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Sensemaker: Nuclear Biscuit

Sensemaker: Nuclear Biscuit

What just happened

Long stories short

  • France said it will close its borders to UK visitors from midnight tomorrow after Boris Johnson’s chief medical officer said the country was dealing with “two epidemics on top of one another”, and a record 78,610 new Covid infections were recorded (more below).
  • Germany said it will expel two Russian diplomats after a judge found that Russia ordered the murder of a former Chechen rebel in Berlin in 2019.
  • Inflation in the UK rate surged to 5.1 per cent, the highest level in a decade, due to higher transport and energy costs, which put pressure on the Bank of England to raise its base interest rate from 0.1 to 0.25 per cent.

Nuclear Biscuit

In a Washington hotel this week, weapons experts and former officials entered a virtual reality that simulates the US President’s war room during a nuclear attack from Russia. A journalist who took part reported feeling “almost overwhelming” pressure to launch retaliatory nukes that would kill between five and 45 million people. Richard Burt, who negotiated the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the Soviet Union said: “You walk into that simulation and come out a changed person.”

Researchers from Princeton and Hamburg universities who built the simulator will take it to Capitol Hill next month to provoke fresh thinking about nuclear planning at a time when:

  • a Russian military buildup near Ukraine is intensifying fears in the West that Moscow might invade its neighbour;
  • Taiwan is at the centre of rising tensions between the US and China, and facing almost daily threats of Chinese military intervention;
  • North Korea is expanding its missile capability and pledging to develop a nuclear arsenal, fearing, it says, a US invasion; and
  • Iran is said to be enriching uranium to near-weapons grade pending a new or revived nuclear deal with western powers. 

If the researchers get Joe Biden to try the simulator, he would be the first president since Jimmy Carter to take part in a realistic nuclear drill. They took Nuclear Biscuit’s name from the small card, the “biscuit”, that bears the US president’s launch authorisation codes. The exercise is based on extensive research including interviews with former officials, and places the user in the war room after news that Russia launched a series of nuclear missiles. Military aides are then given a few minutes to decide on whether to act or not. 

Three actions are possible:

  • “Limited”, which is aimed at Russian military targets, killing up to 15 million Russians;
  • “Full-scale”, which would kill up to 25 million Russians; or
  • Option 3 which also targets “war sustaining industries”, the Russian leadership, and kills between 30 and 45 million people.

Worryingly, the researchers found that most users decided to act. That is, to pick one of the escalatory options and plunge into a nuclear war rather than not respond at all. But as Sharon Weiner from American University tells the Guardian: “I think some people pick an option just because they want it to be over”. 

The UN has long pushed for a world free of nuclear weapons, as did Barack Obama in his first overseas speech as US president. Yet two years ago the UN’s High Representative for Disarmament Affairs warned the prospect of a nuclear war was “higher than it has been in generations”. The review conference of its Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will be held in New York in January. Perhaps Nuclear Biscuit can make the short trip from DC, and show the world what’s at stake.

Holiday viewing: Dr Strangelove, in which George C Scott plays General “Buck” Turgidson, loosely based on General Curtis LeMay, head of the US Air Force during the Cuban missile crisis; and Thirteen Days, in which Kevin Conway as the real LeMay tells the young JFK, “the big red dog is diggin’ in our backyard, and we are justified in shooting him”.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Sleaze for fees
The UK’s Conservatives expect to lose a 23,000 vote majority in today’s North Shropshire by-election, triggered by the resignation of Owen Paterson after he was found to have breached lobbying rules for a Covid testing firm. Next up: Daniel Kawczynski, MP for neighbouring Shrewsbury and Atcham, ought at the very least to be cringing in his airing cupboard after publication in the Guardian of WhatsApp messages between him and a fixer showing him begging for well-paid work with in the Middle East. One message reads: “Promise you will push for good remuneration too for me … I need it to pay school fees!”. Kawczynski also boasted that Saudi leader Mohammed bin Salman had said he “has no better friend” in the UK than him, and allegedly took a Saudi business leader on a tour of parliament. Kawczynski gained no paid work from these entreaties, although he is separately being investigated for allegedly bullying his staff. As a reminder, Mohammed bin Salman stands accused of ordering the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi and runs a country that locks up dissidents and conducts public executions. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Sun flight
Nasa confirmed that the Parker Solar Probe became the first spacecraft to fly into the outer atmosphere of the Sun when it had made its journey in April. It flew, at over 500,000km/h, into a region around the Sun scientists call the corona, which is about 13 million km above our star’s visible surface. It will continue making ever closer passes of the Sun to collect information on our star and how it influences the Solar System.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Out of control
Omicron is spreading at “phenomenal” speed, says England’s chief medical officer. There’s dispute as to whether infections are doubling every two or three days, but no dispute that the variant is rampant in a way it’s not (yet) in most of the rest of Europe. Yesterday’s 78,000+ new recorded cases of all variants was the highest daily number since the start of the pandemic, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicts a peak of 600,000 infections by January. How seriously ill Omicron can make you remains unclear. Sir Chris Whitty, the CMO, says it’s too early to rely on new South African data suggesting it causes milder illness than Delta. If infections do peak at 600,000 next month, LSHTM estimates that will mean between 2,400 and 7,000 daily hospital admissions in all. The milder the variant and the faster booster shots are administered, the lower that number. Boris Johnson, standing next to Whitty and declining to endorse his plea not to mix with friends unless you have to, noted that hospitalisations were down in older, vulnerable groups that have already been boosted. Johnson might wish he could still say he was following the science, but he isn’t.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Green defectors
The Great Resignation is largely seen as Covid-related, but it has a twin born of climate change. The FT has talked to high-fliers from the fossil fuel and finance worlds who at the peak of their careers changed track to tackle climate change instead. Samantha Cooper, once on BP’s trading team in London, now does voluntary work for environmental and social causes. Tariq Fancy, former head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, quit the sector and wrote an essay that went viral denouncing sustainable investing as “selling wheatgrass to a cancer patient”. Ben Tolhurst had an epiphany getting off a train at Canary Wharf tube station and emerging into 20 degrees C on what should have been a winter’s day, and left management consulting for climate consulting. Andrew Medhurst, prominent in Extinction Rebellion, is likewise a former finance guy. And what drives people away at the top drives them away at entry level too. Graduate recruitment, once a cakewalk for the oil and gas sector, is now a serious headache. 

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Money run
Nike bought RTFKT Studios, a British start-up that is pronounced “artefact” and creates virtual trainers and clothes it sells for thousands of pounds. The company lets buyers “wear” these items on social media platforms like Instagram and lets video game players dress their avatars in them. Some of RTFKT’s virtual trainers have sold for as much as £30,000. Nike said the buy-out will help its “digital transformation”. That is, its goal of taking a larger bite out of the growing market for virtual goods.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben, RTFKT Studios/Instagram, Alamy Images, Getty Images