Dr. Irwin Redlener has some scary things to say to the TED audience. He asks, “Are we at risk of nuclear attack?” and “Can we permanently eliminate the nuclear threat?” The answer to the first is yes – the second answer is far less clear.
In 1945, the US was the only nuclear power – we dropped two weapons on Japan, and we began constructing a stockpile of more weapons. In 1949, the USSR decided this was unacceptable, and we saw an amazing buildup over the next forty years, making a “nuclear club” with seven members. 95% of the weapons were part of the US or Soviet arsenals.
Since 1985, we’ve begun counterproliferating, reducing to a total of 2100 ready weapons around the world. But while there are lots of decomissioned weapons, many of these warheads might still be usable. We believe we have only a third of the warheads we used to have… but we’ve also added Pakistan and North Korea to the nuclear club.
There are two chapters to nuclear history, Redlener argues. In phase 1 – 1949-1991 – we basically saw nation fighting versus nation in a fragile standoff. Basically, we were on the brink of planetary calamity, totally dependent on Mutually Assured Destruction. It’s amazing that the misreading of a radar signal didn’t lead us to launch a nuclear counterattack.
There was a high level of public awareness of nuclear attack. Bert the Turtle encouraged kids to duck and cover. Homeowners were encouraged to build their own bomb shelters – though only 1.4% of Americans did. Cities made evacuation plans that were totally unrealistic – they were designed to evacuate whole cities over the course of several days. Basically, they weren’t intended to save human lives – they were designed to force the Soviets to retarget weapons, or to maintain weapons that could strike outside cities as well as inside them.
Chapter 2 – 1991 to the present – is an entirely different story. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, we lost our main adversary. Now we face the threat of single event nuclear terrorism. The global stockpile of nuclear weapons is not uniformly secure, especially in Russia, where lots of sites are not secure. Of a total supply of 1,300 – 2,100 metric tons, at least 100 metric tons are stored in very insecure facilities. You only need 75 pounds of uranium to make a weapon the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima – it’s the equivalent of 8 soda cans. To build a plutonium weapon, you need about 10 pounds, the size of a head of lettuce.
It’s easy to buy this material on the black market, and the information you need to build a weapon is easy to find on the internet. If you’ve got a BA in physics, you might be able to build one of these weapons with information off the internet.
Why would you do it? You’d be an organized, dedicated, and stateless power. You’d be essentially retaliation proof, at least in traditional ways. And you’d look at soft targets all around the US. There are 7 million cargo containers per year brought into the US – only 5-7% are inspected. It would be very easy for one of these containers to carry a bomb. Alexander Lebed, a former Soviet general, told US congress that the USSR built many suitcase bombs. They have a tiny yield – .1 to 1 kiloton – but they’d cause massive damage… and there are 80 unaccounted for.
So what happens if you build a Hiroshima-sized weapon in a truck and drive it into the financial district of New York City? Within a half mile of the blast, you have only a 10% chance of survival. Within two miles, you’ll see most buildings collapse, and hurricane-like winds. But if you’re within eight miles, and survive th blast, there’s lots we can do – you’ve got perhaps 10-20 minutes to get out of the way of the radioactive plume and seek shelter.
Redlener offers some concrete advice:
– Don’t stare at the flash, keep your mouth open so your eardrums don’t burst
– If you’re very close, do duck and cover
– Get away from the fallout cloud and find shelter
– Get upwind or crosswind
– Try to keep your skin and mouth covered
– Seek medical care and decontamination
It’s a bit shocking to see these tips up on a screen – a reminder that the threat of nuclear war may be behind us, but that the threat of nuclear weapons is not yet gone.