Nuke false alarm sparks Hawaii hysteria

Strike: Hawaii is around 4,600 miles from North Korea — well within range of its missiles.

Is nuclear war an accident waiting to happen? Hawaii fell into chaos this weekend after authorities falsely declared it was under attack. Some fear mistakes like this could cause Armageddon.


That was the terrifying text message received by Hawaii residents on Saturday morning. It caused widespread fear and panic, with many believing a nuclear attack was imminent.

Lucja Leonard, a marathon runner, told of children “pushed into drainpipes to get them protected”. Elsewhere, reports described people crawling under tables and making calls to family members to say their goodbyes.

But 38 minutes after the initial alert, more news came through: the warning was false. The announcement read: “There is no missile threat or danger to the State of Hawaii. Repeat. False Alarm.”

The alert had been triggered by a staff member at the islands’ Emergency Management Agency who had simply “pushed the wrong button”.

The missile attack was not real, but some are deeply concerned about how it might be possible for misinformation like this to spark a global firestorm.

Nuclear expert Vipin Narang argues that in another scenario President Trump could easily have seen the warning on his phone and responded in minutes with a “valid and authentic order to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea”.

Likewise, former US defence secretary William J. Perry described the events as a reminder that “the risk of accidental nuclear war is not hypothetical [as] accidents have happened in the past.”

Indeed during the cold war, the USSR and USA nearly launched their nuclear weapons on several occasions as a result of misinformation.

In 1960 the North American Air Defence Command was placed on maximum alert after seeming to detect dozens of missiles careering towards the USA. The actual culprit? The moon rising over Norway interfering with their radars.

And in 1983 lieutenant colonel Stanislav Petrov was monitoring Russian early warning satellites when they detected five incoming ballistic missiles. But on a hunch he ignored the machine. Petrov was right — the computers were deceived by sunlight reflected off clouds.

Could nuclear war really start by mistake?

Accidental apocalypse

It could easily happen, argue some. President Trump already plans to build more nuclear weapons, and has publicly revelled in his willingness to use them. On another day, a mistake like this could have prompted him. History teaches us that it is only a matter of time before something similar happens again.

Don’t get carried away, others respond. The false alert caused great distress, but the right outcome prevailed — the mistake was spotted and no attacks were launched. Nuclear conflict has been avoided since the second world war. And while disarmament remains politically impossible, we must have confidence in the systems keeping us safe.

You Decide

  1. Should all nuclear weapons be deactivated?
  2. How worried are you about North Korea?


  1. Imagine you were in Hawaii on the day of the alert. Write a diary entry describing your emotions and actions after hearing the announcement. Make sure you use as much descriptive language as possible.
  2. Do some research into nuclear false alarms from the cold war. Use the resources in Become An Expert to help you. Overall, do you think that these early warning systems have done well to prevent nuclear war, or is war an accident waiting to happen?

Some People Say...

“It’s a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.”

Noam Chomsky

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Mobile phone users in Hawaii received the alert at 08:07 local time. The military's US Pacific Command quickly confirmed that there was no threat, before Hawaii’s Emergency Management Agency sent a tweet at 8:20 reading: "NO missile threat to Hawaii." A message correcting the error was also sent to mobile phones at 08:45, 38 minutes after the original alert.
What do we not know?
Last year North Korea claimed that it has developed the capacity to strike anywhere in the USA with a nuclear warhead; however, officials are not certain whether this claim is accurate.

Word Watch

It is estimated that an intercontinental ballistic missile launched from North Korea would take around 20 minutes to reach Hawaii.
38 minutes
According to a BBC News report, an email was sent out correcting the error after 18 minutes. However, a follow up text was not sent for 38 minutes.
North Korea
President Trump was playing golf when the alert was released, but was quickly briefed that the threat was not real.
Stanislav Petrov
For more information read The Day’s article on Petrov in Become An Expert.
Nuclear weapons
According to the Trump administration’s nuclear posture review (NPR), constraints surrounding the use of nuclear weapons are set to be loosened. The review also suggests building more “usable” lower yield nuclear weapons.
For example, on January 3rd Trump released this tweet aimed at Kim Jong-un: “I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”


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