Steven Starr seeks to revolutionize views on nuclear weapons

Thursday, June 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:00 a.m. CDT, Friday, June 12, 2009
Steven Starr is an expert on nuclear weaponry. He has been trying to eliminate high-alert weapons for more than 30 years. The complexity of the scientific research regarding the issue is difficult to understand for outsiders, however. "The essence of my work is to make technical information understandable to people who are not scientists," Starr said about his work. Starr has spoken to the U.S. Senate, the United Nations in New York and Geneva and various universities.

CORRECTION: *Steven Starr did not attend MU as a freshman.


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COLUMBIA — When Steven Starr was a *19-year-old college freshman, he thought he would grow up to be a nuclear engineer. But it took only a few weeks in an introductory nuclear engineering course before Starr had a change of heart.

“I just didn’t want to make weapons for a living,” he said. “I think we have better things to do than blow ourselves up.”

Although that nuclear engineering class is long behind him, the experience has stayed with Starr all of his life. What started off as an interest many years ago has grown into a life’s purpose: simplifying and spreading knowledge about the grave risks posed by nuclear weapons.

“The information isn’t any good if it just sits in a journal," he said. "My motivation is to warn people. It's not just people that are at risk, it's all complex life forms.”

Aside from publishing papers on topics such as abolishing high-alert nuclear weapons and the climate change associated with nuclear war, Starr has been asked to speak and present at conferences across America and internationally.

He most recently spoke in a panel discussion at the United Nations on May 12 and 13 his fourth trip to the U.N.

Although he is now considered by many to be an expert, getting to that point was no easy task. With a background in clinical laboratory sciences and technology, Starr’s lifelong interest in nuclear weapons increased during the 1980s when astrophysicist Carl Sagan coined the nuclear winter theory.

Nuclear winter is a term used to describe the dramatic global climate change that could follow a nuclear war. According to Starr’s Web site, a hypothetical nuclear war between India and Pakistan fought with 100 Hiroshima-sized nuclear weapons would throw 5 million tons of smoke into the stratosphere, enough to block 10 percent of the sun's rays from reaching the northern hemisphere — shortening growing seasons and causing the lowest temperatures in 1,000 years. After 10 years, 40 percent of that smoke would still be in the stratosphere. The average nuclear warhead today is between eight and 50 times more powerful than the 15 kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

“Nuclear war is essentially suicide for humanity,” Starr said.

Recognizing the catastrophic climate change that could result from a nuclear war, Starr became involved with the environmental movement to raise awareness about nuclear winter. By 1989, however, the initial momentum of nuclear winter theory began to die off in the media and public eye, Starr said.

Realizing he wanted to do something more about the issues, Starr began a serious study of nuclear weapons and their effects in the 1990s.

“(Starr) was a very concerned citizen that began finding out everything he could,” said Robin Remington, MU professor emeritus of political science who researched U.S.-Russian nuclear relations during the Cold War. “It's like doing a whole Ph.D. program on his own.”

Bill Wickersham, founder of the MU Nuclear Disarmament and Education Team, agreed with Remington. "He has a mind like a steel trap,” Wickersham said. “He has a very good memory and very good analytical skills.”

While his own science background and work ethic contributed to his mastering the complexities of nuclear science and climate change, Starr’s relationship with one expert solidified his academic research and opened the door to being published for the first time.

Starr met British physicist Alan Phillips through a nuclear abolition group. Phillips, who died in August 2008, helped develop radar during World War II before going on to publish work on nuclear weapons abolition. After corresponding and consulting with him for many years, Starr collaborated with Phillips in 2004 and published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists about a U.S. launch-on-warning policy.

Starr said he viewed Phillips almost as a father figure during their time together.

“He was a great writer and had a brilliant mind,” Starr said.

After publishing numerous papers and gaining more credibility in the world of nuclear weapons, Starr was asked to speak at a United Nations panel in Sydney, Australia in 2006. Since then, he has presented at 14 conferences in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Finland.

Although the issues can be complex at times, Starr has a unique way of getting his message across to politicians and diplomats from around the world. Instead of standing at a podium and lecturing, Starr uses a PowerPoint presentation with graphs, photos and detailed charts to visually illustrate the consequences of nuclear war. Many of the visual elements can be found on his Web site, which is currently being translated into the languages of the other eight countries that possess nuclear weapons.

“He has an excellent Web site and wonderful presentation skills,” Wickersham said. “Steve has taken the issue and made it very simple to understand.”

John Hallam of the Australia-based organization Nuclear Flashpoints can attest to Starr's effectiveness. Hallam has presented with Starr at multiple conferences and has seen the reaction of the audience during portions of Starr’s presentation in which he uses a moving visual graphic to show how nuclear weapons would block sunlight throughout the world.

“There’s an awful lot of quiet (in the room) when he shows the world going black,” Hallam said.  

