and Soviet Union/Russia—increasing the risk of an accidental nuclear war.

(Source: Dept. of Defense)

Missile launch officers. (Source: Dept. of Defense)

This risk is particularly high in times of tension—and especially during a crisis—since in that case the people in charge are much more likely to interpret false or ambiguous warning as being real.

The main problem here is silo-based missiles (ICBMs), since they are at known locations an adversary could target. The argument goes that launch-on-warning allows the ICBMs to be launched before an incoming attack could destroy them, and that this deters an attack from occurring in the first place.

But deterring an attack does not depend on our land-based missiles. Most of the US nuclear force is at sea, hidden under the ocean in submarines, invulnerable to attack. And since the sub-based missiles can’t be attacked, they are not under the same pressure to launch quickly.

It’s for this reason that the sensible thing to do is to take ICBMs off hair-trigger alert and eliminate options for launching on warning of attack, which would eliminate the possibility of mistaken launches due to false or ambiguous warning. Security experts and high-level military officials agree.

(It’s worth noting that the US does not have a launch-on-warning doctrine, meaning that there is no requirement to launch on warning. But it continues to maintain launch-on-warning as an option, and to do that it needs to keep its ICBMs on hair-trigger alert.)

The myth of the “re-alerting race”

The main reason administration officials give for keeping missiles on alert is the “re-alerting race” and crisis instability. The argument is that if the United States takes its missiles off hair-trigger alert and a crisis starts to brew, it would want to put them back on alert so they would not be vulnerable to an attack. And the act of putting them back on alert—“re-alerting”—could exacerbate the crisis and lead Russia to assume the United States was readying to launch an attack. If Russia had de-alerted its missiles, it would then re-alert them, further exacerbating the crisis. Both countries could have an incentive to act quickly, leading to instability.

This argument gets repeated so often that people assume it’s simply true.

However, the fallacy of this argument is that there is no good reason for the US to re-alert its ICBMs in a crisis. They are not needed for deterrence since, as noted above, deterrence is provided by the submarine force. Moreover, historical incidents have shown that having missiles on alert during a crisis increases the risk of a mistaken launch due to false or ambiguous warning. So having ICBMs on alert in a crisis increases the risk without providing a benefit.

The administration should not just take ICBMs off hair trigger alert. It should also eliminate the option for launching nuclear weapons on warning.

Eliminating launch-on-warning options would mean you do not re-alert the ICBMs in a crisis. With no re-alerting, there is no re-alerting race.

President Obama should act

Obama in Prague, 2009 (Source: Dept of State)

Obama in Prague, 2009 (Source: Dept of State)

Maybe administration officials have not thought about this as carefully as they should—although, hopefully, a key policy change that would reduce the risk of accidental nuclear war is not being rejected because of sloppy thinking.

Maybe the real reason is simply inertia in the system. The president’s 2009 speech in Prague showed he is willing to think outside the box on these issues to reduce the risk of nuclear catastrophe. So maybe it’s his advisors who are not willing to take such a step.

In that case, he should listen to the words of Gen. Eugene Habiger, former Commander in Chief of U.S. Strategic Command—the man in charge of US nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, he said:

We need to bring the alert status down of our ICBMs. And we’ve been dealing with that for many, many decades. … It’s one of those things where the services are not gonna do anything until the Big Kahuna says, “Take your missiles off alert,” and then by golly within hours the missiles and subs will be off alert.

The Big Kahuna is president until January 20, 2017. Hopefully he will get beyond the myth that has frozen sensible action on this issue, and take the sensible step of ending launch-on-warning.

Success for Cluster Munitions Divestment

“Great news!” said Don’t Bank on the Bomb’s Susi Snyder in a recent blog post, “American company Textron has announced it will end its involvement with cluster munitions.”

This decision marks a major success for those who have pushed for a cluster munition divestment in an effort to stigmatize the weapons and the companies that create them. As Snyder explained later in her article:

“PAX and campaigners active in the Stop Explosive Investments campaign have engaged tirelessly with many investors over the years to urge them to cease their financial support of Textron. This article’s analysis suggests that  pressure from the financial sector has had an effect:

‘A Couple of Hidden Positives: On the surface, yesterday’s announcement seems like a non-event, but we come away with two observations that we think investors shouldn’t overlook. First off, we note that SFW served as a product that limited the “ownability” of TXT shares among foreign investment funds, due largely to interpretations of where TXT stood vis-a-vis international weapons treaties. Arguably, the discontinuation of this product line could expand the addressable investor base for TXT shares by a material amount (i.e. most of Europe), in an industrial vertical (A&D) where investable choices are slim but performance has been strong over the years.’”

Stop Explosive Investments wrote a more detailed post about Textron’s announcement:

“US company Textron announced it will end its involvement with cluster munitions. It produced the Sensor Fuzed Weapon (SFW), which is banned under the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM). This good news comes a few days before the Sixth Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions in Geneva next week.

“Over the years, CMC-member PAX has identified Textron as a cluster munition producer in the  “Worldwide Investments in Cluster Munitions; a shared responsibility” report. The 2016 update revealed that worldwide, 49 financial institutions had  financial ties to Textron, with a total of US$12370,83 million invested.

“‘Campaigners active in the Stop Explosive Investments campaign have engaged tirelessly with many investors over the years to urge them to cease their financial support of Textron’,  says Megan Burke, director of the Cluster Munition Coalition. ‘The company’s decision to end their cluster munition production is a great success for all of us working for a world free of cluster munitions.’

“Research by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International showed that Textron’s Sensor Fuzed Weapons were used in Yemen by the Saudi-led coalition. On 27 May 2016, the United States government blocked the transfer of these Sensor Fuzed Weapons to Saudi Arabia because of concern at the use of cluster munitions in or near civilian areas. Now, Textron decided to end the production of these weapons all together. The company cites a decline in orders and ‘the current political climate’ as motivation, an indication that the CCM is the global norm and that the stigma associated with cluster bombs is ever-growing.

“Pressure from the financial sector has likely also impacted this decision. As a financial analyst explains in this article: ‘[…] interpretations of where Textron stood vis-a-vis international weapons treaties’ meant many (European) investors had excluded the company from their investment universe. Suzanne Oosterwijk from PAX: ‘Such exclusions send a clear message to companies that they are not acceptable business partners as long as they are involved in the production of cluster munitions.’

“Since the launch of the Stop Explosive Investments campaign dozens of financial institutions have installed policies to disinvest from cluster munition producers, and 10 states have legislation to prohibit such investments.

“On Tuesday 6 September during the Sixth Meeting of States Parties, the CMC and PAX will hold a side event on disinvestment form cluster munitions and will urge more countries to ban investments in cluster munitions producers.”

The success seen from cluster munitions divestment provides further evidence that divestment is an effective means of impacting company decisions. This an encouraging announcement for those hoping to decrease the world’s nuclear weapons via divestment.


Podcast: Could an Earthquake Destroy Humanity?

Earthquakes as Existential Risks

Earthquakes are not typically considered existential or even global catastrophic risks, and for good reason: they’re localized events. While they may be devastating to the local community, rarely do they impact the whole world. But is there some way an earthquake could become an existential or catastrophic risk? Could a single earthquake put all of humanity at risk? In our increasingly connected world, could an earthquake sufficiently exacerbate a biotech, nuclear or economic hazard, triggering a cascading set of circumstances that could lead to the downfall of modern society?

Seth Baum of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute and Ariel Conn of FLI consider extreme earthquake scenarios to figure out if there’s any way such a risk is remotely plausible. This podcast was produced in a similar vein to Myth Busters and xkcd’s What If series.

We only consider a few scenarios in this podcast, but we’d love to hear from other people. Do you have ideas for an extreme situation that could transform a locally devastating earthquake into a global calamity?

This episode features insight from seismologist Martin Chapman of Virginia Tech.

Note from FLI: Among our objectives is to inspire discussion and a sharing of ideas. As such, we interview researchers and thought leaders who we believe will help spur discussion within our community. The interviews do not necessarily represent FLI’s opinions or views.

Op-ed: When NATO Countries Were U.S. Nuclear Targets

Sixty years ago, the U.S. had over 60 nuclear weapons aimed at Poland, ready to launch. At least one of those targeted Warsaw, where, on July 8-9, allied leaders will meet for the biennial NATO summit meeting.

