April: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

By |2018-03-30T14:14:12-07:00April 1, 2018|

April 7, 1954 – An article in the New York Times by William Lawrence titled, “Cobalt Bomb Can Be Built,” was published on this date.  The article quoted Albert Einstein and Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard who both expressed concern that 400 one-ton deuterium-cobalt bombs could release enough radiation to end all life on Earth.  About ten months after this article appeared, German nuclear scientist Otto Hahn publicly noted that only ten very large cobalt bombs could also trigger global catastrophe.  Comments:  Over the past seven-plus decades of the Nuclear Age, there have been many real and imagined ways for humanity to commit omnicide.  However, as Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, “The Doomsday Machine:  Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” points out that due to the discovery in the early 1980s of the nuclear winter scenario by Carl Sagan and his colleagues and subsequent reinforcing studies by Rutgers Professor Alan Robock and other scholars, we can realize today that such exotic doomsday devices like those envisioned in the Fifties aren’t required to extinguish the human race, or at least destroy global civilization.  Because we now know that only a small fraction, perhaps 200 or so warheads, of the existing stocks of global nuclear arsenals (which now number over 10,000 devices) can do the trick.  So, even in a so-called “limited” nuclear exchange between say India and Pakistan, dozens of warheads exploding in a period of a few hours or a day could inject millions of tons or more of smoke and debris into the upper atmosphere, cooling the Earth significantly and triggering the subsequent collapse of global agriculture and the ensuing starvation of billions of people.  Unfortunately, this critical information largely has not been conveyed to the general public, especially the American people, by the mainstream news media.   Instead, American cable news networks and an array of mainstream newspapers has conveyed to the public a warped fascination with the spy vs. spy and tit-for-tat cyber warfare “games” played by both America and Russia, Trump and Putin.  As for doomsday scares, the American media loves to stoke fear and anger toward Russia every chance it gets.  For instance, recently a plethora of media sources pointed out that the Pentagon revealed that Russia is developing a “ultra-deep, stealthy nuclear-armed undersea, autonomous torpedo,” which it plans to deploy off the eastern coast of the United States.  Mainstream media viewers are told that the torpedo carries a highly radioactive cobalt warhead that could contaminate large areas of the East Coast making the region unsuitable for military, economic, or other activity for a long period of time.  While, of course, this is a frightening threat, the 800-pound gorilla in the room, that both America and Russia as well as most of the other nuclear weapons states can trigger global nuclear winter and thereby extinguish 99 percent of our species without resort to exploding one alleged doomsday weapons system, is at the same time ignored or downplayed.  However, a growing movement of global citizenry and an increasing number of scientists, politicians, and military leaders are performing a public service by describing the unvarnished truth about the nuclear threat while also arguing for drastic reductions and the eventual elimination of extremely dangerous global nuclear arsenals.

(Sources:  Jeffrey Lewis. “Putin’s Doomsday Machine.”  Foreign Policy.  Nov. 12, 2015 http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/11/12/putins-doomsday-machine-nuclear-weapon-us-russia/ and Lucy Pasha-Robinson. “U.S. Says Russia Developing ‘Doomsday’ Autonomous Nuclear Torpedo as Trump Administration Announces More Aggressive Stance to Moscow.”  The Independent.  http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/russia-doomsday-nuclear -armed-undersea-torpedo-pentagon-defense-department-nuclear-posture-review-a8192541.html both accessed March 16, 2018.)

April 10, 1945 – Three months before the first-ever test of an atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico on July 16th, the medical staff of the U.S. Manhattan (Project) Engineering District in Oak Ridge, Tennessee secretly injected highly radioactive plutonium into the bodies of victims of an automobile accident without their consent.  It was the first of over a dozen other injections of unknowing human subjects over the next two years in order to gather vital information for U.S. military and civilian scientists on how much exposure to the deadly substance would cause harm.  Over a period of 40 years and perhaps longer, the U.S. Department of Energy catalogued over 48 different radiation experiments conducted not only on adults but also on children including racial and ethnic minorities, the indigent, as well as the mentally ill, pregnant women and their fetuses, all in the name of national security.  Comments:  Such experiments represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of countless purposeful experiments, tests, and radioactive exposures inflicted on civilians and soldiers by representatives of the nine nuclear weapons states and possibly other nations that considered or are today considering acquiring nuclear weapons and/or fissile materials.  It is also extremely possible that these secret experiments may still be occurring through perhaps more subtle or hidden methodologies.  This is yet another paramount reason why nuclear weapons and nuclear power should be dramatically reduced and eliminated entirely (except for legitimate medicinal uses or every limited internationally-sanctioned civilian nuclear fusion reactor research) by 2030.

