Nukes are particularly fiendish weapons. Over the last couple of decades, war-hungry politicians and generals have attempted to lump them into a generalized category called “weapons of mass destruction.” But this is word-play. No other weapon – no nerve gas, no weaponized disease agent, no chemical or radiological poison – comes close to the horrible destructive power of atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

Nukes kill in a variety of ways. A nuclear blast burns and disintegrates; its brilliant flash blinds the beholder; it issues shockwaves which rupture eardrums and knock buildings down; it sends clouds of ash and debris into the atmosphere; the mass fires which follow it (when the target is something burnable, such as a city or a town) continue to pollute the atmosphere and affect the climate; its radiation kills some people within hours or days; others take longer to die of a variety of cancers. The sheer size of a nuclear blast and its outlying disaster areas render recovery impossible. There are simply not enough first responders or firefighters to attend to the injured or evacuate survivors, especially as the transportation infrastructure of the town or city in question will be gone as well.

For all these reasons, after the first two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was widely remarked that “the survivors envied the dead.”

How could such fiendish weapons ever have been devised? What was the need for them?

Supposedly, nukes were developed by the Americans and the British because they feared a fiendish regime, Nazi Germany, might also develop them. But the Germans never came close to building such weapons, and surrendered before the scientists at Los Alamos had achieved their goal. At that point, nukes became a massive and expensive war project without a purpose. So they were dropped on Japan, instead.

The nuking of two Japanese cities – targeting almost exclusively civilians – is debated to this day. Some claim that atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki “shortened the war” and “saved a million American lives.” Others assert that the Japanese government was desperate to end the war, and that President Truman ordered the bombs dropped as a “message” to the Russians — a warning to his Communist enemies of the new power the United States possessed.

Sam Cohen, one of the inventors of the Neutron Bomb, who worked with Edward Teller at Los Alamos – told me that the Nagasaki bomb was dropped as an experiment: to see if its untried technology would work or not. This may sound insane, a case of science losing all moral compass and descending into total evil, but one of Sam’s favorite films was DR. STRANGELOVE. He didn’t consider the film a comedy, but told me it seemed to him an accurate depiction of the nuclear establishment, and the environment in which he worked.

I became interested in this subject because of a film-related scandal. In the early 1960s, the BBC encouraged the careers of several talented young directors, including Ken Russell, Ken Loach, and Peter Watkins. In 1964 directed a highly-regarded docudrama, CULLODEN – “an account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain” according to its opening titles. CULLODEN was a fine film which pulled no punches, and on its strength, Watkins was commissioned by the BBC to make another faux-documentary: this one about nuclear war.

When Watkins delivered THE WAR GAME to the BBC, the broadcaster decided not to screen it. Watkins had done an enormous amount of research and made a meticulous, brilliant film about the consequences, on the ground, of a “limited” nuke attack on Southern England. But the film was perceived, by the BBC’s mandarins, and probably the government of the day, as simply “too much” for the general public. Ironically, Her Majesty’s Government already knew everything that was depicted in THE WAR GAME, and much worse: eight years earlier, the Strath Committee had reported:

If only 10 bombs were dropped on UK cities, the result would be
‘utter devastation’ with up to 12 million deaths, including 3 million
from radiation. There would be a further 4 million serious casualties
which would swamp the medical facilities available. Half of Britain’s
industrial capacity would be destroyed, the distributive system
would break down … water and food would be contaminated,
leaving the 40 million survivors living in siege conditions.”

We knew nothing of this. British school kids didn’t do “duck and cover” exercises in their classrooms. There were no signs indicating the whereabouts of a fallout shelter. Britain’s politicians went right on developing nuclear weapons, testing and stockpiling atomic bombs…

The banning of THE WAR GAME caused something of a controversy in the press. At the tender age of ten or so, I became aware of it, and was suitably offended that I wasn’t allowed to see this film, which my parents’ television license fees had paid for. I had seen CULLODEN on its first broadcast the year before, and found it quite disturbing. But I imagined THE WAR GAME to be some kind of science fiction film, perhaps with two-headed people, or giant ants… the kind of monster movies Jack Arnold made, back in the days of the fifties atom bomb scare…

I didn’t get to see THE WAR GAME for many years. But in 1967, rather amazingly, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Picture in the United States. So presumably Watkins’ non-documentary enjoyed an American distribution… Avon Books in the US and Sphere in the UK published an illustrated paperback, THE WAR GAME, based on Watkins’ script and maps and images from the film. Unable to see the picture, I could still buy the book! And so I too was immersed in this terrible vision of the likely consequences of a “limited” nuclear exchange.

