This is the transcript of a talk given by Steven Starr at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. A PowerPoint presentation to go along with this talk is here. For more information about the symposium, click here.


David mentioned earlier that, he asked about why do we have this adherence to deterrence, and I believe one of the requirements for that is essentially the avoidance or even the outright rejection of the existential threat posed by nuclear arsenals. In other words, how can you threaten to use nuclear weapons if you would acknowledge that the use of these weapons could lead to the destruction of the human race or at least civilization? So my talk today focuses on what as I see as a confirmation of that rejection here in the United States, which is the rejection by US leadership of the nuclear winter studies.

I want to talk about the studies first, because I think I want to underline how important they are. Ten years ago, the world’s leading climatologists chose to re-investigate the long-term environmental impacts of nuclear war. The peer reviewed studies that I have listed in the slide are considered to be the most authoritative type of scientific research. It’s subjected to criticism by the international scientific community before its final publication in scholarly journals. During this criticism period, there were no serious errors found in the studies. Working at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado, the Department of Environmental Sciences at Rutgers, and the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at UCLA, these scientists use state-of-the-art computer modeling to evaluate the consequences of a range of possible nuclear conflicts. It began with a hypothetical war in Southeast Asia, in which a total of 100 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs were exploded in the cities of India and Pakistan. In order to give you an idea of what a Hiroshima-sized atomic bomb can do, please consider these images of Hiroshima before and after the use of an atomic bomb. These bombs had an explosive power of 15,000 tons of TNT.

The detonation of such an atomic bomb will instantly ignite fires over a surface area of three to five square miles. The scientists calculated that the blast, fire, and radiation from a war fought with 100 atomic bombs could produce as many fatalities as World War II. However, the long-term environmental effects of the war could significantly disrupt the global weather for at least a decade, which could lead to, or would lead, likely lead to a vast global famine. This slide was… Each click is one day the smoke spread in the burning cities of India and Pakistan, the scientists predicted this would cause 3 to 4 million tons of black carbon soot from the nuclear firestorms to rise quickly above cloud level into the stratosphere, where it could not be rained out. The smoke would circle the earth in less than two weeks, would form a global stratospheric smoke layer that would remain for more than a decade. The smoke would absorb warming sunlight, which would heat the smoke to temperatures near the boiling point of water, which would lead to ozone losses of 20%-50% over populated areas. This would almost double the amount of UVV reached in some regions, and would create UVV indices unprecedented in human history.

In North America and Central Europe, the time required to get a painful sunburn at midday in June could decrease to as little as six minutes for fair-skinned individuals. As the smoke layer blocked warming sunlight from reaching the earth’s surface, it would produce the coldest average surface temperatures in the last 1,000 years. This is a slide taken from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists in an article published by doctors Toon and Robock. Medical experts have predicted that the shortening of growing seasons and corresponding decreases in agricultural production could cause up to 2 billion people to perish from famine. The climatologists also investigated the effects of a nuclear war fought with vastly more powerful thermonuclear weapons possessed by the US, Russia, China, France and England.

Some of the first thermonuclear weapons constructed during the 1950s and 60s were a thousand times more powerful than an atomic bomb. And when you look at photos of nuclear weapons, it’s important to consider how far away they were taken. This was our first test of a nuclear weapon. During the last 30 years, the average size of thermonuclear or strategic nuclear weapons has decreased, yet today each of the approximately 3,200-3,500 strategic weapons deployed by the US and Russia is 70-80 times more powerful than the atomic bombs that were modeled in the India-Pakistan study. The smallest strategic weapon has an explosive power of 100,000 tons of TNT, a ton is 2,000 pounds, compared to an atomic bomb, that averaged an explosive power of 15,000 tons of TNT.

If you look at the scale, the largest nuclear bomb versus the atomic bomb, you’re going up by a factor of about 1,000. So you have 24,000 pounds of TNT, 3 million pounds of TNT for an atomic bomb, and really about 2.4 billion pounds of TNT for our large strategic nuclear weapon. And I made this photo just to compare an image I showed of the Hiroshima bomb at the base of what it would look like in comparison to Castle Bravo. I had a veteran from the South Pacific say, “You need to do a slide, because the atomic bombs were like fire crackers compared to hydrogen bombs.”

Strategic nuclear weapons produce much larger fire storms than do atomic bombs. A standard Russian 800 kiloton warhead, which John was kind enough to publish in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, on an average day will ignite fires covering a surface area of 90-152 square miles. So a war fought with hundreds or thousands of US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons would ignite immense nuclear firestorms covering land surface areas of many thousands or tens of thousands of square miles. This would probably occur within a period of a couple of hours, or less possibly. This is the US-Russian nuclear war. The scientists calculated that these fires could produce up to 180 million tons of black carbon, soot and smoke, which would form a dense global stratospheric smoke layer. The smoke would remain in the stratosphere for 10 to 20 years and would block as much as 70% of sunlight from reaching the surface of the northern hemisphere and 35% from the southern hemisphere.

