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CPSR Newsletter -17,1, Phillips
CPSR Newsletter

Winter 1999
Vol. 17, No. 1


Marsha Woodbury
Y2K: The Broad View

CPSR-Y2K Working Group Web Pages

Arthur C. Clarke
The Century Syndrome, from The Ghost from the Grand Banks

Anthony Ralston
Y2K and Social Responsibility

Peter Neumann
A Perspective on Y2K

Gary Chapman
Now For Another Daunting Y2K Task: Educating America's Masses

Lenny Siegel
OOPs 2000: The Y2K Bug and the Threat of Catastrophic Chemical Releases

Norman Kurland
How Y2K Will Impact the New York Times

Y2K and Nuclear Weapons

  • Letters Seeking Help on Nuclear Weapons Issues from
    Michael Kraig
    Alan Phillips

  • Four Prominent Scientists on Nuclear Weapons Concerns:
    Khursch Ahmed
    David Parnas
    Barbara Simons
    Terry Winograd

  • Gary Chapman
    A Moral Project for the 21st Century: Stop Creating Better Weapons


    Y2K Humor from the Internet and Beyond

    Cartoon (may crash older browsers)

    CPSR News:

    Aki Namioka
    A Letter from CPSR's President

    Netiva Caftori
    Chapter News

    Return to the Index.

  • Letters Seeking Help On Nuclear Weapons Issues

    Alan Phillips, Physicians for Global Survival, Canada

    Thousands of nuclear weapons in Russia and the United States and hundreds more in four other countries are still on full alert 10 years after the end of the Cold War. Warning systems and some aspects of the launch and control systems are run by computers. The world has survived many false alarms and computer malfunctions in the past 50 years, but accidental nuclear war was, and still is, a disaster waiting to happen.

    Three years ago, the Russian government failed to notify their Defence Department that Norway had fired a rocket for atmospheric research. The military at first thought the rocket was heading for Moscow, and reacted vigorously. Bruce Blair of the Brookings Institute reported to the U.S. Congress that the false alarm had "for the first time in Russian history triggered a strategic alert of their LOW [launch on warning] forces, an emergency nuclear decision conference involving their President and other national command authorities, and the activation of their famous nuclear suitcases." (Launch on warning means they don't wait for a nuclear explosion or a rocket to land before "retaliating.")

    Beginning on 1 January 2000 the operation of all computer programs and systems with a two-digit year in them anywhere will be unpredictable. Military computer programs contain millions of lines, and a correction to one line does not necessarily correct the operation of many others that depend on it. "Fixes" short of writing complete new programs cannot be certain to work under every combination of circumstances.

    In June 1998, the Pentagon was more than a year behind its deadline to complete an assessment of the problem. The Russian situation is probably worse, with older computers, and less money to spend on updating them. There are bound to be some malfunctions on both sides. Might there be a malfunction that could trigger an accidental nuclear war? No expert can guarantee not. Could a computer fault generate a false alarm of attack? Suppose the guidance on a test rocket was faulty, and it landed in quite the wrong place--or appeared to a computer-operated early warning system as if it were going to?

    Risk of accidental war throughout the nuclear deterrence era has been unacceptable, and now we have a firm date when the risk will increase.

    It should, however, be quite easy to abolish the risk. The best way might be to remove all warheads from their delivery systems. That would guarantee that a purely accidental war could not occur. It would give everybody time to stop and think.

    Knowing the uncertainly about how computers will actually function, some airlines are planning not to fly on New Year's day, 2000. If it is too dangerous for people to take an airplane ride, then why is it OK to have 5,000 nuclear warheads on hair-trigger alert linked to these same kinds of computers?

    Alan Phillips, M.D., F.R.C.P.
    980 Concession Street
    Hamilton, Ontario L8T 1A1
    (905) 385 0353

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