UC Berkeley News


If Moscow's nuked, go to Plan B
Berkeley scholars choose to imagine the unimaginable

| 01 September 2005

The world may have started with a Big Bang, but it probably won't end that way. That's the premise - at once comforting and deeply disturbing - of the "Big Bang Project," a multidisciplinary effort meant to tackle what Berkeley political-science professor Steve Weber, a co-principal investigator, terms "a big, hairy problem": What should we be doing about the prospects of a terrorist nuclear attack? What would happen if Chechen terrorists, say, managed to detonate a 10-kiloton nuclear device in Moscow?

Steven Weber
The odds are 50-50 that such an attack will occur in the next five to ten years, says Weber. And, except for those in the immediate vicinity of the blast itself, it will be survivable. So in addition to continuing to work to prevent a nuclear event, we need to start thinking - the sooner, the better - about how to minimize the fallout, which is apt to include geopolitical consequences far beyond the bomb's direct physical impact.

"The one thing I know is that in the week between something like this happening and the president going on TV, he won't have time to think this through," Weber says. "If you think back to six months after 9/11, and people wondering what would have happened if George Bush had gone on TV around Sept. 19 and said, 'This is a criminal act' rather that what he in fact said - if that analysis had been done prior to 9/11, it might have been part of the discussion. Because once you say, 'The world has changed, and you're either with us or against us,' you can't come back later and say, 'Well, we didn't really mean that.' "

The intellectual father of the project, which is described in the September/October issue of California Monthly (see "A showcase for Berkeley's best"), was Harold Smith, a one-time Berkeley professor of nuclear engineering. Smith, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Clinton, is now back at Berkeley as a distinguished visiting professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

"It was really Harold's idea," Weber says of the endeavor, conducted for the Department of Defense. "I think Harold understood that his friends at the [Pentagon] need to see this problem in a different light. And at some point he and I shared the simple but hard-to-get insight that the government is spending a lot of effort, appropriately, in trying to prevent nuclear terrorism. But at the same time, and not in opposition to that, you want to think through what happens if that fails.

"I think what we connected on there, and the argument that won the case inside the government for doing this, is the notion that when people talked about arms control in the '60s, '70s, and '80s they decided, look, there are three reasons to do this. One is to reduce the risk of nuclear war. The second is to reduce the cost of the arms race. And the third is to limit the damage to the world should nuclear war occur. I saw [our effort] as parallel to that. We should try to prevent this from happening, we should keep the costs down, and we should have a Plan B."

For the purposes of the exercise, participants - including scholars from a broad spectrum of campus schools and departments, as well as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and a major Defense Department contractor - considered a scenario in which a 10-kiloton nuclear device is exploded by terrorists in Moscow. In 16 separate white papers - one of which imagines, in dramatic form, an al-Qaeda executive meeting "somewhere on the Afghan/Pakistani border" - they envision the aftermath of the attack through their own intellectual prisms, ultimately recommending 13 steps that the final report says "can be taken now by the United States government to mitigate detrimental consequences for national security, and possibly leverage some geopolitical opportunities, resulting from nuclear terrorism."

Among the recommendations are creation of a U.S.-Russian nuclear-forensics team, establishment of a federal evacuation plan for urban centers, and "steps to discredit the inevitable accusations and mass rumors that the U.S. was responsible for, complicit in, or otherwise behind the attack."

As to whether the Bush White House is likely to take such advice, Weber puts the chances at "zero." The president, however, is not the target demographic.

"What we're hoping is that folks at the staff level, hopefully at the assistant-secretary level, will spend a little time thinking, 'If this were really about to happen, we would have to make really hard choices about these sorts of things,'" he explains. These are professional people "who don't like to be pushed around by the politics," who don't necessarily like President Bush any more than they did President Clinton. "So it's entirely plausible that this kind of proposal could start to percolate up to people who would say, 'This is something we really ought to do.'"

Whatever the response at the Pentagon and the White House, the Big Bang project is already having an impact on campus - insofar as it offers a different approach to addressing the kinds of problems for which existing models tend to be inadequate.

"Think of the big hairy problems that we'd really like to make progress on," Weber says. "Let's say health care in the U.S. Is that a science problem? A social-science problem? Economics? It's all these things. The [difficulty] is that health care is a problem that people think they own..

"Everyone says multidisciplinary research is a good thing, but the research tradition of the university doesn't reward it," he continues. "Everyone is trained in a discipline. You see the problem through the lens of your discipline, you think about possible solutions through that lens. But when you take a problem that nobody truly feels they own, then everybody feels equally ignorant. And so you don't have to convince folks that they're actually only looking at a piece of the elephant - they know that going in. That's an easier target for interdisciplinary work."

With that in mind, Weber believes that "a bunch of pointy-headed academics at Berkeley" can indeed make a significant contribution to the Pentagon's thinking.

"The things I tried to emphasize in my iteration of the report are those questions and issues that one wouldn't have immediately thought of as being critical," he explains. "How much of the rest of the world is going to believe that the United States is behind this thing" - that is, the nuclear strike posited by the Big Bang project - "and what are we going to do about that? What is the president going to say a week later about the role of nuclear weapons in the world? Is this the beginning of a new arms race, or the end of the old one?

"Questions like these need to be framed up a little bit more before you can model them," Weber asserts. "I think we took a modest step toward doing that. I'm not sure they would have been addressed in the same way if we hadn't done this."

The September/October issue of California Monthly is online at www.alumni.berkeley.edu/Alumni/Cal_Monthly/September_2005/main.asp.