The Science Of The Next 150 Years: 50 Years in the Future
As we look back from the perspective of NDDD—Nuclear Disarmament Decision Day on August 8, 2063—it is still not clear how the first “small” nuclear war started in 2024. Yet it is clear that once it happened, things changed. The survivors saw that nuclear war was no longer a fantasy; nuclear extinction the next time was no longer an impossibility. The reality sunk in that deterrence could fail, accidents could happen, terrorists could steal warheads. A nuclear bomb with no return address could be detonated and start a conflagration. A billion people could die.

Nuclear disarmament was the only way to cast off what seemed otherwise inevitable. If there were a next time, it would mean a planetary “extinction event”.

More than half a century ago a group of nuclear strategists (even Henry Kissinger) broke from tradition and surprised colleagues by calling for total worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons, or, as it was eventually known, “nuclear zero.” It had taken more than 50 years. Yet now, at last, everything was in place, to decide in the next few minutes whether it would really happen.

The process for the Final Disposition, as it had come to be called over the past decade, had been worked out in excruciating detail—including all the inspection and enforcement protocols—so that it would be complete, total and simultaneous—so that no one could hang back, hold on to and use their remaining nukes to reign supreme over credulous disarmed nations.

Yet there were still “unknown unknowns” to contend with. Would it be foolproof? Could all parties be trusted? Had some bomb-grade nuclear material escaped even the highly advanced global satellite surveillance and detection system? Had one or more nations disassembled their nukes in such a way they would be ready to reconstitute the separate elements of a nuclear arsenal—the feared “breakout” scenario?

All the known nuclear nations had reduced their arsenals to a bare minimum by 2063. The time had come for what the tablets were calling “the final throw-in,” in which the known nuclear nations would dismantle, destroy and dispose of all their remaining nuclear weapons in a carefully monitored simultaneous moment.

Back in 2011 a pessimist had written, “The only way the world is likely to wake up and realize it can't live with nuclear weapons would be something that would change human character, perhaps even a small (if we're lucky) nuclear war.”

We got the war. We were “lucky”—it was (relatively) small. But had human character changed enough?

As the hour approached, and all the screens in the world were focused on the Final Conference Console and the heads of the (known) nuclear states took their seats, some in attendance looked back on the milestones of the past half a century that led to this moment. A chronologist would begin with:

February 5, 2018: The nuclear arms–reduction provisions of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty), ratified in 2011, between the U.S. and the Russian Federation had finally been fulfilled, thus bringing the number of warheads down to 1,550 on each side.

Yet efforts to negotiate a new round of reductions that would include the other known nuclear states failed over issues such as the importance of antiballistic missile systems, the dream of a satellite-based “Star Wars” system kept alive by the anti-START hawks in the U.S. Senate and the anti-START hawks in Russia's Ministry of Defense who wanted to build a new generation of multiple warhead missiles. And new nations continued to seek to build their own capacity.

Instead of seeking a new round of treaty reductions or negotiating alert-time reductions to take silo-based missiles off what was effectively “hair trigger,” “use it or lose it,” “launch on warning” postures prone to “inadvertence”—accidental nuclear alerts and war—the two leading nuclear nations devoted themselves to spending billions on antiballistic missile shields. Such unproved deterrents included nuclear-armed satellites and “satellite killers”: for the U.S., in eastern Europe; for Russia, in the Arctic.

August 8, 2021: One of the most feared scenarios occurred on a date chosen for symbolic reasons: “Anonymous 4.0,” the elite, international, anarchist “black hat” collective, hacked into the command and control systems for a nuclear missile silo in Montana and another on the frozen wastes of the Vladivostok peninsula.

One missile launched from each locale. Nobody knew if they had detonation codes until both missiles landed in the “sea of garbage,” an area the size of Texas in the Pacific's northern reaches, and failed to detonate. More troubling: satellite-launched antimissile interceptors missed hitting them by miles. The result was that no nation could now tell whether to trust the integrity of their all-important C3 (Command, Control and Communications) tech.

