The Truth About Today’s Nuclear Threat
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The Truth About Today’s Nuclear Threat

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The Truth About Today’s Nuclear Threat

Sarah Scoles is a freelance journalist, contributing editor at Scientific American, and senior contributor at Undark. She frequently covers topics about how science and technology impact society. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired, and Popular Science, among other publications.

Below, Sarah shares five key insights from her new book, Countdown: The Blinding Future of Nuclear Weapons. Listen to the audio version—read by Sarah herself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. Nuclear threats are as heightened today as during the Cold War.

The nuclear threats of the 21st century are different from those of the earlier atomic age. Back then, tension was largely between two superpower countries—a relatively simple dynamic.

In 2023, nine countries have nuclear weapons. There’s more competition between powerful nations, more concerns about smaller countries, nuclear modernization and expansion programs across the world, and fears of radiological terrorism. The ongoing conflicts between Israel and Hamas, and Russia and Ukraine, directly involve two countries with nuclear weapons—with other atomically armed states taking sides.

These modern dangers are not lesser than those of the Cold War. In fact, many experts believe the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is higher than ever.

That’s part of why the US nuclear complex is getting a makeover—to the tune of more than a trillion dollars. That makeover will involve newly designed weapons, alterations and upgrades for old ones, and new production of plutonium pits, hollow spheres of radioactive metal at the heart of nuclear weapons.

“Many experts believe the risk of a nuclear catastrophe is higher than ever.”

Some say those developments are necessary because the old weapons aren’t as reliable as they once were and so might not deter conflict like they used to. Others say the modernization program is part of an arms race, a waste of money, and a global provocation.

Whichever way you lean, it is clear that even when nuclear weapons aren’t an explicit part of a conflict or negotiation, their subtext and coiled threat underly all international interactions.

2. No one knows whether nuclear deterrence works.

At its most basic, the idea of nuclear deterrence is that if Country A has nuclear weapons, Country B won’t attack with their nuclear weapons because they know Country A could retaliate in a radioactive way. The story goes that Earth doesn’t see the kinds of large-scale conflict it did in the past because everyone knows that if a tiff gets out of hand, it could go nuclear, and no one wants that.

When I started interviewing people who work at the nuclear weapons labs, they often cited a chart they had seen during their recruitment or early-career years, which showed the number of wartime casualties relative to the overall population over time. After the invention and deployment of the first nuclear weapons at the end of World War II, the line on that graph drops off precipitously. Although conflict abounds, it doesn’t rise to the same levels of violence as in the past. Some within the nuclear complex attribute that to the pacifying, de-escalating effects of nuclear weapons.

Others call that into question. No one knows if nuclear weapons have caused, rather than correlated with, the drop in deaths. Consider this point from Dan Sinars, a physicist who directs an instrument called the Z Machine, where scientists do high-energy research on how nuclear weapons behave: “One war would be all it would take to change that equation.”

On the other side, you have Emma Claire Foley, who works for a nuclear abolition think-tank called Global Zero. She says, “The fact that the only solution we’ve come up with is to hold ourselves at the very real risk of destruction many, many times greater than what occurred in those wars—that’s not a solution. That’s simply preparation for a much bigger problem.” There is no guarantee that deterrence will keep us safe in the future.

3. Nuclear weapons scientists aren’t usually warmongers.

Over the past few years, I’ve been hanging out with people who design, maintain, seek to understand, and prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. You might think that the scientists who dedicate their careers to potentially apocalypse-inducing bombs would be hawkish or big fans of those bombs. But a fair number of them would love to see a world free of nuclear weapons.

“The hands in which our radioactive fate rests are often those who would rather be dismantling bombs in an ideal world.”

They believe that so long as atomic arms exist, someone has to work on them, and those might as well be people who want to ensure the weapons are safe, secure, reliable, and un-used, rather than people who are in love with their destructive power. The hands in which our radioactive fate rests are often those who would rather be dismantling bombs in an ideal world. They just recognize that we don’t live in an ideal world.

4. Our bombs steal and mimic the power of the natural universe.

Nuclear weapons work a lot like the cosmic objects that astronomers and physicists study. They are similar to supernovae—the explosion of a star. And their inner workings play by the rules of physics. The scientists who work on them have to understand the interactions of atoms and particles at a fundamental level, just as scientists who study the beginning of the universe have to. Nuclear weapons researchers often have to understand the physics better than strictly academic researchers because their work has higher-stakes consequences—bombs behaving badly.

Many of the researchers at nuclear weapons labs are experts on other natural phenomena. Take Tess Light, an astrophysicist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who works on detecting nuclear explosions using satellite instruments. Those same instruments can decipher the details of lightning and help predict severe weather.

Similarly, Los Alamos scientist Chris Fryer has studied, in the weapons context, how radiation flows during an explosion. He got down into such nitty-gritty detail that a NASA scientist reached out to him. He was working on a potential space mission to study radiation and shock waves in supernovas. He wanted Fryer to help with the theory because the space agency didn’t have the money to figure out the nuanced calculations he needed. In these ways, basic science informs national security science, and national security science informs basic science, in a cycle that ultimately bends the path of both.

5. Nuclear secrecy breeds conspiracy and a lack of public understanding.

Even though I spent years asking intrusive questions to people within the nuclear weapons world, there’s plenty I couldn’t learn. Nuclear secrets are some of the most closely held in the U.S. government. As Alex Wellerstein, a historian who’s studied this topic for years, says, “Nuclear secrecy is a special kind of secrecy because the atomic bomb is a special kind of bomb.”

Nuclear weapons topics even have their own special clearance system: the highest level is not “top secret,” as it is in the intelligence and defense worlds, but “Q.” And The Atomic Energy Act made information about nuclear weapons “born classified,” meaning secret from the moment of its creation, no bureaucracy required.

“Secrecy also limits public knowledge and debate.”

There are very valid reasons to keep nuclear secrets. We don’t want everyone building bombs because we put designs on the internet, for instance. But excessive secrecy leaves much to the imagination. When people don’t know the full story, they fill in the gaps themselves and assume that the lack of transparency is out of a desire to cover up nefarious action. For example, when Los Alamos was founded, during the Manhattan Project, people speculated that it was a poison gas factory, a place for pregnant members of the Women’s Army Corps to hide out, and a whiskey mill, among other things.

Secrecy also limits public knowledge and debate. Right now, the United States is embarking on a project to build new plutonium pits to replace the outdated pits. But because so much about plutonium is classified, it’s hard for the public to evaluate how necessary or useful (or well-run) the new plutonium program is. If the country is going to invest so much in our nuclear weapons in the coming years, its residents should be able to readily access, to a reasonable extent, information about what that means and why. It’s our future, too, after all.

To listen to the audio version read by author Sarah Scoles, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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