Rhodes on nuclear security

Some quotes from Rhodes’ Arsenals of Folly.


In the 1950s, when the RBMK [nuclear power reactor] design was developed and approved, Soviet industry had not yet mastered the technology necessary to manufacture steel pressure vessels capacious enough to surround such large reactor cores. For that reason, among others, scientists, engineers, and managers in the Soviet nuclear-power industry had pretended for years that a loss-of-coolant accident was unlikely to the point of impossibility in an RBMK. They knew better. The industry had been plagued with disasters and near-disasters since its earliest days. All of them had been covered up, treated as state secrets; information about them was denied not only to the Soviet public but even to the industry’s managers and operators. Engineering is based on experience, including operating experience; treating design flaws and accidents as state secrets meant that every other similar nuclear-power station remained vulnerable and unprepared.

Unknown to the Soviet public and the world, at least thirteen serious power-reactor accidents had occurred in the Soviet Union before the one at Chernobyl. Between 1964 and 1979, for example, repeated fuel-assembly fires plagued Reactor Number One at the Beloyarsk nuclear-power plant east of the Urals near Novosibirsk. In 1975, the core of an RBMK reactor at the Leningrad plant partly melted down; cooling the core by flooding it with liquid nitrogen led to a discharge of radiation into the environment equivalent to about one-twentieth the amount that was released at Chernobyl in 1986. In 1982, a rupture of the central fuel assembly of Chernobyl Reactor Number One released radioactivity over the nearby bedroom community of Pripyat, now in 1986 once again exposed and at risk. In 1985, a steam relief valve burst during a shaky startup of Reactor Number One at the Balakovo nuclear-power plant, on the Volga River about 150 miles southwest of Samara, jetting 500-degree steam that scalded to death fourteen members of the start-up staff; despite the accident, the responsible official, Balakovo’s plant director, Viktor Bryukhanov, was promoted to supervise construction at Chernobyl and direct its operation.


The RBMK reactor was a dual-use design. It was developed in the 1950s as a production reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, then adapted for civilian power operation in the 1970s; Like its graphite core, its pyatachok was punctured with multiple channels from which irradiated fuel rods could be removed via an overhead crane while the reactor was operating. If the military needed plutonium, on-line refueling would allow fuel rods to be removed early to maximize their bloom of military-grade plutonium. A safety containment structure around such a reactor, which would probably have prevented an accident like the one at Chernobyl, would have also greatly reduced its military value. Military needs thus competed with civilian needs in the choice of the RBMK design when the Soviet Union decided to greatly expand electricity production with nuclear power in the early 1970s; a competing light-water reactor design, the Soviet VVER, was safer but less suitable for the production of military-grade plutonium.

#3, by Robert Gates, quoted in Arsenals of Folly:

As he recounted to me, [Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [his military assistant, William] Odom, who told him that some 220 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes after a Soviet launch. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm a Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that he had further confirmation, but that 2,200 missiles had been launched— it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to telephone the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system. When it was over, Zbig just went back to bed. I doubt he slept much, though.


All this evidence points to the same conclusion: that the United States and the Soviet Union, apes on a treadmill, inadvertently blundered close to nuclear war in November 1983. That, and not the decline and fall of the Soviet Union, was the return on the neoconservatives’ long, cynical, and radically partisan investment in threat inflation and arms-race escalation.

During the Cuban confrontation, when American nuclear weapons were ready to launch or already aloft and moving toward their Soviet targets on hundreds of SAC bombers, both sides were at least aware of the danger and working intensely to resolve the dispute. During ABLE ARCHER 83, in contrast, an American renewal of high Cold War rhetoric, aggressive and perilous threat displays, and naïve incredulity were combined with Soviet arms-race and surprise-attack insecurities and heavy-handed war-scare propaganda in a nearly lethal mix.


Gorbachev had read the Palme Commission report, Common Security: A Blueprint for Survival, had reviewed its ideas with Arbatov as well as with Brandt, Bahr, and Palme himself, and had seized on common security as a more realistic national-security policy than those of his predecessors for dealing with the hard realities of the nuclear age.

Before Gorbachev, even during the years of détente, the Soviet military had operated on the assumption (however unrealistic) that it should plan to win a nuclear war should one be fought— a strategy built on the Soviet experience of fighting Germany during the Second World War. Partly because a massive surprise attack had initiated that nearly fatal conflict, the Soviet military had been and still was deeply skeptical of relying on deterrence to prevent an enemy attack. For different reasons, so were the proponents of common security. Brandt, who followed the Palme Commission’s deliberations closely, wrote that he “shared the conclusions [the commission] came to: collective security as an essential political task in the nuclear age, and partnership in security as a military concept to take over gradually from the strategy of nuclear deterrence; [because] deterrence threatens to destroy what it is supposed to be defending, and thereby increasingly loses credibility.”

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