(Sources:  U.S. Department of Energy.  “Human Radiation Experiments:  The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and Records.” Document Number DOE/EH-0445, February 1995 and Eileen Welsome. “The Plutonium Files:  America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War.”  New York:  Dial Press, 1999.)

April 12, 2018 – The Project on Nuclear Issues (PONI) 2018 Capstone Conference, the final conference of the 2017-2018 PONI Conference Series, now in its 14th year, sponsored by the U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington, DC, will be held at the Offutt Inn at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.  “The conference will feature presentations from emerging nuclear experts covering topics such as nuclear strategies, rising threats in the East, arms control and proliferation challenges, and threats to alliances and institutions.  The PONI Conference series, which is unique in its emphasis on featuring rising experts and young professionals in the nuclear field, draws emerging thought leaders from across the nuclear enterprise and provides them a visible platform for sharing their new thinking on a range of nuclear issues.”  Comments:  One of the key cogs of the Congressional-military-industrial-corporate-think tank complex are academic-sounding conferences like this meeting held annually at one of the most secure U.S. military bases in the world, where anti-nuclear activists would not have direct access (although of course, protest actions are still possible outside the main gates of the base).  The list of speakers and the agenda are not provided and STRATCOM’s website notes that, “Conference presentations and keynote speakers are off-the-record.”  However, the site does mention that the keynote address will be given by General John E. Hyten, current commander of U.S. STRATCOM.  But the media and the public does have access to the 2016 PONI Capstone Conference comments of a former commander of STRATCOM, Admiral Cecil D. Haney who remarked that, “…we must be thoughtful going forward, because deterring in today’s multi-polar world requires us to view threats across the “spectrum of conflict,” where escalation may occur with more than one adversary, and will be transregional, multi-domain and multifunctional…Strategic deterrence is a complex subject that is foundational to our nation’s security.  Deterrence depends on the situation and one size never fits all, yet it is bounded in the understanding that adversaries will not gain the benefit they seek…Adversaries cannot escalate their way out of a failed conflict…the U.S. will respond in a time, place, and domain of our choosing.”  Admiral Haney also noted that, “Our strategic capabilities are routinely demonstrated or exercised,” and referred to B-2 bomber threats against North Korea (which he specifically mentioned as “B-2 deployment to U.S. Pacific Command”) and remarked that, “we flight-tested two ICBMs from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota” (which most of the world’s population sees no differently than such tests staged irregularly by China, Russia, or North Korea, as rehearsals for a nuclear Armageddon).  Of course, no speech by STRATCOM’s commander would be complete without a pitch to Congress for more doomsday weaponry as the Admiral added that, “We must not jeopardize strategic stability by failing to sustain, to modernize, and, in some cases, expand our deterrent forces.  In the 2020s to 2030s recapitalization (a euphemism for a new generation of nuclear bomb-making with more sophisticated and thus actually more globally destabilizing weapons and nuclear platforms) will grow to between six and seven percent (of the annual bloated U.S. military budget), a modest price to pay to deter Russia and North Korea.”  The only other speaker mentioned on the website for this year’s conference is of course a representative of the “corporate” or “think-tank” sponsor of the 2018 PONI Capstone Conference – The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), whose trustees include top Cold Warriors from past presidential administrations such as Dr. Henry Kissinger, Richard Armitage, and Brent Scowcroft.  The conference speaker for CSIS is Rebecca Hersman, a former assistant secretary of defense and Congressional staffer for the House Armed Services Committee, whose body of work includes papers that support “Building a Compelling Rationale for the Role and Value of U.S. Nuclear Weapons” (2016), and an article on the February 2018 Trump Administration’s nuclear posture review (NPR), which she characterizes as, “the retention and modernization of the current nuclear triad largely proposed and supported by the Obama Administration.”  Professor Edward Herman’s 1989 work “The Terrorism Industry” and many more recent academic and journalistic accounts have proven that think-tanks like CSIS have extensive direct ties to U.S. weapons contractors as well as the U.S. intelligence community.  It is clear that such conferences reinforce and justify, in terms of public perceptions, that “American exceptionalism” and U.S. global nuclear hegemony go hand-in-hand and will continue indefinitely (as its adherents fervently hope) as did other “enlightened” hegemons in history like the Roman and British empires.  However, as disastrous as it was for the world when those past empires fell, the growing likelihood of nuclear Armageddon today threatens the very existence of our species and countless others on the planet.  Thankfully, a growing consensus of world leaders and global citizenry are committed to preventing that from happening.  When the majority of U.S. leaders join the movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons and if, in fact, that goal is someday reached thanks largely to American leadership, then perhaps on that day one can really embrace the rhetoric of “American exceptionalism.”