In fact, recently declassified documents, reveal that the U.S. once had their nuclear sites set on over 270 targets scattered across various NATO countries. Most people assume that the U.S. no longer poses a nuclear threat to its own NATO allies, but that assumption may be wrong.

In 2012, Alex Wellerstein created an interactive program called NukeMap to help people visualize how deadly a nuclear weapon would be if detonated in any country of the world. He recently went a step further and ran models to see how far nuclear fallout might drift from its original target.

It turns out, if the U.S. – either unilaterally or with NATO – were to launch a nuclear attack against Russia, countries such as Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, Ukraine, and even Poland would be at severe risk of nuclear fallout. Similarly, attacks against China or North Korea would harm people in South Korea, Myanmar and Thailand.

Even a single nuclear weapon, detonated too close to a border, on a day that the wind is blowing in the wrong direction, would be devastating for innocent people living in nearby allied countries.

While older targeting data is declassified, today’s nuclear targets have shifted. And the public is kept in the dark about how many countries may be at risk of becoming collateral damage in the event of a nuclear attack anywhere in their region of the globe.

Most people believe that no leader would intentionally fire a nuke at another country. And perhaps no sane leader would intentionally do so – although that’s not something to count on as political tensions increase – but there’s a very good chance that one of the nuclear powers will accidentally launch a nuke in response to inaccurate data.

The accidental launch of a nuclear weapon is something that has almost happened many times in the past, and it only takes one nuclear weapon to kill hundreds of thousands of people. Yet almost 30 years after the Cold War ended, 15,000 nuclear weapons remain, with more than 90% of them split between the U.S. and Russia.

Meanwhile, relations are deteriorating between Russia, China, and the US/ NATO. This doesn’t just increase the risk of intentional nuclear war; it increases the likelihood that a country will misinterpret bad satellite or radar data and launch a retaliatory strike to a false alarm.

Many nuclear and military experts, including Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, warn that the threat of a nuclear attack is greater now than it was during the Cold War.

Major international developments have occurred in the two years since the last NATO meeting. In a recent op-ed in Newsweek, NATO president Jens Stoltenberg overviewed many of the problems that they must address:

“There is no denying that the world has become more dangerous in recent years. Moscow’s actions in Ukraine have shaken the European security order. Turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa has unleashed a host of challenges, not least the largest refugee and migrant crisis since the Second World War. We face security challenges of a magnitude and complexity much greater than only a few years ago. Add to that the uncertainty surrounding “Brexit”—the consequences of which are unclear—and it is easy to be concerned about the future.”

These are serious problems indeed, but 15,000 nuclear weapons in the hands of just a couple leaders only increases global destabilization. If NATO is serious about increasing security, then we must significantly decrease the number of nuclear weapons – and the number of nuclear targets ― around the world.

Deterrence is an important defensive posture, and this is not a call for NATO to encourage countries to eliminate all nuclear weapons. Instead, it is a reminder that we must learn from the past. Those who are enemies today could be friends in a safer, more stable future, but that hope is lost if a nuclear war ever occurs.

The Problem with Brexit: 21st Century Challenges Require International Cooperation

Retreating from international institutions and cooperation will handicap humanity as we tackle our greatest problems.

The UK’s referendum in favor of leaving the EU and the rise of nationalist ideologies in the US and Europe is worrying on multiple fronts. Nationalism espoused by the likes of Donald Trump (U.S.), Nigel Farage (U.K.), Marine Le Pen (France), and Heinz-Christian Strache (Austria) may lead to a resurgence of some of the worst problems of the first half of 20th century. These leaders are calling for policies that would constrain trade and growth, encourage domestic xenophobia, and increase rivalries and suspicion between countries.

Even more worrying, however, is the bigger picture. In the 21st century, our greatest challenges will require global solutions. Retreating from international institutions and cooperation will handicap humanity’s ability to address our most pressing upcoming challenges.

The Nuclear Age

Many of the challenges of the 20th century – issues of public health, urbanization, and economic and educational opportunity – were national problems that could be dealt with at the national level. July 16th, 1945 marked a significant turning point. On that day, American scientists tested the first nuclear weapon in the New Mexican desert. For the first time in history, individual human beings had within their power a technology capable of destroying all of humanity.

Thus, nuclear weapons became the first truly global problem. Weapons with such a destructive force were of interest to every nation and person on the planet. Only international cooperation could produce a solution.

Despite a dangerous arms race between the US and the Soviet Union — including a history of close calls — humanity survived 70 years without a catastrophic global nuclear war. This was in large part due to international institutions and agreements that discouraged wars and further proliferation.

But what if we replayed the Cold War without the U.N. mediating disputes between nuclear adversaries? And without the bitter taste of the Second World War fresh in the minds of all who participated? Would we still have the same benign outcome?

We cannot say what such a revisionist history would look like, but the chances of a catastrophic outcome would surely be higher.

21st Century Challenges

The 21st century will only bring more challenges that are global in scope, requiring more international solutions. Climate change by definition requires a global solution since carbon emissions will lead to global warming regardless of which countries emit them.

In addition, continued development of new powerful technologies — such as artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, and nanotechnologies — will put increasingly large power in the hands of the people who develop and control them. These technologies have the potential to improve the human condition and solve some of our biggest problems. Yet they also have the potential to cause tremendous damage if misused.

Whether through accident, miscalculation, or madness, misuse of these powerful technologies could pose a catastrophic or even existential risk. If a Cold-War-style arms race for new technologies occurs, it is only a matter of time before a close call becomes a direct hit.

Working Together

As President Obama said in his speech at Hiroshima, “Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.”

Over the next century, technological progress can greatly improve the human experience. To ensure a positive future, humanity must find the wisdom to handle the increasingly powerful technologies that it is likely to produce and to address the global challenges that are likely to arise.

Experts have blamed the resurgence of nationalism on anxieties over globalization, multiculturalism, and terrorism. Whatever anxieties there may be, we live in a global world where our greatest challenges are increasingly global, and we need global solutions. If we resist international cooperation, we will battle these challenges with one, perhaps both, arms tied behind our back.

Humanity must learn to work together to tackle the global challenges we face. Now is the time to strengthen international institutions, not retreat from them.

U.S. Conference of Mayors Supports Cambridge Nuclear Divestment

The U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) unanimously adopted a resolution at their annual meeting this week in support of nuclear reduction. The resolution called for the next U.S. President to:

  • “pursue diplomacy with other nuclear-armed states,”
  • “participate in negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons,” and
  • “cut nuclear weapons spending  and redirect funds to meet the needs of cities.”

In addition, the USCM resolution also praised Cambridge Mayor Denise Simmons and the city council members for their actions to divest from nuclear weapons:

“The USCM commends Mayor Denise Simmons and the Cambridge City Council for demonstrating bold leadership at the municipal level by unanimously deciding on April 2, 2016, to divest their one-billion-dollar city pension fund from all companies involved in production of nuclear weapons systems and in entities investing in such companies.”

In an email to FLI Mayor Simmons expressed her gratitude to the USCM, saying,

“I am honored to receive such commendation from the USCM, and I hope this is a sign that nuclear divestment is just getting started in the United States. Divestment is an important tool that politicians and citizens alike can use to send a powerful message that we want a world safe from nuclear weapons.”

The resolution warns that relations between the U.S. and other nuclear-armed countries are increasingly tenuous. It states, “the nuclear-armed countries are edging ever closer to direct military confrontation in conflict zones around the world.”

Moreover, the Obama administration may have overseen a significant reduction of the nuclear stockpile. But nuclear countries still hold over 15,000 nuclear weapons, with the U.S. possessing nearly half. Furthermore, the President’s budget plans call for $1 trillion to be spent on new nuclear weapons over the next three decades.

These new weapons will include the B61-12, which has increased accuracy and a range of optional warhead sizes. The smallest warhead the B61-12 will carry is roughly 50 times smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. With smaller explosions and increased accuracy, many experts worry that we may be more likely to use the new nukes.

The USCM would rather see the U.S. government invest more of that $1 trillion back into its cities and communities.


What is the USCM?

The USCM represents cities with populations greater than 30,000, for a total of over 1400 cities. Resolutions that they adopt at their annual meeting become official policy for the whole group.

