August: This Month In Nuclear Threat History

Marshall Islands Nuclear Zero Lawsuit Appeal Dismissed by Ninth Circuit Court
July 31, 2017
U.S. to Launch Provocative Minuteman III ICBM Test
August 2, 2017
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August: This Month In Nuclear Threat History


August 1, 2016 – As part of a routine ongoing series of strategic deterrence exercises, a U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM) mission called POLAR ROAR, in conjunction with North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and NATO allies, began when five bombers from all three of the U.S. strategic bomber bases commenced a military exercise designed to test STRATCOM’s long-range, global-strike capability as three synchronized flight plans encompassed more than 55,000 miles. One B-52 bomber from the 2nd Bomb Wing at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada flew with Danish, Swedish, and Canadian fighter aircraft to the North and Baltic Seas before returning to Barksdale AFB, Louisiana.  Two B-52s from the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot AFB, North Dakota flew over the North Pole and mainland Alaska where they conducted intercept training with NORAD-assigned U.S. F-22 aircraft and an inert weapons drop at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex (JPARC).  At the same time, two B-2 bombers from the 509th Bomb Wing, Whiteman AFB, Missouri flew over the Pacific Ocean to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska where they practiced intercepts with NORAD-assigned U.S. F-15 aircraft and an inert weapons drop at JPARC.  Meanwhile Russia has stepped up similar nuclear war preparation exercises including a 2013 practice mission that allegedly targeted NATO bases in Sweden.  In 2015-16, Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg charged that “…over the past three years, Russia has conducted at least 18 large-scale “snap” (no advanced notice) exercises, some of which have involved more than 100,000 troops…as part of its overall military buildup, the pace of Russia’s maneuvers and drills have reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War.” Also, there are numerous press reports in 2016-2017 of sometimes intimidating U.S./NATO and Russian intercepts of opposing aircraft on the Asian and European borders of both sides.  Comments:  The odds of an accidental, unintentional, or unauthorized nuclear war are greater today than they have been since the Cold War, especially due to confrontations between aircraft on or near the borders of both nations and in conflict zones such as Syria or Ukraine.  While there have been valuable confidence-building and conflict-reducing agreements in the past like the June 1989 U.S.-U.S.S.R.  Agreement on the Prevention of Dangerous Military Activities, much more needs to be done today and in the near future to help prevent events that might heighten the chance of nuclear escalation.  Many policy experts, politicians, activists, and military officials have argued for no-fly zones around volatile regions like Syria, the Persian Gulf, and the Korean peninsula.  In addition, it is critical that there be a global agreement to wall off cyber capabilities from all military and civilian nuclear operations and early warning systems to prevent a cyber-caused nuclear crisis that could escalate to a nuclear World War III.  (Sources: U.S. Strategic Command Public Affairs.  “Strategic Bomber Force Showcases Allied Interoperability During POLAR ROAR.”  Aug. 3, 2016.  http://www.stratcom.mil/Media/News/News-Article-View/Article/983671/strategic-bomber-force-showcases-allied-interoperability-during-polar-roar/ and Roland Oliphant.  “Russia ‘Simulated A Nuclear Strike’ Against Sweden, NATO Admits.”  The Telegraph. Feb. 4, 2016.  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/russia/12139943/Russia-simulated-a-nuclear-strike-against-Sweden-Nato-admits.htm both accessed July 17, 2017.)

