Will malfunction or incompetence start World War Three?

Eric Schlosser's book and film Command and Control look at the terrifying prospects of nuclear friendly fire, where one of America's nukes detonates on US soil. It also looks at what might happen if a false alarm gets relayed to a trigger-happy general or President. He starts this New Yorker piece with a terrifying story from June 3, 1980:

President Jimmy Carter’s national-security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was asleep in Washington, D.C., when the phone rang. His military aide, General William Odom, was calling to inform him that two hundred and twenty missiles launched from Soviet submarines were heading toward the United States. Brzezinski told Odom to get confirmation of the attack. A retaliatory strike would have to be ordered quickly; Washington might be destroyed within minutes. Odom called back and offered a correction: twenty-two hundred Soviet missiles had been launched. Brzezinski decided not to wake up his wife, preferring that she die in her sleep. As he prepared to call Carter and recommend an American counterattack, the phone rang for a third time. Odom apologized—it was a false alarm. An investigation later found that a defective computer chip in a communications device at norad headquarters had generated the erroneous warning. The chip cost forty-six cents.

Lots more scary info at the Command and Control film website.

World War Three, by mistake (New Yorker)

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Organized crime gangs keep trying to sell radioactive material to terrorists

In the last five years, criminal gangs in Moldova have been stopped four times from selling radioactive materials, including bomb-grade uranium, on the black market. You have to wonder if they have also succeeded one or more times, and we just don't know about it yet.

From AP:

In that operation, wiretaps and interviews with investigators show, a middleman for the gang repeatedly ranted with hatred for America as he focused on smuggling the essential material for an atomic bomb and blueprints for a dirty bomb to a Middle Eastern buyer.

In wiretaps, videotaped arrests, photographs of bomb-grade material, documents and interviews, AP found that smugglers are explicitly targeting buyers who are enemies of the West. The developments represent the fulfillment of a long-feared scenario in which organized crime gangs are trying to link up with groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida — both of which have made clear their ambition to use weapons of mass destruction.

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Marshall Islands, site of largest-ever U.S. nuclear weapons test, sues 9 superpowers including USA

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is suing the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China for failure to eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

How The Cleveland Press broke the story of Los Alamos a year-and-a-half before Hiroshima

The Manhattan Project was a secret, but it wasn't as secret a secret as you've been lead to believe, writes Rebecca Rosen at The Atlantic. Not only was the construction of an atomic weapon a topic of Washington gossip, but the entire "secret city in the desert" thing got blown open in 1944 when a columnist for a Midwestern newspaper ran across Los Alamos while on vacation. In light of our current debates about state secrets and security, it's probably less interesting that columnist Jack Raper found Los Alamos, and more interesting that he, and his paper, chose to buck the self-enforced system of silence that characterized World War II media. Read the rest

A fantastic long read about activism and nuclear weapons

Last summer, a nun, a drifter, and a house painter broke into the secure compound surrounding the Oak Ridge National Laboratory — the laboratory that made uranium for the Manhattan Project and continues to be a major part of America's nuclear infrastructure. Their goal: To put America on trial. Dan Zak has written an amazing piece for the Washington Post, blending this story with the history of Oak Ridge and and in-depth look at the future of the US nuclear weapons program. Very much worth your time. Read the rest