Thursday, 31 March 2016

Steel industry sacrificed on Chinese atomic altar

Port Talbot MP Stephen Kinnock is quoted as suggesting the Government is “rolling out the red carpet to get market status at the World Trade Organisation” and suggested  Britain is the “ringleader” in blocking European commission attempts to improve anti-dumping policies (on Chinese steel) because our commercial and overall policy is being “dictated by Beijing.” (“Ministers in “disarray” over steel industry,” 31 March;
This analysis needs to be spelled out more explicitly. It seems our important steel is being sacrificed on the atomic alter of keeping China sweet over its investment in and support of the planned Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, confidence in which is eroding even in France (“Member of EDF  board urges power plant delay,” 31 March;
The UK engagement  with China over nuclear power dates back the autumn of 2013, when chancellor George Osborne visited Beijing to seek inward investment in the Hinkley C project from the Chinese Government (“Cooperation projects inked,” China Daily, 16 October 2013 and was finalized last September (“George Osborne presses on with Hinkley power station despite criticism,”  26 September 2015;
The trades unionists in the Community union now rightly defending their jobs and the steel industry should have words with the leadership of the Unite union - who are even more gung-ho for Hinkley C to go ahead than the Conservative Government ministers - and point out they are not prepared to sacrifice their livelihoods for this astronomically expensive atomic white elephant, just to keep the Chinese on side.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

How EU frames UK energy policy

Letter sent to the Times:

In his Business commentary ("A Rudderless ship," March 29 Robert Lea asserts "the energy secretary (Amber Rudd) appears to forget that our nuclear, wind, solar and marine energy and fracking have nothing to do with Brussels" in her warning that the EU is key to UK energy policy.
Ms Rudd is in fact correct. Tony Blair as Prime Minister signed up the UK to meet an EU-wide target of securing 20 per cent of our energy (not just electricity) from renewable sources by 2020 under the EC renewable energy directive (

Additionally, the complex financial  regime supporting the fiendishly opaque taxpayer-supported subsidies for the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear plant is contingent on the decision  ( 2014 by the European Commission Competition Directorate to allow the massive State Aid financial support for the plant. (C(2014) 7142 final cor)

This barely comprehensible decision - which is a 180 degree reversal of an earlier  provisional decision the Commission announced on 18 December 2013 - which would have disallowed the State Aid subsidy, has been referred to another European Union institution, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), by two fellow EU states, Austria and Luxembourg, backed by a coalition of German renewable energy companies concerned Hinkley will gain an unfair market advantage from such lavish taxpayer-supported and electricity bill-payer subsidies.  
The latest French Government plan to bail out by recapitalization  EDF, the parent company of EDF Energy, the applicant company to build Hinkley C, announced by French finance minister, Emmanuel Macron, in the French Parliament  ("Macron assure que l'Etat est prêt à recapitaliser EDF," Le Parisien 17 March;) amounts to yet another subsidy which will be challenged in the ECJ.

As Mr Lea himself asked in an article on nuclear funding last week "there is a question of whether this breaches European state-aid rules." ("Row over Hinkley Point is about to go nuclear,"  March 23,

So the EU  has, and does,  play a very large role in framing UK energy policy.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Follow the Saudi money

One of the two terrorists found guilty last Wednesday of a plot to murder policemen and soldiers in London is the son of a Saudi diplomat.
A day earlier in media coverage of the terrorist outrages in Brussels, it was reported that The Great Mosque of Brussels was established and funded by the King of Saudi Arabia, and it has been the focus of the preaching of the radical Salafist interpretation of Islam; meanwhile, it is well documented various very rich Saudi citizens  are primary paymasters of ISIS/Daesh; fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists who attacked the United States in New York and Washington DC on September 11, 2001, were Saudi citizens; their death mission was planned and funded by a Saudi billionaire exile, Osama Bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the UK continues to sell billions of pounds of arms to Saudi Arabia.

