January: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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January: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

January 1, 1992 – It was not only a New Year but it seemed like a new century as the almost fifty-year Cold War, which began in 1946, ended.  The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989, the Velvet Revolutions against Soviet-imposed communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-90, the ending of the Warsaw Pact Soviet-Eastern European military alliance in February 1991, and finally the Christmas Day 1991 dissolution of the U.S.S.R, all seemingly meant that peace was at hand.  In 1991, global nuclear arsenals totaled around 58,300 warheads.  A quarter century later, in January of 2017, there remain roughly 15,375 nuclear warheads (Russia with 7,300 and the U.S. with 6,970, respectively, which represent 93 percent of the global arsenal) of which 4,200 are deployed with operational forces with about 1,800 warheads on a hazardous hair-trigger alert status and ready to be used on short notice, including a shocking number of doomsday weapons deployed by both NATO and Russia near the borders of the former Soviet Union.  Comments:  Surprisingly, despite all the myriad of other global problems facing humankind (climate change, the largest number of war refugees since World War II, growing international as well as domestic terrorism, overpopulation, poverty, a growing gap between rich and poor, and many other concerns), the risks of nuclear war are not significantly lower today than they were during the Cold War.  While it has been 20 years since Cornell University astrophysicist, cosmologist, and world-renowned science-popularizer Carl Sagan passed away, his warning about the nuclear threat is as relevant in 2017 as it was more than 25 years ago:  “On our small planet, at this moment, we face a critical branch point in history.  What we do with our world right now will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants.  It is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well.  If we capitulate to superstition, greed, or stupidity, we can plunge our world into a darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance.  But we’re also capable of using our compassion, our intelligence, our technology, and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.” (Sources:  Hans Kristensen and Stan Norris. “Status of World Nuclear Forces.”  Federation of American Scientists, 2016 http://fas.org/issues/nuclear-weapons/status-world-nuclear-forces/ and The Carl Sagan Portal.  http://carlsagan.com accessed Dec. 16, 2016.)


January 11, 2007 – An extensive study, designated JSR-06-335, paid for by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration and conducted by the contract firm the MITRE Corporation of McLean, Virginia titled “Pit Lifetime” was released on this date.  A group of nuclear weapons experts in the JASON Program Office including Freeman Dyson and Sidney Drell as well as other employees of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) and Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) concluded that their multi-year assessment of the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile showed, “no degradation in performance of primaries (plutonium pits) of stockpile systems due to plutonium aging that would be a cause for concern regarding their safety and reliability.  Most primary types have credible minimum (author’s emphasis) lifetimes in excess of 100 years…”  Comments:  In addition to the fact that dramatic reductions and the eventual elimination (sooner than later is highly recommended due to the ongoing and increasing daily risk of nuclear war) of global nuclear arsenals is supported by the vast majority of humanity, this JASON study is still relevant today as it casts extreme doubt on the current Obama and future Trump administration’s imperative to modernize and improve the reliability of the nuclear arsenal.  While many Pentagon, DOE, and civilian hawks criticized this 2007 study, most U.S. Department of Energy staffers, as well as the former director of LANL, Harold Agnew, agreed with the conclusions.  The JASON scientists also concluded that the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) would not negatively impact nuclear weapons safety and reliability.  Therefore, in order to prevent wasting hundreds of billions of dollars, if not more, as well as protecting Americans and global populations from the detrimental health and environmental impacts of renewed nuclear testing, the 45th President of the United States should strongly recommend to the newly sworn-in Congress that:  (1) U.S. nuclear modernization be severely curtailed or even eliminated (except for relatively inexpensive steps to make the arsenal safer and more protected from hacking threats) and (2) that the U.S. join the majority of world nations by having the Senate ratify the CTBT in the first 100 days of his administration.  (Source:  JASON Program Office.  “Pit Lifetime.” MITRE Corporation, JSR-06-335, Jan. 11, 2007 http://fas.org/irp/agency/dod/jason/pit.pdf accessed Dec. 17, 2016.)


