Deja Nuke: Return of the Nuclear Threat

On Jan. 25, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists edged the “Doomsday Clock” closer to midnight. It’s a representation of how close the world is to the potential of a nuclear apocalypse.

So, how far are we from a nuclear crisis? This week’s episode examines the question from different angles.

In the first segment, host Al Letson tours the Titan Missile Museum outside Tucson, Arizona, where he comes face to face with one of the most powerful weapons in U.S. history. Sitting at the control panel from which technicians were once able to launch a nuclear attack, he and his guide discuss what has changed–and what hasn’t–when it comes to America’s arsenal.

Next, reporter Emily Harris looks at efforts to curb the president’s power over America’s nuclear weapons. Although President Donald Trump’s mockery of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has alarmed some lawmakers, others believe that complicating his control over American nukes would do more harm than good.

“Introducing problems into nuclear command and control because you don’t like who is the president–which by the way, Americans elected–that is not the president’s problem,” said Michaela Dodge, a senior defense policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation.

The administration’s main justification to upgrade the U.S. arsenal is Russia. We explore why, then venture inside two countries that Trump more often cites as America’s likely nuclear antagonists: Iran and North Korea.

In 2015, Iran, along with Germany and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, signed the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal. It was considered a crowning achievement for the Obama administration, but Trump remains a longtime critic. His administration accuses Iran of not living up to the spirit of the agreement and has threatened to withdraw from it altogether. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, reporter Reese Erlich travels to Tehran to investigate the current state of Iran’s nuclear program.

Next, Letson interviews journalist Suki Kim about international relations with North Korea, and the psychology behind Kim Jong Un’s escalating nuclear threats. In 2011, Suki Kim went undercover in North Korea, posing as a teacher to report from inside the isolated nation. Her book about that experience is “Without You, There Is No Us.”

To close the show, Letson chats with Mike Edinger. He used to serve serve in the Air Force as a Minuteman nuclear missile crew member. Now he is a foreign affairs officer, leading a project focused on how to verify whether nuclear weapons are truly destroyed. The work is incredibly complex, and according to Edinger, crucial if there will ever be a nuclear weapons-free world.

Does he think that will happen?

“I certainly don’t know,” Edinger tells Letson. “I don’t have a crystal ball. … And frankly I don’t spend a lot of time focused on that. It’s the practical work that, if we’re going to get there, you have to go through.”