May: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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May: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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May 2-12, 2017 –The First Preparatory Committee meeting for the 2020 NPT Review Conference will be held in Vienna, Austria as we approach the 49th anniversary of one of the most seminal arms control treaties of the Nuclear Age – the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) first signed on July 1, 1968 by the U.S., U.K., the Soviet Union, and 59 other nations and entered into force on March 5, 1970.  Currently, the treaty has 191 participating nation-states.  Comments:  While the Cold War-era world didn’t have to deal with a worst-case scenario of dozens of nuclear weapons states warned about by Democratic presidential candidate John Kennedy during the third Nixon-Kennedy Debate on Oct. 13, 1960, today things have reached a crisis point again.  While the nuclear test blasts and ballistic missile tests of North Korea in the last decade and fears of future Iranian nuclear weapons development are legitimate concerns, the campaign rhetoric and recent policy responses by President Donald Trump are equally disturbing.  The 45th President’s pre-election statements promoting the idea that Japan, South Korea, and other allies should join the Nuclear Club set U.S. nuclear non-proliferation policy back decades.  But more frightening are recent U.S. military moves ordered by the President including threats to send a carrier battle group to the waters off North Korea combined with rhetoric about possible U.S.-launched regime change, along with belligerent responses by Kim Jong-un’s government.  An attack on North Korea with the intent of destroying their weapons of mass destruction and/or assassinating that nation’s political leadership could purposely or more likely inadvertently break the tripwire that triggers the first use of nuclear weapons in combat since 1945.  However, even if no nuclear weapons are discharged, a conventional war between the North and South could heighten U.S.-Russia/China nuclear tensions and result in a tremendous and catastrophic loss of human life.  And, while it is possible that North Korean WMD could be eliminated in such a war, the long-term prognosis, like that of the war to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s WMD, could be increased regional chaos and terrorism.  (Sources: Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC: Center for Defense Information, 2002, p.1, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, http://disarmament.un.org/treaties/t/npt accessed April 14, 2017.)

May 8, 1999 – The Kargil Conflict between India and Pakistan, which had fought three previous wars in 1947, 1965 and 1971, began on this date and continued until July 26.  This war occurred just one year after both countries detonated nuclear explosives, a first for Pakistan.  After two months of intense high-altitude fighting in and around mountain peaks and valleys of the Great Himalayan Range, each side suffered more than 1,000 casualties before Pakistan withdrew from contested territory and India regained those mountain posts.  While some claim nuclear forces were mobilized by each side, other experts disagree.  Nonetheless, it became known years after the war ended that Indian troops were within days of opening another front along the Kashmir Line of Conflict, an act that may have triggered a wider war that would likely have seen the deployment and possible use of nuclear weapons.  The threat of a South Asian nuclear conflict increased dramatically again during a military crisis between the two nations from December 2001 through June 2002 after India’s parliament was attacked by Islamist militants who allegedly had ties to the Pakistani government.  Yet another tripwire to nuclear war was avoided in 2008 after a terrorist attack on Mumbai, India was linked to intelligence agencies in Pakistan.  For a number of years, regular artillery exchanges have been common in the extremely volatile region of Kashmir.  India’s nuclear doctrine mandates that if its conventional forces suffer a nuclear attack, it would respond with an all-out nuclear counterstrike targeting Pakistani population centers.  Pakistan has threatened to respond in a similar fashion.  Comments:  A nuclear war in South Asia would have a devastating impact not just on the region but on the planet.  With India’s strong ties to the United States and Pakistan’s growing relationship with China, such a war could escalate to a global one.  This situation represents yet another paramount reason why global nuclear arsenals should be dramatically reduced without delay and eliminated at the earliest possible opportunity.  (Sources:  “The Growing Threat of Nuclear War and the Role of the Health Community.” World Medical Journal.  Vol. 62, No. 3, October 2016. http://lab.arstubiedriba.lv/WMJ/vol62/3-october-2016/slides/slide-8.jpg and “The Kargil Conflict.” Encyclopedia of India.  Thomson Gale Publishers, 2006. http://www.encyclopedia.com/international/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/kargil-conflict both accessed April 14, 2017.)

May 9, 1970 – One of the most notable labor leaders, human rights advocates (and participant in Civil Rights-era protests including the March on Selma in 1965), peace activists (and opponent of the Vietnam War), and anti-nuclear spokesmen of the 20th century was silenced on this date when Walter P. Reuther, along with his wife and a number of friends and colleagues, perished in a plane crash near Pellston, Michigan.  Reuther was born in Wheeling, W.Va. on Sept. 1, 1907 and as a young man he moved to Detroit where he became an expert tool and die maker in the auto industry.  Later, he was elected president of an influential auto workers’ union local group and led several strikes in 1937 and 1940, became president of the United Auto Workers in 1946, and helped found the Americans for Democratic Action organization.  In 1952, he was elected president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations and within three years he was a key player in the merger of both unions to form the AFL-CIO.  In the 1960s, he marched with Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers in Delano, California and also strongly showed his support for the Civil Rights movement by participating in the August 1963 March on Washington led by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.  The Republican candidate for president in 1964, a staunchly conservative Barry Goldwater, once declared Reuther “a more dangerous menace than the Sputnik or anything Soviet Russia might do in America.”  In a Labor Day speech in 1966, Reuther presented a strong case for utilizing rapid technological advances not for war but for improving the human condition:  “The question that challenges the wisdom and the sense of human solidarity of the whole human family is the overriding question:  To what purpose do we commit the potential power of the 20th century technological revolution?  Do we harness the potential power to the madness of nuclear war or can we build a rational and responsible world community and harness the rising star of science and technology to man’s peaceful purposes?  The 20th century technological revolution has no ideology and it has no morality.  We must bend it to man’s peaceful purposes or we shall perish.” In another speech, Reuther proclaimed, “The people of the whole world are the prisoners of the Cold War and the insanity of the escalation of the nuclear arms race.  And that’s why I believe America has the responsibility for providing both the political and moral leadership to try to move the world out of this prison of the Cold War and the arms race towards reductions in the levels of armament because I believe that in the long run, peace is the only condition of human survival.” (Source:  The Reuther Library. “No Greater Calling: The Life of Walter P. Reuther.” Wayne State University. http://reuther100.wayne.edu accessed April 14, 2017.)

