Danger Of Accidental Nuclear War

The President of Science for Peace was invited, along with other initiating members of the Committee for the Canadian Third Track for Peace, to meet Prime Minister Trudeau on January 10, 1984. The following memorandum was handed to the Prime Minister following a brief oral presentation:


  1. The danger of accidental nuclear war is greatly increased by the short flight-time of forward-based missiles. The Soviets have stated that they will adopt a launch-on-warning mode of operation in response to the threat to their Command, Control and Communications centres posed by the Pershing II missiles in West Germany, which have a six-minute flight time to target and are equipped with terminal guidance. The same threat will face the U.S.A. if the Soviets respond as they state by placing similar nuclear armament off U.S. shores. The reduction in verification time and consequent reliance on complex computer systems makes eventual self-activation of the nuclear weapons systems inevitable.1
  2. This new technical factor compounds the long-existing grave danger of nuclear war caused by human error, which has brought the world many times to the brink of disaster.2 Witnesses before a U.S. Congressional Committee in 1981 stated that: “False warnings of attack against North America have frequently resulted in strategic forces being put on alert”, and: “NORAD computer systems are dangerously obsolete.”3
  3. The risk of unintentional nuclear war due to premature conclusions based on misjudgement and misperception is great and it is imperative that the superpowers should4discuss crisis procedure norms and institute confidence building measures.4 Yet, along with the collapse of US-Soviet INF and START negotiations and the 10-year old European MBFR talks, it was disclosed by Mr. Edward Rowney, the chief U.S. negotiator, that meetings of a hitherto unknown US-Soviet working group on confidence building measures to prevent accidental nuclear war had now also been suspended though “we were close on a number of issues.”5
  4. Finally, teams of earth scientists and biologists led by Carl Sagan and Paul Ehrlich, respectively, have recently found that even a relatively minor nuclear exchange at a few hundred megatons directed against cities might so damage the biosphere as to lead the extinction of the human species.6


  1. that the Department of National Defence immediately carry out a thorough investigation of failures of the NORAD system, for which Canada along with the U.S.A. is directly accountable, and in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Defense take urgent measures to avoid future failures.
  2. that the Canadian government instruct its representatives at the Stockholm Disarmament Conference in January 1984 and at the UN Committee on Disarmament meetings in February to place the highest priority on measures to avert the clear and present danger of accidental nuclear war.


1 Bernard Bereanu (1983) “Self-Activation of the World Nuclear Weapons Systems”, Journal of Peace Research, January 1. ^

2 Lloyd Dumas (1980) “Human Fallibility and Weapons”, Bull. of Atomic Scientists 36, 15. ^

3 Hearings before a sub-committee of the House of Representatives 97th U.S. Congress, May 20-21 (1981). ^

4 Daniel Frei (1983) “Risks of Unintentional Nuclear War”, UN Institute for Disarmament Research, publ Allanheld, Osmun. ^

5 Hella Pick (1983) “Talks on preventing war by accident collapse”, Manchester Guardian Weekly, December 25. ^

6 Carl Sagan, Paul Ehrlich et al. (1983) Papers in Science 2 No. 4630, December 23. ^


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