Intelligence services, go figure.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Hinkley debate descends into Alice's Wonderland

From yesterday's Energy Select Committee inquiry into  Hinkley Point and nuclear power:

Asked by Conservative MP James Heappey why it was “reasonable for us to assume it but not reasonable for you to just say it”, EDF chief executive M Vincent de Rivaz responded: “I am very pleased to give you the privilege to make the assumption and to draw the right conclusion as you have done.”

From Alice's Adventures in Wonderland...

“Speak in French when you can’t think of the English for a thing--turn your toes out when you walk---And remember who you are!”  

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”  
“Have I gone mad?
"I'm afraid so, but let me tell you something, the best people usually are.”  
The Mad Hatter

“But I don’t want to go among mad people," Alice remarked.

"Oh, you can’t help that," said the Cat: "we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad."
"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.
"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”  

“Curiouser and curiouser!” 
said Alice     

Monday, 21 March 2016

Hinkley's secret document cache

I was intrigued to read that Greenpeace has succeeded in its appeal against the Information Commissioner’s perverse decision to back a French energy company’s  desire for secrecy over British taxpayers’ right to know over the documents detailing the escalating costs of the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant (“Row over 'secret' Hinkley Point documents set to reach tribunal ,” Financial, 21 March,
Over a year ago (3 Dec, 2014)  I asked the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a Freedom of Information (FOI) request if it would send me the “ full documentation provided to the European Commission is support of the UK application for State Aid agreement on the Hinkley Point C nuclear project, including five named reports.

DECC refused, but admitted there were actually 126 documents, not just the five I listed, and also threw out my appeal.

DECC told me: "Having balanced the public interest arguments, we consider the public interest in releasing the full notification is outweighed by the need to ensure that the Commission is able to carry-out its investigatory functions effectively which involves the submission of candid and frank views by the Government and requires a safe space for the Commission to consider matters out of the public eye. This would not be possible if information contained in State aid notifications were subject to disclosure."

I passed my request on to the Information Commissioner.

After several months of exchanging  e-mail communications, in which I explained in great detail the public interest in disclosure, in mid-August, the Commissioner – who is supposed to protect  citizens’ right to know – unbelievably rejected my appeal in a fifty page justification for secrecy.(

Distilling the verbiage, the Information Commissioner  came down on the side of the French-owned  energy supplier EDF (Electricité de France) Energy’s commercial interests to  keep documents secret over the public interest of taxpayers to know how billions of pounds of their taxes are going to be handed over to this foreign company, who will no doubt repatriate our taxes to Paris.

I appealed to the next level of adjudication, the so-called First-tier Tribunal (Information Rights) last September. Despite several follow up e-mails, they have declined to respond to my requests for action

Will it take yet another 12 months to draw a blank?  Is the FOI system really fit-for-purpose when a public authority (ie DECC) can filibuster for six months? And the Information Tribunal can ignore applicants?

In January I received yet another communication from the Information Commissioner's office seeking further delay on another FOI request I made on 10 October last year to DECC on documents on nuclear waste costings and subsidies that the Government  presented secretly to the European Commission, which DECC also rejected.

I have heard nothing since.


Surely it is time  the Information Commissioner can come down on the side Joe Public?


Monday, 14 March 2016

Return to the Planet of the Apes

Letter sent to the Times:
I read with despair the article by your industrial editor on latest opportunistic lobbying effort  from the atomic power enthusiasts (apes) ("Small nuclear reactors 'are the future',"  14 March,

The Small Modular Reactors (SMR) being backed by the Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (NAMRC) are in fact  untried prototype technologies, of which there are currently around 50 different designs globally, some of which were  showcased at the UK SMR  Summit last October.

At the summit, Westinghouse’s roving global chief, Jeff Benjamin, vice president for new plants and major projects unveiled his company’s plans to offer the UK government a partnership in the deployment of small modular reactor (SMR) technology, “a move that would advance the UK from being a buyer to a global provider of the latest nuclear energy technology, According to a Westinghouse statement. The proposal is intended to complement the current Phase 2 SMR study that the UK government has recently commenced. 

