Is the threat of nuclear holocaust pure science fiction? Possibly, but not necessarily.
However realistic and plausible, the chilling doomsday feeling and painfully slow death of mankind in On the Beach is a horror of the past, as well as the absurd, yet harrowing Armageddon scenario in Dr. Strangelove. Outright science fiction scenarios where military AI systems deliberately triggers nuclear wars, as suggested in Terminator and hinted at in Matrix, is merely a distant possibility in the future; it is, to say the least, very unlikely that artificial intelligence will be created within the next 30 years. Even partial nuclear holocaust, as suggested in the excellent Warday and the less excellent multitude of WWIII thrillers, are basically dismissed as Cold War horrors today. Indeed, we conceive theme to be doomsday prophecies of the past. In our, perhaps short-sighted, perspective, nuclear holocaust is a horror scenario of the future, if even that.
Nuclear war is something completely different, though. Quite a few experts like to suggest that nuclear war is more than a distant future possibility. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by Manhattan Project scientists, have maintained a "Doomsday Clock" since 1947, the global symbol of nuclear danger. In February 2002, the Board of Directors decided to move the minute hand from nine to seven minutes to midnight. It has never been so close since 1947! From the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists' point of view, these are indeed dangerous times.
This is not as far-fetched as one might think. Which nations possess nuclear weapons? Which nuclear powers could actually use nuclear weapons in conflicts? Which nations are actively striving to develop nuclear weapons? Which nations have the potential to develop nuclear weapons? It is a disturbing fact that none of these questions can be answered with 100 % certainty.
The most imminent danger is that a few nations are prepared to break the nuclear weapon taboo, i.e. to actually deploy nuclear weapons against their enemies. Such an event would most probably entail dangerous psychological effects; exactly which are difficult to forsee. It would definitely blur the distinction between conventional war and nuclear war, and send a dangerous message to existing nuclear powers, as well as nuclear powers to come. On a more general note, it would increase the general sense of uncertainty and unsafeness in the world; fear and paranoia would spread. The whole political climate could possible change dramatically. When facing unfamiliar war threats, we have a tendency to react irrationally; for instance, many a political mistake the years before WWII can be explained with the general fear of air raids against cities.
Basically, there are three nations which are likely to use nuclear force in the near future: USA, India and Pakistan. USA are planning to develop precision low-yield weapons, with an effect of less than 5 kiloton, which can be deployed against third-world nations. These missiles are supposed to penetrate deep into the earth before detonating, thus destroying subterranean facilities such as military bunkers and "terrorist nests" without any "collateral damage". However reassuring the scientists try to sound, such "mini-nukes" will create a lethal gamma-radiation field over a large area and an intense local fallout; as a comparison, the earth-penetrating nuclear missiel B61-11, introduced in 1997, only reaches about 6 metres into the ground. A nuclear war between India and Pakistan is more than plausible. These two nations have been hostile towards each other ever since the early 1970s, and there have been several conflicts and wars; one single terrorist action might trigger a new war. Both nations are prepared to use nuclear weapons and they possess many tactical nuclear weapons, i.e. weapons which primarily are designed for active battle, not psychological deterrence. Neither nation possess many weapons nor powerful weapons yet, but the result of a nuclear war would nevertheless be millions of dead, and a destabilised region as well.
A less imminent, but more severe danger is that the number of nuclear powers quite easily can be doubled or even tripled within 10-20 years. Most people know that USA, Russia, China, Great Britain, France, Israel, India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons, that Iran and North Korea might have nuclear weapons, and that South Africa voluntarily dismantled its nuclear arsenal. Less people know that quite a few nations have been striving or are striving to develop nuclear weapons. As these projects usually are surrounded by dense secrecy, it is impossible to create a complete list. Of course, the more nuclear powers there are in the world, the more fissile material for nuclear weapons will be circulating, the more experts on constructing nuclear weapons will be available, and the more possible scenarios of nuclear war will arise. In a not so distant future, there might be dozens of nuclear powers, as suggested in the novelisation of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
There are basically four ways to acquire nuclear weapons:
They can be stolen from existing nuclear powers. This is not as far-fetched as it may sound. There is no way to verify if all weapons are accounted for and secured in Russia's and USA's vast arsenals. Especially older, tactical weapons have a tendency to be ignored and forgotten. For instance, after the fall of the Soviet system, Vice President Aleksandr Rutskoi noted that some tactical nuclear weapons were missing; exactly what happened to these weapons is still unclear. Perhaps it was the same weapons which were captured in Chechnya some years later. Perhaps. As for China, India and Pakistan, we can only speculate about the situation.