May 17, 2015 – On this date, Wikileaks published a frightening account of a nuclear whistleblower, a sailor in the British Royal Navy, Able Seaman William McNeilly, whose formal title was Engineering Technician, Weapons Engineer, Submarines.  The 25-year old recruit from Belfast was serving onboard one of the UK’s Trident II strategic nuclear submarines, the ones equipped with the D-5 strategic weapons system carrying 16 nuclear-tipped, long-range Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) capable of single-handedly obliterating dozens of targets with multi-megatons of nuclear devastation.  Seaman McNeilly blew the whistle on the terrifying vulnerabilities of the UK’s sea-based nuclear submarine force, revealing serious safety and security issues including the Trident force’s susceptibility to possible terrorist attack.  He revealed how easy it was to use a Samsung Galaxy II phone to actually obtain top secret information on nuclear safety and security.  Not long after these revelations were publicized, William McNeilly was dishonorably discharged from the Royal Navy.  He charged that this occurred in order to protect the public image of that military organization, “It is shocking that some people in a military force can be more concerned about public image than public safety.”  A year later in June of 2016 more problems with the Royal Navy’s Trident fleet surfaced when the The Sunday Times later revealed that a dummy, unarmed Trident II D5 missile launched from the submarine HMS Vengeance somewhere off the coast of Florida malfunctioned and, instead of heading eastward toward the mid-Atlantic Ocean, was misdirected on a trajectory toward the Florida coast.  This misfire was kept secret and not revealed by The Times until after the British Parliament voted overwhelmingly (472-117) on July 19, 2016 to approve $53 billion in funding to continue the UK’s investment in the Trident II system.  Comments:  The chances of an unintentional, unauthorized, or accidental nuclear war are disturbing enough without also factoring in the risks of nuclear terrorism.  For these reasons, the flawed assumptions of nuclear deterrence should be reevaluated, while at the same time global nuclear arsenals should be dramatically reduced. (Sources:  “Trident Whistleblowing: Nuclear ‘Disaster’ Waiting to Happen.” Wikileaks. May 17, 2015.  http://www.wikileaks.org/trident-safety/, Rob Edwards. “Trident Whistleblower William McNeilly Discharged from Royal Navy.” The Guardian. June 17, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/jun/17/trident-whistleblower-william-mcneilly-discharged-from-royal-navy and Weston Williams. “Trident Missile Misfire off Florida.” Christian Science Monitor. January 22, 2017. http://www.csmonitor.com all accessed April 14, 2017.)

May 21, 1946 – 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, a Jewish scientist from Canada working for the U.S. government became one of these unfortunate casualties.  At a laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Louis Alexander Slotin was working with a new beryllium tamper installed around a plutonium bomb core, when he inadvertently allowed the screwdriver separating the tamper from the bomb assembly to fall and land squarely on the assembly which resulted in what is referred to as a “neutron criticality incident” or “blue flash.”  Slotin reacted quickly to jerk the tamper off the assembly and drop it instantly to the floor which saved the lives of General Lesley Groves and five other witnesses. However, Slotin received a lethal radioactive dose of 2,100 rems and experienced agonizing pain and suffering until he died nine days later.  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 a unforeseen, catastrophic nuclear event 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, p. 61-66.)

May 27, 1968 – A 3,500-ton, 252 foot-long U.S. nuclear attack submarine, the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589), after leaving Rota, Spain to escort a Polaris Missile submarine to deep water, was reported lost at sea on this date after being six days overdue at Norfolk naval base and was not found until October 29th of that year lying on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean at a depth of almost 10,000 feet about 400 miles southwest of the Azore Islands on the edge of the Sargasso Sea.  Onboard the nuclear-powered vessel (powered by a S5W reactor) were at least two Mark 45 Astor anti-submarine torpedoes equipped with W34 nuclear warheads.  Ninety-nine sailors perished in an accident of undetermined nature including possibly the malfunction and resulting explosion of a conventional Mark 37 torpedo inside the hull or possibly after being jettisoned from the craft.  Comments: This deadly incident 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 Spencer Dunmore.  “Lost Subs.”  Cambridge, MA:  Da Capo Press, 2002, p. 140-145.)

 


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