July: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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July: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

July 1, 1968 – The U.S., U.K., the Soviet Union, and 58 other nations signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).  The Preamble of the agreement, which today includes 191 state parties, referred explicitly to the need for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty which has not yet been realized due mostly to the U.S. Senate’s unwillingness to ratify the treaty (as manifested by that body’s rejection of the CTBT on October 13, 1999 by a vote of 51-48).   Comments:  While the NPT’s focus on preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons has been only marginally successful, the other purpose of the treaty, to seek negotiations in good faith to end the nuclear arms race and achieve nuclear disarmament has been a dismal failure.  There does not appear to be much light at the end of the tunnel after the conclusion of another NPT Review Conference on May 22, 2015 in which the United States and Britain blocked a consensus agreement to establish a deadline date to hold a conference on mandating a nuclear-weapon-free-zone in the Middle East and Canada objected as well on the basis that the agreement does not include participation by Israel – a nonsignatory to the NPT that possesses an unacknowledged secret arsenal of approximately 100-200 nuclear weapons.  Nevertheless, one positive trend resulting from this year’s review conference was what the Washington Post called, “an uprising of 107 states and civil society groups that are seeking to reframe the disarmament debate as an urgent matter of safety, morality, and humanitarian law,” and are committing to dramatically step up efforts to work toward Global Zero.   (Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 10-11, 22 and Dan Zak. “U.N. Nuclear Conference Collapses Over WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East.” Washington Post.  May 22, 2015.  http://www.washingtonpost.com/wmd/national-security/un-nuclear-conference-collapses-over-wmd-free-zone-in-the-middle-east/2015/05/22/8c568380-fe39-11e4-8c77-bf274685e1df_story.html.)

July 4, 1999 – At a Blair House meeting on this holiday morning, President Bill Clinton met with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan at a time when India and Pakistan (which had fought each other in three wars:  1947, 1965, and 1971) were fighting again, this time in an undeclared war (later referred to as the Kargil Conflict) over Northern Kashmir.  Tensions were high as top Indian leaders warned the U.S. that their nation was convinced that Pakistan was ‘operationalizing’ its nuclear missiles and that they intended to blockade the Pakistani port of Karachi.   President Clinton later testified that, “I knew my only real job on the Fourth of July was to get Pakistan back across the line of control…because otherwise, we’re just out there rolling the dice, hoping to goodness that nothing terrible would happen.”   Comments:  Although this crisis did not escalate into a nuclear conflict, it is just one of many global close calls as nuclear Armageddon was yet avoided again.  However, recent events reveal ongoing nuclear tensions between the two nations.   The United States and the larger international community must redouble its efforts to persuade India and Pakistan to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.  (Sources:  “Avoiding Armageddon:  Our Future, Our Choice.”  PBS-TV, Ted Turner Documentaries, 2003.  www.pbs.org/avoidingarmageddon and Tim Craig and Annie Gowen.  “Indian Border Operation Rattles Nuclear Neighbor.”  Washington Post. June 12, 2015.  www.highbeam.com/doc/1P2-38395110.html. )

July 7, 1961 – Former Harvard University economics professor and Rand Corporation analyst Carl Kaysen sent a memorandum on this date to President John Kennedy’s National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy reporting that a Soviet nuclear strike of just 100 warheads (a very small portion of today’s Russian nuclear arsenal) against U.S. cities, in the absence of large-scale civil defense bunkers and shelters, would kill an estimated 62-100 million of the total (then) U.S. population of 180 million people.   Comments:  More than half a century later, with a current U.S. population of over 300 million people and with each side possessing thousands of nuclear weapons, the figures for U.S. and global nuclear war deaths dramatically exceed Kaysen’s calculations.  Including the paramount factor of resulting nuclear winter global climate impacts, a major nuclear war would kill billions and seriously threaten our species’ existence.  Civil defenses and missile defenses would not significantly alter this calculus of megadeath. (Source:  Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013, p. 547.)