Only 313 American cities are members of the international group, Mayors for Peace, but for 11 years now, the USCM has adopted nuclear resolutions that support Mayors for Peace.

Mayors for Peace was established by Hiroshima Mayor Takeshi Araki in 1982 to decrease the risks of nuclear weapons. To sign on, a mayor must support the elimination of nuclear weapons. In 2013, Mayors for Peace established their 2020 Vision Campaign, which seeks eliminate nuclear weapons by 2020. And as of June 1, 2016, the group counted over 7,000 member cities from over 160 countries. They hope to have 10,000 member cities by 2020.

The USCM’s official press release about this nuclear resolution also added:

“This year, for the first time, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Washington, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser added their names as co-sponsors of the Mayors for Peace resolution.”

Read the official resolution here, along with a complete list of the 23 mayors who sponsored it.


Watch as Mayor Simmons announces the Cambridge decision to divest from nuclear weapons at the MIT nuclear conference:


Existential Risks Are More Likely to Kill You Than Terrorism

People tend to worry about the wrong things.

According to a 2015 Gallup Poll, 51% of Americans are “very worried” or “somewhat worried” that a family member will be killed by terrorists. Another Gallup Poll found that 11% of Americans are afraid of “thunder and lightning.” Yet the average person is at least four times more likely to die from a lightning bolt than a terrorist attack.

Similarly, statistics show that people are more likely to be killed by a meteorite than a lightning strike (here’s how). Yet I suspect that most people are less afraid of meteorites than lightning. In these examples and so many others, we tend to fear improbable events while often dismissing more significant threats.

One finds a similar reversal of priorities when it comes to the worst-case scenarios for our species: existential risks. These are catastrophes that would either annihilate humanity or permanently compromise our quality of life. While risks of this sort are often described as “high-consequence, improbable events,” a careful look at the numbers by leading experts in the field reveals that they are far more likely than most of the risks people worry about on a daily basis.

Let’s use the probability of dying in a car accident as a point of reference. Dying in a car accident is more probable than any of the risks mentioned above. According to the 2016 Global Challenges Foundation report, “The annual chance of dying in a car accident in the United States is 1 in 9,395.” This means that if the average person lived 80 years, the odds of dying in a car crash will be 1 in 120. (In percentages, that’s 0.01% per year, or 0.8% over a lifetime.)

Compare this to the probability of human extinction stipulated by the influential “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change,” namely 0.1% per year.* A human extinction event could be caused by an asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruption, nuclear war, a global pandemic, or a superintelligence takeover. Although this figure appears small, over time it can grow quite significant. For example, it means that the likelihood of human extinction over the course of a century is 9.5%. It follows that your chances of dying in a human extinction event are nearly 10 times higher than dying in a car accident.

But how seriously should we take the 9.5% figure? Is it a plausible estimate of human extinction? The Stern Review is explicit that the number isn’t based on empirical considerations; it’s merely a useful assumption. The scholars who have considered the evidence, though, generally offer probability estimates higher than 9.5%. For example, a 2008 survey taken during a Future of Humanity Institute conference put the likelihood of extinction this century at 19%. The philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom argues that it “would be misguided” to assign a probability of less than 25% to an existential catastrophe before 2100, adding that “the best estimate may be considerably higher.” And in his book Our Final Hour, Sir Martin Rees claims that civilization has a fifty-fifty chance of making it through the present century.

My own view more or less aligns with Rees’, given that future technologies are likely to introduce entirely new existential risks. A discussion of existential risks five decades from now could be dominated by scenarios that are unknowable to contemporary humans, just like nuclear weapons, engineered pandemics, and the possibility of “grey goo” were unknowable to people in the fourteenth century. This suggests that Rees may be underestimating the risk, since his figure is based on an analysis of currently known technologies.

If these estimates are believed, then the average person is 19 times, 25 times, or even 50 times more likely to encounter an existential catastrophe than to perish in a car accident, respectively.

These figures vary so much in part because estimating the risks associated with advanced technologies requires subjective judgments about how future technologies will develop. But this doesn’t mean that such judgments must be arbitrary or haphazard: they can still be based on technological trends and patterns of human behavior. In addition, other risks like asteroid impacts and supervolcanic eruptions can be estimated by examining the relevant historical data. For example, we know that an impactor capable of killing “more than 1.5 billion people” occurs every 100,000 years or so, and supereruptions happen about once every 50,000 years.

Nonetheless, it’s noteworthy that all of the above estimates agree that people should be more worried about existential risks than any other risk mentioned.

Yet how many people are familiar with the concept of an existential risk? How often do politicians discuss large-scale threats to human survival in their speeches? Some political leaders — including one of the candidates currently running for president — don’t even believe that climate change is real. And there are far more scholarly articles published about dung beetles and Star Trek than existential risks. This is a very worrisome state of affairs. Not only are the consequences of an existential catastrophe irreversible — that is, they would affect everyone living at the time plus all future humans who might otherwise have come into existence — but the probability of one happening is far higher than most people suspect.

Given the maxim that people should always proportion their fears to the best available evidence, the rational person should worry about the above risks in the following order (from least to most risky): terrorism, lightning strikes, meteorites, car crashes, and existential catastrophes. The psychological fact is that our intuitions often fail to track the dangers around us. So, if we want to ensure a safe passage of humanity through the coming decades, we need to worry less about the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, and focus more on the threat of an existential catastrophe.

x-risksarielfigure*Editor’s note: To clarify, the 0.1% from the Stern Report is used here purely for comparison to the numbers calculated in this article. The number was an assumption made at Stern and has no empirical backing. You can read more about this here.

Top Scientists Call for Obama to Take Nuclear Missiles off Hair-Trigger Alert

The following post was written by Lisbeth Gronlund, co-director of the Global Security Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More than 90 prominent US scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates and 90 National Academy of Sciences members, sent a letter to President Obama yesterday urging him to take US land-based nuclear missiles off hair-trigger alert and remove launch-on-warning options from US warplans.

As we’ve discussed previously on this blog and elsewhere, keeping these weapons on hair-trigger alert so they can be launched within minutes creates the risk of a mistaken launch in response to false warning of an incoming attack.

This practice dates to the Cold War, when US and Soviet military strategists feared a surprise first-strike nuclear attack that could destroy land-based missiles. By keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert, they could be launched before they could be destroyed on the ground. But as the letter notes, removing land-based missiles from hair-trigger alert “would still leave many hundreds of submarine-based warheads on alert—many more than necessary to maintain a reliable and credible deterrent.”

“Land-based nuclear missiles on high alert present the greatest risk of mistaken launch,” the letter states. “National leaders would have only a short amount of time—perhaps 10 minutes—to assess a warning and make a launch decision before these missiles could be destroyed by an incoming attack.”

Minuteman III launch officers (Source: US Air Force)

Minuteman III launch officers (Source: US Air Force)

Past false alarms

Over the past few decades there have been numerous U.S. and Russian false alarms—due to technical failures, human errors and misinterpretations of data—that could have prompted a nuclear launch. The scientists’ letter points out that today’s heightened tension between the United States and Russia increases that risk.

The scientists’ letter reminds President Obama that he called for taking nuclear-armed missiles off hair-trigger alert after being elected president. During his 2008 presidential campaign, he also noted, “[K]eeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

Other senior political and military officials have also called for an end to hair-trigger alert.

The scientists’ letter comes at an opportune time, since the White House is considering what steps the president could take in his remaining time in office to reduce the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

The Collective Intelligence of Women Could Save the World

Neil deGrasse Tyson was once asked about his thoughts on the cosmos. In a slow, gloomy voice, he intoned, “The universe is a deadly place. At every opportunity, it’s trying to kill us. And so is Earth. From sinkholes to tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, tsunamis.” Tyson humorously described a very real problem: the universe is a vast obstacle course of catastrophic dangers. Asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and global pandemics represent existential risks that could annihilate our species or irreversibly catapult us back into the Stone Age.

But nature is the least of our worries. Today’s greatest existential risks stem from advanced technologies like nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and even artificial superintelligence. These tools could trigger a disaster of unprecedented proportions. Exacerbating this situation are “threat multipliers” — issues like climate change and biodiveristy loss, which, while devastating in their own right, can also lead to an escalation of terrorism, pandemics, famines, and potentially even the use of WTDs (weapons of total destruction).