But SMRs produce radioactive waste, just as the large GW-sized plants do, for which there is no current technical or political solution for long term management. Moreover, even assuming planning permission  could be secured for the dozens of new nuclear plants on greenfield sites that NAMRC apparently advocates, which I very much doubt, this proliferation of sites  would massively increase a nuclear security problem which we are already  failing to resolve with current reactor fleet
I just returned from a four day convention of the European Environment Foundation (www.european-environment-foundation.euin Freiburg, Germany  where I presented a paper on 'nuclear's insecurities' to 70 globally awarded environmental laureates, raising the question why policy makers and atomic advocates  seem determined to put their heads in the sand rather than address the increasing challenge from nuclear terrorism,
The Washington Post thankfully has addressed this in an important  leading article, A lingering nuclear threat ( 13 March)
It concludes:  "A detailed index published by the Nuclear Threat Initiative shows tangible progress was achieved between 2012 and 2014, but since then efforts have stalled, due to political issues that have diverted attention, bureaucratic inertia, lack of resources and cultural factors. None of these are going away any time soon."
The Post is right.




Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Davey still has no nuclear sense in his locker

Letters sent to The Times :
The salutary lesson of rejection by his constituents does not seem to have impacted former Lib Dem Energy and Climate Change Secretary, Sir Edward Davey’s ability to be slippery with words (“Tories would have come up with a worse nuclear deal,” 9 March
Sir Edward asserts in his Thunderer comment " the price [to be paid for  electricity generated by the Hinkley C nuclear plant]  includes cleaning up nuclear’s pollution: the cost of managing nuclear waste and, eventually, of decommissioning.”
This misleads by omission in a number of ways.
Firstly, it includes no element at all for the clean-up of radiological and toxic pollution at uranium mines, all of which are conveniently outside the UK. When Sir Edward was energy secretary his department asserted it did not need to include the impact of uranium mines on the local environment in the strategic environmental assessment as SEAs did not apply to circumstances outside the United Kingdom
This dismissal of responsibility is a convenient washing of hands over the deleterious effects on indigenous, brown- faced peoples from whose land ( in Namibia, Canada, Kazakhstan etc) the uranium is mined. This is a pernicious example of environmental racism.
Secondly, the cost of final nuclear waste management is capped by the fiendishly complex set of  arrangements. If the agreed cost escalates above the ceiling, which close examination of the history of nuclear waste costs suggests is inevitable, the nuclear plant operator will have the extra costs picked up by thetaxpayer.
There is a minimal insurance premium the radioactive waste creator, in the Hinkley C case, EDF Energy,  has to pay, but this will be dwarfed by the inflation in real costs
I sat on Sir Edward’s Geological Disposal Implementation Board for nuclear waste for several years before it was put into cold storage when his disposal strategy collapsed.
I always argued in the GDIB that ministers should not put unrealistic optimism before factual reality; they declined to listen.
Instead, Sir Edward continues to act as Humpty Dumpty, who said pithily in Alice through the Looking Glass “When I use a word  it means just what I chose it to mean – neither more or less.”

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Energy Confusion

Letter sent to the Guardian:

While your leader on energy policy made some important points, it is also confused on some key facts.("Keeping the lights on: it's what the government is for," 8 March,

It wrongly asserts "Hinkley [C] was intended to supply 7% of UK energy." This error is repeated in Nils Pratley's otherwise well considered commentary  -"Hinkley , according to the official script, was supposed to do much more than merely produce 7% of the UK's energy" - ("At last, someone gets the point about Hinkley") and in your news report -"the Hinkley Point C plant{....} is expected to meet 7% of the UK's energy- ("EDF and governments hold firm on Hinkley C").

