The cold war ended six years ago, and President Clinton has said, "In
this new world, our children are growing up free from the shadows of
the cold war and the threat of nuclear holocaust." Unfortunately,
the President is not telling the truth. The threat of nuclear war
continues to worsen, according to recent reports in credible journals.
A special report published in the NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE April
30, 1998, assesses the danger of an accidental launch of nuclear
weapons from Russia. According to the report, an estimated 6.8
million Americans would be killed instantly in such an accident, with
millions more exposed to lethal doses of radiation. And the likelihood
of such an accident is increasing, not diminishing, as time passes, the
Both Russia and the United States --though no longer enemies --have
thousands of nuclear warheads ready to fire on a few minutes' notice.
Specifically, the Russians have roughly 2500 nuclear warheads poised to
launch at all times. The U.S. has an even larger number.
In 1994, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed to stop aiming strategic
nuclear missiles at each others' countries --and this provides the
basis for President Clinton's misleading assurances that our children
are growing up free from the threat of nuclear holocaust. But the
geographic coordinates of the original military targets --many of which
are cities --remain in the memory banks of all these weapons, so the
nuclear warheads can be re-targeted at U.S. and Russian cities within
Russia's ballistic missiles are reported to be more dangerous than
ours. Russia has programmed its missiles so that, if they fire
accidentally without a target programmed into memory, they will
automatically aim themselves at their cold war military targets, which
could be a missile silo in Montana, or the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately, neither U.S. nor Russian missiles can be commanded to
self-destruct after they are launched.
The old Soviet Union and the U.S. developed elaborate systems to keep
nuclear weapons under centralized control. However, now the situation
has changed significantly in Russia, and recent U.S. military policies
are making things worse.
Both the U.S. and Russia employ a strategy called "launch on warning."
This means that each country will launch a counter-attack as soon as it
decides that an attack has been launched against it. The idea is to
launch quickly so that the counter-attack missiles will be safely off
the ground before the incoming missiles rain down. That way, the
promise of a swift counter-attack can serve as a credible deterrent to
a first strike. Launch on warning leaves precious little time for
thoughtful deliberations. Each country has submarine-based nuclear
missiles within 15 minutes' striking distance of the other. Thus the
country perceiving an attack will have several minutes to verify that
an attack is occurring, several minutes for top-level decision-making,
and a couple of minutes to disseminate the authorization to launch a
counterstrike. Then it's over.
Mistakes are inevitable. On January 25, 1995, Russian radar operators
observed an ominous blip on their screens. It was a rocket rising
into the sky somewhere off the coast of Norway. Such a rocket could
conceivably deliver 8 nuclear bombs to Moscow within 15 minutes, so
word went out immediately throughout the Russian military command.
As the various stages of the rocket separated from each other, the
radar blips made it seem as if an attack by several missiles might be
under way. President Boris Yeltsin activated his "nuclear briefcase,"
the portable computer station which would allow him to launch a full
After 8 minutes --with less that 4 minutes remaining before a counter
attack would be launched under Russian launch-on-warning protocols --
top Russian officials concluded that the trajectory of the rocket was
taking it out to sea, where it would pose no threat to Russia. The
The rocket turned out to be a U.S. scientific probe intended to explore
the upper atmosphere, to improve human knowledge of the northern
lights. The Norwegians had informed Russian authorities of the planned
launch weeks before, but the message had not made its way through the
Russian bureaucracy to those who needed to know.
The system worked that night in early 1995 and catastrophe was averted.
However, several nuclear weapons specialists, writing in SCIENTIFIC
AMERICAN, recently concluded that "the systems built to control Russian
nuclear weapons are now crumbling."[3,pg.76] Here is some of the
evidence they presented:
** In Russia, local electric companies have repeatedly shut off the
power to various nuclear weapons installations after the military
authorities failed to pay their electric bills.
** Equipment that controls nuclear weapons frequently malfunctions, and
critical electronic devices and computers sometimes switch to combat
mode for no apparent reason.
** On seven occasions during the fall of 1996 operations at several
nuclear weapons centers were severely disrupted when thieves tried to
steal critical communications cables to retrieve the valuable copper
An assessment of Russian nuclear controls, written by the U.S. CIA
[Central Intelligence Agency] and leaked to the WASHINGTON TIMES
reached basically the same conclusion. The CIA wrote, "The Russian
nuclear command and control system is being subjected to stresses it
was not designed to withstand as a result of wrenching social changes,
economic hardship, and malaise within the armed forces."
That CIA report warned of "conspiracies within nuclear armed units" to
commit nuclear blackmail. "This has become a concern as living
conditions and morale have deteriorated in the military, even among
elite nuclear submariners, nuclear warhead handlers, and SRF," the CIA
wrote. SRF is the Strategic Rocket Force --the group that controls
Russia's intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The CIA also warned that the normal chain of command has broken down in
some parts of the Russian military. According to the CIA, some
submarine crews may be able to launch the ballistic missiles under
their control without having to obtain special codes from their
In February, 1997, the military institute responsible for designing the
complex control systems for Russia's Strategic Rocket Force staged a
one-day strike to protest pay arrears and the lack of funds to upgrade
their equipment. Three days later Russian defense minister Igor
Rodionov said, "If the shortage of funds persists... Russia may soon
approach a threshhold beyond which its missiles and nuclear systems
Two-thirds of Russia's early-warning radars no longer work, and two
satellites (out of 9) are missing from their satellite surveillance
Furthermore, about half of Russia's nuclear "early warning" radar
network no longer resides on Russian soil. Some stations are in Latvia,
others in the Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. Disputes over
funding and personnel have put the operational integrity of these
systems in doubt.
