Soviet officer may have averted nuclear war 30 years ago

-- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS
-- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

MOSCOW - Thirty years ago this week, a potential nuclear disaster was averted, thanks to Mr Stanislav Petrov.

The duty officer at a Soviet Union early warning base decided to breach his instructions on the night of Sept 26, 1983, when sirens went off one after the other telling him that America had launched several missiles.

Mr Petrov, whose job was to register enemy missile launches and alert the Soviet military and political leadership, decided not to report the matter, and instead dismissed it as a false alarm.

Given the political atmosphere of 1983, a retaliatory attack from the Soviet side would have been a given, BBC reported, adding that his decision may have saved the world.

"I had all the data (to suggest there was an ongoing missile attack).

"If I had sent my report up the chain of command, nobody would have said a word against it," Mr Petrov told the BBC's Russian Service 30 years after that overnight shift.

Mr Petrov - who retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel and now lives in a small town near Moscow - was part of a well-trained team which served at one of the Soviet Union's early warning bases. And yet, when the moment came, he said he almost froze in place.

Although the nature of the alert - sirens howling and computers alerting of a missile strike - seemed to be abundantly clear, Mr Petrov had some doubts.

Other experts, a group of satellite radar operators, told him they had registered no missiles.

But what made him suspicious was just how strong and clear that alert was. "There were 28 or 29 security levels. After the target was identified, it had to pass all of those 'checkpoints'. I was not quite sure it was possible, under those circumstances," said Mr Petrov.

If he was wrong, the first nuclear explosions would have happened minutes later. "Twenty-three minutes later, I realised that nothing had happened... It was such a relief," he said.

Now, Mr Petrov admits he was never absolutely sure that the alert was a false one, but believes his civilian education kicked in at the crucial time.

"My colleagues were all professional soldiers, they were taught to give and obey orders," he said. If somebody else had been on shift, the alarm would have been raised.

But he was disappointed that the system had malfunctioned.

Mr Petrov, who has received several international awards, does not think of himself as a hero.

"That was my job," he said.