Gone was the friendly BBC bobby-on-his-bicycle. In Watkins’ film, post-attack, the police are armed and put to work, first euthanizing the casualties of the attack, then executing killers and thieves. But food is running out, the surviving population is either desperate or apathetic, living in the vilest conditions, without medical attention, without hope of things being fixed…

This was the conclusion of the Strath Report, as well: “The Report found it impossible to predict whether Britain could recover, with the social and economic fabric of the country destroyed.” (John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995)

Nukes are civilization-killers. More than 90 percent of the population lives in towns or cities, and all of them – rich and poor – depend on efficient systems of food distribution to survive. If a metropolis is devastated by fire, blast, and radiation, and its infrastructure of highways, railways, bridges, tunnels, and surface streets severely damaged, how is the surviving population to be fed? What if multiple cities are similarly attacked? Who will fix things? Who will reconnect the grid?

That little book THE WAR GAME was my introduction to these things. Its images are devastating, but even more so are the narrative descriptions, which read like ghastly poetry:

This is a fire storm.

Rochester, in Kent.

2 1/2 miles from the impact point
of a Soviet thermonuclear missile
which has exploded off-course
on its flight to London Airport.

Within its centre a column
of hot air and fire one mile
broad at the base reaches
1 1/2 miles into the sky.

In a bookstore in Santa Monica a dozen years later – Midnight Special – I ran into a copy of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Amazing thing! Here was a regular glossy magazine, written in reasonable English, apparently by atomic scientists, for their colleagues and the general public to read. It dealt both with nuclear power and with the nuclear weapons complex. For the next decade, I was hooked. I doubt that I missed an issue. It taught me more than I needed to know and much of it became infused a lot of my work – including THE HOT CLUB, a script I wrote for Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and THE HAPPY HOUR, a screenplay I wrote for the English director Adrian Lyne.

REPO MAN was originally the story of a runaway nuclear scientist, the inventor of the Neutron Bomb, and an LA repo man’s attempt to track down his car full of stolen nuclear materials. The screenplay ended with the Neutron Bomb concealed within exploding – killing off the protagonists and the population of the city center with a massive radiation dose. But as we progressed with the film we became more bonded with the characters, and, I suppose, with that strange place, Los Angeles. And so we came up with another ending which did not require the city’s nuclear devastation. Salutary though it might have been.

So what?

Comparatively few films deal with the prospect of nuclear war. It is an awful, saddening subject, and people, we are told, want to be entertained.

Yet is it not the great story – fiction or non-fiction – of our time?

The nuclear-weapons-complex is vast, powerful, and currently expanding, thanks to President Obama’s trillion-dollar nuke upgrade. It includes two branches of the military (as far as I know the Army no longer fields nuclear bazookas), a huge raft of corporations and specialist manufacturers, labor unions, an attendant nuclear-power-complex, and an array of politicians, academics, consultants, security experts, and lobbyists.

The complex holds within its hands the power of life or death over an entire planet — or at least that planet’s northern hemisphere. It would be crazy to use it, right?

We’d better hope so. Our best hope that all the workers with good union jobs assembling plutonium triggers, and the air force crews and pilots, and sailors on the nuclear subs, and the security people, and the contractors and big businessmen, and the generals and the admirals, and the president and his or her associates are all really well-intentioned, level-headed people. That they do what they do with pure intent, and make the right decisions, and don’t make any mistakes, ever.

And we’d best hope the same about “the enemy” – possessor of a similarly-large nuclear force, to be delivered by aircraft, missile, and submarine, very much in need of an expensive upgrade: that all the workers in their nuclear-weapons complex, their air force and navy guys, their security and  kontraktniki and oligarchs, their generals and admirals, their president and associates, are all sane, thoughtful, level-headed. With good intent, always making the right choices, never, ever, making any mistakes.

Because if that IS the case then we don’t need to worry about human error, or a misunderstanding, or a crazy person, starting a nuclear war. All we need to worry about are electrical short circuits, power or equipment failures, accidents, or terrorists getting their hands on nukes.

Unfortunately, various heads of state have over the years threatened to use nuclear weapons for political purposes. The dread dictator of North Korea may spring to mind, and we shall investigate the danger of his nuclear stockpile later. But democratically elected Presidents have also threatened to use nuclear weapons.

During the Korean War, President Truman authorized the Pentagon to use nukes against Korean targets – just as he had against Japan. The Pentagon declined, not being able to identify any surviving targets. President Eisenhower offered the French the use of two American nuclear weapons as they wound down their Vietnam War; they, too declined. President Kennedy twice brought the United States to the brink of nuclear confrontation with Russia, first over Berlin, then over Cuba. President Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger frequently threatened to the Russians that the United States might use nukes to destroy dams and harbors in Vietnam. The Russians became so accustomed to Nixon’s nuclear threats that, uncertain what to believe, they discounted all of them. President Carter let it be known that he was “contemplating the unthinkable” when Iranians stormed the US embassy in Teheran.

