In the news: some problems with our nukes

by Rob Tiller

This week there was some good and some bad technology news, but first the good news. Kudos to the European Space Agency, which managed the remarkable feat of landing a robot on a modest-sized comet. Understanding and managing the risk of asteroid and comet collisions is a big challenge, and it appears we’re making progress. Also three cheers that the world’s two largest contributors to global warming (that’s us and China) officially agreed to work on it. Sure, talk is cheap, but it’s a step in the right direction.

But I wanted to call attention to a news story that you may have missed, as I almost did: two separate Pentagon studies concluded that the infrastructure of our nuclear program is in serious disrepair and will cost billions to fix. The NY Times put this on page A16 (news death valley).

Though far from the front page, the language was strong: “a searing indictment” of how nuclear weapons facilities have been allowed to decay. They described “a culture of micromanagement and attention to the smallest detail . . . creating busywork, while huge problems with equipment and readiness, most arising from the age of the systems, were ignored.” One study found that morale was low and turnover high among crews for intercontinental ballistic missiles and long-range bombers. Missile submarines were frequently out of service.

You may remember the cheating scandal involving missile crews of some months back. One of the new reports blamed not the crews but “a culture of extreme testing” in which tests were required to be near perfect so that good results could be reported up the chain of command, instead of a program to improve the crews’ readiness.

A few months back I wrote about reading Eric Schlosser’s excellent book, Command and Control, Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book cites chapter and verse of major problems in our nuclear program, including some that put Americans at serious risk of a catastrophic accidental nuclear explosion. Schlosser found there had been important improvements in safety, but the Times story made me worry.

The Times also reported that the President had told the Pentagon to plan for 12 new missile submarines, up to 100 new bombers, and 400 land-based missiles. Holy kamoly! I thought we were at least keeping in sight the possibility of reducing our nuclear stockpiles and the threat of nuclear war.

Before we spend billions or trillions more, I’d like to hear a good answer to the question, what is the purpose of our nuclear weapons? What good do they do?

The conventional wisdom, more or less, is that we need them to deter nuclear attacks and maintain our prestige. But no nation is currently threatening us, or anyone, with a nuclear attack. Only one nation has ever been the victim of a nuclear attack (by us, on Japan). All other nations without nuclear weapons – that is, those with no deterrence forces – have not come under nuclear attack. That includes ones that got us and other nuclear powers really mad, like North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

Furthermore, even if North Korea or Iran somehow managed to destroy one of our cites with a nuke, does anyone seriously think we’d retaliate against their civilians with a massive nuclear attack? I submit that deterrence, whatever its validity as a theory in the cold war, is valid no longer.

As to prestige, our nuclear weapons have not appeared to strengthen our negotiating power with enemies or friends. Iran and North Korea have been notably unimpressed. And our nukes certainly haven’t saved us the trouble of fighting conventional wars. We have surely not won the contest of who can spend the least on actual war fighting, having spent over a trillion dollars fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The nation with the most nuclear weapons is also the nation that has lost the most treasure through conventional warfare.

A major nuclear war would not only destroy millions of lives directly, but would alter the earth’s ecosystem so as to cause untold additional deaths. As Jonathan Schell explained in The Fate of the Earth, it could amount to the end of human civilization, not to mention the extinction of countless other animals and plants.

It would be nice to think that mismanagement of our nuclear force has reduced this risk, but I’m afraid that it suggests an increased risk of nuclear accidents, and an uncertain capacity for disaster. I submit we need to change our direction, and recommend a visit to

Let me close on a positive note: civilization still exists! In fact, right here in Raleigh, NC, there is great music making and art. Last Sunday, the N.C. Opera did an excellent concert presentation of part of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. This is very dramatic, romantic music. They did the prelude and second act, which focuses on the intoxicating love story of the title characters. Jay Hunter Morris, who was a sensation in the Met’s recent Siegfried, was a sensitive and moving Tristan, and Heidi Melton was an Isolde for the ages. Her voice was amazingly powerful, but also warm, flexible, and true. Conductor Timothy Myers seemed to have a real feeling for this strange and irresistible music, and he had a good band. Thank you N.C. Opera!

I should also give a plug for the current exhibits at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art, which we visited on Sunday afternoon. We started with the late works of Joan Miro. I liked his sculptures, better than his paintings. It was inspiring to see him continuing to experiment with new ideas into his 70s and 80s. There was also a strong exhibit of the work of Robert Rauschenberg. I never quite got Rauschenberg before, but it really helped seeing the wide range of techniques and concepts he worked with. It turns out he was serious about his photography, as well as his painting and constructions. I liked it.