Fears of nuclear warfare were believed to have peaked during the Cold War. A lengthy spell of eyeballing between the US and the Soviet Union led to nothing. On more than one occasion, however, the alarm was sounded, each time wrongly due to miscommunication, a misjudgement or even faulty technology.
As the world settles into the 21st century an increasing number of countries have gained possession of their own nuclear weapons with the number growing each year.
No longer are just two nations the sole carriers of such weapons of mass destruction.
Now, nations like Iran, Israel, Pakistan, India and North Korea all own a considerable array of nuclear weapons, many having in recent years threatened to use them.
Patricia Lewis, nuclear physicist and former director of the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, admitted that no closer have we been to nuclear war than in today’s geopolitical climate.
She told the BBC’s ‘Start the Week’ how the tensions in the present-day are far different and more complex than those experienced during the Cold War.
Asked how scared we should be about nuclear war, Dr Lewis said: “Since the end of the Cold War, the big stand off between Russia and the US has somewhat diminished but the relationship now is very bad.
“We have more nuclear weapons possessors, we have India and Pakistan declared as possessors, Israel’s never declared, we now have North Korea also.
“We saw recently in 2018 a scare with a false message that went out, and I think it demonstrated the nervousness and likelihood of a country like North Korea taking that decision.
“Our big worry I think is when we’re in a situation of crisis, where you are likely to get a lot of information, a lot of it contradictory, a lot of misinterpretation of information, that occurs in every crisis, and then also misperceptions and miscalculations.”
In 2018, a state worker in Hawaii sent a false missile alert after being “100 percent sure” that the attack was real.
It took the agency he worked for nearly 40 minutes to retract the false alert on the same platforms it was sent to.
The threat sent to the agency’s headquarters later turned out to be a practice drill.
State workers said that they clearly heard the word “exercise” repeated several times.
Islanders were sent into panic, many believing they had minutes left to contact loved ones.
The man, in his 50s, said he was “devastated” by what had happened.
These sorts of situations, Dr Lewis said, could become more prevalent as relations become more complicated and bound in political rhetoric.
Dr Lewis continued: “This is our biggest fear as we go into a more turbulent period of history where we’re seeing a rise in the quite difficult politics between countries again.
“The less emphasis on arms control, the less emphasis on international institutions like the UN and a rising geopolitical strains and stresses throughout the world, those countries who have nuclear weapons are going to be more and more in situations where they might worry that some situation might occur that they might have to use them.
“And then we go back into a very different nuclear situation to the Cold War.
“I don’t think we’ve fully understood yet what that will mean and I think we really need to think it through.”
This week, a nuclear facility in Iran was hit by “sabotage” a day after it unveiled new uranium enrichment equipment, according to top officials in the country.
While Iran has not yet laid blame on a country or force, Israeli public media cited intelligence sources who said it was the result of an Israeli cyber-attack.
Israel has not commented on the incident directly.
It is just one incidence of belligerent forces both fighting to maintain a superior nuclear status in the Middle East.