Lack of awareness biggest nuclear related threat today, Schlosser ’81 says| September 17, 2014
The lack of awareness surrounding the state of nuclear weapons is the biggest nuclear-related threat in the world today, journalist Eric Schlosser ’81 said at a lecture on Wednesday. Schlosser spoke as part of a discussion on his book, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety,” which was released last year.
Schlosser explained that early nuclear weapons lacked adequate safety mechanisms and noted an accident in Damascus, Ark., in September 1980, when a maintenance crew dropped a tool that pierced a missile and led to thousands of gallons of high-energy fuel filling the silo where the missile was contained. “This complex technology was always on the verge of slipping out of our control,” Schlosser explained, adding that this remark still applies today. He added that because humans are not infallible, the machines they make cannot be infallible either. “We have to have a sense of humility, not just about the machines we make, but the complex technological systems that interconnect them,” he said. Schlosser explained that any type of weapon always came with the “Always-Never Dilemma,” which is that the military wanted weapons that always worked during wartime, but the weapons could not accidentally detonate during peacetime. “The mechanisms responsible for ‘always’ are the exact opposite of the mechanisms responsible for ‘never,’ ” Schlosser explained. The focus of the nuclear program was on the “always” rather than the “never,” Schlosser said, noting that in the 1970s, the nuclear weapons had no locks of any sort. He added that the focus on the “always” side of the dilemma led to safety and security becoming secondary concerns. Schlosser added that throughout all his conversations with people heavily involved in the nuclear weapons program, everyone he had talked to had been amazed that no major city had been destroyed since the atomic bomb hit Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Schlosser explained that while the risk of a full-scale nuclear war today is much smaller, the threat of nuclear accidents is still very strong, adding that infrastructure connecting the nuclear weapons we have is “remarkably decrepit.” He added that there was a very prevalent sense of complacency regarding nuclear weapons — not just among civilians, but among important government leaders around the world, explaining that the lack of major nuclear disasters led to the attitude that nuclear accidents would never happen. However, he also noted that low-probability events happen all the time. “If the odds of anything are greater than zero, it will happen at some point,” Schlosser said. “It could be in a million years, it could be next Thursday, but it will happen.” Schlosser explained that India and Pakistan are currently recreating the arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War and noted that this could be even more dangerous due to the fact that India and Pakistan are neighbors and have religious and ethnic differences. Change is still possible at this point, but world leaders need to take action immediately, Schlosser said. He added that the best way to proceed is to lock up all the uranium and plutonium in the world immediately. Schlosser concluded his lecture by explaining what role the University should play in the nuclear weapons race, noting that Albert Einstein eventually added his name to the Russell-Einstein manifesto calling for the abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons. “When I was at Princeton 30 years ago, we lived with a daily dread that nuclear war might happen any day,” he explained. “That isn’t the case anymore, but we still need to act, and we need to act now.” The lecture, which bore the same name as his recent book, took place at 4:30 p.m. in Dodds Auditorium.