Nuclear powers can help other nations acquire nuclear weapons. So far, at least as far as we know, no complete nuclear weapons have been delivered, but there are many examples of nuclear powers sharing doomsday know-how with other nations. For instance, France helped Israel to create a reactor for production of fissile material, and China gave Pakistan missiles which could carry nuclear charges. Nuclear powers may have several different motives to do this, e.g. financial, military, political or strategical reasons. If this sounds fantastic, then consider the fact that American congressional records show that the non-profit firm Rockville made 70 government-approved shipments of anthrax and other disease-causing pathogens to Iraqi scientists between 1985 and 1989. In the future, when the number of nuclear powers have multiplied and atom bombs have becomse something "normal", perhaps nuclear weapons simply will be sold like any other weapons?
A nation can decide to develope facilities for producing fissile material, the crucial component in a nuclear weapon. Certain industrial and scientific standards are required to construct such facilities, but as mentioned above, existing nuclear powers can be of assistance. One should remember that once a nation has acquired fissile material, it is comparatively easy to create these doomsdays weapons. In fact, most nations could hypothetically construct nuclear weapons if they could acquire fissile material. Blueprints and instructions for constructing a rudimentary atom bomb can easily be obtained in any major library in the Western world. The principle of such a construction is quite simple, and the necessary electronics, mechanics and explosives are far from impossible to acquire.
Finally, fissile material can be stolen and smuggled. The needed amount is fairly small: only 25 kilograms of weapon-grade uranium or 8 kilograms of plutonium are needed to construct a rudimentary nuclear weapon. As a comparison, Russia has a stockpile of more than 1,000 metric tons of weapon-grade uranium and about 140 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium, and USA has a stockpile of nearly 750 metric tons of weapon-grade uranium and 85 metric tons of weapon-grade plutonium. Both countries lack complete inventories. To make things even worse, the smuggling attempts of uranium and plutonium have increased in recent years. For instance, since 1991 there have been at least 18 attempts to smuggle fissile material stolen from facilities in former Soviet Union. How many attempts that actually have been successful is of course unknown.
The only nations we know for sure actually have commenced serious atom bomb projects are Belgium, Sweden, Argentina and Brazil. The risk of massive pre-emptive strikes from the Soviet Union made Belgium and Sweden abandon their military programs in the 1960s; these projects can probably be resumed if need be. In South America, a nuclear arms race almost began between Argentina and Brazil, when Argentina's covert atom bomb project was revealed; it is generally known that both Argentina and Brazil probably can develope fully operational nuclear weapons within a few years.
In South Asia, it is far from unlikely that atom bomb programs may be implemented and completed in a not so distant future. Both Taiwan and South Korea have made attempts to create nuclear weapons, but now seem in a period of quiescence. Taiwan has always felt the threatening Chinese presence, and South Korea have always been worried about North Korea. Japan has considered the possibility of creating a nuclear arsenal for several years; it certainly possesses the means and the capability. Today, North Korean missiles can reach the heart of Japan; the industrial concentration in Japan makes it extremely vulnerable for a nuclear attack.
Apart from all the nations mentioned above, there are quite a few other potential nuclear powers in the world. Some nations have been in actual possession of fully operational weapons, e.g. Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union; they may, on a speculative note, still possess nuclear weapons, especially tactical weapons. Some nations have nuclear facilities which can produce fissile material, e.g. Finland and Switzerland in Europe and Algeria and Egypt in Africa; they could probably develop nuclear weapons in the future if need be. A few nations have had active atom bomb projects running in the past, e.g. Romania; to this day, very little information about this project is publicly available. There are also a few nations which are making serious efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, e.g. Syria and Lybia; so far, neither nation possess the necessary means, and are monitored by USA and IAEA. Finally, there is an unknown number of nations which probably have fissile material in their possessions, e.g. Serbia after Tito's atom bomb project in Yugoslavia, and Sudan after Saddam Hussein's in Iraq. Most of these nations have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), though. As an observation, Cuba never has; there are no indications of any kind of Cuban nuclear weapon program, though.
If, or rather when, the number of nuclear powers have doubled or tripled, we will be much closer to nuclear holocaust. For instance, alliances between nuclear powers might trigger large-scale nuclear wars. What if North Korea would attack South Korea and Japan in the future and they would retaliate? How would China react? USA? We can only speculate about the possible consequences.
The future and the present might interlace. The current world situation does indeed raise some disturbing question marks. There are several plausible scenarios where the outcome is impossible to forsee. For instance:
A new Cold War might actually be brewing, although a subtle version of the 21st century. Although most people fail to see it, China is becoming more and more powerful for every year that passes. Facts that China is developing weapons to counter USA's missile shield and that the first manned shuttle in the Chinese space project will be launched any year now, becomes tiny paragraphs in Western mass media. One almost suspects that the leaders of the Western world are in denial of this, or perhaps even are keeping the population in blissful ignorance. Thanks to the large population and determined discipline, China will, at a guess, be able to pit its strength against USA within two decades.
