When the World Didn’t End

BBC Earth (Asia) - - Contents -

Si­mon Beard de­scribes five in­ci­dents in the nu­clear age when hu­man­ity came close to an­ni­hi­la­tion

From the Soviet of­fi­cer who ig­nored or­ders to launch a dev­as­tat­ing strike on Amer­ica, to the deadly re­turn of the small­pox virus, Si­mon Beard, an ex­pert on ex­is­ten­tial risk, de­scribes five in­ci­dents in the nu­clear age when hu­man­ity came close to an­ni­hi­la­tion

1 A Soviet sub pulls back from the brink

27 OC­TO­BER 1962

“We’re go­ing to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not dis­grace our navy!” These are the words that Valentin Sav­it­sky re­port­edly cried as he or­dered his sub­ma­rine’s nu­clear tor­pe­does to be read­ied for im­me­di­ate launch.

Sav­it­sky was the cap­tain of B-59, one of a group of Soviet subs dis­patched to the Caribbean dur­ing the Cuban mis­sile cri­sis. Ten­sions be­tween the Amer­i­cans and Sovi­ets were al­ready sky-high. What hap­pened next would take the world to the very edge of nu­clear con­flict.

On 27 Oc­to­ber 1962, Amer­i­can ves­sels be­gan drop­ping prac­tice depth charges (con­tain­ing very lit­tle charge) in the area that the Soviet subs were pa­trolling, in an at­tempt to force them to the sur­face. The Amer­i­cans in­formed the Sovi­ets in ad­vance but this was not passed on to the subs’ com­man­ders. So when a charge hit and dam­aged B-59, Sav­it­sky felt he had no choice but to fire, be­liev­ing war may have al­ready bro­ken out.

Only the in­ter­ven­tion of his sec­ond in com­mand, Vasili Alexan­drovich Arkhipov, pre­vented the tor­pe­does be­ing launched and war break­ing out. Arkhipov per­suaded his col­league to make a hu­mil­i­at­ing sur­face un­der enemy fire so that they could re­turn home and re­ceive new or­ders.

While the sub­ma­rine crews were pub­licly disgraced for hav­ing vi­o­lated strict or­ders of se­crecy, Arkhipov was per­mit­ted to con­tinue his ca­reer in the Soviet navy and re­tired as a vice ad­mi­ral in the 1980s.

2 Small­pox strikes again

11 SEPTEM­BER 1978

Not all of hu­man­ity’s close brushes with an­ni­hi­la­tion are the re­sult of nu­clear mishaps. In­fec­tious dis­eases also pos­sess a ter­ri­fy­ingly deadly power – and that be­came abun­dantly clear in the sum­mer of 1978.

The last known nat­u­ral case of small­pox was in 1977. Yet the fol­low­ing year, it killed again. Its vic­tim was Janet Parker, a pho­tog­ra­pher work­ing at the Univer­sity of Birm­ing­ham Med­i­cal School, in an of­fice above a lab­o­ra­tory where sam­ples of the virus were be­ing stud­ied.

Sci­en­tists con­tinue to re­tain stocks of small­pox. Could the virus es­cape a lab and cause a global pan­demic? It’s hard to say but the Parker in­ci­dent is not the only time that ac­ci­dents have hap­pened. (The 2007 foot and mouth out­break is be­lieved to have been caused by a lab­o­ra­tory es­cape.) In 2014, it was dis­cov­ered that small­pox was be­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately stored at the US Na­tional In­sti­tutes of Health cam­pus in Mary­land, in­creas­ing the chance of in­fec­tions spread­ing to the pop­u­la­tion.

Only one other per­son con­tracted small­pox in 1978 – Janet Parker’s mother, and she sur­vived. In a glob­alised world where we no longer rou­tinely vac­ci­nate against small­pox, next time we may not be so lucky.

3 A Soviet scep­tic saves the world

26 SEPTEM­BER 1983

Shortly af­ter mid­night on 26 Septem­ber 1983, Lt Colonel Stanislav Yev­grafovich Petrov – duty of­fi­cer at the Ser­pukhov-15 se­cret bunker just out­side Mos­cow – re­ceived some alarm­ing news from the USSR’s satel­lite early warn­ing sys­tem: the Amer­i­cans had launched five nu­clear mis­siles, and they were all head­ing for Rus­sia. Soviet doc­trine made it ab­so­lutely clear what should hap­pen next: an im­me­di­ate nu­clear coun­ter­at­tack.

