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NORAD wants to know if you’ve been naughty or nice.


This article from The Atlantic is too good not to share.

In 1955, Sears ran a ‘call Santa on the phone’ newspaper promotion. Due to a (frankly wonderful) typo, however, it listed NORAD’s top-secret, “the-Russians-are-attacking” telephone number by mistake. (Actually NORAD’s predecessor, CONAD, but whatever.)

But wait, it gets better. After some initial confusion, the officer on duty, Colonel Stroud (a name that should be immortalized by Hollywood immediately), played along.

Bemused by the first caller — a lachrymose girl who wanted to know if he was one of Santa’s elves — the good Colonel couldn’t bring himself to deny it. The steely-eyed missile men of CONAD soon found themselves roped into quizzing children on whether they’d been naughty or nice. And so began an endearingly incongruous holiday tradition; NORAD offers a ‘Santa tracking’ service to this day.

The fifties really was a simpler time.

Fukushima’s first days: the US response


I’m going to break the format of this blog a bit, such as it is, to make a few journalistic observations about the US response to the earliest days of Fukushima.

Firstly, the US NRC seems to have been shell-shocked by the event. It should have been obvious from the first day that Unit 1 was in meltdown. The commission knew, for a fact, that there was no cooling in the core; this is well established. And it does not take a degree in nuclear physics to know what happens to nuclear cores without cooling. Yet it was three days before anyone was willing to admit the obvious, even to themselves. By all accounts the commissioners just watched the clock as over forty hours-without-cooling ticked by, and continued to assure the world that Japan had it under control. It is as if a lifetime of fervently espousing the impossibility of core-melts had made them unable to see what was right in front of their eyes.

This is cognitive dissonance on an epic scale.

Secondly, the Defence Department seems to have been much quicker to grasp the nettle. It was the Navy’s nuclear reactor division that appears to have been the real driver for belated US action. (The voluntary evacuation order, for instance, and a strongly worded message to the Prime Minister suggesting ‘heroic action’ — ie: suicide squads — when it looked like TEPCO were pulling out.)

Thirdly, the limited US evacuation recommendation (50 miles) was far too limited from a safety perspective. Within 72 hours it was clear to everyone that the citizens of Tokyo were in serious jeopardy. This is to say there was substantial evidence of a zirconium fire in the unit 4 spent-fuel pool (not least the fact that the building exploded, despite there being no fuel in the reactor core) — an event that would have released a tremendous amount of radioactive fallout, and would almost certainly have led to the loss of a much larger pool nearby. As it happened, the fuel had begun to melt but the Japanese were able to bring the pool back from the brink; but nobody at the time took this for granted.

When questioned about this, authoritative experts repeatedly stress that the NRC simulations showed no threat to Tokyo, even from a spent fuel fire. What they don’t say, however, is that the NRC simulations (which use a system called RASCAL) were only capable to modeling effects up to 50 miles out, and so they could not have shown a threat to Tokyo under any circumstances. The Germans had already advised their citizens to evacuate the capital, no doubt at some diplomatic cost. So had the French, the Russians and the Chinese — all countries with heavy nuclear investments and none of them exactly wilting violets when it comes to radiological hazards.

Tokyo was in serious trouble, and the US must have known.

This leads to my final observation: that the US decision not to order an evacuation beyond 50 miles — quickly and obediently echoed by the UK — was a political decision not an evidence-based calculation. It was a decision to put US citizens in Tokyo at risk as a favor to the Japanese government, who were desperately worried that a mass international evacuation would have led to uncontrollable panic in their capital.

It was a gamble that paid-off. Other countries looked to the US for cues and echoed their recommendations, stemming the tide of evacuation recommendations. Mass panic was averted. TEPCO — with ‘heroic efforts’ and no small amount of heroic luck — were able to save the spent-fuel pool, and with it the residents of Tokyo. (Although it remains in jeopardy).

In other words, Japan owes the US a solid, and they’re acutely aware of the fact. Sore misgivings about US bases on Japanese soil have all but disappeared since the crisis.


Disaster Mitigation 101: Have a media strategy

From Flikr user "Simply Info"

As someone with a longstanding interest in the media coverage of Fukushima and how it seems to exculpate the nuclear industry, I was struck last night by a passage from  Eric Schlosser’s fascinating new book “Command and Control“. In it he outlines the recommendations of a top secret 1959 RAND report — authored by one-time MIT professor and Undersecretary of Defense, Fred Iklé — concerning how the US should manage the publicity fallout from an accidental nuclear bomb detonation. Schlosser quotes directly from the report:

“If such an accident occurred in a remote area, so that leakage to the press could be prevented, no information ought to be made public. […] If the accident has been compromised and public statements become necessary, they should depict the accident as an occurrence which has no bearing on the safety of other weapons.”

