August: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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August: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

August 4, 1995 – The U.S. Department of Energy released a major study on the U.S. nuclear stockpile prepared not by that agency or by the Defense Department or by nuclear weapons laboratories such as Los Alamos. The report was crafted by an independent group of senior nongovernmental scientists referred to as the JASON group. The study concluded that, “the United States can, today, have high confidence in the safety, reliability, and performance margins of the nuclear weapons that are designated to remain in the enduring stockpile.”  Comments:  Nevertheless, Eric Schossler’s 2013 book Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, The Damascus (Titan ICBM 1980 silo explosion) Incident, and the Illusion of Safety and many other studies from the last few decades have expressed legitimate concern about the potentially deadly combination of nuclear weapons and human infallibility.  Incidents in the last several years, including the mishandling of nuclear weapons by trained military personnel such as the August 29, 2007 unauthorized loading of nuclear-armed cruise missiles onto a B-52 bomber flying a domestic route from Minot AFB, North Dakota to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, which resulted in a frightening scenario whereby the nuclear weapons sat unguarded on the tarmac for nine hours, have created serious concerns about nuclear safety.   And both the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations have expressed doubts about the long-term reliability of the U.S. stockpile resulting in the implementation of plans to build a new generation of nuclear weapons including the B61-12 bunker-busting bomb (although Bush’s Reliable Replacement Warhead program was killed in 2009). (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.” Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, p. 17.)

August 6, 1945 – Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets piloted the 509th Composite Group’s B-29 Superfortress bomber named Enola Gay, in honor of the pilot’s mother, from Tinian in the Marianas chain of Pacific Ocean islands to Hiroshima, Japan where the enriched uranium-fueled fission bomb code named “Little Boy” was dropped over a city of a quarter million inhabitants at 8:15:17 a.m. local time.  43 seconds after release and 1,850 feet over the city, the bomb exploded registering an air temperature, for a fleeting millisecond, of 100 million degrees.  In the city below, 5,400 degree temperatures vaporized thousands of human beings, melted granite, clay roofing tiles, and gravestone mica for three-quarters of a mile in all directions from the explosion’s epicenter.  A blast wave of 1,100 feet-per-second blew down everyone and everything left standing that was not previously destroyed by the tremendous heat of the explosion.  The firestorm from the blast, as a result of a huge displacement of air, began to flow back to the epicenter at up to 200 miles-per-hour raising radioactive dust and debris into a mushroom cloud.  78,150 died, 13,983 were missing, and 37,425 injured as an immediate result of the blast.  But tens of thousands more would die of horrendous burns and associated direct radiation impacts within days and weeks and from longer-term radiation-caused cancers for decades afterward.  Enola Gay’s co-pilot, Robert Lewis, wrote in his journal, “My God, what have we done?”  Two days later, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan and launched a massive invasion of Manchuria, and on August 9th hundreds of thousands more Japanese suffered a second atomic bombing, from the plutonium-fueled “Fat Man” warhead, at Nagasaki.   About three months later, Manhattan Project scientific director J. Robert Oppenheimer warned that, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima.”  (Sources:  Craig Nelson, “The Age of Radiance:  The Epic Rise and Dramatic Fall of the Atomic Era.”  New York:  Scribner, 2014, pp. 211-220.)

August 11, 2013 – Anti-nuclear activists and citizens at the German military base at Boechel, blocked entry to the base where reportedly twenty U.S. B61 nuclear bombs are housed in 11 storage vaults.  German peace organizations and the Dutch group IKV Pax Christi participated in the blockade.  Comments:  According to the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans M. Kristensen, roughly 370 of 825 remaining U.S. B61 nuclear bombs are active with 645 stored in the U.S. and 180 in Europe.   The ones deployed at Boechel (a.k.a. Buchel) Air Base represent one of six NATO tactical fighter base locations of B61s which will soon include a new variant of the B61, the B61-12, a more accurate, smaller yield bunker-busting bomb – 10-kilotons versus an older version, B61-7, with a 360-kiloton warhead – with capabilities to strike at alleged Iranian underground uranium enrichment facilities such as the Fordow (Fordo) site.  Kristensen and other nuclear experts dispute the Pentagon’s claim that this is not a “new” nuclear bomb but simply a life extension of an existing version.   These critics also point out that the B61-12 represents “the most expensive nuclear bomb project ever; many costs are still unknown.”    Most disturbing perhaps is the conclusion that, “Lower yield means less radioactive fallout and a more “useable” weapon.”  Besides European and American anti-nuclear weapons activists, more and more citizenry should be educated about the extreme perils of planned Israeli or American use of tactical nuclear weapons as a means of punishing Iran (or North Korea) as well as eliminating major parts of their alleged nuclear weapons production facilities.  Crossing the threshold of nuclear weapons use for the first time since 1945 would be tremendously counterproductive not only to nonproliferation policy but to preserving a more important principle – nearly 70 years of nuclear peace and the prevention of an upgraded nuclear arms race that would most likely include additional nuclear strikes in the Near East, Mideast, South Asia (India vs. Pakistan) or elsewhere on the planet.  This scenario must be avoided at all costs!  (Sources:  Hans M. Kristensen, Director of the Nuclear Information Project, Federation of American Scientists, “The Future of the B61:  Perspectives From the United States and Europe:  Briefing organized by the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation at the Third Preparatory Committee Meeting for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at the United Nations.” May 2, 2014 and various press accounts including accessed August 12, 2013.)

