29 April 2014


Photo: Kolbjorn Blix Dahle, Andoya Rocket Range
Photo: Kolbjorn Blix Dahle, Andoya Rocket Range


The fact that nuclear weapons have not been used in violent conflict since 1945 is not solely due to deterrence, but also owes much to individual decision-making and prudent judgement, argues a new report by Chatham House.

Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Policies for Today examines 16 cases in which there was a higher than expected probability of nuclear use owing to human error, accident or misjudgement.

In some of the cases examined, a crisis was averted by the judgment of an individual who chose to break with protocol. In 1983, for instance, Soviet Lieutenant Stanislav Petrov received incorrect satellite data indicating that the United States had launched a pre-emptive attack. Rather than reporting this to his superiors and thereby setting in motion a nuclear retaliation, Petrov gambled correctly, choosing to interpret the warning as a technical error.

The report also examines a number of recent incidents of misconduct and mismanagement deriving from laxity in safety and security, including an episode in 2007 when six US nuclear-armed cruise missiles went missing for 36 hours. Other incidents demonstrate the potentially catastrophic consequences of a mistake or oversight, such as in May 1981, when newly elected French president François Mitterand accidentally left the launch codes given to him by his predecessor in his suit at home.

More recent incidents demonstrate that there remain significant dangers around nuclear safety and security. The report says that nuclear safety organizations often overestimate their control, and that there is an enduring need for vigilance in the management of nuclear weapons.

Dr Patricia Lewis, Research Director for International Security, and one of the report's authors, says:

'There are many events that demonstrate the fragility of deterrence, including technical malfunctions and miscommunication. The fact that a nuclear device has not been detonated in violent conflict since 1945 owes much to luck, and to the decision-making of certain individuals.

Recent examples of poor control of nuclear weapons and materials show that the risks associated with nuclear weapons were not only Cold War phenomena, but are still present today.'

The report proposes a number of practical steps that could be taken to reduce the likelihood of inadvertent use, including: adjusting the response status of nuclear weapons to allow more time for decision-making; refraining from large-scale military exercises during times of heightened tension; and involving a wider range of people in the nuclear decision-making process. 

Editor's notes

Read Too Close for Comfort: Cases of Near Nuclear Use and Policies for Today

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