August 3, 1940 – Ramon Antonio Gerardo Estevez, a.k.a. Martin Sheen, a highly acclaimed, award-winning actor in films, television, and on the stage, and a life-long peace, justice, and anti-nuclear activist, was born on this date in Dayton, Ohio, a product of an Irish immigrant mother and Spanish father.  Raised as a Catholic, he once played the role of Peter Maurin, the cofounder of the Catholic Worker Movement after he experienced a real-life meeting with the renowned activist Dorothy Day.  Arrested over 60 times for participating in a wide variety of nonviolent actions including protests against the Iraq War, he was also detained after participating in an April 1, 2007 anti-nuclear testing protest, along with 38 others, at the Nevada Test Site.  “Acting is what I do for a living, activism is what I do to stay alive,” he once remarked.  In the spring of 1989, he was named honorary mayor of Malibu, California and one of his first decrees was a proclamation declaring the area a nuclear-weapons-free-zone.  Awarded a slew of honorary degrees such as the Degree of Doctor of Letters from Marquette University in 2003, he served as one of two U.S. representatives at the first International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) Conference in Oslo, Norway in 2013, which issued a final declaration on the elimination of these deadly doomsday machines.  He played a judge in the documentary “In the King of Prussia: The Trial of the Ploughshare 8,” a film about the trial of Jesuit priest Father Daniel Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six other activists, who on September 9, 1980 broke into a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and damaged two Mark 12-A nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood on warhead documents and order forms.  Martin Sheen’s sympathetic support of this action was seen in this quote, “Until we begin to fill the jails with protest, our governments will continue to fill the silos with weapons.”  More recently, he proclaimed, “We are the generation that brought the bomb in, we have got to be the generation that should take it out.”  (Sources: David Kupfer. “Martin Sheen Interview.”  The Progressive. July 1, 2003.  http://progressive.org/magazine/martin-sheen-interview/#sthash.x0yvs6a7.dpuf and other alternative media sources.)

August 6, 1985 – Exactly forty years after the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan killing or injuring over 100,000 people, the South Pacific Nuclear-Free Zone (SPNFZ) Treaty, also known as The Treaty of Raratonga, was signed at that location in the Cook Islands.  The Treaty bans the production, acquisition, possession, testing, or control of nuclear explosive devices within the zone and it outlaws the provision of fissile material or related equipment to states or territories within the zone unless they are under NPT and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations.  The agreement currently has 13 full members: Australia, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.  France and the U.K. have ratified all three treaty protocols and Russia and China have only ratified Protocols II and III.  While the United States has signed all three protocols (I – requiring states with territories in the region to respect the treaty; II – not to threaten nuclear weapons use against parties to the treaty; and III – not to carry out nuclear tests within the zone), it has not ratified any of the three treaty protocols, under the rubric that it does not accept any limitation on the right of passage of its nuclear vessels and aircraft in the region.  Unfortunately, one can envision that since the U.S. regularly conducts ICBM testing with its Minuteman III test launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California to impact the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, located in the Central Pacific region, U.S. Strategic Command does not want to set a precedent by prohibiting possible future testing of nuclear launch platforms in the adjoining South Pacific region covered by the Treaty of Raratonga.  Nevertheless, on May 3, 2011, President Barack Obama submitted the protocols of this treaty to the U.S. Senate for advice and consent to ratification and less than a year later, on Feb. 15, 2012, the 44th President urged the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty.  Comments:  Along with the Feb.1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco creating a Latin American nuclear-weapons-free-zone (NWFZ), the Dec.1995 Bangkok Treaty mandating a Southeast Asian NWFZ, the April 1996 Pelindaba Treaty creating an African NWFZ, and hundreds of municipal NWFZs established in a number of global cities including several in the United States, the Treaty of Raratonga and other such agreements reflect a growing global campaign to significantly reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons.  It is imperative that all U.N. members, especially the nine nuclear weapon states, ratify these NWFZs and other critical nuclear arms control agreements including the newly negotiated July 2017 U.N. nuclear weapons ban.  Therefore, the 45th President of the United States should lead the way in persuading the U.S. Senate to ratify these agreements as well as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and initiate renewed negotiations for a treaty extending the New START Treaty, which expires in February of 2021. (Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, p. 65 and The James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies for the Nuclear Threat Initiative.  “South Pacific Nuclear-Free-Zone (SPNFZ):  Treaty of Raratonga.”  Monterey, California, June 30, 2017. http://www.nti.org/learn/treaties-and-regimes/south-pacific-nuclear-free-zone-spnfz-treaty-raratonga/ accessed July 17, 2017.)

