Saturday, November 7, 2009

Book Review: Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Quaeda

Title Atomic Obsession: Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda
Author John E. Mueller
Rating ****1/2
Tags nuclear weapons, weapons of mass distruction, terrorism, nuclear war 

Calm down, everyone. The world is not going to be destroyed by nuclear weapons, or chemical or biological ones, either. That's the gist of this well-researched and well-reasoned book Whether it will get heard or not is another matter, it flies too much in the face of conventional wisdom.

The gist of the book is expressed at the end of chapter 2, and it is worth a lengthy quote:

Consequences of overstatement

To repeat: it is certainly true that nuclear weapons can be massively destructive. Moreover, if thousands (maybe hundreds) of the largest are launched, the results on society could be as calamitous as the alarmists insist - or nearly so. But because an all-out nuclear attack with thermonuclear weapons could be catastrophic, it does not follow that that similar descriptors should unthinkingly and casually be applied to explosions that would do vastly less damage, however horrible the consequences of those explosions would be in their own right. Moreover, it obviously does not follow that because these weapons exist, they will necessarily and inevitably go off.
Nevertheless, because of the vivid, dramatic, and unforgettable impression left by the Hiroshima bombing, and in part perhaps because of the exertions in the postwar period by legions of alarmists from all corners of the political spectrum, nuclear fears have escalated to the point where simply lacing the weapons into the conversation often causes coherent thought to cease.
Concern about nuclear weapons and about their awesome destructive capacity is certainly justified. But routine exaggerations of that capacity, and the obsession with the weapons such exaggerations have inspired and enforced, have often led to international policies that have been unwise, wasteful, and destructive - sometimes even more destructive than the bombs themselves.
Thus, wars have been fought and devastating economic sanctions have been inflicted to prevent fully deterrable and containable countries from obtaining nuclear weapons. And the consummate horror that terrorists might be able to obtain a nuclear bomb has inspired costly policies and exertions, often without any consideration about how likely dread consequences are to happen."

Mueller goes into some depth about the actual level of lethality of WMD and the difficulties in manufacturing and using them. They require a pretty high level of technical expertise and equipment Security controls have improved. The chances, therefore, of terrorists getting hold of WMD are quite small, and he goes in-depth into the number of steps required and the probabilities of each - and also the probabilities that ALL the required steps could be successfully accomplished, which are vanishingly small.

He also goes into the reasons that more countries have not chosen to create and stockpile WMD. There are the above difficulties, plus the fact that WMD cost so much for weapons that in the end have little tactical usefulness.

Mueller also discusses that well-meaning efforts to diffuse the threat have often been counterproductive. Nuclear scientists exaggerated the dangers of nuclear weapons in attempting to see that the weapons would never be used and to prevent any other war like World War II. Anti-proliferation regimes may have encouraged some proliferation in order to have "bargaining chips" for negotiations. The author is particularly incensed that so many people have died due to the economic sanctions imposed to prevent proliferation, much less in wars fought for the purpose, all of which have been far more deadly than the weapons themselves would have been.

Mueller provides a vast amount of knowledge of the topic allied with cogent reasoning. His extensive notes and bibliography attest to the degree of study he has put into the subject.

Read this book, and sleep better at night. More importantly, send copies to government officials making weapons and diplomatic decisions.

Publication Oxford University Press, USA (2009), Hardcover, 336 pages
Publication date 2009
ISBN 019538136X / 9780195381368

Posted via web from reannon's posterous

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