Tag Archives: disarmament

How to dismantle a nuclear bomb (before it dismantles you)

old Russian nuclear bombNo, it’s not a U2 reference; in the wake of the proposed nuclear reduction initiatives between the US and Russia, those helpful folk at the BBC have an article on how nuclear weapons are decommissioned – only the procedure they witnessed was a simulation. [image by mikelopoulos]

The dismantlement experiment is a joint exercise between the UK and Norway – the first of its kind – and was held a few miles from Oslo.

The five-day exercise has been keenly anticipated internationally as a way of building trust between nuclear weapons states and non-nuclear weapons states.

It is designed to see if one country can verify the disarmament of another country’s nuclear weapon, but without any sensitive information about national security and weapon design being compromised.

This is one of the things that has always baffled me about these sorts of agreements: everyone saying “oh yes, we should be mutually disarming!” but then tacitly acknowledging that “actually, we’d best be keeping the technology secret, because we don’t really trust you not to build more – and if you do we’ll want to have better ones”. So much for building trust, eh?

Still, the descriptions of the procedure are kind of interesting – not so much from a technical standpoint (you don’t get a list of the wrench sizes you’ll need) but as a physical manifestation of nation-state psychology:

From the start inspectors watch, photograph, seal and tag key items. They cover entry and exit points to the disarmament chamber, sweeping all those going in and out to ensure no radioactive material is smuggled away.

“It is a very choreographed process, almost like a ballet,” says Mr Persbo. “Timings are very precise.”

The amount of fissile material in a nuclear bomb is itself classified, so a number of techniques have to be employed by the inspectors to ensure nothing is diverted when they are not able to measure it in detail themselves.

Each country’s scientists have separately designed and built their own prototype devices known as “information barriers”, which can confirm that an agreed amount of radioactive material is present in any container.

If nothing else, you’ve got the switcheroo-loophole plot mechanics for a fissile re-run of The Italian Job right there. That should make for a cheery movie… but if you want some real nuclear angst to set you up for the weekend, you can read this (PDF) report from the International Commission on Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament that looks at the possibility of the old and flaky nuclear command and control infrastructures of the superpowers being hacked by terrorists in order to kick off a modern-day Ragnarok. I can hear Dan Brown firing up his word processor as we speak… [via SlashDot]

The potential perils of a world without nukes

nuclear fallout shelter signEven though we no longer live under the Cold War shadow of Mutually Assured Destruction (at least, not at the moment), there’s a whole lot of nuclear weapons sat around gathering dust, still just as lethal as they always were before.

I think many people would agree it’d be nice to be rid of nukes completely; the Obama administration seems keen on the idea, anyway, which – even if it’s just a symbolic political palm frond – is a reassuring change from the gung-ho realpolitik of the last decade.

But disarmament carries its own set of risks, as George Dvorsky points out:

There are a number of reasons for concern. A world without nukes could be far more unstable and prone to both smaller and global-scale conventional wars. And somewhat counter-intuitively, the process of relinquishment itself could increase the chance that nuclear weapons will be used. Moreover, we have to acknowledge the fact that even in a world free of nuclear weapons we will never completely escape the threat of their return.


The absence of nuclear weapons would dramatically increase the likelihood of conventional wars re-emerging as military possibilities. And given the catastrophic power of today’s weapons, including the introduction of robotics and AI on the battlefield, the results could be devastating, even existential in scope.

So, while the damage inflicted by a restrained conventional war would be an order of magnitude lower than a nuclear war, the probably of a return to conventional wars would be significantly increased. This forces us to ask some difficult questions: Is nuclear disarmament worth it if the probability of conventional war becomes ten times greater? What about a hundred times greater?

And given that nuclear war is more of a deterrent than a tactical weapon, can such a calculation even be made? If nuclear disarmament spawns x conventional wars with y casualties, how could we measure those catastrophic losses against a nuclear war that’s not really supposed to happen in the first place? The value of nuclear weapons is not that they should be used, but that they should never be used.

It’s a tricky question; Dvorsky points out that he himself is very much in favour of disarmament, but the situation is not clear cut by any means. Idealism is shaky ground from which to argue against the destructive force of nuclear weapons. [image by brndnprkns]

Perhaps it will take some Watchmen-esque global existential threat to make the whole world put aside its differences at the same time as its nuclear arsenal… but the cynic in me suspects that the opposite would occur. After all, climate change hasn’t yet encouraged everyone to pull in the same political direction, has it?