April: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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April: This Month in Nuclear Threat History


April 1, 2016 – A two-day meeting in Washington of 52 nations (but not Russia which two years ago announced it would not attend), the United Nations, and four international organizations (the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], Interpol, The Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism [GICNT], and the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction) wraps up on this date ending the fourth and final biennial Summit on Nuclear Security first hosted by President Barack Obama in April of 2010. Comments: Although these summits have resulted in the number of countries with weapons-usable nuclear material dropping from 32 to 24 in the last six years (including Uzbekistan which surrendered its remaining stockpile of highly enriched uranium last September due to the combined efforts of Russia, the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration, and the IAEA), many observers are concerned that the momentum of the nuclear security agenda will fade after the summit process terminates. Other experts have criticized the six-year old regime for not focusing more intensely on reducing civilian stockpiles of separated plutonium as well as large stockpiles of nuclear materials categorized for military uses. This latter fissile arsenal makes up more than eighty percent of the dangerous global stockpile of weapons-usable material. Yet another concern as expressed by an anonymous German government official in a February 18th email is the critically important need “to build up sustainable and robust protection against cyberattacks for civilian nuclear reactors and other nuclear installations.” (Source: “Nuclear Summit Seeks Sustainable Results.” Arms Control Today. March 2016. http://www.armscontrol.org/ACT2016_03/News/Nuclear-Summit-Seeks-Sustainable-Resul… accessed March 11, 2016.)

April 6, 2010 – President Barack Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR), released on this date, assured non-nuclear weapons states that the U.S. would not attack them with nuclear arms as long as those nations complied with their nuclear nonproliferation obligations. The NPR also removed from the U.S. arsenal an entire class of nuclear-armed Tomahawk sea-launched land attack cruise missiles, called for deeper bilateral Russian-American arms reductions, and promised that the U.S. would only use nuclear weapons in response to nuclear attacks against the U.S. or its allies. The short-term results of the NPR were overwhelmingly positive with Russia downgrading its strategic doctrine to include nuclear options only in response to attacks that threaten Russia’s “very existence.” Another impact of the review was an increasing tendency for NATO allies like Germany, Norway and Belgium to push for the removal of tactical nuclear weapons remaining on U.S. bases in NATO territories. It also seemed likely that the NPR would halt the accelerating erosion of the viability of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). When the President and then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START treaty that same month, limiting each side to no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and no more than 700 deployed ICBMs, SLBMs, and heavy nuclear-capable bombers, it seemed that the future looked fairly bright. There was also significant hope for accelerated progress on eliminating all nuclear weapons within a decade or so.   Comments: However, in the last few years almost all these trends have not only stopped but been reversed to a very large degree. Despite President Obama’s continued but increasingly hollow commitment to eliminate nuclear weapons made in his April 5, 2009 Prague speech, the nuclear reduction regime has been hugely sidetracked. U.S.-Russian tensions over the 2014-15 Crimea-Ukraine Crisis, an increasingly partisan growingly hawkish Republican-controlled Congress, and other negative global trends (Chinese and Russian nuclear modernization responses to increased U.S. nuclear weapons spending, the rise of ISIS, continued North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile testing and saber-rattling war rhetoric) have not only scuttled anti-nuclear progress, but lead to revisited Cold War-era nuclear arms racing.   Under extreme and unrelenting pressure from the military-industrial-Congressional-nuclear weapons laboratories complex, the President has appeased the Nuclear Hawks with an overly expensive, unnecessary $1 trillion nuclear modernization program to be implemented over the next 30 years. The U.S. nuclear triad will be “enhanced” by the inclusion of 1,000 new strategic missiles with adjustable nuclear capacity (including a new generation of nuclear-capable cruise missiles), 100 new long-range bombers, and a new fleet of nuclear-armed submarines. Even moderates like former Defense Secretary William Perry (who was quoted as saying, “if the plan becomes real, disputes among nations will be more likely to erupt in nuclear conflict than during the Cold War.”) and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen (who noted that, “we’re spending ourselves into oblivion. Our skyrocketing national debt represents the most significant threat to our national security.”) oppose the plan. The incoming 45th President of the United States must recognize that the only viable global nuclear posture that ensures humanity’s survival in the 21st century is Global Zero! (Sources: Scott Sagan. “After the Nuclear Posture Review: Obama’s Disarming Influence.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. April 19, 2011. http://thebulletin.org/after-nuclear-posture-review-Obama’s-disarming-influence, Steven Pifer. “Obama’s Faltering Nuclear Legacy: The 3R’s.” The Washington Quarterly. Summer 2015. https://twq.elliott.gwu.edu/sites/twq.elliott.gwu.edu/files/downloads/Pifer_Summer%202015.pdf, and Stephen Kinzer. “Rearming for the Apocalypse.” The Boston Globe. January 24, 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2016/01/24/beware-obama-nuclear-weapons-plan/IJP9E48w3cjLPITqMhZdFL/st accessed March 11, 2016.)