July 16, 1945 – The top secret U.S. Manhattan Project culminated with the successful test of the world’s first nuclear weapon in the desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico before dawn.  Code-named Trinity, it was the rehearsal for the August 6-9 atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and it represented the first of 1,030 nuclear tests conducted by the United States and one of over 2,000 such tests conducted by the nine Nuclear Weapons Club members in the last seventy years.   President Truman’s personal journal of July 25 recorded that, “We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world…An experiment in the New Mexico desert…caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater six feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked down a steel tower half a mile away and knocked down men 10,000 yards away.  The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more.”  Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s report to the president noted that, “I estimate that the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT…there were tremendous blast effects…there was a lighting effect within a radius of 20 miles equal to several suns in midday; a huge ball of fire was formed which lasted for several seconds.  This ball mushroomed and rose to a height of over 10,000 feet.”   Physicist Ernest O. Lawrence, an eyewitness to the blast, described his experience of a, “gigantic ball of fire rising rapidly from the earth…The grand, indeed almost cataclysmic proportion of the explosion produced a kind of solemnity in everyone’s behavior immediately afterwards.  There was a restrained applause, but more a hushed murmuring bordering on reverence in manner as the event was commented upon…”   Comments:  While many U.S. military and scientific observers celebrated the beginning of the Nuclear Age, others realized that this event may have represented the beginning of the end of the human species.  (Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 5, 24. and Gar Alperovitz.  “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb:  And the Architecture of An American Myth.”  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, pp. 250-251.)

July 27, 1956 – During a training exercise, a U.S. B-47 bomber crashed into a storage bunker holding three Mark 6 nuclear bombs at Lakenheath Air Force Base near Suffolk, England killing the entire crew.  Bomb disposal experts later determined that it was a miracle that one Mark 6 bomb (with a potential yield in the range of 6-180 kilotons) with an unprotected, exposed nuclear detonator did not explode.  If it had, this “Broken Arrow” nuclear accident might have inadvertently triggered World War III!   Many years later, Sandia National Laboratory reported that at least 1200 nuclear weapons were involved in significant accidents just in the period between 1950-1968.  By 1968 approximately seventy missiles armed with nuclear warheads had been struck by lightning.   Comments:  If global nuclear arsenals are not dramatically reduced and eliminated as soon as possible, an accidental, unintended, or unauthorized nuclear detonation will likely trigger a nuclear Armageddon.  (Source:  Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013, pp. 170, 327-329, 556.)

July 28, 2012 – The alleged airtight security of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex, promulgated over the decades by numerous U.S. government representatives from the Oval Office, the nuclear weapons laboratories, to include the Department of Energy and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that unauthorized access to and theft of U.S. nuclear weapons was virtually impossible suffered yet another blow when a small group of Christian pacifists belonging to the anti-nuclear Ploughshares movement (an organization involved in dozens of protests over the years at the Nevada Test Site and other components of the U.S. nuclear complex) breached the Y-12 National Security Complex  in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  On this Saturday evening, Sister Megan Rice, 82 years old, Michael Walli, 63, and Gregory Boertje-Obed, 57, cut through the barbed-wire fences at the Oak Ridge complex, which holds enough highly-enriched uranium to make thousands of nuclear warheads, and proceeded to splash human blood on the windowless uranium processing building’s walls, spray-paint peace symbols, and drape the access doors with crime-scene tape.   After being convicted in May 2013, Sister Rice and the two men spent two years in prison before a May 8, 2015 appellate court ruling held that the U.S. government had overreached in charging them with sabotage and ordered them released.  Comments:  Sister Rice follows in the footsteps of a long line of other nonviolent anti-nuclear activists, both religious and secular, who feel that the U.S. and other Nuclear Club members are violating global disarmament pledges and unwittingly threatening the world with nuclear disaster.  “It’s making countries feel compelled to have weapons.  If you have them, we have to have them.  We don’t want to end the (nuclear) industry.  We want to transition it into something that’s useful.  What could be better than making something that’s life-enhancing rather than life-destroying?”

(Source:  William J. Broad.  “Sister Megan Rice, Freed From Prison, Looks Ahead to More Anti-Nuclear Activism.”  New York Times. May 26, 2015.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/27/science/sister-megan-rice-anti-nuclear-weapons-activist-freed )