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Science & Policy Update June 2014: Nuclear Threats

Luck is Not Good Nuclear Policy
By: Denise Duffield, Associate Director

Hydrogen bomb that nearly detonated over North Carolina

Hydrogen bomb that nearly detonated over North Carolina

On June 9 a newly declassified report by Sandia National Laboratory was released which revealed new details about the near detonation of a hydrogen bomb over North Carolina in 1961. The report, published by the National Security Archive, confirmed much of what had been disclosed about the “Goldsboro incident” last year in Eric Schlosser’s book Command and Control. After decades of denying that the crash of a B-52 bomber carrying two multi-megaton hydrogen bombs could have resulted in detonation, we now know that an explosion was just barely averted. The force of the crash caused the bomb to go through all but one of its arming steps, and only a highly vulnerable switch prevented detonation. Then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara conceded that, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”

Of course this was by no means the first or last near miss involving nuclear weapons. The Department of Defense admits 32 such accidents before 1980. Schlosser’s book details some of these harrowing events, including the 1980 Damascus, Arkansas incident in which a worker’s wrench socket accidentally pierced a Titan II missile loaded with a nine-megaton nuclear warhead, filling the silo with rocket fuel and risking explosion. In 1995, the United States narrowly escaped a nuclear disaster when a Norwegian rocket was mistaken to be a US missile and Russian President Boris Yeltsin nearly launched a retaliatory strike. In 2007, six nuclear weapons on cruise missiles were mistakenly flown across the country and not noticed as missing for 36 hours. In 2011, fire engulfed a nuclear powered Russian submarine equipped with 16 intercontinental ballistic missiles, each carrying four nuclear warheads. The sub had to be partially sunk to extinguish the fire.

What hasn’t yet occurred by accident could also happen by intent, with globally devastating results. “Nuclear famine,” a recent report by the International Physicians for the Prevent of Nuclear War (IPPNW) and PSR, found that a limited nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India – who have more than 200 nuclear weapons in their arsenals and regularly experience conflict – could result in climate change that would cause global famine and put up to two billion people at risk of starvation. The Ukraine crisis has raised the possibility of conflict between the US and Russia, who together possess 95% of the world’s 15,000 nuclear weapons. Thousands of these weapons remain on high alert, able to be launched with 15 minutes notice. As noted in a recent op-ed by Dr. Ira Helfand, a single US Trident submarine carries 96 warheads, each of which is 10-30 times larger than the bombs considered for the Nuclear Famine report. The US has 14 of these subs, which represent only a third of our nuclear arsenal, and the Russians have the same overkill capacity.

And of course there remains the threat of nuclear terrorism. While a terrorist could potentially steal a fully manufactured nuclear weapon, a more likely scenario is that a crude nuclear weapon could be built using pirated or purchased fissile materials. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security held an emergency preparedness exercise simulating a terrorist attack with a 10-kiloton (Hiroshima-sized) nuclear detonation in Los Angeles. The project estimated 50,000 – 100,000 immediate fatalities and 285,000 who could develop radiation sickness and die if they failed to shelter in place. But these figures belie the scale of devastation, which would ultimately make death and injury counts much higher. Physicians and health care professionals would be among the dead and injured, and neither police nor firemen have radio-protective gear in LA. Electromagnetic pulse, the blast and fire would destroy local communications equipment, making coordination difficult. Roads and auxiliary medical facilities would be damaged or destroyed. Fire, heat, smoke, fumes, soot, and radioactivity would be intense. Yet one of the exercise’s planners concluded, “This is a survivable event. LA isn’t going to fall into the ocean and be gone forever. It will be a really bad day, but we need everyone to show up to work and save lives.”

PSR-LA believes that the best way to save lives from a nuclear catastrophe is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Last year, PSR and IPPNW launched the Humanitarian Threats of Nuclear Weapons campaign to galvanize support from the public and policymakers for nuclear weapons reductions, ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, de-alerting nuclear weapons and ultimately, a movement toward nuclear weapons abolition. Momentum is building. In March 2013, representatives from126 nations met in Norway to explore the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war, and 146 nations attended a follow up meeting last February. The United States and other nuclear powers boycotted the meetings, though they are all bound by Article VI of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty to move toward full nuclear disarmament.

The United States and Russia have successfully eliminated over 50,000 nuclear weapons. It is possible, and necessary, to eliminate the rest. To those who say nuclear abolition is not possible, we say it is not possible to maintain our enormous arsenals and not have a nuclear war. And of course, the problem with nuclear deterrence is that it only has to fail once – and we don’t get a second chance.

For more information contact Denise Duffield at