September: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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September: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

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September 1, 2014 – An article authored by Ray Henry in the Washington Post titled, “U.S. Seeks Trains to Carry Nuclear Waste, But There’s Nowhere For Them to Go Yet,” was published on this date.  Henry reported that he discovered a public solicitation filed by the Department of Energy that proposed purchasing or leasing rail cars to haul 150 ton casks filled with irradiated spent fuel and other nuclear waste from over 90 existing U.S. civilian nuclear power plants.  The solicitation noted that the rail cars would have to last for up to thirty years and would run at standard speed on regular railroad tracks.  The protective casks, which would be reused up to eight times a year, would carry an estimated 70,000 tons of nuclear waste from 30 states to a permanent underground repository site that does not actually exist yet.  Decades-long plans enacted after Congress passed the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 focused on shipping this huge volume of waste by both rail and road to the Yucca Mountain, Nevada site located two hours northeast of Las Vegas.  But the site proved scientifically unsound and politically unworkable.  Meanwhile, more and more nuclear waste is piling up in spent fuel ponds and storage areas in and around U.S. nuclear power plants. Even proposals to move the waste to a smaller number of regional above ground storage facilities, until a permanent site can be tested, scientifically approved, and politically agreed to, will take many years of effort and cost tens of billions of dollars.  Comments:  While almost every antinuclear supporter welcomed the U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as a godsend, there is one significant caveat to this sentiment, the treaty’s preamble which recognizes nations’ “inalienable right” to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.  The global nuclear waste long-term storage conundrum is just one of several critical reasons (another is that nuclear power plants do, in fact, have significant, long-term pre-cradle to grave greenhouse signatures) why nuclear power along with nuclear weapons must both be phased out of existence as soon as possible.  The proliferation threat and the terrorist attack dangers inherent in nuclear power plant operation and especially during nuclear waste transport and long-term storage are other penultimate considerations.  (Sources:  Gregg Levine and Caroline Preston. “Pilgrim’s Progress: Inside the American Nuclear Waste Crisis.” The New Yorker.  Nov. 25, 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/pilgrims-progress-inside-the-american-nuclear-crisis accessed Aug. 14, 2017 and other alternative media sources.)

September 12, 1984 – Academy Award and Emmy Award-winning actress Joanne Woodward served as chairperson of the first National Women’s Conference to Prevent Nuclear War held in the Caucus Room of the Cannon House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.  Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Gene R. La Rocque, director of the antinuclear, antiwar Pentagon watchdog nonprofit organization, the Center for Defense Information (CDI), encouraged board member Woodward to coordinate and host the historic meeting of 250 invitees from the fields of education, science, politics, sports, and entertainment including First Lady Rosalynn Carter, Dr. Helen Caldicott, Coretta Scott King, Bella Abzug, Eleanor Smeal, actresses Sally Field, Lily Tomlin, and Jane Alexander, as well as noted tennis superstar Billie Jean King and women Congressional representatives and staff.  Admiral La Rocque noted that, “My generation has failed to stop the arms race.  But it’s really the men who have failed.  Now it’s up to the women…”  Woodward noted that, “We’re not anti-men, we’re pro-survival. We just thought it would be best for women to hear what other women have to say on the subject because we certainly aren’t being heard in those behind-the-doors meetings where the decisions are made about war and peace.”  Comments:  While much has changed in the 33 years since this conference was held and women have long held meaningful political and military leadership roles in many nations and in international organizations such as the United Nations, one can argue that women have played and should continue to play influential roles in the antinuclear and related peace and social change movements on a global scale.  An opponent of the Vietnam War, like her spouse actor Paul Newman (1925-2008) who also served as a CDI board member, Woodward labored to join with Soviet women in the cause of preventing nuclear conflict by supporting the Nuclear Freeze Movement and other similar efforts to reduce and eliminate the nuclear threat to humanity.  (Source:  Judy Klemesrud.  “Rallying Women on Nuclear War Issues.”  New York Times. Sept. 9, 1984. http://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/09style/rallying-women-on-nuclear-war-issues.html accessed Aug. 14, 2017.)

