Case study: Reducing catastrophic risk from inside the US bureaucracy

“This post outlines how a small group of focused, committed individuals successfully reduced catastrophic risk from inside the US federal bureaucracy, and considers potential lessons from their experiences.”

Effective Altruism Forum | June 27, 2022

Before the mid-70s, US nuclear weapons were not rigorously protected against the effects of “abnormal environments” like fires or plane crashes. Meanwhile, there were multiple “near-miss” accidents in exactly those types of environments, some of which came uncomfortably close to catastrophic detonations. Those, in turn, could have plausibly triggered all-out war if misinterpreted as intentional deployments.

Engineers at Sandia National Laboratories did intensive design and development work to address the problem between 1968 and 1972. But it took until 1990 before older weapons that didn’t meet 1968 safety standards were removed from US Quick Reaction Alert.

Why the delay? Stonewalling, evasion, and entrenched interests, both bureaucratic and military. Several of the Sandia engineers, led by Bob Peurifoy, advocated relentlessly for older weapons to be retrofitted or retired and for decision makers to see reason. They continued those efforts for almost two decades despite considerable resistance.

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