China possesses a large nuclear arsenal; exactly how large is unknown. Western mass media routinely states that they have about 300 warheads, but the real figure is about 2,500, with 140-150 produced each year. Although Western military experts, especially American experts, often underestimate the range of the missiles, China does indeed have real ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missiles). The SS18-class DF-5 missile has a range of over 12,800 kilometers; basically, they can reach every corner of every nuclear power. A majority of all the missiles are hidden in vast systems of subterranean tunnels in mountains; a preventive strike which destroyed all these tunnels would most probably result in a so-called nuclear winter on Earth. China's nuclear force is much smaller than USA's, but what does that matter when USA can be turned into a radioactive inferno anyway?
There are many possible scenarios in which fatal power struggles between USA and China may arise, e.g. concerning Taiwan and North Korea.
China hardly even pretend to be a democracy, Russia does not have a democratic tradition, and USA is, to say the least, a dysfunctional democracy. In each of these nuclear superpowers, it is in reality more or less easy to concentrate political power. What if a madman came into power? What if a person with disputable judgement were to control a large arsenal of nuclear missiles?
Does it sound far-fetched? Then consider that when this is written, the largest nuclear power in the world is ruled by a C-level student and former cocainist, and the next largest by an ex-officer from a dreaded secret police. Not many years ago, the Russian madman Vladimir Zhirinovsky was aiming for power; in his own book entitled My Struggle — i.e. Mein Kampf — he describes his dream at the end: Russian soldiers at the shores of the Indian Ocean. Other interesting examples are the Russian president Boris Jeltsin, a coleric and confused drunkard, and the American president Richard Nixon, a paranoid and likewise confused drug addict. Further back in history, we have some really frightening examples. The American general, military madman and "war hero" Douglas MacArthur seriously suggested that the UN forces should deploy nuclear weapons against China during the Korean War. On the other side, the Chinese dictator Mao Ze Dong toyed around with war scenarios which coldly calculated with 300 million deaths from a nuclear attack on China. With such alarming examples from the past, who knows what the future will hold?
On a more speculative note, elaborate terrorist acts will always entail confusion, which in turn may entail disaster. An atom bomb with an effect of 20 kiloton would be about the size of a desk and weigh about a ton, i.e. it could easily be transported in a van, boat or charter plane; hypothetically, a nuclear charge can even be a brief-case device today. What would happen if a terrorist would detonate such a bomb in Moscow, Beijing or, more likely, Washington? Or another, perhaps less plausible, but undoubtably more horrifying possibility: What if terrorists would capture a nuclear missile within let say Russia's borders and launch it against USA? What would happen if the entire leadership of one of these nations was to be consumed by the white fire?
There are probably official guidelines on how to react in such situations. But then again, perhaps there are not; e.g. the attack against World Trade Center suggests a less than perfect preparedness. Furthermore, such a terrorist attack would most probably come without any warning, like a bolt from the blue. After all, we are all human beings, and human beings can make mistakes. Perhaps the military leadership would panic? Perhaps they would retaliate blindly? Remember that the three largest nuclear powers in the world are militaristic and aggressive by nature. In any case, there is no way to know for sure how they would react in such a shocking emergency situation.
Finally, on a perhaps even more speculative note, can we really trust the weapon systems? Can we really know for sure that a nuclear missile never will be launched due to human or technological short-comings? Since these weapon systems, for natural reasons, are surrounded by dense secrecy, we cannot really know in which shape they are; especially the Russian systems might be in serious decay. Remember that only one single missile can trigger a full-scale nuclear war. Of course, there are warning systems to prevent unfortunate misstakes, at least between USA and Russia, but could we really trust human nature in such an emergency situation? Could we know for sure that no leader would panic?
Of course, all these scenarios, speculative or not, assume that there will be no drastic changes in the forseeable future, be it political, economical, demographic, ecological or something completely different. The situation might become more or less alarming within a decade or two.
To me, it seems obvious the nuclear madness did not end with the Cold War. It has just taken a break.
Finally, a few depressing figures from the magazine Science Digest, July 1984:
Number of human deaths possible from one pound of plutonium if finely ground up and inhaled: 42,000,000,000
1984 U.S. plutonium inventory, in pounds: 38,000
These numbers multiplied together: 16,000,000,000,000,000http://hem.passagen.se/replikant/nuclear_holocaust.htm