This should read 7% of "electricity, not "energy": the difference is important, as this equates to less than 2% on UK energy use, and demonstrates the relatively trivial contribution Hinkley C will make to delivering UK energy services, were it ever to get built and operate (which I doubt)

Your leader also continues to ply the myth - promulgated  primarily by the electricity industry- that we face a future  power gap, that can only be met by large generators. Energy demand is actually going down- due to efficiency, primarily- and has  been for a number of years

Actual final energy consumption in 2014 was no less than 21 per cent lower than it was in the year 2000. The total amounts, according tot "Energy Consumption in the UK" almanac published by the Department of Energy and Climate Change(DECC), are respectively 159 and 135 million tons of oil equivalent.

As Andrew Warren, the indefatigable hon president of UK Association for Conservation of  Energy points out ( "The extraordinary thing is that, in the immortal words ascribed to Sir Michael Caine, not many people know this. Including, apparently, the Energy Minister Andrea Leadsom., who persistently talks of the "need to meet the UK's rising demand for energy." (DECC Press release, 25 September 2015,

Monday, 7 March 2016

Nuclear: last century's failed technology

Letter submitted to The Times:
Matt Ridley is right  to argue French-State power generator Électricité de France (EDF) can’t afford to build the Hinkley Point C European Pressurised Reactor (EPR); that Britain ( or indeed France, as the resignation on 7 March of EDF chief finance officer,Thomas Piquemal  testifies) can’t afford to pay for it; and that  there are better options elsewhere ("Let’s kill off this nuclear white elephant, 7 March

But I think he is misguided in arguing the answer to our future electricity service requirements is either the other Giga-Watt (GW) giant reactors  being puished by Japanese reactor vendors Toshiba-Westinghouse and Hitachi ( have we not learned from the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe in Japan  five years ago this week?) or the untried prototype technology, the so-called Small Modular Reactor (SMR), of which there are currently around 50 different designs globally, some of which were  showcased at the UK SMR  Summit last October*
At the summit, Westinghouse’s roving global chief, Jeff Benjamin, vice president for new plants and major projects unveiled his company’s plans to offer the UK government a partnership in the deployment of small modular reactor (SMR) technology, “a move that would advance the UK from being a buyer to a global provider of the latest nuclear energy technology, According to a Westinghouse statement. The proposal is intended to complement the current Phase 2 SMR study that the UK government has recently commenced. 
Indeed, Westinghouse has recently signed a deal to work with the UK’s Nuclear Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield.
But Matt Ridley is misguided to believe  - as are the SMR cheer-leaders -  that in the long-run the answer is that "smaller [nuclear] is more beautiful."
SMRs produce radioactive waste, just as the GW-sized plants do, for which there is no current technical or political solution for long term management. Moreover, even assuming planning permission  could be secured for  dozens of new nuclear plants on greenfield site, which I very much doubt, this proliferation of sites  would massively increase a nuclear security problem which we are already  failing to resolve with current reactor fleet
*SMR Design Concept Families

Water-cooled SMRs

•CAREM-25(Argentina) ACP100(China) Flexblue(France) AHWR300(India) IRIS(International) DMS(Japan) IMR(Japan) SMART(S Korea) KLT-40S(Russia) VBER-300(Russia) ABV-6M(Russia ) RITM-200(Russia) VVER300(Russia) VK-300(Russia) UNITHERM(Russia) RUTA-70(Russia) mPower(US) NuScale(US) Westinghouse SMR(US) SMR-160(US) Elena(Russia) SHELF(Russia)


High Temperature Gas-cooled SMRs

•HTR-PM(China) GTHTR300(Japan) GT-MHR(Russia) MHR-T(Russia) MHR-100(Russia) PBMR-400(SA) HTMR-100(SA) EM2(US) SC-HTGR(US) Xe-100(US) U-Battery (UK)


Liquid-metal cooled Fast SMRs

•CEFR(China) PFBR-500(India) 4S(Japan) SVBR-100(Russia) BREST-300(Russia) PRISM(US) Gen4 Module(US) Astrid (France)


Molten-salt cooled SMRs

•Terrestrial En (Canada) Seaborg Tech (Den) Fuji (Japan) LFTR (China) Moltex (UK) EVOL (EU) Flibe Energy (US) WAMSR Transatom (US)


