Commentary Magazine


The Possibility of an Accidental Nuclear Detonation

Back in the early years of the cold war, the risks of an outbreak of nuclear war seemed terrifyingly high. Possible paths toward such a cataclysm were spelled out in a lengthy secret 1958 RAND study written by one of the giant defense intellectuals of the era, Fred Charles Ikle. Ikle went on to become Undersecretary for Policy in the Defense Department in the Reagan years. He now holds the title of distinguished scholar at CSIS in Washington. Long after it was written, a “sanitized” version of his 1958 paper, On the Risk of an Accidental or Unauthorized Nuclear Detonation, was released by the Reagan Library. It began on a pessimistic note:

The unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon is possible as a result of technical malfunction, human error, or a more deliberate human act, such as sabotage. It is conceivable that such a detonation will occur with the next decade or so in some weapon system of one of the world’s nuclear powers. It can be shown that this risk is not negligible, but it is impossible to how likely it is.

Five decades have passed since Ikle wrote those words and what he saw as conceivable has not yet come to pass. But what is the likelihood of such a thing occurring now?

Many of the scenarios contained in Ikle’s paper involving potential collisions between the U.S. and the Soviet Union obviously no longer obtain. The cold war came to an end two decades ago with the demise of the USSR. But a great many other possibilities for disaster are now before us.

Back then, the nuclear club was small, consisting of only three countries: the U.S., Great Britain, and the USSR. Today, the nuclear club has tripled in size; nine countries have the bomb. At least two of them, Pakistan and North Korea, are basket cases. Two others, Russia and China, are not exactly models of stability. India and Israel are locked in conflict with neighboring states. Our own country has recently shown remarkable laxity in the management of its own arsenal. Are these other nuclear powers doing a better job than we are? The answer is unclear. 

On the Risk of an Accidental or Unauthorized Nuclear Detonation remains essential, and fascinating, reading for anyone interested in the nature of dangers we faced in the cold war and continue to face today.