The report further recommended that the crisis be drained of its immediacy by establishing an authoritative “board of inquiry” that would take several months to reach its conclusions. Schlosser quotes again:

“During the delaying period the public information program should provide the news media with all possible news about rehabilitation and relief. There is always a strong and continued interest in such news after a disaster. Within a relatively short time the interest in rehabilitation tends to crowd out reports about destruction and casualties.”

Any parallels with Fukushima are, I am sure, entirely coincidental.

(Page 195 on my kindle, for anyone interested to read further.)


Deterrence Works?


Vasili Arkhipov might be the most important human being who ever lived.

On October 27, 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis was at its peak. An American destroyer was trying to force a Soviet submarine to surface by harrying it with depth charges. The submarine’s sleep-deprived captain – cut off from radio contact and unable to know if war had broken out – ordered the launch of a nuclear weapon. The sub’s political officer, on board to provide an external check on the captain’s actions, seconded the decision.

Arkhipov, the second in command, was the last of three officers who were required to consent to a launch. He refused. He talked his comrades down from the brink and persuaded them to surface the sub, thereby narrowly averting The End Of Days.

Hardly anybody knew this until an academic conference in 2002, when the director of the National Security Archive unveiled some newly declassified documents and announced that ‘a guy called Vasili Arkhipov saved the world.’

Arkhipov is not the only person with such a claim, however.

On September 26, 1983, Soviet missile warning systems indicated that a US first strike was underway. It was at another point of extreme tension between the US and USSR, with a large US military exercise being widely perceived in the Kremlin as a cover for war preparations.

The mechanics of Deterrence meant the Soviets had to respond within fifteen minutes if they were to respond at all, and had the politburo been informed of the incoming strike they would probably have ordered a nuclear response. Institutional doctrine and bureaucratic momentum would have almost dictated it. There would have been almost no time for cool reflection.

Fortunately for humanity, nobody reported the launch to the Soviet hierarchy. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, the duty officer at the early warning center that night, correctly dismissed the warning as a bizarre computer error and defied protocol by declining to report it.

Petrov – who was subsequently reassigned, took early retirement, and suffered a nervous breakdown – might also have saved the world. Yet hardly anybody knew about him either until the 1990s, when a Russian general published his memoirs.

Who knows how many other such brushes with Armageddon there have been. The secrecy around nuclear security is intense.


The logic of Deterrence – the idea that baroque infrastructures for launching thousands of nuclear weapons at our enemies on very short notice should make us safer – has been orthodoxy in security discourse for so long that its absurdity has become invisible to insiders. It is an axiom of nuclear discourse that deterrence works. Of course it works. The principle is so elegant and logical on paper, and the proof is in the metaphorical pudding: the world is still here. Academics can debate the minutiae of why it works, but only those with their heads in the sand can question the fact that it works.

Yet there is almost no evidence for this.

Consider this question: how much time must pass without a nuclear exchange before we can say there is evidence that Deterrence has kept us safe?

Reliability engineers would not conclude that a lightbulb had worked as designed until it had performed satisfactorily for several years. And they would be reluctant to conclude that a bridge was successful until it had stood for decades. We expect bridges to perform for much longer than lightbulbs, in part, because bridge failures are so much more consequential. If Deterrence fails the consequences would be biblical. Relative to that, the half century that it has been US doctrine is all but immaterial.

It is certainly arguable that there have been no great-power conflicts during the fifty-plus years of Deterrence’s tenure, but what does this prove? Throughout the Nineteenth Century the world enjoyed almost a hundred years without a clash between the world’s powers, but the Pax Britannica was not evidence that war had become obsolete. It collapsed in 1914 with the terrible carnage of the Great War: a conflict so traumatic that it was thought to have rendered all future wars ‘unimaginable.’ (Little were we to know). The Pax Romana lasted even longer – almost two hundred years. The world entered the second half of the Twentieth Century in ruins, and has been characterized since then by ever-increasing economic interdependence and the radical decoupling of territory from power and prosperity. In this context, the relatively brief ‘Pax Atomica’ – fifty years in which we declined to commit planetary suicide – hardly seems like compelling evidence of our strategic brilliance.

We spent many billions of dollars on the paraphernalia of Deterrence. We did so on the solemn advice of our nuclear shamans, who concluded – pardon me, calculated – that it was the optimal way of keeping us secure. What we accidentally wrought with our billions was a generation that owes everything – every walk in the park; every Monday morning; every chicken nugget; everything – to two middle-ranking, enemy military officers, who made difficult decisions under enormous duress and spared us all.

Eat your heart out, Doctor Frankenstein.

Time Between Failures