April 7, 1978 – After the U.S. Congress voted on October 11, 1977 to pass HR 11686 – Public Law 95-509 to authorize the production of a new generation of tactical nuclear weapons including the “neutron bomb” – a nuclear warhead to be used on the U.S. Army 60-mile range Lance missile and its 8 inch and 155 mm howitzer artillery pieces to attack large massed Soviet tank formations in a hypothetical large-scale invasion of western Europe – on this date President Jimmy Carter announced he would defer production of the neutron bomb while, at the same time, continuing with the modernization of the U.S. stockpile of tactical nuclear weapons approved by Congress in the Fiscal Year 1979 budget. The neutron warhead would have produced the same surge of lethal radiation as other nuclear weapons but it would have only one-tenth the explosive power limiting blast and fire damage to a few hundred yards while creating a lethal radioactive kill zone of more than a half mile wide. Comments: During the Cold War, both the Soviet Union and the U.S. developed and deployed tens of thousands of shorter-range “tactical” as well as longer-range “strategic” nuclear weapons which unwittingly brought the world closer to global thermonuclear war. Unfortunately, today in the U.S., Russia, China, and other nuclear weapons states there has been a renewed push for smaller “more usable” nuclear weapons including President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget proposal released in February 2016 which called for the development of hundreds of new nuclear-tipped cruise missiles and modernization of the B61 tactical “bunker buster” nuclear warhead that many War Hawks envision as a weapon that could “take out” deep underground nuclear facilities in North Korea or Iran.   Using tactical or even very small nuclear warheads would nevertheless breach the nuclear threshold and bring the world much closer to global nuclear Armageddon. (Sources: Contemporary mainstream and alternative news media reports and “Neutron Bomb Sparks Controversy Regarding Next Generation Nuclear Weapons.” CQ Almanac. 1978. https://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal78-1238840 accessed March 11, 2016.)

April 10, 1963 – The nuclear submarine U.S.S. Thresher, the first submarine in its class, sank during deep-diving trials after flooding, loss of propulsion, and an attempt to blow the emergency ballast tanks failed. The disabled ship, which would not have been carrying nuclear weapons, ultimately descended to crush depth and imploded about 190 nautical miles east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts killing all 129 men onboard the vessel and most probably exposing some radioactive components of the ship’s reactor core to the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Comments: In the past, eight nuclear submarines, six of them Soviet/Russian and the other two, including the Thresher, American, have sunk with dozen of nuclear ballistic missiles also lost at sea. Some of the nuclear reactors and warheads in these and other military vessels or aircraft lost at sea are leaking highly radioactive toxins affecting not only the flora and fauna of the deep, but the health and well-being of millions of people. (Source: “Major Sub Disasters: Thresher: Going Quietly.” NationalGeographic.com. 1996. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/k19/disasters_detail2.html accessed March 11, 2016.)

April 16, 1953 – Although the 34th U.S. President Dwight David Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea in 1953 and endorsed Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ buildup of huge stockpiles of hydrogen bombs as part of the “Massive Retaliation” strategic doctrine to ensure that the U.S. had “more bang for the buck,” the Denison, Texas-born Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and hero of the Second World War realized that peace and diplomatic approaches were a much wiser course of action. For instance, at the 1945 Potsdam Conference then General Eisenhower expressed the view that dropping atomic bombs on Japan was an unnecessary, inhumane decision. On this date before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the President gave his famous “Cross of Iron” speech in which he said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, and the hopes of its children…This is not a way of life, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.” Comments: President Eisenhower’s speech is as starkly accurate today as it was more than sixty years ago. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), world military expenditures, including nuclear weapons spending, in 2014 was 1.776 trillion dollars. The opportunity cost of not only maintaining, upgrading, and modernizing tens of thousands of tactical, strategic, standby and reserve nuclear weapons, while also spending hundreds of billions of dollars on an incredibly wasteful array of conventional weaponry is unconscionable. If just nuclear weapons alone were dramatically reduced or even eliminated, money would be freed up for cancer and chronic disease R&D, addressing Global Warming climate impacts as well as regional environmental disasters, phasing out and cleaning up hundreds of dangerous civilian nuclear power plants while also mitigating and sequestering a huge volume of toxic radioactive waste from a plethora of global civilian and military sites, educating  and employing millions of people all over the planet and particularly in the Third World, rebuilding and innovating more energy-efficient and productive transportation networks, medical facilities, agricultural projects, and other crumbling global civilian infrastructures, and solving other worldwide societal problems. (Sources: “Cross of Iron Speech: Address by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.” Information Clearing House. April 16, 1953. http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article9743.htm and “Military Spending and Armaments, 2015.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. http://www.sipri.org/research/armaments/milex both accessed March 11, 2016.)

April 26, 1986 – A fire in the core of the No. 4 unit and a resulting explosion that blew the roof off the reactor building of 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., resulted in the largest ever release of radioactive material from a civilian reactor, with the possible exception of the Fukushima Dai-chi accident of 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 ensuring 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. Thirty years later, a sarcophagus encloses the deadliest radioactive site on the planet which contains 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 sarcophagus 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 area, 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 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 the 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. (Sources: “Nuclear Scars: The Lasting Legacies 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 Are Still Eating Radioactive Food” Reuters (also published on Newsweek website). March 9, 2016. http://www.newsweek.com/30-years-after-chernobyl-locals-are-still-eating-radioactive-food-435253 both accessed March 11, 2016.)