Perhaps the strongest indicator of his presentation effectiveness was a request Starr recently received while he was in Helsinki, Finland, speaking at a joint European-Russian symposium. After his presentation, Starr was approached by Russian Ambassador Grigoriy Berdennikov, who was a negotiator of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and Russian parliament member Sergei Kolesnikov. Kolesnikov asked Starr for a copy of his presentation so he could present it to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“Russia is the most important place besides the U.S. to start. We’re the ones that are still on launch-on-warning and have high-alert nuclear weapons,” Starr said.

High-alert — sometimes referred to as hair-trigger — nuclear weapons are intercontinental ballistic missiles that can be quickly launched if either country is alerted to an incoming attack. The objective would be to launch before the other country's missles have a chance to destroy their targets. Armed with up to 12 nuclear warheads each, ICBMs can be launched in a matter of minutes, hitting targets more than 6,000 miles away in 30 minutes or less. Once launched, they cannot be recalled or aborted.

Starr is strongly opposed to keeping nuclear weapons on high-alert status because he doesn't believe there is enough time for the president to make a rational decision. After a missile is detected, by the time the news trickles up the chain of command and reaches the president, he has only a matter of minutes to decide whether or not to retaliate before those missiles reach the country, Starr said.

“There’s only, at the most, three to 12 minutes" to make a decision, he said.

Starr also sees the danger of weapons systems and radar malfunctioning, as has happened in the past, which could accidentally trigger a nuclear war.

Although he doesn’t hold a formal degree in nuclear engineering, Starr said he is not intimidated when speaking in front of diplomats, some of which view him as an amateur.

“I’m not as nervous as I used to be because I know the material well,” he said.

But Starr believes these individuals don’t want to see the issues, especially those who strongly advocate nuclear deterrence.

“Talking about the consequences is the only way to get deterrence people to think outside of the box,” Starr said. “You’ve got to think about what if deterrence fails. I want to get them to think outside the box.

“This is my way of being a political activist and changing the world in a positive way.”


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Mark Foecking June 11, 2009 | 3:54 a.m.

On the contrary, attempting to rid the world of nuclear weapons would make an nuclear attack more likely. Would we have nuked Hiroshima if the Japanese had a nuclear weapon and the means to deliver it? Probably not. Deterrence works.

Starr routinely overstates the effects of a nuclear explosion. The total yield of the mentioned exchange between India and Pakistan would be about 1.5 megatons. The Mike test at Bikini Atoll yielded over 10 megatons, and it didn't change the world's climate. Large volcanoes have put hundreds of times more smoke and dust into the atmosphere than nuclear explosions would, and their effect on climate, although noticeable, was not devastating.

The nuclear genie will not be put back into the bottle. A nation secretly not complying with a disarmament protocol could rule the world by force. Is this preferable to the risks of nuclear climate change?


(Report Comment)
steven starr June 11, 2009 | 5:39 a.m.

Mark Foecking apparently does not understand that it is the smoke created by nuclear firestorms which produces deadly climate change. The Bikini test was 10 megatons but it took place on a coral atoll in the middle of the ocean . . . there was nothing to burn. The peer-reviewed studies which I base my website upon go to great lengths to establish the amount of soot created in mass fires produced by nuclear detonations; they used NASA computer models to predict the effects of this smoke upon global climate. They also found that massive amounts of stratospheric ozone would be destroyed by the smoke from the India-Pakistan conflict.

I think it is naive to assume that deterrence will work perfectly forever. The war consequences section of my website explains what could happen the first time deterrence fails. Such consequences include the coldest temperatures on Earth in the last 18,000 years, with one to three years of minimum daily temperatures below freezing in the large agricultural regions of the Northern Hemisphere and the elimination of growing seasons for more than a decade.

There are other possible ways to prevent global war than to maintain arsenals of thousands of nuclear weapons which will destroy humanity if they are used in conflict.

(Report Comment)
steven starr June 11, 2009 | 6:22 a.m.

One more comment about the effects of volcanic eruptions upon climate. The largest volcanic eruption of the last 500 years occurred in Indonesia in 1815 (Mt. Tambora) and the following year was called "the year without summer". There were killing frosts in New England in June, July and August and famine in Europe. The new climate studies predict that the India-Pakistan nuclear war would cause temperatures twice as cold as those experience in 1816, and they would last for several years before they began to taper off.

The NASA climate models used to predict the climate change from nuclear war have accurately predicted temperature drops from volcanic eruptions on Earth and surface temperature changes on Mars caused by Martian dust storms.

Volcanic smoke and ash do not stay in the upper atmosphere nearly as long as does black soot for a variety of reasons; the primary reason is that the sun heats the soot and creates a self-lofting effect with is why almost half of the soot will still remain in the upper atmosphere 10 years after the war.