Ordinary people do not find politicians in the least credible. Politicians, perhaps aware of this, cling to the word “credibility” and use it frequently when describing US relations with foreign nations. “Creditability” is a dangerous word when used thus, suggesting a willingness to engage in acts of violence, possibly nuclear, to obtain unclear goals.

Even if we assume that the current class of American politicians are all above this, and unlikely to fly off the deep end into nuclear combat with the Russians or the Chinese, even if we assume the human aspect of the nuclear-weapons-complex is 100% perfect, can we discount the danger of an accidental nuclear exchange?

We, the public, know of several occasions when such an exchange almost occurred.

On Nov 9, 1979, three US command posts showed a massive Russian nuclear strike incoming. US missiles were put on high alert, jet bombers scrambled, and “Looking Glass “ – the President’s doomsday command plane – took to the air without the President on board. But there was no attack. A training tape, simulating a Russian first strike, had been mistakenly inserted into the Pentagon’s computer system.

On June 3, 1980, another red alert took place – showing anywhere between two and 200 missiles on their way to devastate the USA. An investigation revealed no missiles, just a faulty computer chip.

On Sept 27, 1983, the Russian satellite warning system reported five American Minutemen missiles heading for Moscow. The Russian military command prepared for war, then stood down when it became apparent that the satellites had mistaken sunlight reflecting off clouds for missile launches.

In November 1983, the US and its NATO allies embarked on a nuclear weapons exercise called ‘Able Archer.’ This came during a period of great US-Russian tension. The US was siting Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe; the rhetoric of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher was bellicose, and Russian President Andropov believed that the US was planning a nuclear first strike. According to CIA director Robert Gates, “the KGB concluded that American forces … might have begun the countdown to nuclear war … we in the CIA did not really grasp how alarmed the Soviet leaders might have been.”

The Able Archer incident is perhaps the closest the US and Russia have come to full-scale nuclear war. We have no way of knowing for certain, since most of these mistakes and misunderstandings remain classified. Yet they continued: on Jan 25, 1995, Russian radar mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a US Trident submarine missile launch. Again, the Russian commander realized the alert was a false alarm.

Nuclear weapons delivery systems are extremely complex. There are many things that can go wrong. As Command and Control points out, the US Minuteman fleet is decrepit and dangerous, with widespread dereliction of duty by its crews. The Russian submarine fleet is similarly unreliable. In 2000 a Russian sub, the Kursk, sank with all hands: most of the Russian boats are in such bad shape that they cannot leave port. Smaller nuclear “powers” may suffer even worse maintenance problems: whistleblower and UK Navy submariner William McNeilly describes serial technical mishaps and breakdowns aboard HMS Neptune, one of the subs Britain maintains as launch platforms for the Trident missiles it rents from the US.

McNeilly’s report – released by WikiLeaks – depicts what the whistleblower calls “shockingly extreme conditions” ranging from a complete absence of security, via contaminated food and flooded toilets, to “a blazing inferno in the Missile Compartment.”

A June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, launched a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.

Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.

Perhaps the above has given some indication of the instability of the nuclear weapons systems themselves, and also of the instability of those who allegedly maintain them and decide when and where they will be used.

Let us turn next to the numbers. How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? And how many would be needed to wipe us out?

It’s impossible to say how many nukes there are. None of the nuclear weapons states is entirely honest regarding its inventory. One of them refuses to acknowledge possessing any nukes, a fiction which permits the New York Times and other American newspapers to omit Israel entirely when listing nuclear weapons states.

According to the Bulletin, based on the best information available in 2014 there were approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 97 sites in 14 countries. Approximately 4,000 were operationally available,and some 1,800 were on high alert.

Russia and the US possessed then (and possess today) the largest concentration of nukes: 93 percent of the total global inventory. Seven other countries had (and have) nuclear weapon stockpiles: England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Five NATO countries also possessed nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These were supposedly under the control of the Americans.

In terms of rough numbers, in 2014 the Russians had some 8,000 nuclear weapons, of which 4,300 were operational or potentially operational (the others were in theory retired and awaiting dismantlement). In 2016 the Bulletin estimated that Russia had 4,500 warheads “assigned for use.” In 2014 the United States had some 7,300 nuclear weapons, of which 4,760 were operational or in military custody (the others were in theory retired). In January 2017 the Bulletin reports that the US now has 4,480 operational warheads.