The good news is that none of these existential threats are inevitable. Humanity can overcome every single known danger. But accomplishing this will require the smartest groups working together for the common good of human survival.

So, how do we ensure that we have the smartest groups working to solve the problem?

Get women involved.

A 2010 study, published in Science, made two unexpected discoveries. First, it established that groups can exhibit a collective intelligence (or c factor). Most of us are familiar with general human intelligence, which describes a person’s intelligence level across a broad spectrum of cognitive tasks. It turns out groups also have a similar “collective” intelligence that determines how successfully they can navigate these cognitive tasks. This is an important finding because “research, management, and many other kinds of tasks are increasingly accomplished by groups — working both face-to-face and virtually.” To optimize group performance, we need to understand what makes a group more intelligent.

This leads to the second unexpected discovery. Intuitively, one might think that groups with really smart members will themselves be really smart. This is not the case. The researchers found no strong correlation between the average intelligence of members and the collective intelligence of the group. Similarly, one might suspect that the group’s IQ will increase if a member of the group has a particularly high IQ. Surely a group with Noam Chomsky will perform better than one in which he’s replaced by Joe Schmo. But again, the study found no strong correlation between the smartest person in the group and the group’s collective smarts.

Instead, the study found three factors linked to group intelligence. The first pertains to the “social sensitivity” of group members, measured by the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test. This term refers to one’s ability to infer the emotional states of others by picking up on certain non-verbal clues. The second concerns the number of speaking turns taken by members of the group. “In other words,” the authors write, “groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking.”

The last factor relates to the number of female members: the more women in the group, the higher the group’s IQ. As the authors of the study explained, “c was positively and significantly correlated with the proportion of females in the group.” If you find this surprising, you’re not alone: the authors themselves didn’t anticipate it, nor were they looking for a gender effect.

Why do women make groups smarter? The authors suggest that it’s because women are, generally speaking, more socially sensitive than men, and the link between social sensitivity and collective intelligence is statistically significant.

Another possibility is that men tend to dominate conversations more than women, which can disrupt the flow of turn-taking. Multiple studies have shown that women are interrupted more often than men; that when men interrupt women, it’s often to assert dominance; and that men are more likely to monopolize professional meetings. In other words, there’s robust empirical evidence for what the writer and activist Rebecca Solnit describes as “mansplaining.”

These data have direct implications for existential riskology:

Given the unique, technogenic dangers that haunt the twenty-first century, we need the smartest groups possible to tackle the problems posed by existential risks. We need groups comprised of women.

Yet the existential risk community is marked by a staggering imbalance of gender participation. For example, a random sample of 40 members of the “Existential Risk” group on Facebook (of which I am an active member) included only 3 women. Similar asymmetries can be found in many of the top research institutions working on global challenges.

This dearth of female scholars constitutes an existential emergency. If the studies above are correct, then the groups working on existential risk issues are not nearly as intelligent as they could be.

The obvious next question is: How can the existential risk community rectify this potentially dangerous situation? Some answers are implicit in the data above: for example, men could make sure that women have a voice in conversations, aren’t interrupted, and don’t get pushed to the sidelines in conversations monopolized by men.

Leaders of existential risk studies should also strive to ensure that women are adequately represented at conferences, that their work is promoted to the same extent as men’s, and that the environments in which existential risk scholarship takes place is free of discrimination. Other factors that have been linked to women avoiding certain fields include the absence of visible role models, the pernicious influence of gender stereotypes, the onerous demands of childcare, a lack of encouragement, and the statistical preference of women for professions that focus on “people” rather than “things.”

No doubt there are other factors not mentioned, and other strategies that could be identified. What can those of us already ensconced in the field do to achieve greater balance? What changes can the community make to foster more diversity? How can we most effectively maximize the collective intelligence of teams working on existential risks?

As Sir Martin Rees writes in Our Final Hour, “what happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.” Future generations may very well thank us for taking the link between collective intelligence and female participation seriously.

Note: there’s obviously a moral argument for ensuring that women have equal opportunities, get paid the same amount as men, and don’t have to endure workplace discrimination. The point of this article is to show that even if one brackets moral considerations, there are still compelling reasons for making the field more diverse. (For more , see chapter 14 of my book, which  lays out a similar argument.

How Could a Failed Computer Chip Lead to Nuclear War?

The US early warning system is on watch 24/7, looking for signs of a nuclear missile launched at the United States. As a highly complex system with links to sensors around the globe and in space, it relies heavily on computers to do its job. So, what happens if there is a glitch in the computers?

Between November 1979 and June 1980, those computers led to several false warnings of all-out nuclear attack by the Soviet Union—and a heart-stopping middle-of-the-night telephone call.

NORA command post, c. 1982. (Source: US National Archives)

NORA command post, c. 1982. (Source: US National Archives)

I described one of these glitches previously. That one, in 1979, was actually caused by human andsystems errors: A technician put a training tape in a computer that then—inexplicably—routed the information to the main US warning centers. The Pentagon’s investigator stated that they were never able to replicate the failure mode to figure out what happened.

Just months later, one of the millions of computer chips in the early warning system went haywire, leading to incidents on May 28, June 3, and June 6, 1980.

The June 3 “attack”

By far the most serious of the computer chip problems occurred on  early June 3, when the main US warning centers all received notification of a large incoming nuclear strike. The president’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brezezinski woke at 3 am to a phone call telling him a large nuclear attack on the United States was underway and he should prepare to call the president. He later said he had not woken up his wife, assuming they would all be dead in 30 minutes.

Like the November 1979 glitch, this one led NORAD to convene a high-level “Threat Assessment Conference,” which includes the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is just below the level that involves the president. Taking this step sets lots of things in motion to increase survivability of U.S. strategic forces and command and control systems. Air Force bomber crews at bases around the US got in their planes and started the engines, ready for take-off. Missile launch offices were notified to standby for launch orders. The Pacific Command’s Airborne Command Post took off from Hawaii. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post at Andrews Air Force Base taxied into position for a rapid takeoff.

The warning centers, by comparing warning signals they were getting from several different sources, were able to determine within a few minutes they were seeing a false alarm—likely due to a computer glitch. The specific cause wasn’t identified until much later. At that point, a Pentagon document matter-of-factly stated that a 46-cent computer chip “simply wore out.”

Short decision times increase nuclear risks

As you’d hope, the warning system has checks built into it. So despite the glitches that caused false readings, the warning officers were able to catch the error in the short time available before the president would have to make a launch decision.

We know these checks are pretty good because there have been a surprising number of incidents like these, and so far none have led to nuclear war.

But we also know they are not foolproof.

The risk is compounded by the US policy of keeping its missile on hair-trigger alert, poised to be launched before an incoming attack could land. Maintaining an option of launching quickly on warning of an attack makes the time available for sorting out confusing signals and avoiding a mistaken launch very short.

For example, these and other unexpected incidents have led to considerable confusion on the part of the operators. What if the confusion had persisted longer? What might have happened if something else had been going on that suggested the warning was real? In his book, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, former Secretary of Defense William Perry asks what might have happened if these glitches “had occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis, or a Mideast war?”

There might also be unexpected coincidences. What if, for example, US sensors had detected an actual Soviet missile launch around the same time? In the early 1980s the Soviets were test launching 50 to 60 missiles per year—more than one per week. Indeed, US detection of the test of a Soviet submarine-launch missile had led to a Threat Assessment Conference just weeks before this event.

Given enough time to analyze the data, warning officers on duty would be able to sort out most false alarms. But the current system puts incredible time pressure on the decision process, giving warning officers and then more senior officials only a few minutes to assess the situation. If they decide the warning looks real, they would alert the president, who would have perhaps 10 minutes to decide whether to launch.

Keeping missiles on hair-trigger alert and requiring a decision within minutes of whether or not to launch is something like tailgating when you’re driving on the freeway. Leaving only a small distance between you and the car in front of you reduces the time you have to react. You may be able to get away with it for a while, but the longer you put yourself in that situation the greater the chance that some unforeseen situation, or combination of events, will lead to disaster.

In his book, William Perry makes a passionate case for taking missiles off alert:

“These stories of false alarms have focused a searing awareness of the immense peril we face when in mere minutes our leaders must make life-and-death decisions affecting the whole planet. Arguably, short decision times for response were necessary during the Cold War, but clearly those arguments do not apply today; yet we are still operating with an outdated system fashioned for Cold War exigencies.

