Our calculations about risk are not always rational. Many people are more afraid of a shark attack or plane crash than they are about driving a car or crossing the street. Statistically, the latter two are far more dangerous (worldwide, shark attacks account for around 4.4 fatalities each year; road accidents: 1.3 million) but, somehow, the familiarity of driving and a sense of control make the risks feel lower. Likewise, heart disease has been the leading cause of death in the world for over a decade, and yet the threat of terrorism has far greater prominence in our daily narrative than obesity – perhaps because it relates to what others may do to us, rather than what we may do to ourselves.
How we view the risks around nuclear weapons is particularly interesting. Given the stakes, complete and balanced risk assessments should – one would imagine – be central to our considerations. And yet public discussion tends to focus on only half of the picture. We have vigorous debate about the risks associated with nuclear weapon states losing their nuclear capability, or of others obtaining it. However, the risks of retaining nuclear weapons are currently vastly under-represented, focusing primarily on the financial cost of the weapon systems and the arms race they encourage – but neglecting a number of equally (if not more) consequential risks.
The fact is public discussion of international nuclear weapons policy in today’s society is limited. During the Cold War, the issue was lodged firmly in our public consciousness as we collectively stared down the barrel of a gun at the consequences. The 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, among other things, prompted countries across the world – including the U.S. and Russia – to join together to build the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT): an agreement aimed at simultaneously containing the spread of nuclear weapons and paving the way for global disarmament. The public and the international community felt the risks first-hand, recognised them and started to take action.
That was a generation ago. Today the same risks still exist but the issue has fallen out of the public eye. A media spotlight shines intermittently on critical questions such as the Iranian nuclear program, as we have seen this past week, and the development of North Korean missiles. But we largely neglect the wider picture. The further we get from seeing the impacts of a nuclear war or accident first-hand, the less keenly we feel the threat. But as cosmologist and astrophysicist (and BASIC Trident Commissioner) Martin Rees said, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”; because we have not experienced nuclear war (or a nuclear accident) directly, we need to be wary of lulling ourselves into believing it won’t happen.
Some argue that nuclear deterrence – the theory that nuclear-armed countries will never actively attack each other for fear of entering into a mutual suicide pact – is stabilising. Some believe that this concept of ‘mutually assured destruction’ has actually made the world safer, linking it directly to a reduction in wartime casualties since the end of the Second World War. And, it is true that we have seen a decline in deaths from war since the mid-20th century. But modern warfare has evolved significantly since the mid 1900s: contrary to the First and Second World Wars, heavy emphasis is now placed on avoiding civilian casualties.
What is more, as historian Ward Wilson notes in his book Five Myths of Nuclear Weapons, at the turn of the 20th century before the nuclear age, we also believed we were entering a period of unprecedented peace – that is, until the start of the First World War. History shows us that great-power war tends to come in cycles, and as such we can’t rely on current trends to guarantee future peace. While it seems intuitively true that nuclear deterrence may have played a role in discouraging great-power war over the past half-century, there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that it prevented it or will do so in the future.
However, the fact that we do not see or deal with the consequences of nuclear weapons every day, as we did during the Cold War, makes it easier today to connect with the theory that they are somehow stabilizing. But in doing so, we are failing to consider the full range of risks inherent in nuclear weapons possession. We consider the threat of calculated attack, but neglect the risks of miscalculation, accident or theft – which could have an equally significant impact.
In 1995, four years after the end of the Cold War, a weather satellite launched from the Norwegian Sea was mistaken by Russian officials for a U.S. nuclear-armed missile. President Yeltsin was given Russia’s nuclear codes and six minutes to make a decision on whether to launch what could likely have developed into a full-scale nuclear war with the U.S. Ultimately the button was not pressed. But a different leader, with a different temperament, in a different international context, might have come to a very different conclusion. In today’s climate of high tensions between Pakistan and India – both nuclear armed states – or North and South Korea, it is entirely plausible that a similar miscalculation could result in a different end game.
The risk of nuclear accident is equally sobering. Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, in his recent book Command and Control, considers just how close we have – repeatedly – come. He explores a number of incidents, framing his analysis around the accidental launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in 1980 in Arkansas, U.S., caused by a socket wrench being dropped down the missile shaft.
Add to that the risk of theft by non-state actors (in 2007, for example, an armed group broke into a South African nuclear site, Pelindaba, near Pretoria, where a stock of weapons-grade material was stored) and the “spin-off” consequences that any nuclear incident would have on global financial markets, economic stability, human health, the environment and food security, and we may find our assessments about nuclear weapons coming into sharper focus.
Substantial research exists on why we make the judgments we do about risk. Some experts believe that we tend, among other things, to underestimate risk that creeps up on us. We are also unable to divorce emotion from our calculations, so our assessments are heavily influenced by our direct experiences and what we see and hear in the media. What is more, we tend to favour the status quo, emphasising potential losses over potential gains, even if a change may improve the situation for ourselves or for the wider community.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s black swan theory is helpful in considering how we currently perceive the threat of an incident involving nuclear weapons. Taleb describes a black swan as:
First, […] an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
We have not had to face the consequences of a nuclear incident on a large scale since the end of World War II – which makes playing down the risks easier to do. But we need to be careful that we are not blindly assuming that what we can’t see, doesn’t exist. This is not an exercise in inciting public fear. Rather, it is a call for us to start building a more balanced, rational and public debate about the policies – including the potential consequences – and to make a conscious decision about exactly how much risk we are willing to accept.
In March 2013, the Norwegian government hosted a conference in Oslo to consider the humanitarian consequences of nuclear weapons, at which states began to explore some of these issues on an international level. This was important recognition of the fact that nuclear weapons, despite being owned and aimed predominantly between nuclear weapon states, carry broader risks that affect a global constituency. This conversation about risk underscores how important it is to stand back and look at the whole picture. The alternative option is to wait to see what happens. We took that approach to Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and the outcome was horrific. We simply can’t afford to do the same with nuclear weapons.