January 13, 1975 – A New York Times article, “Air Force Panel Recommends Discharge of Major Who Challenged Failsafe System,” published on this date, discussed an incident in 1973 when a U.S. nuclear missile launch control officer-in-training, Major Harold L. Hering, asked one of the seminal questions in the history of the human species – what the U.S. Air Force considered a forbidden question – “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”  Comments:  The order, like all military orders to blindly and unquestioningly obey a superior’s command authority without any reservation whatsoever, to launch genocidal nation-destroying, nuclear winter-species threatening Armageddon-causing weapons represents the very fundamental foundation of the nuclear deterrence assumption – a supposedly ultra-rational, unerring means of preventing the U.S., Russia, China, or other nuclear powers and their allies from ever facing wholesale destruction at the hands of a foreign enemy.  The massive and extremely hazardous flaws in this system, which has almost failed too many times to count (if we include hundreds or thousands of nuclear incidents and accidents which narrowly triggered accidental or unintentional nuclear warfare), have been written about and debated extensively for over seventy years – and have been dramatized in many books and films including Fail Safe and Doctor Strangelove and other works.  It’s clearly an open secret to the vast majority of humanity that deterrence will eventually fail catastrophically resulting in unintentional megadeath on an unforeseen scale and most probably the end of human civilization if not the entire species.  Global citizenry are increasingly verbalizing opposition to this state of affairs by stating most forcefully, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore.”  There is an ever growing global consensus that nuclear arms threaten everyone and that this situation must be reversed before it is too late.  (Source:  Ron Rosenbaum.  “How the End Begins:  The Road to a Nuclear World War III.”  New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.)


January 14, 2017 – Eighteen months ago on July 14, 2015, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5 + 1), and the European Union announced an agreement with Iran that is commonly referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal,” a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  endorsed by over 70 global nonproliferation experts to lift sanctions on that nation in return for an Iranian commitment to curtail their nuclear enrichment activities and significantly eliminate the risk that the Islamic Republic would be able to build a nuclear weapon for at least ten years or more.  In September of 2015, a Republican-controlled Congress approved this international agreement.  The November 8, 2016 election of Republican Donald Trump as president put the first nail in the coffin of the Iran nuclear deal, and the second major blow to the agreement was President-elect Trump’s selection of Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-KS) as CIA Director.  Pompeo has stated that, “I look forward to rolling back this disastrous deal…”  Current CIA Director John Brennan called this potential move a mistake.  He warned Trump that scrapping the agreement with Iran would undermine U.S. foreign policy, embolden hardliners in Iran and threaten to set off a nuclear arms race in the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  Brennan said, “I think it would be the height of folly if the next administration were to tear up that agreement.”  Comments:  Even if the U.S. withdraws from the Iran nuclear deal, it is unlikely that the agreement will also be scuttled by all or most of the other signatories.  America will become an international pariah again, ironically along with hardline Iranian advocates of an accelerated nuclear program.  Nonproliferation will also suffer a significant setback and the risk of a regional nuclear conflict involving Iran, Israel, or possibly India and Pakistan will increase substantially.  Trump-supported Israeli air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities could spur a wider regional war and increase the risk of not just more terrorism but of nuclear terrorism with the U.S. and Israel as the most likely targets.  (Sources:  U.S. Department of State.  “Nuclear Agreement With Iran.” July 14, 2015 http://www.state.gov/p/nea/p5/ and Dan Bilefsky.  “CIA Chief Warns Donald Trump Against Tearing Up Iran Nuclear Deal.”  New York Times. Nov. 30, 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/world/americas/cia-trump-Iran-nuclear-deal.html?smid=fb-n… both accessed December 19, 2016.)