“It is time for the United States to make clear the goal of removing all nuclear weapons everywhere from the prompt-launch status in which nuclear-armed ballistic missiles are ready to be launched in minutes.”

Wheel of Near Misfortune


To see what other incidents have increased the risks posed by nuclear weapons over the years, visit our new Wheel of Near Misfortune.

Will We Use the New Nuclear Weapons?


B61-12 gravity bomb just before it penetrates the ground in a test last year. Photo courtesy National Nuclear Security Administration.

In 2015, the Pentagon successfully tested the B61-12 nuclear gravity bomb as part of a  $1 trillion effort to make the nuclear arsenal more accurate and lethal. This redesigned weapon is equipped with “dial-a-yield” technology, which allows the military to adjust the destructive force of the B61-12 before launch, for an explosive range of 0.3 to 50 kilotons of TNT.  Many government officials believe that not only does rebuilding this bomb violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but that the U.S. is more likely to launch this nuclear weapon at targets.

The B61 was one of the primary thermonuclear weapons that the U.S. built during the Cold War. At the time, the U.S. and European Union deployed American tactical (short-range) and strategic (long-range) nuclear weapons to counter the Soviet threat. Tactical weapons are smaller, shorter range attack missiles, which include high-caliber artillery, ground-to-ground missiles, combat support aircraft, and sea-based torpedoes, missiles, and anti-submarine weapons.

Modifications (or “mods”) of the B61 were designed to be both strategic and tactical. For example, the B61-4 is a tactical mod with a low-yield range of 0.3 to 0.5 kilotons, while the strategic B61-7 can carry yields ranging from 10 to 360 kilotons. The B61-11, the most recent of the strategic B61 mods, carries only a single yield of 400 kilotons. This weapon was designed in 1997 as a “bunker buster” — a nuclear weapon with limited earth-penetration, designed to bore meters into the ground before exploding.

The B61-12 is all of these weapons in one. The yield range of this new nuclear weapons spans that of the B61-4 up to the low end of the B61-7. And while the B61-12 won’t be as powerful as the B61-11, it will feature comparable bunker-busting capabilities, with greatly increased accuracy. Boeing developed four maneuverable fins for the new gravity bomb that will work with the new electronics system to zero in on targets – even those deep underground, such as tunnels and weapons bunkers.

The image of a nuclear explosion that springs to mind most often is either of the bombs dropped on Japan or the massive, 50 megaton Tsar Bomba that the Soviets tested in the 60s. The bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “only” 15 and 20 kilotons, respectively, and they killed over 250,000 people. The B61-12 is a completely different beast.

At 0.3 kilotons, the smallest yield for the B61-12 is 50 times smaller than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, while the maximum yield of 50 kilotons is over twice as large. This range of potential and accurate devastation is unlike anything we’ve seen. As the Director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, Hans Kristensen, notes in the National Interest,  “We do not have a nuclear-guided bomb in our arsenal today… It [the B61-12] is a new weapon.”

According to a quote by scholar Robert C. Aldridge in the same National Interest article, “Making a weapon twice as accurate has the same effect on lethality as making the warhead eight times as powerful. Phrased another way, making the missile twice as precise would only require one-eighth the explosive power to maintain the same lethality.”

This is not your grandparent’s nuclear bomb.

Of course, these new modifications won’t happen for free. The B61-12 is first of the five new nuclear warheads the government plans to build over the next three decades, at a total estimated cost (including delivery systems) of $1 trillion dollars. Not only is this a lot of money, but the government justifies these smaller weapons as both safer and useable.

According to Zachary Keck from the National Interest, “This combination of accuracy and low-yield make the B61-12 the most usable nuclear bomb in America’s arsenal.” Nuclear attack simulations show that if the U.S. were to counterstrike against China’s ICBM silos using a high-yield weapon, 3-4 million people could be killed. However with a low-yield nuclear weapon, this death toll could drop to as little as 700.* With casualties this low, using a nuclear weapon has become thinkable for the first time since the 1940s.

The government has scheduled the production of 4-500 B61-12s over the next 20 years. However, production has already been postponed once from 2017 to 2020 causing the price to double not once, but twice from $2 million for each bomb to $4 million and again to $8 million. Further delays are anticipated and the costs are expected to increase again to $10 million. According to Hans Kristensen and Robert Norris with the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, “The weapon’s overall price tag is expected to exceed $10 billion, with each B61-12 estimated to cost more than the value of its weight in gold.”

In 2009, President Obama pledged a “nuclear-free world” in Prague and was awarded the Peace Prize by the Nobel committee. Though the nuclear stockpile has been reduced, rebuilding this warhead to be the first self-guided weapon makes the B61-12 a new addition nuclear arsenal.

According an article from the New York Times, James N. Miller, who helped establish this plan before leaving his post as under secretary of defense for policy in 2014, using this accurate weapon is a step in the right direction when it comes to increasing accuracy and deterrence. “Though not everyone agrees, I think it’s the right way to proceed,” Mr. Miller said. “Minimizing civilian casualties near foreign military targets.”  General James E. Cartwright, also quoted in the Times article, agreed these mini-nuclear weapons are useful upgrades, but ‘“what going smaller does,” he acknowledged, “is to make the weapon more thinkable.”’

Retired veteran Ellen O. Tauscher, a former under secretary of state for arms control who was also quoted in the Times article, disagreed: “I think there’s a universal sense of frustration. Somebody has to get serious. We’re spending billions of dollars on a status quo that doesn’t make us any safer.”


*Editor’s note: It is unclear whether cutting casualties from millions to thousands would greatly reduce the adversary’s desire to counterattack, given historical reactions to thousands killed at Pearl Harbor or September 11.



The Trillion Dollar Question Obama Left Unanswered in Hiroshima

A soldier carries the briefcase containing nuclear weapons codes for U.S. President Barack Obama. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

This following article, written by Max Tegmark and Frank Wilczek, was originally posted in The Conversation.

As it seeks to modernize its nuclear arsenal, the United States faces a big choice, one which Barack Obama failed to mention during his moving Hiroshima speech on May 27.

Should we spend a trillion dollars to replace each of our thousands of nuclear warheads with a more sophisticated substitute attached to a more lethal delivery system? Or should we keep only enough nuclear weapons needed for a devastatingly effective deterrence against any nuclear aggressor, investing the money saved into other means of making our nation more secure? The first option would allow us to initiate and wage nuclear war. The second would allow us to deter it. These are very different tasks.

As physicists who have studied nuclear reactions and cataclysmic explosions, we are acutely aware that nuclear weapons are so devastating that merely a hundred could annihilate the major population centers of any potential state enemy. That prospect is enough to deter any rational leadership while no number of weapons could deter a mad one. Waging nuclear warfare could involve using vastly more warheads to strike diverse military and industrial targets.

So, is maintaining the ability to initiate nuclear war worth a trillion dollar investment?

The limits of nuclear blackmail

The U.S. and Russia currently have about 7,000 nukes each, largely for historical reasons. That’s over 13 times as many as held by the other seven nuclear powers combined. When the Soviet Union was perceived to be a threat to Europe with its numerically superior conventional forces, the U.S. stood ready to use nuclear weapons in response. We were prepared not only to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others, but also possibly to initiate nuclear warfare, and to use nuclear weapons in battle.

Now the tables have turned and NATO is the dominant nonnuclear force in Europe. But other arguments for maintaining the ability to initiate nuclear war remain, positing the utility of “compellance” (also known as “nuclear blackmail”) or using the threat of nuclear attack to extract concessions. This strategy has been used on several occasions. For example, when President Eisenhower threatened the use of nuclear weapons to compel negotiations ending the Korean War.

In today’s world, with nuclear technology more widely accessible, compellance is no longer straightforward. If a nonnuclear nation feels it is subject to nuclear bullying, it can counter by developing its own nuclear deterrent, or enlisting nuclear allies. For example, U.S. nuclear threats inspired North Korea to mount its own nuclear program, which is, to say the least, not the result we were hoping for.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un looks at a rocket warhead tip after a simulated test of atmospheric reentry of a ballistic missile. Such missiles are often used to deliver nuclear weapons. North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency via REUTERS

Another development is the emergence of modern threats to the U.S. and its allies against which nuclear compellance is rather useless. For example, nuclear weapons didn’t help prevent 9/11. Nor did they help the U.S. in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria or Libya – or in the battle against terrorist groups such as Al-Quaida or the Islamic State.

