By Smriti Keshari published on 28/1/2018

Hawaiians recently experienced the most unimaginable nightmare when an accidental alert went out a statewide warning of a "ballistic missile system" heading to the island. It happened at 8.07am on a Saturday.

Distraught residents did their best to find safety, parents drove miles to see their children one last time and some surfers even decided to paddle out for what they imagined was their last wave.

It was a false alarm, caused by human error, when a technician clicked on the wrong prompt on a computer screen.

Yet it served as a global wake-up call, and many around the world have begun to question the reality of whether their own country could be vulnerable to a similar incident.

Few people realise how close we have come to nuclear annihilation, nor how often.

In Australia, statewide emergency systems regularly use text alerts and landline phone messages to warn about bushfires, floods and other natural disasters. But could residents be woken one day by the threat of a missile headed towards Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne or the Pine Gap military facility near Alice Springs?

With no nuclear weapons of its own and no real nuclear-armed adversaries, the idea of an atomic-bomb attack may seem abstract to most Australians. But no country is safe from the nuclear threat. Defence analysts believe North Korea's longest-range missiles could reach Australia. And although Australia's geographic location makes it seem safe, experts say it is vulnerable to the effects of an all-out nuclear war between India and Pakistan.

Additionally, as an ally of the United States, relying not only on the protection of America's nuclear umbrella but also home to a strategic site in the US missile-defense system, Australia could be among the first targets to be hit in a surprise nuclear attack against the US.

It's evident we live under an awful nuclear cloud – in a world where nine nations possess almost 15,000 nuclear weapons. These weapons are hidden underground or in submarines beneath the sea. For many young people, the idea of nuclear attack is unimaginable. The last nuclear weapon tests in Australia was in 1957.

But few people realise how close we have come to nuclear annihilation since the creation of nuclear weapons 72 years ago. As revealed through some shocking accounts in Eric Schlosser's book, Command and Control, we have been near catastrophe due to the fallibility of these machines far too many times.

There have been so many of these incidents that the US military coined the term "broken arrow" to describe any occurrence in which a nuclear weapon is lost, stolen or inadvertently detonated.

And the effects of nuclear weapons testing have had a lasting effect on the environment and countless communities around the world. In Australia, from 1953 to 1957, Britain's nuclear tests caused lingering effects that affected the livelihood and health of Aboriginals years later.

Six decades on, those atomic weapons tests still cast their shadow across Australia's landscape. They stand as testament to the dangers of these machines, to their existence without close public scrutiny, and as a reminder – at a time world leaders are once again preoccupied with whose nuclear button is bigger – not to let it happen again.

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