September 14, 1954 – In a military exercise designated Light Snow, 45,000 Soviet soldiers and officers, told only that they would be involved in an exercise involving a new weapon, were purposely exposed to a ground detonation of a 30-kiloton nuclear device, twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, at the Totskoye Military Range in Orenburg Oblast, Russia.  The bomb was dropped by a Tu-4 bomber while Deputy Defense Minister and hero of the Great Patriotic War (World War II) Georgy Zhukov observed from a safe distance in an underground bunker.  Comments:  The testing of over 2,050 nuclear devices over the last seven decades by 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 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 due to nuclear testing.  (Source:  James Mahaffey.  “Atomic Accidents.”  New York:  Pegasus Books, 2014, p. 79.)

September 20, 2017 – The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as initiated in U.N. General Assembly Resolution A/RES/71/258 after first being proposed by a core group of six nations (Austria, Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, Nigeria, and South Africa), adopted by 113 nations on Dec. 23, 2016, with the final round of negotiations taking place earlier this summer at U.N. Headquarters in New York City, will be opened for signature on this date.  Article 15 of the treaty requires that it will enter into force 90 days after 50 nation-states ratify the agreement.  The treaty, which was approved after an overwhelmingly favorable vote in the General Assembly on July 7, 2017 (122 countries voted in favor, the Netherlands against, and Singapore abstained), prohibits development, testing, production, acquisition, possession, stockpiling, transporting, and deployment of nuclear arms, as well as assisting other nations in any nuclear weapons-related activities and forbidding the use or threat to use these doomsday weapons.  While the treaty has been negotiated by countries that do not have nuclear weapons, Article 4 of the agreement offers the nine members of the Nuclear Club the opportunity to join the treaty with nuclear arms still in their possession whether based on their own territory or an allied nation’s territory.  However, Article 4 mandates that if Nuclear Club members want to join, the weapons must be immediately removed from operational status and the nation must agree to a “legally binding, time-bound plan for the verified and irreversible elimination of all such weapons” as approved by the treaty’s members.  Comments:  Led by the U.S. and Russia, which possess more than 90 percent of the world’s total nuclear arsenal, most of the Nuclear Club members have expressed strong opposition to this treaty, arguing that not only is the treaty overly idealistic and utopian in nature, but also a danger to the system of supposedly “stable, reliable nuclear deterrence that has prevented the use of such weapons for more than seventy years.”  A growing plethora of global critics including academics, the military, arms control experts, politicians, and the general public have responded that the U.S., Russia and other nuclear weapons possessing nations have unfortunately fooled themselves into believing that deterrence is perfect or nearly so, and that the existing nuclear status quo ante will remain robust, stable, and unerring for the indefinite future of the human species.  This stance is highly illogical and counterintuitive as far as the history of civilization and great power politics is concerned.  Perhaps George Wilhelm Engel’s statement from 1827 says it best, “What experience and history teach is this:  that people and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it.”  Nevertheless, let us hope that the Nuclear Ban Treaty will enter into force this fall and mark the beginning of the end of the threat of global thermonuclear Apocalypse.  (Sources:  Zia Mian. “After the Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty:  A New Disarmament Politics.”  Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  July 7, 2017. http://thebulletin.org/after-nuclear-weapons-ban-treaty-new-disarmament-politics10932 and Matthew Bolton. “A Brief Guide to the New Nuclear Weapons Ban Treaty.” JustSecurity.org. July 14, 2017. https://www.justsecurity.org/43004/guide-nuclear-weapons-ban-treaty both accessed Aug. 14, 2017.)