(Sources:  “Nuclear Calendar” Natural Resources Defense Council. http://www2.fcnl.org/NuclearCalendarindex.php, “PONI 2018 Capstone Conference.” https://www.CSIS.org/events/poni-2018-capstone-conference, “Project on Nuclear Issues Capstone Conference, April 13, 2016. http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/Speeches/Article/986478/project-on-nuclear-issues-capstone-conference/(2016)back all of which were accessed March 16, 2018.)

April 19, 2015 – On this date, two former Cold War adversaries published an op-ed in the New York Times titled, “How to Avert a Nuclear War.”  U.S. Marine Corps General James E. Cartwright, the former head of the U.S. Strategic Command, and Major General Vladimir Dvorkin, a former director of the research institute of Russia’s Strategic Rocket Forces, both of whom then worked on the Global Zero Commission on Nuclear Risk Reduction, argued that, “Russia and the United States are still living with the nuclear strike doctrine of the Cold War which dictated three strategic options:  first strike, launch-on-warning, and post-attack retaliation.”  The two Cold Warriors noted particularly that, “For either side, the decision to launch-on-warning…after an alert of an apparent attack must be made in minutes.  This is therefore the riskiest scenario, since provocations or malfunctions can trigger a global catastrophe.  Since computer-based information systems have been in place, the likelihood of such errors has been minimized.  But, the emergence of cyber warfare threats has increased the potential for false alerts in early warning systems.  The possibility of an error cannot be ruled out.”  These military experts also point to another related concern that due to the loss of all of Russia’s early warning satellites, that nation’s haphazard system of prefabricated border radars allow even less time to react to false warning of a potential U.S. nuclear first strike.  Generals Cartwright and Dvorkin concluded that, “Launch-on-warning puts enormous strain on the nuclear chains of command in both countries…the risk, however small, of cataclysmic error remains…This risk should motivate the presidents of Russia and the United States to decide in tandem to eliminate the launch-on-warning concept from their nuclear strategies, (for it) is a relic of Cold War strategy whose risk today far exceeds its value…Our leaders…need…(to) agree to scrap this obsolete protocol before a devastating error occurs.”  Comments:  Over the last few years, other military and civilian leaders in the U.S. and other nuclear weapons states have shocked the Congressional-military-industrial complex by pushing for the elimination of all land-based ICBMs, the establishment of a no-first use policy, and other restrictions limiting any use of nuclear weapons including post-attack retaliation, low threshold bunker-busting bombs, or other smaller yield nuclear devices that some have proposed using to attack Iranian or North Korean underground nuclear facilities.  But the Nuclear Genie’s minions continue their solitary focus on continuing past risky behavior as “defense” contractors, their CEOs, and other institutions continue to profit despite their flawed perception that the chance of accidental or unintentional nuclear war is so infinitesimally small that they are justified in supporting “the maintenance of robust deterrence.”  And unfortunately today, three years after Cartwright and Dvorkin’s op-ed, the presidents of Russia and the United States both take every opportunity to rattle their nuclear sabers and err on the side of pushing for more nukes, more options for their use, and more strategic instability to counterintuitively ‘make Russia and America great again.’

(Source:  Numerous mainstream and alternative news media sources and http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/20/opinion/how-to-avert-a-nuclear-war-html?_r=0 accessed March 16, 2018.)

