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How Terrified Should We be About Nuclear Annihilation?

According to the author of Command and Control, a book about nuclear doomsday scenarios, "the two great existential threats that we face today are global warming and nuclear weapons—and the latter isn't getting anywhere near enough attention."

by Alan Weedon
Aug 10 2015, 2:55pm

Image via the Festival of Dangerous Ideas

Chances are your childhood home did not have a nuclear bunker. For people born after the Cold War, the threat of nuclear annihilation doesn't seem likea terribly imminent threat; it's been 70 years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in that time, nobody's managed to nuke another population.

Meanwhile, Russia and the United States have 1,800 warheads on standby. There's about another 14,000 across nine other countries. These newer models are far more lethal than the one that destroyed Hiroshima: they could kill millions within minutes, and many more over following years thanks to radioactive after-effects.

Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser looks at potential nuclear bomb-related doomsday scenarios—both the idiotic and the hostile—in his book Command and Control. He's coming to Sydney for the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, so VICE Australia thought we'd ask him if we need to start building our own fallout shelters.

VICE: For people of my generation, the threat of nuclear war isn't as imminent as it once seemed. How concerned should we be?
Eric Schlosser: Maybe this is an issue that people right now need to be a lot more aware of without panicking. You're lucky. In the 80s when I was at university, there was really this sense that a nuclear war might happen any day. That's no way to live.

But to me, the two great existential threats that we face today are global warming and nuclear weapons—and the latter isn't getting anywhere near enough attention.

What's the likelihood of two states using warheads against each other?
Statistically, the greatest probability is of a terrorist either stealing a weapon, or making a weapon and using it. But there's also a risk between India and Pakistan. There's something about the hatred between neighbors that's a lot more intense. With India and Pakistan, you've got ethnic differences, religious differences, extremist differences in both countries, and that's the most likely place where you would have a nuclear war.

With the capability of today's warheads, what power would a strike now have in relation to Hiroshima?
It really depends on what sort of weapon you're talking about. The Hiroshima bomb was an incredibly crude, inefficient, and rudimentary weapon. Since then, they've become so much more sophisticated. The typical nuclear weapon on an American missile is about 20 times more powerful. But you also have to go back to the Second World War to look at how cities were annihilated, and how their inhabitants were basically left to their own devices.

The World Health Organization and the Red Cross have concluded that there's no country in the world that has the emergency response capability to deal with the aftermath of even one nuclear strike.

Not a lot of democracies seem to elect politicians running on a platform of disarmament, why do you think that's the case?
Some politicians have spoken about nuclear weapons giving them a seat at the 'big table,' and it feeds a national ego's sense of power. Right now, Germany is more powerful than Great Britain as a world power, but they don't have nuclear weapons. So what's going to satisfy voters? Having your people well fed, well educated, and having a good life, or having an arsenal of weapons that can slaughter not thousands, but millions of civilians?

So really, nobody's made them do it. We can't just wait and expect the world leaders to disarm; there needs to be public pressure to do it.

What do you think we need to get this pressure building?
People worldwide need to be aware that these weapons pose a great threat to their lives. Look at the logic of the landmine ban: they disproportionately harm civilians. It's the same thing with nuclear weapons—they're really good at killing large numbers of civilians but not really good at anything else.

So people have to ask this question: There's about 200 countries in the world, but only nine have nuclear weapons, so maybe it's possible to be a sovereign state without weapons of mass destruction that cause extraordinary harm to innocent people?

OK, so where do we take the discussion in 2015?
This is getting very grim and apocalyptic, but I'm not saying there's no hope. I'm just concerned. To me it's a greater threat than global warming because strikes are irreversible and it's instantaneous. People need to tell their leaders with nuclear capability that these weapons are not what it means to be powerful. Actually, it's the most simplistic, obvious manifestation of power. And you know, we don't want to have the ability to kill millions of people in our names.

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Eric will be speaking at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, including on a special VICE-curated discussion on prisons in Australia. To win tickets to see him and a bunch of other interesting speakers, click here.