It takes maybe a month or two for it to equilibrate. So much sunlight would be blocked by the smoke that the noonday sun would resemble a full moon at midnight, if you were in the northern hemisphere. Under such conditions, it would require only a matter of days or weeks for the daily minimum temperatures to fall below freezing in the largest agricultural areas of the northern hemisphere. Freezing temperatures would occur every day for a period of between one to three years. Average surface temperatures would become colder than those experienced 18,000 years ago at the height of the last Ice Age, and the prolonged cold would cause average rainfall to decrease by up to 90%. Growing seasons would be completely eliminated for more than a decade, and it would be too cold and dark to grow food crops, which would doom the majority of the human population. So the profound cold and dark following nuclear war became first known as ‘nuclear winter’, and it was first predicted in 1983 by a group of NASA scientists. And I took the liberty of copying a cover of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists that announced this discovery, I think it was in 1984.

During the 1980s, a large body of research was done by such groups as the Scientific Committee on Problems of the Environment and Scope, the World Meteorological Organization, and the US National Research Council of the US National Academy of Sciences. Their work essentially supported the initial findings of the 1983 studies. The idea of nuclear winter, published and supported by prominent scientists, generated extensive public alarm, put political pressure on the US and the Soviet Union to reverse a runaway nuclear arms race. Unfortunately, this created a backlash among many powerful military and industrial interests, who undertook the extensive media campaign to brand nuclear winter as ‘bad science’ and the scientists who discovered it as ‘irresponsible’. Critics used various uncertainties in the studies and the first climate models, which are primitive by today’s standards, as a basis to criticize and reject the concept of nuclear winter. In 1986, the Council on Foreign Relations published an article by the scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, who predicted drops in global cooling about half as large as those first predicted by the 1983 studies, and they described this as ‘nuclear autumn’.

Nuclear autumn studies were later found to be deeply flawed, but it didn’t matter, because nuclear winter was subject to criticism and damning articles in the Wall Street Journal, Time Magazine. In 1987, the National Review called nuclear winter ‘a fraud’. In 2000, Discover Magazine published an article which described nuclear winter as ‘one of the 20 greatest scientific blunders in history’. The endless smear campaign was successful, and the general public, and even most anti-nuclear activists, were left with the idea that nuclear winter had been discredited. I found this with Physicians for Social Responsibility, when we were trying to get funding in 2001 to renew nuclear winter research. 9/11 took it off the agenda, but I was kind of shocked that no one really believed this anymore. Yet the scientists didn’t give up, and in 2006 they returned to their labs to perform the research that I just described at the beginning of my talk. The new research not only upheld the previous findings, but it actually found the earlier studies underestimated the environmental effects of nuclear war, because it found that the smoke is heated by sunlight, and it creates a self-lofting effect. That’s why it stays in the stratosphere for so long.

So after the initial series of studies were published in 2007 and 2008, two of the lead scientists, Dr. Alan Robock from Rutgers and Dr. Toon of the University of Colorado, made a series of requests to meet with the members of the Obama administration. They offered to brief the White House about their findings, which they assumed would have great impact upon nuclear weapons policy. But their offers were met with indifference. Finally, after a number of years of trying, I’ve been told that Dr. Robock and Toon were allowed an audience with John Holdren, the senior advisor to President Barack Obama on Science and Technology. Also, Dr. Robock has met with Rose Gottemoeller, as you all know, the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. Dr. Robock has the impression that neither Holdren nor Gottemoeller think that nuclear winter research is correct. But it’s not only Holdren and Gottemoeller who reject the nuclear winter research. According to sources cited by Greg Mello of the Los Alamos Study Group, and I really respect Greg, he’s a brilliant guy. He goes to the White House quite frequently, and talks to people in the National Security Council. He says that the US Nuclear Weapons Council, which is a group that determines the size and composition of US nuclear weapons, as well as the policies for their use, has stated that ‘the predictions of nuclear winter were disproved years ago’.

It may be that General John Hyten, the Head of the Strategic Command, who is in charge of the US nuclear triad, and General Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the second highest-ranking officer in the US, have never seen or heard of the 21st century nuclear winter studies that I describe. Perhaps when they hear a question about nuclear winter, they only remember the smear campaigns done against the early studies, or maybe they just choose not to accept the new research, despite the fact that it has withstood the criticism of the global scientific community.