Source: Presentation by Professor Tony Roulstone, University of Cambridge



Friday, 4 March 2016

Nuclear Fantasyland......“Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice

Nuclear Fantasyland......
“Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Franco-British Summit – 3 March 2016
Annex on a Comprehensive Franco-British Partnership on Civil Nuclear Energy
Firmly committed to the implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement, France and the United Kingdom restate the crucial role of nuclear energy in the transition to a low-carbon economy as part of an energy diversification policy. France and the United Kingdom are convinced that civil nuclear energy helps to guarantee their long-term energy independence and contributes to their economic growth and the competitiveness of their industries. They will ensure highest standards of safety, security and safeguards are respected. They reaffirm their firm shared will to combat nuclear proliferation, and will ensure long-term management of radioactive waste, as well as environmental protection.
France and the United Kingdom welcome the major progress made in recent months with a view to confirming the project to build two EPR reactors on the Hinkley Point site. The signing of a framework agreement between EDF and China General Nuclear (CGN) on 21 October 2015 and the State aid approval by the European Commission of the methodology underpinning the waste transfer contract between EDF Energy and the British Government represent significant milestones.
Following an in-depth internal review, the project’s organization has been fine-tuned to guarantee control of the main operational risks inherent to such a large project. EDF is currently devoted to prepare all necessary elements for the announcement of a FID for Hinkley Point C in the near future, with the full support of the French government.
This major strategic project is a pillar of the bilateral relationship and will be a key aspect of Britain’s energy policy, offering the guarantee of safe, competitive, decarbonized energy by 2025. It confirms the ability of our two countries to produce leading industrial projects together. Lastly, it marks an essential step forward in the recovery of nuclear energy in Europe, in support of the fight against climate change.
Together, the two countries will develop scientific, technical and managerial skills on nuclear projects. They will also encourage staff exchanges that can contribute to developing those skills. This will enable us to ensure the highest safety standards, respect for the environment and preservation of resources, as well as to increase our capacity for innovation to support technologies and industrial competitiveness.
While respecting their independence, the safety authorities (ASN, IRSN, ONR) will strengthen their cooperation, notably on staff exchanges, which are extremely useful for developing stringent, pragmatic approaches. The safety authorities will enhance their coordination in the European and international forums in which they participate, with a view to presenting joint approaches and solutions whenever possible.
France and the United Kingdom will develop joint approaches and innovative technologies on the basis of their shared experience. That collaboration will offer the twofold prospect of optimizing their national programmes and a competitive joint positioning in the international
market, which is growing as a result of the ageing of the nuclear fleets currently in operation around the world.
With their historic experience in the nuclear sector, France and the United Kingdom are long-standing partners in combating nuclear proliferation. In the area of nuclear security also, their experience puts them at the forefront of current discussions, particularly in international forums.
Continued cooperation is encouraged between the UK and France on issues concerning plutonium management, noting the UK’s ongoing work to determine a disposition solution.
In the area of Generation IV reactors, the CEA and the NNL are collaborating actively to develop a joint roadmap for activities of mutual interest to support the ASTRID project. Within that framework, new "key" cooperation actions have been identified and will soon be the subject of a new agreement.
France and the United Kingdom will encourage stronger cooperation between the CEA and the NNL through the development of skills and knowledge and staff exchanges.
With the aim of balanced collaboration and co-construction of projects, the CEA and the NNL will pursue their discussion of the potential for shared use of facilities.
Before the next Franco-British Summit, France and the United Kingdom and their respective competent organizations and manufacturers will hold a high-level seminar to clarify and finalize the new cooperation actions agreed in this declaration.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Alice Through the Looking Glass

“Curiouser and curiouser!” said Alice 
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

On tickling the dragon’s tail

I don't usually post a complete article by someone else on this blog: but the article below is so powerful, I am making an exception.

