When mankind first created nuclear weapons, we took every possible precaution to ensure those doomsday devices could never be used by the wrong hands. Well, we took most of the precautions, and we ensured our weapons of mass destruction could almost never be used improperly. OK, OK, we took like one precaution, and we ensured our nuclear weapons could only be used by somebody who really wanted them. Or at least kind of wanted them. All right, we basically did nothing. You happy?
At the height of the Cold War, the United States had over a thousand nuclear-tipped Minuteman intercontinental missiles to serve as our primary strategic deterrent. That’s a lot of death to keep track of, so Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara saw to it that each missile had special locks installed (called Permissive Action Links). Anyone who wanted to fire one of those babies off couldn’t do so without entering a secret eight-digit code. Unhinged military personnel, would-be terrorists, allies we asked to hold our missiles for a bit while our parents were in town — none of them could launch our ICBMs without approval from the government.
And the PALs we employed were indeed almost impossible to bypass, and could have greatly reduced the risk of an unauthorized nuclear launch. That is, if the generals in charge hadn’t set the authorization codes to 00000000.
They were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to track down the codes quickly enough, should the actual need arise. (A reasonable fear if you’ve ever tried to remember your password for lunareclipsewatcher.biz.) So instead, they set the code to literally the first thing anyone would guess without even trying. Oh, but don’t worry — according to Bruce Blair, who worked as a launch officer in Montana, the all-zeroes code only remained in place for about a decade.
Pakistan Drives Its Nuclear Missiles Around In Unmarked Vans
Pakistan doesn’t have a lot of great places to hide their nuclear weapons. Their terrorism problem reaches all the way up into the government itself, and they are no strangers to military coups. So it makes sense that the country wants to keep the locations of these weapons restricted to as few people as possible.
On the other hand, terrorist interest and state instability don’t seem like the best environment in which to drive loose nukes around like bored teenagers. Pakistan could be one unlucky fender-bender away from a madman holding all of Islamabad hostage.
Nuclear Fail-Safes Fail, Are Not Safe
When a plane broke apart over North Carolina in 1961, it dropped the two hydrogen bombs it was carrying, each of which held more power than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Because of the violent impact, one of the bombs presumed it was a wartime scenario and behaved exactly as a nuclear weapon should when deployed in a wartime scenario: Its triggers deployed, and five out of six fail-safe interlocks went off in their proper sequence. Only one switch technically “failed,” and it didn’t detonate a rogue nuclear warhead by mistake. As Secretary of Defense McNamara put it: “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.” A nuclear explosion like no civilian population has ever seen, and whose effects would have covered Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even New York.
And lest you think this was an isolated incident, haha, no, it very much wasn’t. The Cold War wouldn’t have been so “cold” had it not been for some serious luck. A U.S. nuclear weapon study recorded more than 1,200 accidents between 1950 and 1968 which almost led to catastrophe. 1,200 in less than two decades. The world went through near-apocalypses 600 times more often than we go through underwear.
If, how, and when to deploy a nuclear weapon is probably the heaviest decision a human being can face. To properly weigh all the factors and potentials for disaster, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, is virtually impossible to do alone. That’s why the nuclear protocol is specifically designed to take away any real decision-making that the president might have to do, leaving him about a four-minute window to choose from a set of limited options, like picking a McDonald’s value meal.
The U.S. military’s reaction to a detected nuclear launch is built on the idea of a retaliatory strike. According to Walter Slocombe, former undersecretary of Defense, the time window for launching a retaliatory weapon under attack is under 30 minutes. But the majority of that time goes into mechanical steps, like detecting the enemy launch, relaying and confirming that message through the right channels, and finally, lastly, telling the president. After all that, a president has just a few minutes to decide whether or not we’d all like living in a Fallout-style wasteland.
That means that every time there is a false alarm in our detection system — and there certainly have been false alarms (close ones) — a chain reaction begins that ends with the president having less than the playtime of “Paranoid Android” to figure out whether to unleash hell. Regardless of your thoughts about current or recent presidents, that can’t be comforting.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia went from a “communist” economy to a “grab anything that isn’t nailed down” economy. As you might imagine, that had some negative effects on their nuclear storage. In the mid-’90s, one Russian official investigating the theft of highly enriched uranium actually said: “Even potatoes are probably much better guarded today than radioactive materials.”
The incident that inspired that quote took place in 1993 at a “secured” shipyard near Murmansk. A thief had climbed through one of several holes in the wooden fence, and then used a hacksaw to cut through a common padlock to steal three fuel assemblies of highly enriched uranium — the intensely radioactive fuel used to power nuclear submarines. The stolen material was later traced to the house of a Russian naval officer, who presumably thought he was stealing an old bicycle, judging by security.
While it has gotten better in recent years, the county is still ranked 18 out of 24 in terms of nuclear security. Nuclear materials on the black market keep coming up with one conspicuous source, as three nearly identical samples of bomb-ready material have revealed. That means all that’s stopping a very bad person from getting their hands on a substantial amount of nuclear material is a whole stack of rubles. Thankfully we’re on such good terms with both Russia and the ultra-wealthy these days …