These considerations raise the question of whether we might actually improve our national security by forswearing compellance and committing to “No First Use.” That is, committing to using nuclear weapons only in response to their use by others. This deterrence-only approach is already the policy of two other major nuclear powers, China and India. It is a mission we could fulfill with a much smaller and cheaper arsenal, freeing up money for other investments in our national security. By easing fear of our intentions, this could also reduce further nuclear proliferation – so far, eight other nations have developed nukes after we bombed Hiroshima, and all except Russia have concluded that deterrence requires fewer than a few hundred nuclear weapons. Indeed, hundreds of warheads may be a more convincing deterrent than thousands, because use of the latter might be an act of self destruction, triggering a decade-long global nuclear winter that would kill most Americans even if no nuclear explosions occurred on U.S. soil.

‘No First Use’ or ‘Pay to Play’?

Whatever one’s opinion on No First Use, it is a question with huge implications for military spending. Were the U.S. to pledge No First Use, we would have no reason to deploy more nuclear weapons than required for deterrence. We could save ourselves four million dollars per hour for the next 30 years, according to government estimates.

Nuclear weapons involve many complex issues. But one crucial question is beautifully simple: is our aim strictly to deter nuclear war, or should we invest the additional resources needed to maintain our ability to initiate it? No First Use, or Pay to Play?

We urge debate moderators, town hall participants and anyone else who gets the opportunity to ask our presidential candidates this crucial question. American voters deserve to know where their candidates stand.

Nuclear Weapons Are Scary — But We Can Do Something About Them

We’re ending our Huffington Post nuclear security series on a high note, with this article by Susi Snyder, explaining how people can take real action to decrease the threat of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are scary. The risk of use by accident, intention or terror. The climate consequences. The fact that they are designed and built to vaporize thousands of people with the push of a button. Scary. Fortunately, there is something we can do.

We know that nuclear weapons are scary, but we must be much louder in defining them as unacceptable, as illegitimate. By following the money, we can cut it off, and while this isn’t the only thing necessary to make nuclear weapons extinct, it will help.

That’s why we made Don’t Bank on the Bomb. Because we want to do something about nuclear weapons. Investments are not neutral. Financing and investing are active choices, based on a clear assessment of a company and its plans. Any financial service delivered to a company by a financial institution or other investor gives a tacit approval of their activities. To make nuclear weapons, you need money. Governments pay for a lot of things, but the companies most heavily involved in producing key components for nuclear warheads need additional investment — from banks, pension funds, and insurance companies — to sustain the working capital they need to maintain and modernize nuclear bombs.

We can steer these companies in a new direction. We can influence their decision making, by making sure our own investments don’t go anywhere near nuclear weapon producing companies. Choosing to avoid investment in controversial items or the companies that make them — from tobacco to nuclear arms — can result in changed policies and reduces the chances of humanitarian harm. Just as it wasn’t smokers that got smoking banned indoors across the planet, it’s not likely that the nuclear armed countries will show the normative leadership necessary to cut off the flow of money to their nuclear bomb producers.

Public exclusions by investors have a stigmatizing effect on companies associated with illegitimate activities. There are lots of examples from child labor to tobacco where financial pressure had a profound impact on industry. While it is unlikely that divestment by a single financial institution or government would enough for a company to cancel its nuclear weapons associated contracts, divestment by even a few institutions, or countries, for the same reason can affect a company’s strategic direction.

It’s worked before.

Divestment, and legal imperatives to divest are powerful tools to compel change. The divestment efforts in the 1980s around South Africa are often cited as having a profound impact on ending the Apartheid Regime. Global efforts divesting from tobacco stocks, have not ended the production or sale of tobacco products, but have compelled the producing companies to significantly modify behaviors — and they’ve helped to delegitimize smoking.

According to a 2013 report by Oxford University “in almost every divestment campaign … from adult services to Darfur, tobacco to Apartheid, divestment campaigns were effective in lobbying for restricting legislation affecting stigmatized firms.” The current global fossil fuel divestment campaign is mobilizing at all levels of society to stigmatize relationships with the fossil fuel industry resulting in divestment by institutions representing over $3.4 trillion in assets, and inspiring investment towards sustainable energy solutions.

US company Lockheed Martin, which describes itself as the worlds largest arms manufacturer, announced it ceased its involvement with the production of rockets, missiles or other delivery systems for cluster munitions and stated it will not accept such orders in the future. The arms manufacturer expressed the hope that its decision to cease the activities in the area of cluster munitions would enable it to be included in investors portfolios again, thereby suggesting that pressure by financial institutions had something to do with its decision.

In Geneva right now, governments are meeting to discuss new legal measures to deal with the deadliest weapons. The majority of governments want action- and want it now. Discussions are taking place about negotiating new legal instruments — new international law about nuclear weapons. The majority of the world’s governments are calling for a comprehensive new treaty to outlaw nuclear weapons.

And they’re talking about divestment too. For example, the Ambassador from Jamaica said:

“A legally-binding instrument on prohibition of nuclear weapons would also serve as a catalyst for the elimination of such weapons. Indeed, it would encourage nuclear weapon states and nuclear umbrella states to stop relying on these types of weapons of mass destruction for their perceived security. Another notable impact of a global prohibition is that it would encourage financial institutions to divest their holdings in nuclear weapons companies.”

Governments are talking about divestment, and it’s something you can do too.

If you have a bank account, find out if your bank invests in nuclear weapon producing companies. You can either look at our website and see if your bank is listed, or you can ask your bank directly. We found that a few people, asking the same bank about questionable investments, was enough to get that bank to adopt a policy preventing them from having any relationship with nuclear weapon producing companies.

Anyone, no matter where they are can have some influence over nuclear weapons decision making. From the heads of government to you from your very own pocket — everyone can do something about this issue. It doesn’t take a lot of time, or money, to make a difference, but it does take you. Together we can stop the scary threat of massive nuclear violence. If you want to help end the threat of nuclear weapons, then put your money where your mouth is, and Don’t Bank on the Bomb.

A Call for Russia and the U.S. to Cooperate in Protecting Against Nuclear Terrorism

The following post was written by Former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry and California Governor Jerry Brown as part of our Huffington Post series on nuclear security.

We believe that the likelihood of a nuclear catastrophe is greater today than it was during the Cold War. In the Cold War our nation lived with the danger of a nuclear war starting by accident or by miscalculation. Indeed, the U.S. had three false alarms during that period, any one of which might have resulted in a nuclear war, and several crises, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, which could have resulted in a nuclear war from a miscalculation on either side.

When the Cold War ended, these dangers receded, but with the increasing hostility between the U.S. and Russia today, they are returning, endangering both of our countries. In addition to those old dangers, two new dangers have arisen—nuclear terrorism, and the possibility of a regional nuclear war. Neither of those dangers existed during the Cold War, but both of them are very real today. In particular, the prospect of a nuclear terror attack looms over our major cities today.

Both Al Qaeda and ISIL have tried to acquire nuclear weapons, and no one should doubt that if they succeeded they would use them. Because the security around nuclear weapons is so high, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that they could buy or steal a nuclear bomb. But if they could obtain some tens of kilograms of highly enriched uranium (HEU), they could make their own improvised nuclear bomb. A significant quantity of HEU is held by civilian organizations, with substantially lower security than in military facilities. Recognizing this danger, President Obama initiated the Nuclear Security Summit meetings, whose objective was to eliminate fissile material not needed, and to provide enhanced security for the remainder.

That program—involving the leaders of over 50 nations that possessed fissile material, has been remarkably successful. In 1992, 52 countries had weapons-usable nuclear material; in 2010, the year of the first Summit, that number stood at 35. Just six years later, we are down to 24, as 11 more countries have eliminated their stocks of highly enriched uranium and plutonium. Additionally, security has been somewhat improved for the remaining material. But progress has stalled, much more remains to be done, and the danger of a terror group obtaining fissile material is still unacceptably high.

A quantity of HEU the size of a basketball would be sufficient to make an improvised nuclear bomb that had the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb and was small enough to fit into a delivery van. Such a bomb, delivered by van (or fishing boat) and detonated in one of our cities, could essentially destroy that city, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties, as well as major social, political, and economic disruptions.

