09. 03. 2017

Nuclear Weapons, Donald Trump and 'Playing with Fire'

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There are so many reasons to be apprehensive about the Trump Presidency that it’s hard to know which ones really matter, and which are just part of his unremitting campaign to outrage people like me.

But his approach to nuclear weapons is right up there as far as I’m concerned. Whilst his temporary love-in with President Putin teases us with the crazy possibility that the two of them could, conceivably, usher in a new era of multilateral disarmament initiatives, with the USA and Russia putting on the table substantive cuts in their own nuclear arsenals, the strong-man personas that they are both so keen to promote speak convincingly against any such outbreak of sanity.

Yet the world still seems relatively unconcerned at having two such strutting dictators in office. And even if we’ve got our fingers permanently crossed that neither of them end up going to (nuclear) war with anyone else, what of the horribly real, live and constant possibility of nuclear accidents?

I’m Patron of an organisation called the Nuclear Information Service (NIS), which exists to promote public awareness and foster debate about nuclear disarmament.

Back in February, NIS launched a new Report, ‘Playing with Fire: Nuclear Weapons Incidents and Accidents in the UK’.

It’s chilling stuff, detailing around 100 serious incidents and accidents in the UK over the last 50 years.

I did a little Postscript for the Report – which follows here:

“This Report would be of critical importance whenever it was published. The multiple threats associated with the continued existence of nuclear weapons remain deeply disturbing – for us as individuals, as citizens of nation states (both nuclear and non-nuclear), and as human beings with profound moral responsibilities for the stewardship of life on Earth.

But right now, with an inexperienced and highly unpredictable President in the White House, its publication couldn’t be more timely. President Trump made a number of comments about the role of nuclear weapons in US defence policy during the Election campaign, and most of them were of an extraordinarily haphazard and contradictory nature. The anti-scientific and anti-evidential orientation of the new US Administration has set alarm bells ringing around the world, both in nations hostile to the US and the West, and amongst its allies – particularly in NATO.

The Doomsday Clock (created by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) has been updated regularly over the last 70 years. At the end of January 2017, they turned the hands of the clock to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, a full 30 seconds closer to midnight than it was a year ago. The closest it ever got was two minutes to midnight, in 1953, after both the US and Russia had detonated their latest nuclear weapons.

The principal reason for the change this year is “the disturbing trend of world leaders espousing policies and making statements not tied to evidence”. Donald Trump is not mentioned by name, but he doesn’t need to be: “Nuclear weapons and climate change are precisely the sort of complex, existential threats that cannot be properly managed without access to and reliance on expert knowledge.”

Against that backdrop, if you have read your way through right to the end of this Report without feeling deeply disturbed, with your fears about the possibility of a nuclear incident or conflagration amply reinforced, then you must somehow have succeeded in arriving at the following rationale: “Notwithstanding the inevitable accidents and near-misses, we’ve somehow avoided any nuclear disasters for the last 70 years – so who’s to say we’re not going to be able to continue in the same old way for the next 70 years?”

The vast majority of people in both the USA and Europe are walking around with precisely that kind of rationale in their minds, either explicitly articulated, in so many words, or just part of the implicit normalisation of our near-insane, day-to-day proximity to a potential nuclear apocalypse.

Our challenge today, in a world rendered even more unsafe by a new generation of ‘strong men’ intent on redefining their nations partly in terms of their military and nuclear prowess, is to abnormalise the continued existence of nuclear weapons – to seize on every incident and accident, on every half-suppressed denial from government sources, and use every opportunity to remind people, as pointedly as possible, that some kind of nuclear disaster is now inevitable. As we’re reminded time after time through the pages of this Report, “normal accident theory” tells us that accidents in complex and tightly-linked systems are indeed inevitable. And that becomes more and more the case the older our nuclear weapons become, and the more we struggle, both financially and operationally, to retain our status as a nuclear-armed international power.

The Government’s line on this is both simple and deliberately deceptive: “No serious nuclear security incidents have taken place over the last 20 years.” But with its detailed analysis of one accident or incident after another, this Report chillingly demonstrates that the lines between non-serious, serious, and potentially cataclysmic are very ill-defined, dependent more on some version of Sod’s Nuclear Law than on watertight operating procedures, faultlessly implemented and rigorously monitored in all circumstances.

There’s only one way out of this ongoing nuclear nightmare, and that is to get rid of the UK’s notionally independent nuclear ‘deterrent’, while straining every sinew to move the rest of the world towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons.”
 

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