In 2014 France possessed roughly 300 nukes, China 250, and England 225 (I use the term ”England” throughout since though London’s nukes are stored in Scotland, that country, like Ireland and Wales, is resolutely anti-nuclear. As with all the worst aspects of my country, this is all about London. London runs the sorry show.)

Of the “lesser” nuclear powers, Israel had approximately 80 weapons, Pakistan more than a hundred, India roughly the same number, and North Korea less than ten. By 2016 the Bulletin estimated that China had 260 warheads, India 110–120, and Pakistan 130—140.

Both the US and Russia rely on a perverse variant of the Holy Trinity called the Nuclear Triad. This is a nuclear weapons attack force divided into three parts: ground-based ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft-based missiles and bombs. Keeping a constant array of nukes underground, in the air, and under the sea is supposed to guarantee their survivability, just as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are supposed to promise the eternal survival of the human soul.

(Apparently the Israelis share the same nuclear creed, as in addition to nuclear-armed rockets and aircraft they are buying three nuclear-capable submarines from Germany.)

So, strictly in terms of numbers it might seem that the Russians are slightly ahead of the Americans, and the Pakistanis ahead of the Indians. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Each warhead has a certain megatonnage – the size of its destructive power. There are “small” bombs, and gigantic ones. Some are “dirty” bombs, designed to maximize the spread of radiation. The bombs’ utility depends on the delivery system: how reliable is the missile or bomber which carries them? Does the delivery system contain only one bomb, or multiple warheads, each assigned a different target? What is its range?

There are certainly fewer nuclear weapons today than in the mid-1980s, when the US and Russia possessed 70,000 nukes.

But the nukes which remain are more accurate and more versatile than the multiple bombs of yesteryear. Just as the Americans are upgrading their nukes at a cost of a trillion dollars, we must assume that the Russians will do the same: credibility and the “deterrence” theory make this obligatory.  So – if we recall that the Strath Committee reported that “only” ten bombs could cause the complete collapse of British society, how many would it take to cause the collapse of the USA, or of Russia?

One hundred?

And the United States and Russia between them possess almost 9,000 useable nuclear weapons.

Redundancy and survivability, the nuclear mandarins will reply (if they bother to reply, since their expertise, and the practicality of political/nuclear planning are almost never discussed, much less questioned). Obviously, some delivery systems will fail — missiles will explode on launch, showering the motherland with nuclear weapons debris; some planes or missiles will be shot down by enemy defenses; some bombs will fail to go off. Hence the need for redundancy.

Survivability is justified by the threat of a surprise attack. What if the enemy launches a massive, nuclear sneak attack against our nuclear forces and our heads of state – a “decapitating” strike? Our beloved leaders may be lost, but at least we can retain sufficient nuclear weapons – dispersed in triad form around the world – to mount a “credible” counterstrike.

These are the arguments for massive over-capacity in nuclear weapons systems: we have so many bombs that even though some of them won’t work, or will kill the wrong people, some of them will work. Those weapons will kill our enemies, and destroy their industries, and their unused weapons.

“Brinkmanship” was a popular political style in the United States at one time. Among other outcomes it gave us MAD — the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” which holds that the US and the Russia will play ball because neither can win a nuclear war due to the mightiness of their respective arsenals.

Destruction mutually assured through redundancy! “Survivability” becomes a contradiction here because that word implies that after nuclear war breaks out the survivors will be left with something to protect, or to promote, or to prove. And that the destruction will not be mutual, but to one side’s advantage. And hence that there can be winners in a nuclear war!

It’s hard to see how victory can be achieved, in a large war or a small one, between two nuclear-armed powers.

Three professors, Brian Toon, Alan Robock and Rich Turco, have written a paper, Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War. It is very worth a read. They estimate major pollution from even a “small” war as likely to cause 44 million casualties and a brief ice age, and quote a book with the same title as their paper, by M.A. Harrell and TC Hutchison: “Earth’s human population has a much greater vulnerability to the indirect effects of nuclear war, especially mediated through impacts on food productivity and food availability, than to the direct effects of nuclear war itself.”

Toon, Robock and Turco also consider a “counterforce” nuclear war in which Russia targets 1000 weapons on the US, and 200 each on France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, and the UK; and the US targets 1100 weapons each on China and Russia. They estimate 770 million immediate casualties, depending on the areas targeted and the resulting fires. Such a war would devastate noncombatant countries, and bring mass starvation the southern hemisphere as well as the north. The human death toll would be in the billions.

(The “counterforce” strike involves less than half Russia or the United States’ actively available nuclear inventory.)