The danger of this threat is increasing every day; indeed, we believe that our population is living on borrowed time. If this catastrophe were allowed to happen, our society would never be the same. Our political system would respond with frenzied actions to ensure that it would not happen again, and we can assume that, in the panic and fear that would ensue, some of those actions would be profoundly unwise. How much better if we took preventive measures now—measures that increase our safety while still preserving our democracy and our way of life.

Two actions cry out to be taken. One is the international effort to improve the security of fissile material. The Nuclear Security Summits have made a very good start in that direction, but they are now over, and the pressure to reduce supplies of fissile material and improve security for the remainder predictably will falter. It is imperative to keep up this pressure, either through continuing summits, or through an institutional process that would be created by the nations that attended the summits and that would be managed by the Disarmament Agency of the UN, which would be given additional powers for that purpose. The U.S. should take the lead to ensure that a robust follow-on program is established.

Beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, the U.S. and Russia, the nations that possess 90 percent of the world’s fissile material, should work closely together, including cooperation in intelligence about terror groups, to ensure that a terror group never obtains enough material to destroy one of their cities. After all, these two nations not only possess most of the fissile material, they are also the prime targets for a terror attack. Moscow and St. Petersburg are in as great a danger as Washington, D.C. and New York City.

Sen. Sam Nunn has proposed that Russia and the U.S. form a bilateral working group specifically charged with outlining concrete actions they could take that would greatly lessen the danger of Al Qaeda or ISIL obtaining enough fissile material to make improvised nuclear bombs. Whatever disagreements exist between our two countries—and they are real and serious—certainly we could agree to work together to protect our cities from destruction.

If our two countries were successful in cooperating in this important area, they might be encouraged to cooperate in other areas of mutual interest, and, in time, even begin to work to resolve other differences. The security of the whole world would be improved if they could do so.

Even with these efforts, we cannot be certain that a terror group could not obtain fissile material. But we can greatly lower that probability by taking responsible actions to protect our societies. If a nuclear bomb were to go off in one of our cities, we would move promptly to take actions that could prevent another attack. So why not do it now? Timely action can prevent the catastrophe from occurring, and can ensure that the preventive actions we take are thoughtful and do not make unnecessary infringements on our civil liberties.

What President Obama Should Say When He Goes to Hiroshima

The following post was written by David Wright and Lisbeth Gronlund as part of our Huffington Post series on nuclear security. Gronlund and Wright are both Senior Scientists and Co-Directors of the Global Security Program for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Yesterday the White House announced that President Obama will visit Hiroshima — the first sitting president to do so — when he is in Japan later this month.

He will give a speech at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which commemorates the atomic bombing by the United States on August 6, 1945.

According to the president’s advisor Ben Rhodes, Obama’s remarks “will reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment — and the President’s personal commitment — to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. As the President has said, the United States has a special responsibility to continue to lead in pursuit of that objective as we are the only nation to have used a nuclear weapon.”

Obama gave his first foreign policy speech in Prague in April 2009, where he talked passionately about ending the threat posed by nuclear weapons. He committed the United States to reducing the role of nuclear weapons in its national security policy and putting an end to Cold War thinking.

A speech in Hiroshima would be a perfect bookend to his Prague speech — but only if he uses the occasion to announce concrete steps he will take before he leaves office. The president must do more than give another passionate speech about nuclear disarmament. The world needs — indeed, is desperate for — concrete action.

Here’s what Mr. Obama should say in Hiroshima:




Thank you for your warm welcome.

I have come to Hiroshima to do several things. First, to recognize those who suffered the humanitarian atrocities of World War II throughout the Pacific region.

Second, to give special recognition to the survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki — the hibakusha — who have worked tirelessly to make sure those bombings remain the only use of nuclear weapons.

And third, to announce three concrete steps I will take as U.S. commander-in-chief to reduce the risk that nuclear weapons will be used again. These are steps along the path I laid out in Prague in 2009.

First, the United States will cut the number of nuclear warheads deployed on long-range forces below the cap of 1,550 in the New START treaty, down to a level of 1,000. This is a level, based on the Pentagon’s analysis, that I have determined is adequate to maintain U.S. security regardless of what other countries may do.

Second, I am cutting back my administration’s trillion-dollar plan to build a new generation of nuclear warheads, missiles, bombers, and submarines. I am beginning by canceling plans for the new long-range nuclear cruise missile, which I believe is unneeded and destabilizing.

Third, I am taking a step to eliminate one of the ultimate absurdities of our world: The most likely way nuclear weapons would be used again may be by mistake.

How is this possible? Let me explain.

Today the United States and Russia each keep many hundreds of nuclear-armed missiles on prompt-launch status — so-called “hair-trigger alert“ — so they can be launched in a matter of minutes in response to warning of an incoming nuclear attack. The warning would be based on data from satellites and ground-based radars, and would come from a computer.

This practice increases the chance of an accidental or unauthorized launch, or a deliberate launch in response to a false warning. U.S. and Russian presidents would have only about 10 minutes to decide whether the warning of an incoming attack was real or not, before giving the order to launch nuclear-armed missiles in retaliation — weapons that cannot be recalled after launch.

And history has shown again and again that the warning systems are fallible.Human and technical errors have led to mistakes that brought the world far too close to nuclear war. That is simply not acceptable. Accidents happen — they shouldn’t lead to nuclear war.

As a candidate and early in my presidency I recognized the danger and absurdity of this situation. I argued that “we should take our nuclear weapons off hair-trigger alert” because “keeping nuclear weapons ready to launch on a moment’s notice is a dangerous relic of the Cold War. Such policies increase the risk of catastrophic accidents or miscalculation.”

Former secretaries of defense as well as generals who oversaw the U.S. nuclear arsenal agree with me, as do science and faith leaders. In his recent book My Journey at the Nuclear Brink, former Secretary of Defense William Perry writes: “These stories of false alarms have focused a searing awareness of the immense peril we face when in mere minutes our leaders must make life-and-death decisions affecting the whole planet.”

General James Cartwright, former commander of U.S. nuclear forces, argues that cyber threats that did not exist during the Cold War may introduce new system vulnerabilities. A report he chaired last year states that “In some respects the situation was better during the Cold War than it is today. Vulnerability to cyber-attack … is a new wild card in the deck.”

And the absurdity may get even worse: China’s military is urging its government to put Chinese missiles on high alert for the first time. China would have to build a missile warning system, which would be as fallible as the U.S. and Russian ones. The United States should help Chinese leaders understand the danger and folly of such a step.

So today I am following through on my campaign pledge. I am announcing that the United States will take all of its land-based missiles off hair-trigger alert and will eliminate launch-on-warning options from its war plans.

These steps will make America — and the world — safer.

Let me end today as I did in Prague seven years ago: “Let us honor our past by reaching for a better future. Let us bridge our divisions, build upon our hopes, accept our responsibility to leave this world more prosperous and more peaceful than we found it. Together we can do it.”

Passing the Nuclear Baton

The following post was written by Joe Cirincione, President of the Ploughshares Fund, as part of our Huffington Post series on nuclear security.

President Obama entered office with a bold vision, determined to end the Cold War thinking that distorted our nuclear posture. He failed. He has a few more moves he could still make — particularly with his speech in Hiroshima later this month — but the next president will inherit a nuclear mess.

Obama had the right strategy. In his brilliant Prague speech, he identified our three greatest nuclear threats: nuclear terrorism, the spread of nuclear weapons to new states and the dangers from the world’s existing nuclear arsenals. He detailed plans to reduce and eventually eliminate all three, understanding correctly that they all must be tackled at once or progress would be impossible on any.

Progress Thwarting Nuclear Terror

Through his Nuclear Security Summits, Obama created an innovative new tool to raise the threat of nuclear terrorism to the highest level of global leadership and inspire scores of voluntary actions to reduce and secure nuclear materials. But it is, as The New York Times editorialized, “a job half done.” Instead of securing all the material in four years as originally promised, after eight years we still have 1,800 tons of bomb-usable material stored in 24 countries, some of it guarded less securely than we guard our library books.