January 21, 1968 – A fire that broke out in the navigator’s compartment of a U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber, carrying four Mark-28 nuclear bombs each with a yield of 1.1 megatons, caused the crew to quickly eject before the aircraft crashed at a speed of 600 miles-per-hour impacting seven miles southwest of Thule Air Base onto the ice of North Star Bay in Greenland, a Danish possession.  High explosives jacketing the nuclear warheads and their plutonium pits detonated on impact igniting an estimated 225,000 pounds of jet fuel which triggered a catastrophic fire that burned over an area of three square miles.  Extreme weather conditions made comprehensive recovery and decontamination of the crash zone impossible.  Nevertheless, an extremely large volume of contaminated ice and debris (that eventually filled 147 freight train cars and represented an estimated 237,000 cubic feet of material) was flown back to the Atomic Energy Commission facility in Aiken, South Carolina and buried while bomb fragments were recycled at the Pantex facility in Amarillo, Texas.  This incident spurred massive protests in Denmark as the Danish government had forbidden U.S. deployment of nuclear weapons on its territory.  Comments:  Many of the hundreds if not thousands of nuclear accidents, involving all nine nuclear weapons states, still remain partially or completely classified and hidden from public scrutiny which potentially threatens the health and well-being of large numbers of people.  These near-nuclear catastrophes provide an additional justification for reducing dramatically and eventually eliminating an estimated 15,375 warheads in existing global nuclear arsenals.  (Sources:  The Center for Defense Information.  “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents:  Dangers In Our Midst.”  The Defense Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 5, 1981. http://www.nukestrat.com/us/CDI_BrokenArrowMonitor1981.pdf accessed Dec. 17, 2016 and Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013.)


January 24, 1946 – The very first resolution of the newly created United Nations General Assembly, passed on this date, called for the elimination of atomic weapons. Over the ensuring seven decades, hundreds of other U.N. resolutions have addressed the global threat of nuclear weapons and nuclear power.  Last October at the U.N. General Assembly First Committee for Disarmament, 123 nations, including amazingly North Korea, voted to support negotiations in 2017 to prohibit and ban nuclear weapons just as the vast majority of world nations in the past made biological and chemical weapons’ production and use illegal.  Unfortunately in this vote, the United States joined Israel, Russia, the U.K., France, the NATO countries (with the exception of The Netherlands which abstained due to grassroots public lobbying), Australia, South Korea, and Japan in a bloc of 38 opposing nations.  Surprisingly, China joined non-NPT nuclear weapons states Pakistan and India in a group of 16 abstaining nations.   All nine nuclear weapon states, unfortunately, did vote as a bloc to boycott a special U.N. Open Ended Working Group for Nuclear Disarmament held in the summer of 2016.  Comments:  The vast majority of global populations (including many that live in the nine nuclear weapons states) and nation-states have recognized the urgent imperative of eliminating nuclear weapons or at least reducing global nuclear stockpiles below the nuclear winter threshold with the utmost timeliness and speed.  Every day we delay this essential prerequisite to continued human survival, we risk the unthinkable – the first use of nuclear weapons in combat since 1945, the first-ever use of genocidal thermonuclear weapons against human populations, and the triggering of an unprecedented global catastrophe – nuclear war.  It is an extremely slippery slope to argue that a “small” bunker-busting nuclear weapon used against underground Iranian or North Korean nuclear facilities will not be the tripwire that opens the door to the use of other types and sizes of nuclear weapons by other nation-states or actors.  Once Pandora’s Box is opened, it may be too late to save our global civilization and the human species.  Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon presented a forceful argument against the nuclear deterrence “blinders” employed by nuclear weapons states and their allies in a 2013 speech in Monterey, California, “I urge all nuclear-armed states to reconsider their national nuclear posture.  Nuclear deterrence is not a solution to international peace and stability.  It is an obstacle.  The longer we procrastinate, the greater the risk that these weapons will be used, will proliferate, or be acquired by terrorists.  But our aim must be more than keeping these weapons from “falling into the wrong hands.”  There are no right hands for nuclear weapons.”  (Source:  United Nations General Assembly.  Resolution UNGA 1, 24 January 1946 and Alice Slater.  “Seeking Nuclear Disarmament in Dangerous Times.”  In Depth News. Nov. 28, 2016.)