Dr. Chuck Powell
A Life Among Nuclear Weapons
"There is no cure for nuclear war-only prevention." ~Ken Keyes, Jr.
A first in a three-part blog on nuclear weapons, this opening segment provides a brief account of my experiences with nuclear weapons along with a broad outline on the number, distribution, and potential consequences of nuclear arms. The second portion highlights instances of those who have turned from nuclear weapons. The final part concludes by offering some thoughts on what we can each do to address this mortal threat to all life.
Back in the early 1990s, I served as an Air Force officer in Montana. We were stationed at the foot of the Rockies. It was incredibly beautiful and it came with an introduction to lands and cultures previously unimagined. Even the winters were tolerable due to warming Chinook Winds. Every few days, we drove two hours or occasionally rode in a helicopter to remote locations to spend 24 hours deep underground. I had a co-responsibility, if authorized, to launch up to 150 nuclear warheads, an accompanying potential to end the existence of millions of people. My other working days were spent in training or administrative duties in support of the mission. I immersed myself in a number of off-duty diversions across the community and state: graduate school, karate, football, mountain biking, and adult literacy. And Montana was a phenomenal place for my young son to grow up.
The irony is I came from a world of healthcare, caring for and saving patients. Upon entering the world of nukes, it hit me, hard. Raining down widespread death and destruction did not align with my core beliefs. Yes, something that should’ve been considered previously. My intent, becoming an Air Force Commissioned Officer, had been focused on achieving an objective without adequately considering the ramifications.
The Air Force had few options for addressing moral qualms around the organizational aim of fighting and winning wars. The best outlet appeared to be an Air Force Chaplain, an avenue that guaranteed a confidential conversation. The chaplain I talked with was a master of pragmatism who helped me immensely (at least for the short-term). After I related my concerns, the chaplain put things in very succinct yet compassionate terms: leaving missiles would damage my career, impact me financially, effect my family, and I would be replaced in an instant. I realized he was right on every aspect and I resolved to stick with it. But I was far from content. Later, my misalignment around values would be better understood and applied in my current work around leadership development.
Despite my reservations, I would have done my duty. If ordered, I would’ve launched the prerequisite missiles. At the time, I’m amazed that no formal assessments were given to ensure suitability as a missile launch officer. Missileer attitudes ran across a continuum. Some were excited, most sober, a few like me quietly horrified. Luckily, no one fell into the unstable category, that I could tell. When I got an opportunity to go back to healthcare, I didn’t walk, I ran. On the plus side, safety and security practices were absolutely pristine. Nobody was illegally getting to a nuke and nobody was launching one without authorization. Our overall attitude was good. There were significant morale problems just a few years ago among the missile force – that has been addressed.
I went on alert 125 times. Alert being defined as riding an elevator (climbing down occasionally) several stories underground to monitor security and maintenance of the launch capsule and associated missiles. For 24+ hours, my only direct human contacts were another crew member and an occasional visit by a cook with our meals (almost a dry run for our last two years of COVID). All other communication came via phone, radio, or paper spitting machines. An isolated setting with brief instances of boredom punctuated by flurries of work activity, reading, studying, and exercise. Given intel and other traffic, we had a balcony seat at the Gulf War. We also got to witness the breakup of the Soviet Union. I have a certificate: “Winner of the Cold War.” The only time I got worried and sensed a deep anxiety in my fellow officers was during a coup attempt in Russia, but Yeltsin climbed on a tank… Then we had a drawdown. That would have been the time to deeply downsize our nuclear forces, but it was an opportunity missed. At least the nukes in the Newly Independent States (NIS) were secured.