Regardless, the question of nuclear winter research by the top military and political leaders of the US raises some profoundly important questions. Do they fully understand the consequences of nuclear war? And do they realize that launch-ready nuclear weapons they control constitute a self-destruct mechanism for the human race? Meanwhile, US political leaders generally support the ongoing US confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia and China. Mainstream corporate media, including the editorial boards of The New York Times and Washington Post engage in anti-Russian and anti-Putin rhetoric that rivals the hate speech of the McCarthy era. The US has renewed the Cold War with Russia with no debate or protest and subsequently engaged in proxy wars with Russia in Ukraine and Syria, as well as threatening military action against China in the South China Sea. And I brought this up just to show that the Bulletin has supported more recently these studies. This was an article that Toon and Robock.

I’m going to just quickly summarize, since this is supposed to be the state of nuclear danger, how I see it. Hillary Clinton, who appears to be likely to become the next President of the US, has repeatedly called for a US-imposed no-fly zone over Syria, where Russian planes are now flying in support of the Syrian armed forces. Marine General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, told Congress in September that, should the US attempt to set up such a no-fly zone, it would surely result in war with Russia.

Apparently, there’s now some debate about this. However, Russia has responded by moving its latest air defense system to Syria, and has stated it would shoot down any US or NATO planes that attempted to attack Syrian armed forces. Russia has also sent its only aircraft carrier, along with all of its Northern fleet and much of its Baltic fleet to the Mediterranean in its largest surface deployment of naval vessels since the end of the Cold War. In response to what NATO leaders describe as Russia’s dangerous and aggressive behavior, NATO has built up a rapid defense force of 40,000 troops on the Russian border in the Baltic states and Poland. This force includes hundreds of tanks, armored vehicles and heavy artillery. NATO troops stationed in Estonia are within artillery range of St. Petersburg, which is the second largest city in Russia. Imagine if that was in Tijuana and they could hit Los Angeles. The US has deployed its Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense System in Romania and is constructing another such system in Poland. The Mark 41 launch systems that’s used in the Aegis Ashore systems can also be used to launch nuclear long-range cruise missiles, so it’s a dual-use system. And Putin has pointed this out.

In other words, the US has built and is building launch sites for nuclear missiles on the Russian border. This fact has been widely reported on Russian TV and has infuriated the Russian public. It was in St. Petersburg at an economic forum when Putin… You can look on the internet under ‘Putin’s warning’, and he lectured a group of international media people that Russia would be forced to retaliate against this threat. So, while Russian officials maintain that its actions are no more than routine, Russia now appears to be preparing for war. And Hans pointed out that these things can be viewed in different ways, but I still find some of this alarming, myself. On October 5th, Russia conducted a nationwide civil defense drill that included 40 million of its people being directed to fallout shelters. Reuters reported on October 7th that Russia had moved its Iskander-capable nuclear missiles, as Hans referred to, to Kaliningrad, which borders Poland.

So, while the US ignores the danger of nuclear war, Russian scholar Stephen Cohen reports that the danger of nuclear war with the US is the leading news story in Russia. I listen to Cohen interviews on the John Batchelor Show every week, and it’s really one of the few sources in our media where you can get informed updates. Cohen speaks Russian and he listens to the Russian media, and he states, “Just as there are no discussion of the most existential question of our time in the American political class, the possibility of war with Russia, it is the only thing being discussed in the Russian political class. These are two different political universes. In Russia, all the discussion in the newspapers, and there is plenty of free discussion on talk show TV which echoes what the Kremlin is thinking, online, in the elite newspapers, and in the popular broadcasts, the number one, two, three and four topics of the day are the possibility of war with the United States.”

And Cohen goes on to say that, “I conclude from this that the leadership of Russia actually believes now, in reaction to what the US and NATO have said and done over the last two years, and particularly in reaction to the breakdown of the proposed cooperation in Syria, and the rhetoric coming out of Washington, that war is a real possibility. I can’t remember when, since the Cuban Missile Crisis, that Moscow leadership came to this conclusion in its collective head.”

My own personal assessment of the state of the nuclear danger today is that it’s profound. The US is sleepwalking towards nuclear war. Our leaders have turned a blind eye to the scientifically predicted consequences of nuclear war and appear to be intent on making Russia back down. This is a recipe for unlimited human disaster. But it’s still not too late to seek a dialogue, diplomacy and detente with Russia and China, and to create a global discussion about the existential dangers of nuclear war, which, when was the last time you heard about this? You certainly didn’t hear about it in the presidential debates. It’s like people have forgotten about it. But I think that they don’t want to think about it, because it’s just too painful.

We must return to the understanding that nuclear war cannot be won and must not be fought. And this can be achieved if we listen to the warnings from the scientific community about the omnicidal consequences of nuclear war. I think we need to hold the feet to the fire of the US Nuclear Weapons Council, because any debate on this is useful, because then people will go, “What?” Just like my students in my class, they’re all uniformly horrified when they find out about what nuclear weapons will do. They don’t know, they really don’t know. And I think this recognition can provide what David suggested to be as a pressure point.