Wednesday, October 15, 2014

What's YOUR "appetite for risk"? (Eliminate nuclear weapons NOW!)

Atomic Bomb Dome, Hiroshima
from the PrepCom 2014 website
I attended some of the 2014 NPT preparatory committee ("prepcom") events at the UN this past spring, in the run-up to the spring 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference.

One remarkable exchange took place at a session entitled "Government briefing for NGOs: United Kingdom". A diplomat was present representing the UK government. I am paraphrasing and condensing the exchange from memory:

Audience member #1: We must recognize the possibility of a nuclear exchange as a species-threatening phenomenon!

UK government representative: "Species-threatening"? I'm not sure that characterization would be broadly accepted . . . .  Of course, if things were to change and there were some sort of incident --

Audience member #2: There have been repeated accidents and incidents that are well documented.  For instance . . . [gives example of a non-catastrophic accident]

UK government representative: Yes, well, I mean a really significant incident . . . .

I can't remember the precise accident that was cited as an example by "audience member #2." I do remember thinking that it reminded me of a similar incident described in the then-recently published book by Eric Schlosser, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety:.  Here's the description of "the Damascus accident" from Wikipedia:

AFTER EXPLOSION: The Titan silo near Damascus
(Source: Arkansas Times)
On the evening of the 18th, at about 6:30 p.m., an airman conducting maintenance on a USAF Titan-II missile at Little Rock Air Force Base's Launch Complex 374-7 in Southside (Van Buren County) just north of town, dropped a socket from a socket wrench, which fell about 80 feet (24 m) before hitting and piercing the skin on the rocket's first-stage fuel tank, causing it to leak. The area was evacuated.

At about 3:00 a.m. on September 19, 1980, the hypergolic fuel exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex's entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material. One Air Force airman was killed, others seriously injured and the launch complex was destroyed.[1] The former launch complex was decommissioned, disassembled, and now stands on private land.

The Damascus accident is just one of many close calls described in the Schlosser book.

Yes, you may say, but . . . are they really significant . . . ?

I thought the exchange between the UK government representative and the audience members at that NPT prepcom session tells us a lot about our ability as human beings to cope prospectively with risk.

After something terrible happens, it's perfectly clear what we should have done in advance to prevent it. But prior to the event, taking steps to prevent it seems like "too much trouble," "too expensive," "not advantageous enough to 'our' side," etc. etc. etc. -- and proponents of taking those steps are seen as a nuisance.

Hindsight is 20-20

"Church death: Family, friends remember 'Sarah Smile'"
(Source: Chicago Tribune)
I recently had an experience that brought this home to me. The church council on which I serve was deliberating about whether to do some repairs to the stonework on the exterior of the building. We concluded that it was a safety issue, and approved the expenditure, but not without lamenting that it was a lot of money and admitting that it was not clear just how much of a safety risk the existing stone posed. Nobody wanted to be wasteful.

Just a few weeks ago, in another part of Chicago, another church experienced the exact kind of accident we had feared: a piece of stonework fell and killed someone.  After hearing about that tragic event, I thought about how lucky we were to have been spared that outcome; and I thought a lot about the difference between what it is like to try to imagine a scenario in advance and to see it reported as something that has, in fact, occurred.  In retrospect the decision our church had made to spend money on stonework now seemed unquestionable. And it was suddenly very easy to imagine having not spent the money and experiencing an accident.

Needed: a new heuristic?

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods:
The Remarkable Story of Risk
There is a great deal of expertise in our society in assessing -- and insuring against -- risk. (At least of a certain kind.)

At the same time, we all have personal experience of the prevalence of "risky behavior."

I wonder if we need to do more to try to imagine the true consequences of our most risky behavior -- the continued maintenance and expansion of a global network of nuclear weapons, primed for use.

Do we have a way to immerse ourselves in the experience of what the use of those nuclear weapons would really mean -- prospectively -- so that we can truly cause ourselves to confront our own inaction?

If we were to do so, wouldn't the decision to disarm become unquestionable?

9 More Ideas You Won't Hear

at Chicago Ideas Week . . .

Related posts

"It's not enough to remember this just once a year; it's not enough that we make a single book -- Hiroshima -- required reading, and never go beyond that. There should be a whole canon that people study progressively, year by year, to grasp and retain the horror of this."

(See FIRE AND BLAST: A Curriculum that Confronts Nuclear Danger?)

I'm marveling at the adjacency of a piece of public art -- one with a very clear message about the risk of human ambition and self-absorption and heedlessness -- to the center of political power in the city of Chicago.

(See NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Who will bring us down to earth? )

What if the rest of the world suddenly found itself in a different position?  What if the rest of the world had a button in front of them, and by pressing that button, they could make the United States vanish? Would they say, "We must never, ever press this button; no, we will just continue to implore the United States to eliminate the weapons that threaten our destruction" ? Or would the rest of the world say, "This is our only salvation" ?

(See 360 Degree Feedback in New York (2014 NPT Prepcom and How the World Views the United States) )

Elaine Scarry demonstrates that the power of one leader to obliterate millions of people with a nuclear weapon - a possibility that remains very real even in the wake of the Cold War - deeply violates our constitutional rights, undermines the social contract, and is fundamentally at odds with the deliberative principles of democracy.

(See Reviews of "Thermonuclear Monarchy: Choosing Between Democracy and Doom" by Elaine Scarry )

The planning that is under way for 2015 clearly envisions the connections between multiple issues -- nuclear disarmament, clean (non-nuclear) energy, and climate -- and a need to involve everyone who cares about these issues.

(See #NoNukesTuesday: Disarmament? Clean Power? Climate? All three? )

The very fundamental problem that we must discuss thoughtfully with everybody is the tension between the hopefulness inspired by the many amazing things humankind can do using science, and the reality of the utter failure to control nuclear radiation.

(See The Problem With Technology: Nuclear Radiation Injury and the Need to Admit Our Limitations)

Other related links

In an excellent review of the Schlosser book in The New Yorker ("Nukes of Hazard," September 30, 2013), Louis Menand writes, "A study run by Sandia National Laboratories, which oversees the production and security of American nuclear-weapons systems, discovered that between 1950 and 1968 at least twelve hundred nuclear weapons had been involved in “significant” accidents . . . ."

Seth Baum, Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, helps us get our minds around the risk of a future nuclear detonation in "Nuclear war, the black swan we can never see" (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists): "For certain kinds of events, one could figure out annual probabilities by looking back at history to see what portion of previous years had witnessed the events in question. But this doesn’t work for nuclear war . . . ."