How Nations Respond to Accidents in Complex Systems

Complex system accidents and the implications for nuclear weapons infrastructure

Each country perceives accidents in complex systems differently, and some do not even acknowledge that they exist. By studying how six nuclear-armed countries responded to complex system accidents in the past, the Institute for Security and Technology aims to anticipate and inform potential responses to these dangerous—and yet almost guaranteed—future accidents in highly complex systems.

Numerous major safety overhauls in complex systems came after devastating accidents. For example, the 1986 accident at the Soviet nuclear power facility at Chernobyl led to nuclear energy regulation changes in multiple countries. Accidents that occur in war can have even more serious consequences, ranging from friendly-fire casualties to accidental engagement or inadvertent escalation with an adversary.

The Institute for Security and Technology is researching the national responses to accidents in complex systems and the history of system safety overhauls in six nuclear-armed states with ongoing modernization programs: the United States, France, Russia, China, Israel, and Pakistan. This project builds on existing IST reports on complex systems, including Dr. Nancy Levenson’s “An Engineering Perspective on Avoiding Nuclear War.” Based on IST’s previous NC3 work, we have concluded that the increasingly interconnected nature of national-level NC3 systems indicates that these impossibly complex systems will inevitably result in unanticipated emergent properties with the high likelihood of dangerous accidents. The project has four elements:

  1. Identifying revolutions in military safety
  2. Examining how countries investigate complex system accidents and how they report them
  3. Charting reactions to complex system accidents in military systems
  4. Investigating international responses to accidents

Understanding cultural, political, and historical perspectives towards past crises is critical to better anticipate how nuclear weapon states may respond to similar breakdowns in the future— in advance of a military conflict, or more critically, in the midst of one.