A report recounting a litany of near-misses in which nuclear weapons came close to being launched by mistake concludes that the risk of potentially catastrophic accidents is higher than previously thought and appears to be rising.
Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Options for Policy, published on Tuesday by Chatham House, an international think tank based in London, says that “individual decisionmaking, often in disobedience of protocol and political guidance, has on several occasions saved the day,” preventing the launch of nuclear warheads.
The report lists 13 instances since 1962 when nuclear weapons were nearly used. In several cases the large-scale launch of nuclear weapons was nearly triggered by technical malfunctions or breakdowns in communication causing false alarms in both the US and Russia. Disaster was averted only by cool-headed individuals gambling that the alert was caused by a glitch and not an actual attack.
The Chatham House authors say the risks appear to be rising. Nuclear weapons are spreading — most recently to North Korea — and disarmament is stalling. Russia and the US still have an estimated 1,800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch between five and 15 minutes after receiving an order — a fact that becomes all the more significant with rising tensions over Ukraine.
“The question today is: Are these risks worth it?” said Chatham House research director for international security Patricia Lewis, who is one of the report’s authors.
“You can imagine a situation in which tensions rise and signals come in and people misinterpret what is going on. Will people always have sound enough minds to take the time to make a reasoned decision?” she said.
The mental state of some of the leaders who had their fingers on the nuclear button has sometimes been a source of worry. Former US president Richard Nixon and former Russian president Boris Yeltsin both raised concerns among their top advisers with their heavy drinking.
In May 1981, then-newly elected French president Francois Mitterand left the French nuclear launch codes at home in the pocket of his suit. Then-US president Jimmy Carter did the same in the 1970s, and the suit, as well as the codes, were taken to the dry cleaners.
The US launch codes went missing again when then-US president Ronald Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981. FBI agents had them, along with the injured president’s bloodied trousers.
Tuesday’s report focuses on cases in which nuclear weapons came close to being launched deliberately on the basis of bad or incomplete information. However, there is an additional risk of accidents inherent in the maintenance of stockpiles of more than 17,000 warheads held by Russia, the US and the seven other nuclear-armed states.
Some of those accidents were described in a book published last year, titled Command and Control by Eric Schlosser.
Schlosser gives an account of an incident in September 1980 in Arkansas in which a maintenance engineer dropped a socket wrench into a silo holding a Titan II nuclear missile, igniting its fuel and triggering an explosion which sent the warhead flying. It landed near a road, but did not detonate.
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