33 years ago today the world nearly ended.  It can still do so.

33 Years ago today (Sept 26 1983) the world nearly ended. The only reason it didn’t is because, amidst wailing sirens and flashing lights, with his computers telling him the apocalypse was approaching at three times the speed of sound and would be here in 20 minutes, Colonel Stanislav Petrov (who wasn’t scheduled to have been on duty that night) made the right call and reported it as a false alarm. Had the regular person, who was junior to him, been on that night, he’d have reported that the US had launched five missiles at the then Soviet Union, and 10-15,000 warheads would have been launched in response by an unstoppable computerized series of programs, and we’d not be here to commemorate the event now.

September 26 was made into the International Day for the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons by a resolution from the Non-Aligned Movement in 2013, when a high level meeting on nuclear disarmament was held on the exact 30th anniversary of Colonel Petrov’s brush with the apocalypse.

It can still happen now. Though the numbers of warheads on high alert have declined from between 15 to 20,000, the US and Russia continue to hold about 2,000 warheads between them in missile silos and mobile launchers able to be launched in ‘a few dozens of seconds’.

US and Russian nuclear postures continue to contain options for the immediate launch of missiles from land-based silos and launchers, based on satellite surveillance information, or worse, radar warning.

Every second year, the United Nations passes a resolution known as ‘Operational Readiness of Nuclear Weapon Systems’, sponsored by Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Malaysia, Nigeria, Sweden and Switzerland, calling for a lowering in the operational readiness of nuclear weapon systems and an increase in decision-making time. It is supported by over 140 governments. A number of other UN resolutions also call for a lowering in nuclear weapons operational readiness.

In the US, the Union of Concerned Scientists has managed to get large numbers of distinguished scientists and retired military to call for a lowering in nuclear weapons operational readiness and for the US to adopt a doctrine of ‘no-first-use’ of nuclear weapons. For some time it has seemed that the Obama administration might actually do just that.

The danger of an apocalypse, most probably accidental or ‘sleepwalked’ into via an escalating crisis (such as in the Baltics or Ukraine of maybe the South China Sea), is as great as it has ever been, and as great as it was back in 1983. The hands of the ‘doomsday clock’ curated by the Bulletin of the Atomic scientists, and adjusted by the deliberations of Nobel prizewinners, remain at 3 minutes to ‘midnight’ (the end of civilization), which is where they were in 1983.

The upcoming First Committee of the UN General Assembly, meeting through October, will consider amongst other things, (including many proposals for nuclear risk reduction), a proposal to initiate a negotiating process that would make nuclear weapons illegal.

Another high-level meeting is to be held at UN headquarters in New York.

It is well beyond time, beyond overdue, for the total elimination of nuclear weapons, and even more overdue for modest measures that would make it less likely that civilization, and possibly humans as a species, might be prematurely ended by computer error and human miscalculation.

John Hallam,
UN Nuclear Disarmament Campaigner,
Human Survival Project
People for Nuclear Disarmament