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 26 February 2016

On tickling the dragon’s tail

Victor Gilinsky

Victor Gilinsky has for many years been an independent consultant, mainly on nuclear issues. He earlier served two terms on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Before that he was head of the...
In 1964, I attended a talk by a Strategic Air Command major general who described how, during the 1962 Cuban crisis, he carried out an order to lead US bombers on what he believed at the time was a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. I chatted with him before his talk and came away impressed not only with his intelligence, but also with his kindness and thoughtfulness; he was very proud of a son that worked in a mental hospital. He began his talk by telling us how difficult it had been to say goodbye to his wife before departing. He then went into detail on the extensive planning and long and rigorous training that goes into such a mission and the tremendous discipline it requires. He talked about the difficult takeoff and how it felt to respond to such an order; if he got a coded “GO” signal before the bombers reached a certain point in the Arctic, he was to lead them to their targets. He said his crews understood that dropping the several megatons of nuclear explosives each plane carried would have awful consequences, and that they might not survive.
We in the audience knew, as there had been no nuclear war, that he must have turned around at some point. What a relief that must have been, I thought, to give the order to head for home. But, no, I was wrong. The general drew himself up, paused, looked out across the audience, and told us that giving the order to abandon his nuclear mission was the most disappointing moment of his entire life. It rocked me back. Did I get him wrong? After some reflection I decided that I wouldn’t let this revelation change my opinion of him as a good and intelligent man.
But I would have to rethink my view of human nature, and its ability to avert disaster.
I abandoned my notion that the people in the nuclear weapon complex—from scientists to military users—really hoped the stuff would never be used. Maybe that is what they themselves believed—SAC’s motto was “Peace is our profession”—but not many persons, no matter how well intentioned, can spend a lifetime working on something, or training for something, no matter how awful, without at some level wanting to see it work. The moral restraints that, I had imagined, would prevent Armageddon were flimsier than I had thought.
Scientists are also not immune from wanting to see their handiwork in action. When the news of the 1945 Hiroshima blast was announced at Los Alamos, where the bomb was made, many of the lab personnel cheered. They weren’t of course cheering 100,000 deaths; they were cheering the successful test of their device.
Again in the 1960s, I attended a presentation on “peaceful nuclear explosions” by the director of the Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory. At that time, so-called peaceful nuclear explosives were still in vogue, strongly supported by the Atomic Energy Commission as a highly useful civilian spin-off from nuclear weapon development. The laboratory director told us confidentially that the real reason for conducting civilian bomb tests was different: The civilian tests were essential for making the public comfortable with nuclear explosives. Only then could the military count on getting a presidential release for their use in wartime.
Today, Los Alamos, the original nuclear weapon laboratory, sublimates the weapon scientists’ need to feel their work is used by assuring them that—I quote from the lab’s web page—“Nuclear weapons are used every day ... as a disincentive to adversaries from taking hostile and aggressive actions against the US and its allies.” Thinking in terms of threatening the world every day not to do things we don’t like may make weapon designers feel more useful. But considering that we are not the only ones on the planet with these weapons, it is a problematic stance for the country.
It seems to have dropped from the world’s consciousness that in nine countries around the world, highly trained and dedicated military officers sit ready to launch nuclear-tipped missiles. Upon receipt of a valid order from their superiors—possibly not even from the country’s leaders—they will turn keys and close firing circuits; hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, will die, and the world will become a different, and probably much more brutish, place. The nuclear war gurus conclude this only increases the importance of maintaining nuclear deterrence.
But deterrence is in the mind, a matter of psychology. Sometimes minds do strange things.
