I was just a kid in the early 1980s, when the United States and the Soviet Union came close to nuclear war.
Between hearing the daily news on the radio and my parents talking over dinner, it wasn’t hard to feel the tension building. Our neighbours would stand outside their houses in the evenings, talking about who was going to “press the button first.” I pictured the button being a shiny red, covered by a thin plastic lid that flipped up easily. Above it hovered the stubby index finger of some leather-skinned, muscle-y dude in a medal-laden military suit whose sole job it was to wait for a sign that it was time to end the world.
Of course, there is no “button.”
There is a briefcase, though. In the U.S., it’s known as the nuclear football, and it goes wherever the president goes. It comes complete with instructions on how to carry out a nuclear strike and what locations to target, as well as a radio and code authenticators. All the president has to do to OK an attack is use a code — called a “biscuit” — to prove his identity (Bill Clinton once famously lost the biscuit for months). More worrying, maybe, is that the president doesn’t need approval from anyone to make the call — not Congress, or even the military.
Russia also has a briefcase. It’s called the Cheget, named after Mount Cheget, one of the nation’s popular ski destinations. Like the U.S.’ nuclear football, the Cheget is never far from the president and, according to Reuters, connects to Russia’s strategic nuclear network so the president can easily communicate attack orders.
It all sounds so complicated, and yet, dangerously simple.
This past weekend, after Russia began its attack on Ukraine, president Vladimir Putin said he was putting nuclear forces “on alert,” using the phrase “enhanced combat duty.” And even though military experts don’t seem to know what that means exactly, you couldn’t be blamed for worrying, even just a little.
Russia has never used nuclear weapons in war, but the Federation of American Scientists estimates that it has almost 6,000 nuclear weapons — more than any other country — of which, 1,588 are deployed and ready to go. Take a moment to consider the ballistic missile exercises Putin ordered pre-attack, and well, you may find your concern ratcheting up a bit — exacerbated by the fact that all we can do is watch powerlessly as the devastation in Ukraine unfolds.
Back in 1983, the sense of powerlessness was similar. When my father came back from his regular Saturday jaunt to the corner store with the weekend paper under his arm, he was holding the TV Guide in one hand. There was a chilling image of a mushroom-shaped cloud on the front advertising a doomsday movie called The Day After. I had the same nightmare for weeks afterwards: I was looking out my bedroom window to see a similar cloud on the horizon of our sleepy Scarborough neighbourhood, my breath tight as if the oxygen was slowly being sucked out of the room.
Of course, it didn’t help that my dad was an engineer involved in overseeing the operations at the Pickering and Darlington Nuclear Power Plants. My brother and I grew up learning about the power of nuclear energy, while also respecting the damage it could do. We once joined him at work for Family Day — an event put together by Ontario Hydro (now Ontario Power Generation) to educate the public on the safety of this way of producing energy. We sat on worn office chairs with blue cushions in one of the control rooms while my father — dressed in a crisp white short-sleeved shirt with a yellow plastic pocket protector sitting on the left side of his chest — explained what happened in the event of an emergency.
We could see the Plant from where we lived — the round grey reactors both interested me, and stressed me out — so much so that I did my grade eight science project on nuclear power so I could understand it better. My dad helped me build the coolest-looking mini power generating station. It could have almost been called fun, except that it was the ’80s, and anything related to anything nuclear was a sensitive topic.
Often my parents would be entertaining friends in our sunken living room — amid macramé wallhangings and furry brown carpet — and the conversation would inevitably veer into a debate over the safety of nuclear power, complete with snarky comments about how my father was glowing from radiation exposure, and how this kind of energy only served to support the use of nuclear weapons and increase the likelihood of the kind of warfare that was difficult to recover from — if at all.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brings me back to this time, when my young brain was trying to process both how anyone could even talk about decimating the world, as well as the realization of the many ways our lives depend on the decisions of others.
When Russia fired at a Ukraine nuclear power plant earlier this week, starting fires and prompting the Ukrainian foreign affairs minister to warn that an explosion would cause a nuclear disaster “10 times worse than Chernobyl,” it was the ’80s all over again — I was just some girl in another part of the world anxiously watching grown-ups behaving very badly, carelessly toying with the well-being of the world, while everyone looks on with their fingers crossed.
And I am not the only one who is worrying. According to VICE, NUKEMAP, a site that allows you to measure fatalities and injuries if a nuclear bomb (you choose the type) falls on a location that you select, has been overwhelmed with visitors. Even VICE writer Mathew Gault has seen an uptick in nuclear war worry: a story he wrote on how to survive a nuclear attack is also seeing rose traffic.
And though Gault reminds us of the “good news” — that Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the nation has no intention of carrying out an “apocalyptic script,” while the U.S. said it has no plans to do anything that resembles getting ready for a nuclear war — it’s hard to find comfort in this while watching the eerie footage of burning apartments, fiery explosions and army tanks driving over cars. If anything, the possibility of nuclear war seems more likely than ever before.
Maybe it’s the way other leaders are responding to Putin with stiff sanctions and no-nonsense economic restrictions. Or maybe we are so done, so fatigued from the pummelling the pandemic has rained on us for the last two years, that we are extra sensitive to the fact that yes, things can actually get worse.
Whatever it is, like that time in 1983 when humankind waited anxiously for two world powers to stand down, we wait again — this time for peace.