September 23, 1992 – On this date, the U.S. concluded 47 years of nuclear testing (which included a total of 1,030 test blasts) that began with the first test code-named Trinity on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico and ended with a 20 kiloton underground nuclear test code-named Divider at the Nevada Test Site.  Less than two weeks after this test, President George H. W. Bush signed the Hatfield Amendment into law which mandated a nuclear test moratorium.  President Bill Clinton extended the moratorium until September 1996 at which time he signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT).  On Oct. 13, 1999, the Senate rejected the CTBT by a vote of 51-48 and has not brought the treaty back to the floor for a vote even though six months after the Senate CTBT rejection, the Russian Duma approved the ratification of the agreement by a vote of 298-74 on April 21, 2000.  For more than 20-plus years, it seemed to be a given that nuclear testing was not only unnecessary but counter to U.S. and international nuclear non-proliferation policies (seen today in widespread opposition to Iranian and North Korean nuclear weapons development and testing).  In addition to decades of agreement seen in statements by U.S. defense officials and nuclear weapons laboratory directors, there was a 2012 National Academy of Sciences report, “The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty – Technical Issues for the United States,” which laid out a clear-cut technical agreement that concluded that the U.S. did not need nuclear tests to maintain its arsenal.  And in September 2016, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution urging hold out countries to ratify the CTBT.  The United States actually voted in favor of this resolution.  Comments:  Unfortunately some Republicans in Congress as well as President Trump apparently believe U.S. nuclear testing should return.  Republican Congressmen and allies of the 45th President, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), proposed legislation (including S.332) in February 2017 to cut the U.S. share of 25 percent funding ($30 million annually) to the Vienna-based Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization which runs a network of 337 monitoring stations to help enforce the CTBT ban on nuclear explosions.  Not only would this bill set the stage for renewed U.S. nuclear testing, it would also dilute nonproliferation efforts to publicize and sanction countries involved in unauthorized nuclear tests such as North Korea or other nations.  U.S. and other Nuclear Club members’ plans to spend trillions of dollars over the next 30 years to build new generations of nuclear weapons as well as upgrade existing arsenals might benefit from an end to nuclear testing prohibition.  But this would also dramatically increase the risk of nuclear warfighting in the 21st century, making human extinction more likely.  (Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 5, 15, and 22; Darryl G. Kimball and Tom Z. Collina.  “No Going Back: 20 Years Since Last Nuclear Test.”  Issue Briefs, Vol 3. Issue 14, Arms Control Association. Sept. 20, 2012. http://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/No-Going-Back-20-Years-Since-the-Last -US-Nuclear-Test%20 and David Axe.  “Republicans Move to Strip Away Nuclear Test Ban Funding.” Daily Beast. Feb. 13, 2017. http://www.thedailybeast.com/republicans-move-to-strip-away-nuclear-test-ban-funding both accessed Aug. 15, 2017.)

September 26, 1983 – During a time of great Cold War tension and perhaps the second most dangerous time in human history (after the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962), an event occurred that could have resulted in the unthinkable – a global thermonuclear World War III.  Weeks after the Soviets shot down an unarmed civilian South Korean airliner, KAL Flight 007, killing 269 people near Sakhalin Island in the Sea of Japan on September 1, 1983 and weeks before NATO’s Able Archer military exercise (interpreted by a large number of Soviet military and political leaders as a precursor for an actual first strike nuclear attack), this incident took place.  In the early hours of the morning of September 26, 1983, Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Petrov, on duty at Serpukhov-15, a top-secret nuclear command and control station in a rural area just south of Moscow, was monitoring data from a relatively new Soviet early warning satellite.  At 0015 hours, bright red warning lights suddenly lit up the room and a loud klaxon horn directed Petrov to a display showing a U.S. nuclear missile launch from America’s western coast.  Then quickly several more U.S. missile launches were detected.  Petrov asked his colleagues manning the satellite telescopes for “visual confirmation.”  But with the atmosphere cloudy, it was impossible to confirm or deny the alleged nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.  Precious time was speeding by.  He had only 15 minutes or less to make the most important decision of his life.  He was duty bound to report this likely attack, which was registering as the “highest” level of reliability, to his top commanders to recommend an instantaneous nuclear counter-strike.  “All I had to do was to reach for the phone, to raise the direct line (for a counter-strike)…but I couldn’t move.  I felt like I was sitting on a hot frying pan,” he said later.  Instead, Lt. Col. Petrov called the duty officer in the Soviet army’s headquarters and reported a system malfunction.”  If he was wrong, within minutes he would feel the shock wave of U.S. nuclear weapons impacting the Kremlin and hear an alert message on other impacts targeting his nation.  “Twenty-three minutes later, I realized that nothing had happened…It was such a relief,” His sweating, terrified colleagues gathered around him to proclaim him a hero.  Several days later, however, Petrov received an official reprimand for what happened that night – not for what he did, but for mistakes in the log book. “They were lucky it was me on shift that night,” was his understated comment.  This story remained unknown and unreported to the outside world until 1998 when his commanding officer Yury Votintsev revealed details of the incident in a memoir.  Comments:  This is yet another of the very numerous reasons why all nuclear weapons must be eliminated, the sooner the better. (Sources: Pavel Aksenov.   “Stanislav Petrov: The Man Who May Have Saved the World.”  BBC.com. Sept. 26, 2013. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-24280831 and Colin Freeman.  “How Did One Grumpy Russian Halt Armageddon.”  The Telegraph. May 11, 2015. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/film/the-man-who-saved-the-world/nuclear-war-true-story/ both accessed Aug. 15, 2017.)


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