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No room for mistakes: rethinking nuclear technology.

The devastating terrorist attack that struck the U.S. on September 11, 2001, shattered New York's massive World Trade Center, a piece of the Pentagon, thousands of innocent lives, and the illusion that sophisticated technology and powerful weapons could keep America safe. Indeed, modern society has become increasingly vulnerable to the fruits of its own technological brilliance.

Following the attack, U.S. nuclear power plants and weapons facilities were put on high alert. Yet nuclear technologies are key to the Bush administration's plans to radically rework the nation's security and energy policies: allowing for national missile defense by scrapping key elements of nuclear arms control, and crafting an energy strategy that casts a revived nuclear power industry as a major player. Terrorism is not the only danger. It is time to examine all the risks the U.S. is running by assuming that such dangerous technologies can be permanently kept under control, despite the limits inevitably imposed by the fallibility of human beings who design, build, and operate them.

People are just as error-prone today as ever. The evidence is all around us. According to a 1998 U.S. General Accounting Office study, human error contributed to almost 75% of the most serious U.S. military aircraft accidents in 1994 and 1995. A 1998 Union of Concerned Scientists study of ten nuclear power plants (representing a cross section of the industry) concluded that nearly 80% of reported problems resulted from worker mistakes or poorly designed procedures.

Over the past century, spectacular advances in technology have dramatically changed our ability to affect the physical world. The collision between our unchanging fallibility and the awesome power of the most dangerous technologies that we have created threatens our common future.

Nowhere is this clearer than with nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction.

For more than fifty years the U.S. has chosen these fearsomely dangerous technologies as the foundation of a strategy of national security through the threat of devastation. Always there has been the crucial assumption that these technologies can be kept under control indefinitely--that they will never be activated in unauthorized ways, that nothing terrible will happen until it is supposed to happen.

There have been many warnings that this assumption is not tenable in the long run. At least 89 serious nuclear weapons-related accidents have been publicly reported since 1950. According to a 1996 Department of Energy report, the margin of error in U.S. plutonium records averaged 0.8% since the late 1960s (for every 100 tons of plutonium, the U.S. lost track of 1,600 pounds). That is a sufficiently large error to have potentially missed unauthorized diversion of enough plutonium for hostile governments--or terrorists--to build more than 100 nuclear weapons. Furthermore, U.S. nuclear attack warning systems generated more than 1,150 serious false alarms between 1977 and 1984 (the only years for which the Pentagon has released data).

One particularly frightening incident occurred on January 25, 1995, when Russian warning radars appeared to detect a U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missile heading for Moscow. President Yeltsin was alerted, and Russian nuclear forces prepared to retaliate. Then, in the last minutes, it was determined that the missile was headed far out to sea. The rocket they had detected was real and it was American, but it was a scientific probe to study the Northern Lights. The Russian government had been told of the launch, but apparently--through human error--word never reached key military commanders.

Nuclear power is a different kind of dangerous technology, designed for benign purposes but capable of doing enormous damage if enough goes wrong. Despite heavy subsidization since its inception, nuclear power would likely have died in infancy if not for government intervention in 1957 to limit liability for the horrendous damage that studies had shown a major accident could cause. In this case, it was assumed that human fallibility could be prevented from triggering disaster largely by clever design. But like the weapons program, nuclear power has been plagued with design flaws, construction mistakes, and operator errors.

Chernobyl and Three Mile Island are only the most public warnings that have been given in the realm of nuclear power; there have been many more. And there is still no safe and cost-effective way to store nuclear waste (from power plants and weapons production) over the long term--another source of potential disaster. Yet the problem builds day by day.

Key Points

* The efficacy of technologies used in achieving foreign policy goals is greatly affected by the inherent fallibility of human beings who interact with them.

* The collision between our fallibility and the awesome power of the most dangerous technologies we have created threatens our common future.

* We cannot assume that fallible humans can indefinitely control technologies with a potential for disaster as great as that of nuclear power or weapons of mass destruction.

Lloyd J. Dumas <ljdumas@utdallas.edu> is the author of Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies (New York: St. Martin's Press-Palgrave, 1999) and Professor of Political Economy at the University of Texas (Dallas).
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Article Details
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Author:Dumas, Lloyd J.
Publication:Foreign Policy in Focus
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2001
Words:842
Previous Article:Toward a New Foreign Policy.
Next Article:Problems with current U.S. policy.
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