March: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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March: This Month in Nuclear Threat History


March 1, 1995 – In an article titled, “Nation of Nitwits,” Bob Herbert reported in the New York Times that a recent Gallup Poll of the American people discovered just a few years after the Cold War (1945-1991) ended, that over 20 percent of respondents “knew virtually nothing about an atomic bomb attack.  They didn’t know whether – or in some cases, even if – such an attack occurred.”  Presumably that means that fifty years later, a surprising total of at least one-fifth of Americans were unaware of the U.S. atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.  Comments:  It is likely that fewer respondents would have expressed ignorance about the history and current dangers associated with global nuclear arsenals if this poll had been conducted after the fiftieth anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, especially when the debate concerning the display of the nosecone of the B-29 bomber Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in downtown Washington, DC made the national headlines that summer.  At issue was whether that aerospace artifact should include specific historical details on the horrendous human impact, short- and long-term, of the unleashing by the U.S. military of weapons of mass destruction, of a scale previously unforeseen in human history, on populated civilian targets.  Today, although much ignorance still exists on the matter of the nuclear threat, even among some of America’s top political leaders, a growing number of global citizenry continue to push for drastic reductions in and the eventual elimination of this manmade Doomsday machine.

March 11, 1958 – A U.S. Air Force B-47 bomber of the 308th Bombardment Wing, flying from Hunter Air Force Base in Savannah, Georgia to a base in England as part of a four-plane mock bombing exercise called Operation Snow Flurry, accidentally released a 30-kiloton Mark VI nuclear weapon over Mars Bluff, South Carolina. Thankfully the nuclear weapon did not discharge but the conventional high explosives jacketing the nuclear core did explode creating a crater 75 feet in diameter and 35 feet deep which destroyed a farm house and injured several people.  Comments:  This incident represents yet another example of thousands of nuclear accidents, near-misses, and “Broken Arrows,” only some of which the Pentagon and other members of the Nuclear Club have formally acknowledged.  (Sources:  The Center for Defense Information.  “U.S. Nuclear Weapons Accidents:  Dangers In Our Midst.”  The Defense Monitor, Vol. 10, No. 5, 1981 and Eric Schlosser. “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013.)

March 17, 1953 – The first of eleven nuclear test explosions, conducted March through June of 1953 as part of Operation Upshot-Knothole, occurred on this date at the Nevada Test Site.  The 16 kiloton blast was one of seven tower shots in a test series “to find devices for possible inclusion in the nuclear stockpile, to improve military tactics, equipment and training for the atomic battlefield, and to enhance civil defense requirements by measuring and assessing blast effects upon dwellings, shelters, automobiles, and other structures.”  Some of this test series involved the participation of approximately 21,000 military service members.  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 hundreds of thousands of military “participants.”  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, page 153.)

March 23, 1983 – President Ronald Reagan, speaking before a national television audience, announced his dream of making Soviet nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete” by proposing the research, development, and deployment of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), later nicknamed “Star Wars” by news media representatives.  Over $100 billion was spent in the next two decades researching exotic space-based X-ray lasers and other orbital SDI sensors and weapons.  Cost estimates for the program spiraled as high as several trillion dollars as it became clear that a strategic defensive buildup would fuel even more of an offensive nuclear arms race.  This led to the program being downsized in the 1990s to tackle shorter-range missile threats from nations such as Iran and North Korea.  Under President Clinton, the program was renamed National Missile Defense (NMD) in 1996 and focused on using Ground-Based Interceptors to intercept threat missiles in mid-trajectory.  Then, President George W. Bush announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty despite widespread criticism that this move would increase nuclear instability and ratchet up the risk of nuclear war by lifting restrictions on defensive weapons.  In late 2002, the Bush Administration announced the newly named Missile Defense Agency (MDA) would, despite inadequate R&D and a large number of test failures, begin building a Ground-Based Missile Defense (GMD) system.  In 2017, after a decade and a half, the program’s price tag is $40 billion and increasing.  Its test record is poor, oversight of the program has been wholly inadequate, and according to a plethora of defense experts, inside and outside the government, it has no demonstrated ability to stop an incoming missile under real-world conditions.  Comments:  There is little doubt that the Republican-controlled 115th Congress and President Trump will probably increase funding for GMD and possibly expand the focus of missile defense back to outer space as President Reagan proposed almost 35 years ago despite risking the violation of the Outer Space Treaty and other prohibitions on the militarization of outer space, not to mention the tremendous waste of U.S. taxpayer dollars.  (Source:  Laura Grego, George N. Lewis, and David Wright.  “Shielded From Oversight:  The Disastrous U.S. Approach to Strategic Missile Defense.”  Union of Concerned Scientists, July 2016, pp. 1, 6.)