Consider the India-Pakistan nuclear standoff. Both have sizeable nuclear warheads on long-range rockets; in principle they balance each other out. But India, stung by terrorists it said had come from Pakistan to attack Mumbai in 2008, announced it would in the future respond with a punishing military attack, but one so limited as to avoid triggering a nuclear response from Pakistan. To counter this Indian strategy, Pakistan has developed small-yield, short-range nuclear weapons, which it says it would use against India’s limited conventional attacks. Thus, it says, it has blocked all Indian conventional options. But has it? Will Pakistan now refrain from supporting anti-Indian terrorists, if that is what it has in fact been doing? And will India put aside its response strategy? The danger is of course that miscalculations leading to the use of small nuclear weapons by Pakistan could trigger India to use its strategic nuclear weapons—and all-out nuclear war.
When asked about this, an unworried Pakistani general asked why would anyone in India launch an attack, especially when a devastating response is likely? The answer is that national leaders, being human, often do foolish things, sometimes out of miscalculation, sometimes because they feel trapped, sometimes out of frustration. Sometimes there are communications problems.
Consider again the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was long ago and the technical systems have changed; but human nature hasn’t changed. It came about because Soviet Chairman Nikita Khrushchev tried a dangerous short cut to nuclear parity with the United States. Robert McNamara, who was US defense secretary during the crisis, lost no opportunity in later years to point out that the confrontation was even more dangerous than it seemed at the time. Unbeknownst to the United States, the Soviets had battlefield nuclear warheads in Cuba. It turns out, however, that McNamara, as he was surprised to learn 30 years later, was also unaware at the time of the extent of the forward lean of our nuclear forces.
I happen to have been with McNamara when a former Air Force colonel who had been in the underground command center at SAC’s Nebraska headquarters during the crisis described what happened there on the most critical day. McNamara was shaken; he evidently did not know the full extent of steps the SAC commander, General Tommy Powers, had taken on his own authority. The Air Force general in charge of the SAC underground command center in Nebraska gave the order to close the center from the outside world, apparently the only time this has ever happened. He told the targeting staff that the moment they had trained for all their lives had arrived. He expected a missile launch order momentarily and also expected they would all likely die from a Soviet response. Each individual was permitted a call to his family to say goodbye, but was not permitted to say why he was calling. The conversations were about scraped kids’ knees and sick dogs. It was a scene straight out of Dr. Strangelove. McNamara was open-mouthed; he mumbled to the colonel: “We have to talk.”
I expect that communications about use of US nuclear weapons work much better today. But one thing has not changed: the cult of toughness in high-level decision-making. On another occasion, well after he was defense secretary, McNamara told me he would not have approved nuclear weapon use against a conventional Soviet attack in Europe, even though to do so was declared US policy. I asked whether he ever told this to President John Kennedy or National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy. He said he hadn’t because they would have considered him weak. The defense secretary who had intimidated so many with his toughness was himself intimidated by the potential charge of weakness. In high power circles it is politically fatal to be thought “soft.”
This problem has been with mankind since the beginning of civilization. Thucydides writes about it in his history of the war between Athens and Sparta. Once war fever is running, prudence is easily confused with cowardice. At the start of Athens’s disastrous Sicilian campaign, “the few that liked it not, feared to appear unpatriotic by holding up their hands against it, and so kept quiet.”
The flexing of nuclear muscles on the assumption that “deterrence” will keep the weapons from ever being used reminds me of tabletop experiments that were carried out at Los Alamos during World War II to determine the “critical mass” of nuclear explosives. Physicists nudged two sub-critical masses closer to each other by tapping them lightly with a screwdriver and measuring the increased neutron count. Richard Feynman called this “tickling the dragon’s tail.” They could get away with it so long as the two sub-critical masses stayed sufficiently apart. One day the experimenter slipped, pushed the two pieces too close together, and received a lethal dose of radiation.
In a similar way, if we slip, and nuclear weapons are used, the consequences will be awful. It’s not just that there will be considerable devastation; the reality of nuclear war will force radical changes in the way we organize our lives. The basic elements of our civilization—our cities, our economic systems, our civil liberties—are based on the belief that these weapons will not be used. But in the end, the restraints on their use are psychological, just plate glass. If that shatters, the organizing principles of the world will change dramatically. This is no idle concern, for there is a self-destructive defect in us. It has to be quarantined if we are to survive.