April 26, 1986 – At the Chernobyl Nuclear Complex located about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Kiev, capital of the then Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic of the U.S.S.R., a fire developed in the core of the number four reactor unit which triggered an explosion that blew the roof off the building resulting in the largest ever release of radioactive material from a civilian reactor, with the possible exception of the Fukushima Dai-chi accident on March 11, 2011 in northeast Japan.  Two were killed and 200 others hospitalized, but the Soviet government did not release specific details of the nuclear meltdown until two days later when Sweden, Finland, Denmark, and other European neighbors detected abnormally high levels of radioactivity.  8,000 died and 435,000 people were evacuated from the region in the ensuing days, weeks, months, and years.  Although West Germany, Sweden, and other nations provided assistance to the Soviet Union to deal with the deadly, widespread radioactive fallout from the accident, some argue today that the U.S., China, Russia, France, Japan, and other nations should establish a permanent, multilateral civilian-military-humanitarian response force to quickly address such serious nuclear and natural disasters in a time-urgent, nonpartisan manner.  In November of 2016, a massive shelter, costing 1.5 billion euros and measuring 843 feet wide and 354 feet tall, which was constructed by 10,000 workers, was sealed shut over the number four reactor unit at Chernobyl.  Inside the deadliest radioactive structure on the planet is approximately 200 tons of radioactive corium, 30 tons of contaminated dust, and a very large indeterminate amount of uranium and plutonium.  Radiation levels inside the shelter still run as high as 5,000 to 10,000 roentgens per hour.  A 2016 report by Greenpeace on the local and regional impacts of the disaster found that in many cases, in grain stocks for instance, radiation levels in the contaminated zone surrounding the shelter where about five million people live today, are still surprisingly high.  According to scientific testing conducted by Greenpeace consultants and experts, overall contamination from key isotopes such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 may have fallen somewhat, but continue to linger at prohibitive levels especially in forested areas of the contaminated zone.  Comments:  In addition to the dangerous risk of nuclear power plant accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and others too numerous to list here, the tremendously out-of-control civilian and military nuclear waste sequestration, remediation, and permanent storage conundrum as well as terrorist targeting potential, the economic unsustainability of civilian nuclear power, and the potential for nuclear proliferation points logically to an accelerated phase-out of global civilian nuclear power plants over the next decade as well as an absolute halt to massive plans by most of the nuclear weapons states to accelerate production of fissile materials in order to build a new, unneeded generation of destabilizing nuclear weaponry, while polluting our fragile ecosphere with more radioactivity.

(Sources:  “Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacy of Chernobyl and Fukushima.” Greenpeace.  March-April 2016. http://greenpeace.org/france/PageFiles/266171/Nuclear_Scars_report_WEB_final_version_20160403.pdf and Gleb Garanich. “30 Years After Chernobyl, Locals Still Eating Radioactive Food.” Reuters (also published on Newsweek website). March 9, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/30-years-after-chernobyl-locals-still-eating-radioactive-food-435253 and “Chernobyl Arch Moved into Place in Historic Engineering Feat.”  World Nuclear News. Nov. 14, 2016. http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/WR-Chernobyl-arch-moved-into-place-in-historic-engineering-feat-14111602.html all of which were accessed March 16, 2018.)

April 30, 1998 – The U.S. Senate, by a vote of 80-19, approved NATO’s eastern expansion to the former Soviet Warsaw Pact military alliance countries of the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland, the 17th, 18th and 19th members of the Alliance, a move that was later formalized at a ceremony at NATO headquarters in Brussels on March 16, 1999.  Nevertheless, there were and still are dissenting opinions about how unchecked NATO expansion is interpreted as a threat to Moscow.  Senator Dale Bumpers (D-AR), who after retiring from Congress became the director of the Center for Defense Information, noted that, “We are forcing them to rely more and more heavily on nuclear weapons (to make up for the advantage over Russia in conventional arms deployed on or near Russia’s western borders by larger and larger numbers of NATO countries).  And the more you rely on nuclear weapons, the lower the hair trigger for nuclear war.”  As the years passed several other European nations, most of them also former Warsaw Pact countries, joined NATO which has now increased its membership to 29 nations.  NATO expansion, which has correlated with increasing tensions between the Alliance and Russia as illustrated in the recent Crimea-Ukraine Crisis and renewed episodes, over the last several years, of close aerial and naval encounters between NATO and Russian craft, has proven Bumpers and many other observers correct as nuclear war risks have escalated leading scholars to refer to contemporary times as “a second Cold War.”  Comments:  Tensions are still on the rise as seen by the comments in 2016-17 of many observers including former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev who warned, “The world has never been closer to nuclear war than it is at present.”  At the same time, German politicians including Social Democrats and Christian Democrats accused NATO of “war mongering.”  Even a former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry, joined the chorus of voices against Alliance threats, “NATO is threatening and trying to provoke a nuclear war in Europe by putting bombers and nuclear missiles on the border with Russia.”  Although tensions seemed to have relaxed a bit after President Trump took office due to his complimentary rhetoric about Russian President Vladimir Putin, more recently relations have sunk much deeper with revelations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the poisoning of a Russian émigré Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Britain, stepped up U.S. economic sanctions, British expulsions of Russian diplomats, counter responses by Russia, and renewed nuclear threats by Trump and Putin as both leaders announced further qualitative and quantitative increases in long-term nuclear weapons modernization programs.

(Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.” Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp, 133-134 and numerous articles from mainstream and alternative news media websites.)