March 28, 1979 – A partial meltdown of two reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania near Harrisburg was one of the most serious nuclear accidents in history.  It caused a massive release of radioactive products endangering residents in the region in the immediate aftermath and for decades after this incident.  The “cleanup” of the accident between August 1979 and December 1993 cost taxpayers approximately $1 billion.   The incident came four years after the Norman C. Rasmussen-chaired Nuclear Regulatory Commission-sponsored report (designated “WASH-1400”), which downgraded the nuclear accident consequences noted in previous government and nongovernmental reports.   German-American nuclear physicist Hans Bethe (1906-2005) wrote an article in the January 1976 edition of Scientific American, which provided a more realistic threat assessment of a catastrophic nuclear reactor meltdown than the Rasmussen Report.  Bethe’s analysis concluded that a serious nuclear accident would claim 3,300 prompt fatalities, create 45,000 instances of early radiation illness, impact 240,000 individuals with cancerous thyroid nodules over a 30-year period, produce 45,000 latent cancer fatalities over the same time period, and trigger approximately 30,000 genetic defects spanning a 150-year period.  His estimated cost (in 1976 dollars) of such an accident was $14 billion.  Comments:  Under President Trump’s Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, there will be a renewed effort to build more nuclear power plants, promote dangerous nuclear energy in other nations, and accelerate the frightening privatization of the handling and disposition of a huge volume of nuclear waste.  In addition to the dangerous risk of nuclear power plant accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima, 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:  “14 Year Cleanup at Three Mile Island Concludes.”  New York Times.  Aug. 15, 1993 accessed on February 6, 2017 at www.nytimes.com and various news media reports.)

March 30, 2016 – At a town hall meeting in Green Bay, Wisconsin hosted by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump followed up on frightening comments he made days earlier regarding nuclear weapons.  Candidate Trump said that he would “not take nuclear weapons off the table” comparing the use of genocidal Doomsday weapons as mere playing cards in a game.  “Somebody hits us within ISIS, you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” he queried host Chris Matthews.  Awhile later, Donald Trump said, “Look nuclear should be off the table, but would there be a time when it could be used, possibly, possibly.”  This led Matthews to ask him point-blank, “Can you tell (the people of) the Middle East we’re not using a nuclear weapon on anybody?”  The future President responded, “I would never say that, I would never take any of my cards off the table.”  Comments:  Although President Barack Obama, other Democrats and even conservative Republicans criticized Trump’s brazenly reckless statements on how he might consider actually targeting people and nations with nuclear weapons and thereby loosen strong international prohibitions, spanning more than seven decades, against using such immoral, illegal, and genocidal weapons, few in the corporate news media countered by proposing that nuclear weapons be significantly reduced or even entirely eliminated!  While the future 45th President was rightly criticized, perhaps not strongly enough though, no one criticized the existing flawed nuclear deterrence system and the alleged right of most Nuclear Club members to validate their long-standing first-use policies.  Surprisingly, no change in the status quo ante, whereby the risk of nuclear war is continually increasing day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year has been forcefully advocated by the mainstream corporate news media or any of the nuclear powers.  (Source:  Full Transcript:  MSNBC Town Hall with Donald Trump Moderated by Chris Matthews, March 30, 2016 http://info.msnbc.com/_news/2016/03/30/35330907-full-transcript-msnbc-town-hall-with-donald-trump-moderated-by-chris-matthews accessed Feb. 18, 2017.)