How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

Since my early teenage years I have had a fascination with nuclear energy in all its forms – whether it be as a source of power, as a weapon (some may say that nuclear weapons are the greatest source of power there is – political power, of course) or as a science.

I can’t quite remember what it was that got me interested in it – if I had to guess, I’d put it down to one of two things:

  • Watching some sort of post apocalyptic film/TV show
  • Playing SimCity 2000 on my Amiga, and being fascinated by the Fusion power stations that are invented around the year 2050.

I also remember my brother Mike telling me in great detail about how cold fusion would change the world, and how we would be able to take a rocket from the Earth to the Moon and beyond with just a teaspoon’s worth of fuel.

Since then, I’ve taken quite a bit of my spare time researching nuclear science and many of its products, with an (un)healthy dose of post apocalyptica thrown in.

The Fallout Series

I’m not 100% sure how this passed me by for so long – perhaps because I was very late to the party when it came to getting my own home PC – but the Fallout series of video games didn’t really show up on my radar until the release of Fallout 3 in 2008.

The game immediately gripped me and the rich setting (if rather drab looking) of the Capitol Wasteland coupled with my own interest in the genre saw me through to the end and I loved every minute of it.

I wanted more so sought out the original games (well, Fallout 1 and 2 at least) and loved every minute of those too, although I did find some of the pop-culture references in Fallout 2 a little weary after a while.

Then Fallout: New Vegas arrived and blew Fallout 3 completely out of the water (although some of my pals prefer Fallout 3, these people are clearly wrong) and we of course have Fallout 4 coming in November – something I can’t wait for.

Threads

Not many people have heard of Threads, which is both a good and a bad thing. Threads is a made-for-TV movie, produced by the BBC in 1984. Styled very much as a "mockumentary" before they became a thing, it charted the life of two families from Sheffield, joined by a relationship between the son and daughter of each family.

To begin with, the film focuses mainly on their lives as they go about their day to day business. Ruth, the daughter, discovers she is pregnant so decides to marry her partner Jimmy. In the background of all of this, there are signs of rising tension between the US and the USSR, with the possibility of a nuclear exchange being touted.

Eventually, these tensions become too much to bear and attacks start. Sheffield is hit by a devastating nuclear weapon that destroys much of the city and takes many lives, and the movie shows how even the most well prepared Government could potentially be utterly ruined in hours by even a fairly small nuclear exchange.

The movie then moves on to showing the aftermath – from the days immediately after the attack up until 10 years after.

It is incredibly bleak and depressing – it’s definitely not a film you watch to cheer yourself up. But it’s also very compelling, and a stark reminder that these weapons exist and probably shouldn’t.

The Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock has appeared on many covers of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and is now maintained by them. In short, it keeps track of how close various experts feel that we, the human race, are to irrevocable disaster that would threaten civilisation as we know it.

The closer the clock is to midnight, the more in danger we are. It is currently at 23:57 – 3 minutes to midnight.

Originally it started out tracking the prospect of nuclear war and the devastation it would wreak on the human race, but in more recent times has changed to also incorporate the dangers of climate change and other global phenomena.

The closest we have ever been to midnight was 23:58. This was in 1953, when both the US and USSR tested thermonuclear weapons in the same year.

The furthest from midnight we’ve been was 23:43 – 17 minutes from midnight. This was in 1991, after both the US and the USSR signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) and the USSR collapsed, effectively ending the Cold War.

Stanislav Petrov

During the 1980s, Stanislav Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the USSR’s Air Defence Force. On September 26, 1983 – two and a bit weeks after I was born – he was duty officer at the main command centre for the USSR’s Nuclear Early Warning System, Oko.

In the early hours of the morning, Oko reported that the US had launched an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) targeted at the USSR. Petrov was faced with the ultimate dilemma – should he order a retaliatory nuclear strike, or not?

He reasoned, correctly, that the report was likely to be a computer error, as the system had already proven itself to be unreliable and the logic of the US launching just one missile did not stack up – if the US were to launch a first strike nuclear attack, they would launch many missiles in an attempt to destroy any means of launching a counter-attack. Shortly afterwards, four more missiles appeared on the system yet he still reasoned that this was not enough to be taken seriously.

Had the missile launches been real, Petrov’s decision to take no action would have meant that by the time the missiles could be positively verified on radar, the USSR would not have had enough time to counter and would likely have been devastated beyond imagination.

Of course, as it turned out, his decision was sound and his inaction most likely averted a worldwide catastrophe – had he launched a counter attack, the US would have detected it and considered it a first strike attack and the world as we know it would quite possibly have been obliterated.

Petrov was praised for his decision at the time, yet received no reward from his superiors and was reportedly disciplined for improper filing of paperwork relating to the incident – perhaps a thinly disguised punitive measure for not following procedure.

In 2004, Petrov’s actions were recognised by the Association of World Citizens, who gave him their World Citizen’s Award. He has since received plaudits from many other organisations – including the United Nations – and was interviewed for the 2014 documentary film, The Man Who Saved The World.

It’s chilling to think that, had Petrov been ill that day and his duties were being performed by someone else, that the world I live in today could have been destroyed before I barely had a chance to open my eyes.

And finally, a word about nuclear power…

People that know me would have expected me to write at length about the Chernobyl disaster here. I considered it, I even drafted a fairly long piece about the causes of the disaster and the effects that it has had on the area and the world as a whole.

So, why not include it?

Well, put simply, I’m a firm believer that the world’s energy crisis (i.e. the rapidly dwindling supply of fossil fuels and the apparent lack of investment in other renewable energy sources) would be solved quite easily by a larger uptake of nuclear power.

Unfortunately, disasters like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi have utterly destroyed the reputation of nuclear power in most people’s minds – and quite unfairly, in my opinion.

Nuclear power remains the safest form of power generation that we currently have. Statistically, coal power generation is responsible for 4,000 times as many deaths as nuclear power.

The thorny issue of the waste byproducts is often used as a negative to nuclear power. However, with current nuclear reactors, 90% of the waste byproducts can be recycled to be used as further fuel, and any remainder is routinely kept very safe and shielded until the radiation it gives off poses no threat.

Furthermore, with the ongoing research into other types of fuel such as thorium, the levels of radioactive waste produced can be reduced significantly.

The challenge is to try and change the public’s perception of nuclear power – which is not likely to be an easy task.

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1 Comment

  1. Though I’m definitely not a fan of nuclear power (I’m all for 100% renewable energy, which could easily be achieved in most countries), I do share your enthusiasm for post-apocalyptic culture. I actually wrote my BA thesis about the TV show Jericho, which I highly recommend if you’re into post-nuclear disaster stuff. It’s very interesting (though I definitely can not watch it again after having spent so much time with it for my thesis). I actually got the idea for my thesis from a blog post I wrote about Jericho two years ago. 😀

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