August 12, 2000 – K-141 Kursk, a 14,000 ton, 505-foot long Russian Oscar II class nuclear-powered submarine, the world’s largest class of cruise missile launching undersea vessels, sank in the Barents Sea off Russia’s northwest coast when a leak of hydrogen peroxide in the forward torpedo room led to the detonation of a conventional torpedo warhead, which in turn triggered the explosion of half a dozen or more other such warheads with a total yield of about 3-7 tons of TNT.  These explosions, which were large enough to register on seismographs across Northern Europe, killed most of the crew of 118 sailors although all hands lost their lives when 23 survivors were not rescued in time to prevent their demise due to a flash fire or lack of oxygen.  Comments: This deadly accident was just one example of dozens or even hundreds of accidents involving submarines, surface ships, and aircraft involving the loss of nuclear propulsion units and/or nuclear weapons.  Some of these nuclear reactors and warheads 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.  (Sources:  William Arkin and Joshua Handler.  “Neptune Papers II:  Naval Nuclear Accidents at Sea.”  Greenpeace International, 1990 and Michael Wines.  “None of Us Can Get Out, Kursk Sailor Wrote,” New York Times. Oct. 27, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/27/world/none-of-us-can-get-out-kursk-sailor-wrote.html accessed July 17, 2017.)

August 21, 1945 – In the early days of the Nuclear Age before automated technologies and heavy shielding made nuclear weapons assembly procedures significantly safer, a number of individuals in both the U.S. and the Soviet Union paid the ultimate price for errors in judgement or merely a slip of the hand and as a result suffered excruciatingly painful injuries and death due to mere seconds of exposure to deadly radioactive materials.  On this date, Haroutune “Harry” K. Daghlian, Jr. working at the “Omega site” section of the Area 2 laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico experienced such an accident.  While manipulating a 6.2 kilogram plutonium bomb core, he inadvertently exposed the core causing a “neutron criticality accident” or “blue flash.”  He received a very heavy radioactive dose of 20,000-40,000 rems to one hand and 5,000-15,000 rems to the other.  After 25 days of agonizing pain and suffering, extreme nausea, and weight loss, he slipped into a coma and perished in the early morning hours of Sept. 15, 1945.  Daghlian is believed to be the first person to die accidentally of acute radioactive poisoning since the Nuclear Age began.  Comments:  Seventy-plus years of nuclear accidents, tests, and experiments have injured or killed countless thousands of individuals, but our species has continued to rely on good fortune to prevent an unforeseen catastrophic nuclear war which could trigger the deaths of millions or even billions of people (through a Nuclear Winter event after a full-scale nuclear exchange) and send humanity back into the Dark Ages or worse, result in the termination of our species.  We can’t rely forever on luck to save the human race.  We must affirmatively act now to drastically reduce and eventually eliminate these doomsday weapons before it is too late.  (Source: James Mahaffey.  “Atomic Accidents.”  New York:  Pegasus Books, 2014, pp. 56-61.)

August 27, 1958 – The first of three very-high altitude clandestine nuclear tests were carried out on this date by the Pentagon in the South Atlantic Ocean about 1,100 miles southwest of Capetown, South Africa.  The Argus I test, like Argus II on Aug. 30 and Argus III on Sept. 6, involved the launch of a low-yield, 1-2 kiloton warhead, on a modified X-17 three-stage ballistic missile fired from the U.S.S. Norton Sound to the height of 300 miles altitude where the resulting nuclear blast was designed to provide information on the trapping of electrically-charged particles in the Earth’s magnetic field in order to assess how very-high altitude nuclear detonations might interfere with communications equipment and ballistic missile performance.  Three other high-altitude nuclear tests were conducted earlier in the month of August by the U.S. in the Pacific Ocean near Enewetak and Johnston Island as part of the Operation Hardtack I series of 35 nuclear explosions.  Comments:  The testing of over 2,050 nuclear devices over the last seven decades by the nine nuclear weapons states has inflicted extremely harmful short- and long-term health impacts to global populations especially native peoples and veterans who participated in observing these tests at a relatively close range.  Increased cancer rates, groundwater contamination, destruction of land and ocean ecosystems, and other detrimental health and environmental impacts still plague large numbers of people today due to nuclear testing.  (Source:  Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and Milton M. Hoenig.  “Nuclear Weapons Databook:  Volume II, Appendix B.”  National Resources Defense Council, Inc. Cambridge, MA:  Ballinger Publishing Co., 1987, pp. 157-158.)