If a terrorist group could get their hands on just 100 pounds of enriched uranium, they could make a bomb that could destroy a major city. In October of last year, anAP investigation revealed that nuclear smugglers were trying to sell weapons grade uranium to ISIS. Smugglers were overheard on wiretaps as saying that they wanted to find an ISIS buyer because, “they will bomb the Americans.”

More recently, we learned that extremists connected to the attacks in Paris and Belgium had also been videotaping a Belgian nuclear scientist, likely in the hopes of forcing “him to turn over radioactive material, possibly for use in a dirty bomb.”

Obama got us moving in the right direction, but when you are fleeing a forest fire, it is not just a question of direction but also of speed. Can we get to safety before catastrophe engulfs us?

Victory on Iran

His greatest success, by far, has been the agreement with seven nations that blocks Iran’s path to a bomb. This is huge. There are only two nations in the world with nuclear programs that threatened to become new nuclear-armed states: Iran and North Korea. North Korea has already crossed the nuclear Rubicon and we must struggle to see if we can contain that threat and even push them back. Thanks to the Iran agreement however, Iran can now be taken off the list.

For this achievement alone, Obama should get an “A” on his non-proliferation efforts. He is the first president in 24 years not to have a new nuclear nation emerge on his watch.

Bill Clinton saw India and Pakistan explode into the nuclear club in 1998. George W. Bush watched as North Korea set off its first nuclear test in 2006. Barack Obama scratched Iran from contention. Through negotiations, he reduced its program to a fraction of its original size and shrink-wrapped it within the toughest inspection regime ever negotiated. It didn’t cost us a dime. And nobody died. It is, by any measure, a major national security triumph.

Failure to Cut

Unfortunately Obama could not match these gains when it came to the dangers posed by the existing arsenals. The New START Treaty he negotiated with Russia kept alive the intricate inspection procedures previous presidents had created, so that each of the two nuclear superpowers could verify the step-by-step reduction process set in motion by Ronald Reagan and continued by every president since.

That’s where the good news ends. The treaty made only modest reductions to each nation’s nuclear arsenals. The United States and Russia account for almost 95 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world, with about 7,000 each. The treaty was supposed to be a holding action, until the two could negotiate much deeper reductions. That step never came.

The “Three R’s” blocked the path: Republicans, Russians and Resistance.

First, the Republican Party leadership in Congress fought any attempt at reductions. Though many Republicans supported the treaty, including Colin Powell, George Shultz and Senator Richard Lugar, the entrenched leadership did not want to give a Democratic president a major victory, particularly in the election year of 2010. They politicized national security, putting the interest of the party over the interest of the nation. It took everything Obama had to finally get the treaty approved on the last day of the legislative session in December.

By then, the president’s staff had seen more arms control then they wanted, and the administration turned its attention to other pressing issues. Plans to “immediately and aggressively” pursue Senate approval of the nuclear test ban treaty were shelved and never reconsidered. The Republicans had won.

Worse, when Russia’s Vladimir Putin returned to power, Obama lost the negotiating partner he had had in President Medvedev. Putin linked any future negotiation to a host of other issues, including stopping the deployment of US anti-missile systems in eastern Europe, cuts in conventional forces and limits on long-range conventional strike systems the Russian claimed threatened their strategic nuclear forces. Negotiations never resumed.

Finally, he faced resistance from the nuclear industrial complex, including many of those he himself appointed to implement his policies. Those with a vested financial, organizational or political interest in the thousands of contracts, factories, bases and positions within what is now euphemistically call our “nuclear enterprise” will do anything they can to preserve those dollars, contracts and positions. Many of his appointees merely paid lip-service to the president’s agenda, paying more attention to the demands of the services, or the contractors or their own careers. Our nuclear policy is now less determined by military necessity or strategic doctrine, than by self-interest.

It is difficult to find someone who supports keeping our obsolete Cold War arsenal that is not directly benefiting from, or beholden to, these weapons. In a very strange way, the machines we built are now controlling us.

The Fourth Threat

To make matters worse, under Obama’s watch these three “traditional” nuclear threats have been joined by a fourth: nuclear bankruptcy.

Obama pledged in Prague that as he reduced the role and number of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy, he would maintain a “safe, secure and reliable” arsenal. He increased spending on nuclear weapons, in part to make much needed repairs to a nuclear weapons complex neglected under the Bush administration and, in part, to win New START votes from key senators with nuclear bases and labs in their states.

As Obama’s policy faltered, the nuclear contracts soared. The Pentagon has embarked on the greatest nuclear weapons spending spree in U.S. history. Over the next 30 years the Pentagon is planning to spend at least $1 trillion on new nuclear weapons. Every leg of the U.S. nuclear triad – our fleet of nuclear bombers, ballistic missile submarines, and ICBMs – will be completely replaced by a new generation of weapons that will last well into the later part of this century. It is a new nuclear nightmare.

What Should the Next President Do?

While most of us have forgotten that nuclear weapons still exist today, former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry warns that we “are on the brink of a new nuclear arms race” with all the perils, near-misses and terrors you thought ended with the Cold War. The war is over; the weapons live on.

The next president cannot make the mistake of believing that incremental change in our nuclear policies will be enough to avoid disaster. Or that appointing the same people who failed to make significant change under this administration, will somehow help solve the challenges of the next four years. There is serious work to be done.

We need a new plan to accelerate the elimination of nuclear material. We need a new strategy for North Korea. But most of all, we need a new strategy for America. It starts with us. As long as we keep a stockpile of nuclear weapons far in excess of any conceivable need, how can we convince other nations to give up theirs?

The Joint Chiefs told President Obama that he could safely cut our existing nuclear arsenal and that we would have more than enough weapons to fulfill every military mission. It did not matter what the Russians did. If they cut or did not cut, honored the New START Treaty or cheated. We could still cut down to about 1000 to 1100 strategic weapons and still handle every contingency.

The next president should do that. Not just because it is sound strategic policy – but because it is essential financial policy too. We are going broke. We do not have enough money to pay for all the weapons the Pentagon ordered when they projected ever-rising defense budgets. “There’s a reckoning coming here,” warns Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. “Do we really need the nuclear power to destroy the world six, seven times?”

The Defense Department admits it does not have the money to pay for these plans. Referring to the massive ‘bow wave‘ of spending set to peak in the 2020s and 2030s, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord said “I don’t know of a good way for us to solve this issue.”

In one of more cynical admissions by a trusted Obama advisor, Brian McKeon, the principal undersecretary of defense for policy, said last October, “We’re looking at that big [nuclear] bow wave and wondering how the heck we’re going to pay for it,” And we’re “probably thanking our stars we won’t be here to have to answer the question,” he added with a chuckle.

He may think it’s funny now, but the next president won’t when the stuff hits the fan in 2017. One quick example: The new nuclear submarines the Navy wants will devour half of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget in the next decade. According to the Congressional Research Service, to build 12 of these new subs, “the Navy would need to eliminate… a notional total of 32 other ships, including, notionally, 8 Virginia-class attack submarines, 8 destroyers, and 16 other combatant ships.”

These are ships we use every day around the world on real missions to deal with real threats. They launch strikes against ISIS, patrol the South China Sea, interdict pirates around the horn of Africa, guarantee the safety of international trade lanes, and provide disaster relief around the globe.

The conventional navy’s mission is vital to international security and stability. It is foolish, and dangerous, to cut our conventional forces to pay for weapons built to fight a global thermonuclear war.


The next President could do a bottom-up review of our nuclear weapons needs. Don’t ask the Pentagon managers of these programs what they can cut. You know the answer you will get. Take a blank slate and design the force we really need.

Do we truly need to spend $30 billion on a new, stealthy nuclear cruise missile to put on the new nuclear-armed stealth bomber?

Do we truly need to keep 450 intercontinental ballistic missiles, whose chief value is to have the states that house them serve as targets to soak up so many of the enemy’s nuclear warheads that it would “complicate an adversary’s attack plans?” Do Montana and Wyoming and North Dakota really want to erect billboards welcoming visitors to “America’s Nuclear Sponge?”

If President Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders put their trust in the existing bureaucracy, it will likely churn out the same Cold War nuclear gibberish. It will be up to outside experts, scientists, retired military and former diplomats to convince the new president to learn from Obama’s successes and his failures.

Obama had the right vision, the right strategy. He just didn’t have an operational plan to get it all done. It is not that hard, if you have the political will.

Over to you next POTUS.