These systems are the eyes and ears of Russian nuclear defense
analysts, and, as a result, Russia is partially blind and deaf. This
means Russia may have difficulty deciding the origin of a missile
attack --is it a phantom radar blip, a scientific rocket gone astray, a
military missile launched accidentally, or a serious attack?
The weakest link in the nuclear-weapons control system may be the
humans involved. Here, we know more about the Americans than we do
about the Russians. A 1987 report said that the U.S. had 112,000 people
involved in handling U.S. nuclear weapons. The military is deeply
concerned about the psychological stability of these people, and has
developed a Personnel Reliability Program to select them. However, a
large number of people who have gone through the Personnel Reliability
Program screening have later been "decertified", which means removed
from their positions. Individuals are decertified if they are found
guilty of negligence, serious civil infractions, repeated alcohol or
drug abuse, or other aberrant behavior that might lead to unreliable
performance. According to Department of Defense figures from 1975 to
1984 some 51,000 individuals were decertified, an average of more than
5000 each year. Among these, the majority were decertified for drug and
alcohol abuse or for psychiatric problems. Therefore at any given time,
thousands of potentially unstable individuals have day-to-day
responsibility for handling nuclear weapons.
A 1981 survey of U.S. personnel at military installations in Italy and
West Germany found that drugs were used ON DUTY by 43% of army
personnel, 17% of air force personnel, 35% of marines, and 49% of navy
personnel. Defense Department officials testified before Congress in
1982 that an estimated 28% of army personnel and 21% of navy personnel
drank alcohol while on duty. The highest prevalence of drinking was
reported among senior officers.
Russia has similar problems, but worse. About 45,000 Soviets died from
acute alcohol poisoning in 1976 --100 times the number who died of that
cause in the U.S. that year. Between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s
per-capita alcohol consumption doubled in the Soviet Union. Alcohol
abuse is reported to be more prevalent in the Russian military than
among civilians. According to one estimate, 1/3 of Russian military
personnel are alcohol-dependent, with heavy drinking especially
prevalent among officers.
The Russian army has fallen on hard times. It is a mere shadow of its
former self. To try to maintain its status as a world power, Russia is
relying more and more on nuclear weapons. Indeed, Russia recently
renounced its former policy of "no first strike" with nuclear arms.
Recent U.S. military policies are making things worse. As Russia grows
weaker, some of its hard-liners (the Russian equivalents of Jesse
Helms) grow more paranoid about its neighbors and former enemies in the
west. To some Russians, the proposed expansion of NATO to include
Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the Baltic states does not
necessarily seem benign.
The U.S. is continuing to try to build a scaled-down "star wars"
missile defense system --in technical violation of the Antiballistic
Missile Treaty --which does not necessarily look benign to everyone in
No, current U.S. policies --which are probably primarily intended as
political sops to the military corporations --do not seem likely to
reduce the chances of inadvertent or accidental nuclear war. On the
contrary, they seem almost certain to make the world less stable and
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Jonathan Schell, "The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons," THE
NATION February 2/9, 1998, pgs. 9 and following pages. Text available
 Lachlan Forrow and others, "Accidental Nuclear War --A Post Cold
War Assessment," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 338, No. 18
(April 30, 1998), pgs. 1326-1331.
 Bruce G. Blair, Harold A. Feiveson and Frank N. von Hippel, "Taking
Nuclear Weapons off Hair-Trigger Alert," SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN (November,
1997), pgs. 74-81.
 David Hoffman, "Cold-War Doctrines Refuse to Die,; False Alert
After '95 Rocket Launch Shows Fragility of Aging Safeguards,"
WASHINGTON POST March 15, 1998, pg. A1.
 Bill Gertz, "Russian renegades pose nuke danger; CIA says arsenal
lacks tight controls," WASHINGTON TIMES October 22, 1996, pg. A1.
 Brian Hall, "Overkill is Not Dead," NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE March
15, 1998, pg. 42.
 Herbert L. Abrams, "The Problem of Accidental or Inadvertent
Nuclear War," PREVENTIVE MEDICINE Vol. 16 (1987), pgs. 319-333.
 George Lewis and Theodore Postol, "Portrait of a Bad Idea,"
BULLETIN OF THE ATOMIC SCIENTISTS (July/August, 1997), pgs. 18-25.
Contrary to our statement in REHW #599, drinking water in the city of
Ottawa, Canada is disinfected by chloramination, not ozonation.
Descriptor terms: nuclear war; russia; soviet union; ottawa, cn;
drinking water; chlorination; ozonation; chloramination; accidents;