But Petrov was scep­ti­cal. Given the size of the Soviet re­tal­i­a­tion that would in­evitably fol­low, surely an Amer­i­can first strike would con­sist of more than five mis­siles? He there­fore called it a false alarm, prevent­ing the launch and, by ex­ten­sion, a ru­inous nu­clear war.

Petrov’s in­stincts were cor­rect. There were no mis­siles. The satellites had, it turned out, been fooled by un­usual at­mo­spheric con­di­tions.

Fol­low­ing the in­ci­dent, Petrov was moved to a less sen­si­tive mil­i­tary po­si­tion and later left the army fol­low­ing a ner­vous break­down. It has been sug­gested that such false alarms were not un­com­mon and that this fa­mous in­ci­dent is sim­ply the only one to re­ceive pub­lic at­ten­tion.

4 A game with no win­ners

NOVEM­BER 1983 In the mid­dle of one of the hottest pe­ri­ods of the Cold War, 40,000 Nato troops ad­vanced east across Europe. They were tak­ing part in Oper­a­tion Able Archer, a huge war game that al­most had cat­a­strophic con­se­quences.

What set Able Archer apart from its pre­de­ces­sors was its real­ism (even Mar­garet Thatcher played a role in the sim­u­la­tion). But that real­ism also made it dan­ger­ous. For the Soviet lead­er­ship – who had long sus­pected that the west was pre­par­ing a first strike dis­guised as a mil­i­tary ex­er­cise – be­lieved this was a gen­uine at­tack, and for­mu­lated plans to strike back.

Nato lead­ers ini­tially be­lieved that these mo­bil­i­sa­tions were part of the Sovi­ets’ own war games. It was not un­til they re­ceived re­ports by a KGB dou­ble agent in London, Oleg Gordievsky, that Nato lead­ers re­alised the se­ri­ous­ness of the USSR’s re­sponse and the po­ten­tial for re­tal­i­a­tion. One his­to­rian of the CIA con­cluded that “only Gordievsky’s timely warn­ings to the west kept things from get­ting out of hand”.

5 Fear and loathing in Kash­mir

MAY AND JUNE 1999 Pak­istan has been at log­ger­heads with

In­dia for much of its 70-year his­tory. But as the 20th cen­tury drew to a close, a new, po­ten­tially lethal di­men­sion was added to the com­bustible re­la­tion­ship: nu­clear weapons. In­dia tested its first bomb in 1974. Pak­istan fol­lowed suit in 1998 – and it wasn’t long be­fore it was threat­en­ing to use it.

In 1999, as the two na­tions were em­broiled in a bor­der war, the Pak­istani army crossed into In­dian-con­trolled Kash­mir and set about ready­ing its nu­clear arse­nal. Pak­istan will

“not hes­i­tate to use any weapon in its arse­nal to pro­tect its ter­ri­to­rial in­tegrity”, was one Pak­istani of­fi­cial’s omi­nous pro­nounce­ment.

But there was another, even more ter­ri­fy­ing, in­gre­di­ent to the cri­sis. When US pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton at­tempted to me­di­ate, he found that the Pak­istani prime min­is­ter, Nawaz Sharif, was un­aware of the nu­clear de­ploy­ment. It later emerged that the de­ci­sion to de­ploy the nu­clear arse­nal may have been taken uni­lat­er­ally by the head of the Army Staff, Pervez Mushar­raf.

Fears that the cri­sis may es­ca­late into a nu­clear war re­ceded when Sharif or­dered the army to with­draw in July. But con­cerns over the role that nu­clear weapons may play in Pak­istan’s in­ter­nal strug­gles re­main.

Si­mon Beard is a re­search as­so­ciate at the Cen­tre for the Study of Ex­is­ten­tial Risk at the Univer­sity of Cam­bridge

Small­pox vac­cines are pre­pared for dis­patch in 1978, the year the dis­ease claimed its last vic­tim – so far

A sur­face-to-sur­face mis­sile at a mil­i­tary pa­rade mark­ing Pak­istan Day, Is­lam­abad, 1999

Soviet sub­marines pre­pare to go on ex­er­cise. Only the pres­ence of mind of a Soviet naval of­fi­cer pre­vented a sub from launch­ing a nu­clear strike in Oc­to­ber 1962

Colonel Petrov, pic­tured in 1999, re­fused to be­lieve that his coun­try was un­der nu­clear at­tack

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