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Forum — From the December 2017 issue

Destroyer of Worlds

Taking stock of our nuclear present

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Haywire

By Eric Schlosser

The first atomic bombs in the American arsenal were built by hand. The Mark 3 model, which was used to destroy the city of Nagasaki, was difficult to assemble. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, called it a “haywire contraption.” It contained about 14 pounds of plutonium, 250 pounds of uranium, 5,000 pounds of conventional high explosives, and dozens of cables linking fuses to detonators. The plutonium core couldn’t be left inside the bomb for too long because the heat it radiated would melt the explosives. The Mark 3 was powered by a car battery that took three days to charge and died within a week. If you wanted to change the battery, you had to disassemble the bomb.

During the late 1940s, the complexity of America’s nuclear weapons and the limited range of its bombers meant that a full-scale nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would take weeks to complete, if not months. A decade later, nuclear weapons were being mass-produced. They came in a variety of sizes, shapes, and explosive yields. Technological innovations — boosting, composite cores, thermal batteries, thermonuclear fuels, and other byproducts of high-speed computing — allowed the manufacture of powerful, ready-to-use “wooden” bombs. They could be stored for long periods without any maintenance, safe and inert, like planks of wood. The introduction of jet engines and aerial refueling soon enabled the bombers of the Strategic Air Command to strike the Soviet Union within hours. A nuclear war would probably end within days.

Technological advances continued to compress time and increase the risk of a nuclear catastrophe. In 1957, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first man-made satellite, aroused fears in the United States that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in rocketry and high-tech research. While the public focused on the problems with science education in American elementary schools, the Pentagon worried about a much graver threat. The same sort of launcher that put Sputnik into orbit could be fitted with a nuclear weapon and turned into an intercontinental ballistic missile. It might deliver a Soviet warhead to American soil in about half an hour. By the 1960s, the time frame of a nuclear attack had grown even shorter. American submarine-launched ballistic missiles could hit Moscow in about fifteen minutes. By the 1980s, American medium-range missiles based in West Germany could hit it in about six.

A survivor with radiation burns, Hiroshima. Courtesy the National Museum of Health and Medicine/Science Source. © Photo Researchers Inc.

The increased speed of a nuclear attack placed enormous pressure on high-level decision-making. During an international crisis, a leader no longer had weeks, days, or even hours to choose a course of action. Amid concerns about surprise attacks, “decapitation” strikes against civilian leadership, and attempts to disable military command-and-control centers, there was a perverse logic to striking first. It encouraged a belief in the need to “use it or lose it.” False alarms, miscalculations, mistakes, accidental launches, accidental nuclear detonations, and even accidental nuclear wars became more likely. Faced with an international crisis, how could anyone be expected to make the right decision in just five or ten minutes with the fate of the world at stake? In retrospect, the fact that the Cold War ended without a single city disappearing in a nuclear explosion seems nothing short of miraculous.

Today, the time frame of an attack has been reduced to mere seconds. It once took three or four nuclear warheads aimed at every silo to render an adversary’s missiles useless, a redundancy thought necessary for certain destruction. Intercontinental ballistic missiles may now be made inoperable with a single keystroke. Computer viruses and malware have the potential to spoof or disarm a nuclear command-and-control system silently, anonymously, almost instantaneously. And long-range bombers and missiles are no longer required to obliterate a city. A nuclear weapon can be placed in a shipping container or on a small cabin cruiser, transported by sea, and set off remotely by cellular phone.

A 2006 study by the Rand Corporation calculated the effects of such a nuclear detonation at the Port of Long Beach, California. The weapon was presumed to be two thirds as powerful as the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945. According to the study, about 60,000 people in Long Beach would be killed, either by the blast or by the effects of radiation. An additional 150,000 would be exposed. And 8,000 would suffer serious burns. At the moment, there are about 200 burn beds at hospitals in California — and about 2,000 nationwide. Approximately 6 million people would try to flee Los Angeles County, with varying degrees of success. Gasoline supplies would run out. The direct cost of that single detonation was estimated to be about $1 trillion. In September, North Korea detonated a nuclear device about thirty times more powerful than the one in the Rand study.

Technological advances can’t easily be reversed. But strict controls can be placed on dangerous technologies. New inventions may someday reduce the nuclear threat by improving early-warning systems, preventing cyberattacks, detecting bomb-making materials, improving communication between adversaries during a crisis, and aiding in the verification of arms-control agreements. Relying on technology to safeguard humanity against technology does not, however, seem like a safe bet. Because of the greatly accelerated speed of nuclear warfare, we are literally running out of time.

Old-fashioned personal interactions may be our last, best hope of averting disaster, and international diplomacy may achieve what microchips cannot. Dialogue, confidence-building, regular meetings between the military and civilian leadership of nuclear states may not only prevent international crises, they may ensure that a misunderstanding won’t swiftly lead to mutual annihilation.

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