Tag Archives: cold war

Stanislav Petrov – the man who probably saved the world from a nuclear disaster

As Vladimir Putin is forcing the world to contemplate nuclear war once again, it’s time to remember one time when one Soviet military may have saved the world from disaster.

It was September 26, 1983. The Cold War was at one of its most tense periods ever. With the United States and the USSR at each other’s throat, they had already built enough nuclear weapons to destroy each other (as well as the rest of the world) a couple times over — and the slightest sign of an attack would have lead to a worldwide disaster, killing hundreds of millions of people.

Stanislav Petrov played a crucial role in monitoring what the US was doing. In the case of an attack, the Soviet strategy was to launch an all out retaliation as quickly as possible. So a few minutes after midnight, when the alarms went on and the screens turned red, the responsibility fell on his shoulders.

The Soviet warning software analyzed the information and concluded that it wasn’t static; the system’s conclusion was that the US had launched a missile.  But the system however, was flawed. Still, the human brain surpassed the computer that day; on that faithful day, Stanislav Petrov put his foot down and decided that it was a false alarm, advising against retaliation – and he made this decision fast.

He made the decision based mostly on common sense – there were too few missiles. The computer said there were only five of them.

“When people start a war, they don’t start it with only five missiles,” he remembered thinking at the time. “You can do little damage with just five missiles.”

However, he also relied on an old fashion gut feeling.

“I had a funny feeling in my gut,” Petrov said. “I didn’t want to make a mistake. I made a decision, and that was it.”

There’s also something interesting about that night. Petrov wasn’t scheduled then. Somebody else should have been there; and somebody else could have made a different decision. The world would probably have turned out very different.

Cold War legacy: US honey still has radioactive fallout from nuclear tests

Radioactive fallout from nuclear tests done in the 1950s and 1960s is still present in honey from the United States, a new study shows. While the levels of radiation aren’t considered harmful, they highlight the lingering persistence of environmental contaminants in the nuclear age – more than half a century after the bomb tests finished.

Image credit: Flickr / Robert Schmidt

Five countries, including the US, have tested over 500 nuclear weapons in the air, which, taken together released far more ionizing radiation to the atmosphere than any other event or combination of events in human history. Most of the weapons were detonated in just a few remote locations like the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even as the tests happened in these isolated places, the effects were still visible.

“There was a period in which we tested hundreds of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere,” lead researcher Jim Kaste, an environmental geochemist at William & Mary University in Williamsburg, Virginia, said in a statement. “What that did was put a blanket of these isotopes into the environment during a very narrow time window.”

While most of the radiation produced by a nuclear weapon detonation decays in days, one of the longest-lived and more abundant fission products is cesium-137, with a radioactive half-life of 30 years. As it has a similar ionic charge and radius as potassium, an essential element for plants, it’s absorbed by plants from the soil. From then, it can be passed into the food chain.

Honey is produced by wild and managed pollinators around the world. Bees make honey by reducing the water content of flower-derived nectar by nearly 5-fold, which concentrates both the delicious taste and any environmental contaminants that would be absorbed by the plants — in this case, evidence of nuclear tests.

Several researchers found the presence of cesium in honey and pollen across Europe in the past. To see whether plants continue to take up this nuclear contaminant, Kaste asked his undergraduate students to bring back local foods from their spring break destinations to test for cesium. One student brought honey from North Carolina and it had cesium levels 100 times higher than the rest of the collected foods, triggering Kaste’s curiosity.

Eastern North America received disproportionally high fallout from the 1950s to 1960s nuclear weapons tests despite being relatively far from the detonation sites, mainly due to the prevailing westerlies and high precipitation. The cesium in this region’s soil today is sourced nearly entirely (over 90%) from the weapons test.

Kaste and his group of researchers explored the issue further by collecting 122 samples of locally produced, raw honey from across the eastern US and tested them for radiocesium. They found it in 68 of the samples, at levels above 0.03 becquerels per kilogram—about 870,000 radiocesium atoms per tablespoon. The highest levels were in a sample from Florida.

Those numbers are nothing to worry about. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration told Science that the radiocesium levels reported in the new study fall “well below” 1200 becquerels per kilogram — the cutoff for any food safety concerns. Even Kaste said not to be worried and that he eats more honey now than before the study.

“What we see today is a small fraction of the radiation that was present during the 1960s and 1970s. And we can’t say for sure if cesium-137 has anything to do with bee colony collapse or the decline of population,” Kaste said in a statement. Of course, should larger concentrations accumulate, it could be a problem. Following Chernobyl, scientists showed the radiation could affect the reproduction of bees.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

LK Lander: The Soviet Moon Landing Program [PHOTOS]

One of the most intense Cold War fronts, and probably the only one to actually provide mankind a monumental legacy, was the so called space race. Each of the behemoth nations battled each other for space supremacy for decades raising hopes for millions of people as to someday the stars may belong to man and spending billions of dollars/rubles.

In the early space rage stage the soviets clearly dominated the US having successfully launched the first orbiting satellite in space, the first spaceship to carry a living being (primates, then dogs), the first man-made probe to land on the moon and the first manned space flight (Yuri Gagarin). The grand prize however was taken by the US in 1969 when the most memorable space flight, Apollo 11, took off with a three man crew into outer space on course for the moon. On the day of July 20th 1969, the Neil Armstrong, an American, was the first man to set foot on the moon, bringing glory to his homeland and ruin to the soviet’s own moon landing mission.

The main soviet lunar mission revolved around the LK lander, a module very similar to the infamous Eagle, which after a series of partial unsuccessful unmanned tests, the project was retired in 1972. Currently, the LK lander is hidden away at the Moscow Aviation Institute, away from curious eyes. A student managed to take some quick, but incredible photographs of the lander, much of the docking equipment, and diagrams, after which he posted them on his livejournal.

Behold the engineering relic.