A cyber sword of Damocles was hanging over the world.

August 2024: The sword fell. Everyone thought it would be China/Taiwan, Iran/Israel or North Korea/South Korea. Yet after several extremely close calls earlier in the century, it finally happened: India/Pakistan. A nuclear bomb with no return address (except for an untraceable e-mail whose veracity was never determined) was detonated in Mumbai, and the Indian government chose to blame a Pakistani terrorist group, which led both sides to decide to preempt the other's preemption.

At last we knew what it would be like. And it was worse than could have been imagined. People were shocked to the core by images of melted bodies, the screams of radiation-burned infants. A Scientific American article on such a “small” nuclear war (50 to 100 Hiroshima-size bombs “exchanged”) between India and Pakistan, published back in 2010, was eerily prescient: an estimated 20 million immediate deaths from blasts, uncontrollable firestorms and radiation poisoning [see “Local Nuclear War, Global Suffering,” by Alan Robock and Owen Brian Toon; Scientific American, January 2010].

The prediction of a “nuclear winter” (a doomsday scenario once discredited and recently rehabilitated by the authors of the Scientific American article) for the whole planet as a result of a regional nuclear war proved to be tragically accurate. Soot kicked into the upper atmosphere by the blasts and firestorms formed a funereal pall over the earth—chilling and wiping out massive amounts of food crops. Nearly one billion would die of starvation.

Millions more died in the immediate aftermath as three continents were plunged into darkness by the feared electromagnetic pulse (EMP) effect of upper atmosphere blasts, which destroyed the power grids. Order broke down in large swaths of the planet—soon followed by plague, mob rule and a return to the Dark Ages in many large regions.

2031: Against all odds, civilization began to reconstitute itself. An entire planet suffering from nuclear post-traumatic stress disorder charged that no government could last if it did not put its full force behind a treaty to abolish all nuclear weapons.

But would it work? Had human nature changed?

March 2035: The first planetary Nuclear Disarmament Treaty based on the four-phase plan that the Global Zero movement had laid out as far back as 2010 was formally agreed to. Of course, the devil was in the details, but the devil was also in the radiation and the plague, and this time the choice was made to err on the side of belief, of trust that it could work, that it had to work, that cheating could be prevented, that trust could be verified.

There had been technical advances in inspection, monitoring and enforcement. Supersophisticated brain scans were put into place for any nuclear workers to detect conspiracies. Satellite look-down and shoot-down antimissile capability had proved effective. Star Wars had become real. Yet it had to be infallible.

June 2049: Every (known) nuclear nation on earth had reduced its arsenal to below 12 warheads and had declared how much radioactive fuel for bomb making it had available. It would all be given up to the World Nuclear Demolition Commission, which had draconian and advanced inspection technology and powerful conventional armed enforcement powers.

The plan was to halve the remaining weapons by 2055 and halve them again by 2060, and then agreements broke down over inspection and enforcement.

December 2056: The last piece was put in place. The inability to detect nuclear submarines lurking in the ocean depths by satellite had long been the technical stumbling block. Now, at last, a new-generation satellite-based laser had made the dreams of “making the oceans transparent” come true. No subs had the cloaking tech to shield themselves—we hoped.

Would a worldwide surveillance and enforcement system work? Could it be deployed before any nation had a chance to hide any sinister resources? Would the abolition of nuclear weapons make conventional wars more likely and make it more likely that the losing side in a conventional war would seek to turn nuclear?

August 8, 2063: At last, we were about to learn the answers. The hour had come. It was the highest-stakes poker game ever played. The heads of the nuclear nations sitting around the console had only to press a button to enable the Final Disposition (and all buttons had to be pressed for any of them to begin the final destruction of these remaining warheads). All of them were smiling.

Sooner or later—and probably sooner—we would know if one of those smiles concealed something diabolical. It would take many moments—years, perhaps forever—to know if the system was foolproof. If human nature could ever change.