Those interested in the scientific details of the studies done at UCLA, Rutgers and the University of Colorado-Boulder, should read the original research. You can find them in the "online references" subsection of the "war consequences" section of my website. see and

(Report Comment)
Allan Sharrock June 11, 2009 | 9:32 a.m.

I don't know but if we have a nuke war I am pretty sure climate change is the least of my worries.

(Report Comment)
Sudarshan Loyalka June 11, 2009 | 4:16 p.m.

I wish Steven Starr all the luck in his campaign against nuclear weapons.

I am against the weapons too, and the sooner the mankind gets away from these, I believe the better we will be. But I am concerned with the article's references to nuclear engineering. I am a nuclear engineer , and I have never viewed my education as necessarily leading to my working on nuclear weapons (I don't & never have). I wish the article had not left one with the implication that nuclear engineering (necessarily) leads one to work on nuclear weapons. Education in biolgy for example does not imply that one will necessarily work on bioweapons-these are matters of choice for all of us.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking June 13, 2009 | 3:58 a.m.

I've not commented so I can read up on the material somewhat.

When you see references that are primarily made up of one persons work (Turco et al), one has to question the fairness of the points presented. Turco was one of the original authors of the "nuclear winter" theory, which has remained controversial to this day.

Turco's model may predict stratospheric dispersion well, but does not seem to predict the extent that soot gets into the stratosphere. As I can tell, it starts with the assumption that a certain amount of soot is in the stratosphere to begin with. In large volcanic events, dust is thrown there by the force of the explosion, not heat driven convection.

This author predicts that only large weapons have the ability to inject bomb debris (not soot, which would come later) at lower latitudes, such as an India-Pakistan war.

Firestorms are something the world has considerable real world experience with. The firestorms at Hamburg and Tokyo during WWII were three and four times larger (area-wise), respectively, than the firestorm at Hiroshima, and there is no evidence that they injected considerable material into the stratosphere. A great deal of condensation occurs at higher altitudes, resulting in the formation of pyrocumulus clouds, and this ties up a lot of the soot before it gets to the stratosphere.

It is also notable that Nagasaki didn't have a firestorm, because the bomb was detonated over an industrial area that was not as flammable as residences.

I hope we never test any of these theories, However, the best way to never test them is to be sure that one power never has sole ownership of nuclear weapons. Deterrence has kept the peace for 60 years, and the only time nuclear devices have been used in war is when the opponent was unable to respond in kind.


(Report Comment)
steven starr June 14, 2009 | 2:10 p.m.

Mark Foecking says the research I quote “references primarily one persons work (Turco et al)”. This is incorrect.

The two primary studies on the climatic consequences of nuclear war from which I quote were done by a group of researchers at several US universities; Turco was listed last on the paper that dealt with regional conflicts and not at all in the paper that dealt with nuclear winter.
Climatic consequences of regional nuclear conflicts
A. Robock, L. Oman, G. L. Stenchikov, O. B. Toon, C. Bardeen, and R. P. Turco
Nuclear winter revisited with a modern climate model and current
nuclear arsenals: Still catastrophic consequences
Alan Robock, Luke Oman,and Georgiy L. Stenchikov

Dr. Turco’s qualifications: Chair, Director of Atmospheric Sciences UCLA 1993-1996,
Director (and Founder of) the UCLA Institute of the Environment

Read the paper on nuclear winter listed above and find that the latest peer-reviewed research found that the original studies actually underestimated the impact that a stratospheric smoke layer would have on the global environment.

The papers by Toon, Robock, et al, followed the normal course of peer-reviewed research, there has been and remains ample opportunity for other scientists to poke holes in their findings . . . but this hasn’t happened.

The last 60 years have not exactly been the most peaceful on record. True, there has not been a nuclear war, but the arsenals of the nuclear weapon states have not prevented other nations from deciding to build their own nuclear weapons.

India and Pakistan now have more than 100 nuclear weapons between them, and like the nuclear weapon states, the acquisition of these weapons has only meant that a single failure of deterrence will mean the destruction of their nations and peoples.

There is no path that is risk free. There will be madmen that will attempt to get and use nuclear weapons, and sometimes only force will be able to stop them.

But the question is and remains . . . how long can we keep huge nuclear arsenals ready for instant use and not expect them to be used? And if they are used, the new science tells us that we can expect hundreds of millions or billions of people to die just from deadly changes in the global climate.

So what is the greater danger, to keep the status quo, or instead create a world without these arsenals, in which a nation might be able to construct a few of these weapons?

(Report Comment)
Terry Flowers June 17, 2010 | 2:03 a.m.

I don't believe that nuclear arsenals make any sense what-so-ever. There's an old addage, "If something can happen, it most certainly will". With so many nations coming into the nuclear family it's only a matter of time until someone gets trigger happy or make a grave mistake and throws the world into a nuclear disaster. I believe that maintaining nuclear arsenals is suicide for the beautiful planet upon which we all live.

(Report Comment)

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