Flash forward 25 years. I had to choose a topic for my PhD dissertation. My interest was the reciprocal influence between leadership and meaningful common purpose. I thought what would be better than going on the other side of nuclear weapons; what could be a more meaningful purpose than sending nukes to the dustbin of history. I talked to those from various vantages – physicians, lawyers, politicians, scientists, activists, students, educators – who were taking on a challenge that holds the potential to harm every species on earth. They validated my suppositions. They have impacted conversations and policies on nuclear weapons for the better. And they grew from the effort. Most of them had made it a lifelong pursuit. Some of them had been active in the cause since the 1980s. I remember one of the interviewees said to me, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you did this kind of work some day?” Even though I’ve only started, he’s right. What troubles me most is the overall lack of awareness around nuclear weapons. I think if more people knew about the number of warheads, their efficiency, and their ability, within minutes, to kill any or all of us, we might start looking at alternatives or at least mitigation.
According to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), there are approximately 13,100 nuclear warheads in the world (down from a high of more than 70,000 in the mid-1980s). Nine countries – United States, Russia, China, France, United Kingdom, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea – have nuclear arsenals. The United States, 5500 warheads, and Russia, 6,257 warheads, possess the majority of nuclear devices. These nine countries are outliers. Over 180 countries have chosen a different path, a way forward without nuclear weapons. And 122 countries have voted in favor of a ban against nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).
One nuclear device can result in catastrophic damage and many deaths. It kills and destroys through a combination of blast, fire, and radiation. The 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima resulted in approximately 140,000 deaths. The weapons of today are likely to be greater in strength and efficiency. With the exception of Israel and North Korea, each member of the aforementioned nuclear club has greater than 100 nuclear warheads in their arsenal. A number of sources forecast that it would take only 100 Hiroshima size detonations to bring about catastrophic climate change. Corresponding soot and smoke rising into the air will cause global temperatures to drop significantly. As a result, diminished crop growth, overreliance on existing food stores, and worldwide famine are likely. As for a large-scale exchange of nuclear weapons between the US and Russia, a Princeton study forecasts over 90 million immediate casualties – this number would continue to climb from after effects of those multiple detonations.
Even with a reduction from 70,000 to 13,000 warheads, nuclear weapons constitute our world’s most urgent and pervasive threat. Their effectiveness, in terms of delivery and yield, has only increased. They will be delivered hypersonically from across the world, by planes made nearly invisible by technology, or submarines that creep right up to your shore. Their airburst levels will be adjusted to increase explosive or radiation output depending on what is most desired. Warheads are more precise than ever before, making shelters less useful. Soon, if not already, artificial intelligence (AI) may determine if something is threatening enough to justify a nuclear launch. Finally, efforts are underway in Russia, China, and the US to modernize nuclear arsenals. The CBO projects modernization of US weapons to cost $634 billion dollars over 10 years. Let’s say we didn’t modernize nuclear weapons, what else could that money accomplish?
We are operating off an old paradigm; one that is too dangerous to continue. The longer we retain nukes, the greater likelihood one or more goes off. Leadership is trending towards autocratic, nationalist, and selfish practices. We have a number of flashpoints (US/Russia, India/Pakistan, Middle East, Eastern Europe, China/Taiwan, North Korea). It is too dangerous to leave these instruments of massive death and destruction in the hands of uneven leadership. Sooner or later, one, or even thousands, may go off (weapons I mean). Nuclear weapons are not ethical-age appropriate for us.
Our globe is akin to a very dry forest. Nationalism and/or bad leadership a spark for unimaginable brushfires of destruction. Why does it matter? Because no matter status, background, or lifeform, none are immune or safe from nuclear war. Once triggered, there is no going back from nuclear war. No do overs. It is over, most of it or all of it. Therefore, we must prevent the use of nuclear weapons.
Dr. Chuck Powell is a Daisy Alliance board member and the CEO for Encompassing Leadership Associates. He specializes in leadership development at the individual and team levels, executive and life coaching, organizational development, and healthcare consulting services. Dr. Powell has served as a caregiver for thousands of patients, an Air Force officer with joint authority for up to 150 nuclear warheads, and a healthcare executive in rural, for profit, and academic settings.
Dr. Powell will be giving a companion talk to his blog piece, On High Alert: An insider's perspective on US nuclear posture, on Tuesday November 15, 2022. For more information or to register for this talk, email email@example.com. This talk is part of Daisy Alliance's monthly virtual lecture series, Spotlight on Nuclear Weapons Issues.