August 18, 2004The Times of London reported that eight men suspected of having ties with Al Qaeda were charged in Britain with plotting terrorist attacks “using radioactive dirty bombs, poison gas, and chemicals.”  Comments:  Many such plots have been discovered and circumvented since the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) began in 2001.  Despite scores of mainstream media and Western government pronouncements expressing supreme confidence in the supposedly robust and perfect nuclear deterrence system that has been in place since 1945, many experts nonetheless feel it is almost certain that the nuclear terror threshold will be breached, sometime in this century, unless all nuclear weapons states and near-nuclear weapons states reduce world arsenals to zero or at least near-zero and, at the same time, phase out all 400+ global nuclear power facilities as soon as feasibly possible.  America’s and the entire global arms sales/weapons industry complex can be converted from conventional weapons design and construction to technologies focused on state-of-the-art denuclearizing, decommissioning, and safe, secure sequestering away of nuclear fissile materials and related products.  There can be a dramatic surge in nuclear warhead dismantlement, nuclear reactor decommissioning, as well as remediating extremely large volumes of dangerous radioactive civilian and military-generated wastes.   Former “defense” industry complexes can be converted permanently to denuclearization industries while simultaneously refocusing military-dedicated resources toward designing new, more efficient clean energy technologies such as solar, wind, geothermal, and other innovative approaches.   (Source:  “Dispatch:  A Bi-Monthly Report” by the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute.”  No. 228, August 16-31, 2004,

August 23, 2011 – Five months after the Fukushima nuclear disaster caused by a large undersea earthquake and tsunami, an unprecedented 5.9 magnitude earthquake with its epicenter in Central Virginia was felt from New England to the Carolinas.  Several nuclear power plants in Virginia and Maryland, within proximity to the nation’s capital, as well as plants located within a few dozen miles of New York City, were shut down out of safety concerns.  Physicist and nuclear expert Michio Kaku was quoted as saying, “We dodged a bullet.”  Comments:  Besides the obvious long-term serious health and public safety concerns coincidental with running a nuclear power plant, the natural (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunami, tornadoes, etc) and manmade (terrorist takeover of reactor sites or crashing airliners into containment domes or reactor waste water collection ponds) disasters make dangerous, overly expensive, toxic waste-generating, and uneconomical nuclear power a deadly global risk that calls for the immediate dismantling of the international nuclear power infrastructure in the next decade.  (Sources:  Press reports from March 2011 including mainstream media such as the Washington Post and New York Times as well as alternative media such as Democracy Now.)

August 29, 1949 – The first Soviet nuclear weapons test, code-named “First Lightning,” was conducted at the Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan.  The explosion’s yield was approximately 22 kilotons.  This was one of some 456 detonations, equal to about 2,500 Hiroshimas, in the Polygon test area in Soviet Kazakhstan that occurred in the period from 1949 to 1989, which resulted in devastatingly harmful short- and long-term health impacts to native peoples in an immense region.  In a November 9, 1949 speech, Politburo member Georgi Malenkov noted the new strategic situation, “Can there be any doubt that, if the imperialists start a third world war, it will mean the end not of individual capitalist states, but of all the capitalist world.”  Comments:  As a result of the Soviets shocking the West by building an atomic bomb only four short years after the Americans first developed nuclear weapons (in part, due to atomic espionage), first strike preemptive nuclear attacks on the Soviet Union became a staple of Pentagon military planning in the 1950s.  (Sources:  Craig Nelson.  “The Age of Radiance.”  New York:  Scribner, 2014, p. 336 and Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.” Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, p. 5.)

August 30, 1984 – During a time of extreme Cold War nuclear tensions more serious than at any time in history with the possible exception of the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and two weeks after President Reagan’s radio check gaff in which he jokingly announced, “We start bombing Russia in five minutes,”  former MIT President and science advisor to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson – Jerome Wiesner – wrote an op-ed that was published in the Los Angeles Times titled, “Should a Jokester Control Our Fate?”  In the piece, Wiesner questioned Reagan’s competence to continue as commander-in-chief with his finger poised menacingly on the nuclear button.  (Source:  Walter A. Rosenblith, editor.  “Jerome Wiesner:  Scientist, Statesman, Humanist:  Memories and Memoirs.”  MIT Press, 2003, p. 555.)