This Winter in Nuclear Threat History, 2020

By |2020-01-21T16:01:12-08:00January 21, 2020|

January 13, 2018 – A little after 8 a.m. local time, Hawaii residents watching television on a peaceful Saturday morning were suddenly shocked and overwhelmed by a broadcast audio message indicating that, “The U.S. Pacific Command has detected a missile threat to Hawaii – Seek shelter immediately, this is not a drill.”  A text message was also sent to millions of e-devices which read as, “Inbound ballistic missile threat enroute to Hawaii – Seek shelter now.”  It was later revealed that an employee of the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency had inadvertently triggered this false alert message.  A correction message was sent out 38 minutes after the initial error message was released but for many it was too late as some panicked, others suffered heart attacks or stress-related health impacts while others disregarded the message.  Many had no idea what they should do as governmental instructions encouraging them to shelter-in-place, preferably at an underground location, were not widely disseminated.  Three days later, on Tuesday January 16th, a Japanese television network, NHK, issued a similar warning claiming that North Korea appeared to have launched a missile toward the island nation and urged people to take shelter inside buildings or underground.  In this instance, the error was corrected within minutes and allegedly there were no reports of panic or other disruptions.  Comments: Over the last three quarters of a century, a disturbing number of false nuclear threat alerts have scared the wits out of millions of global citizenry, although during the Cold War (1945-1991) some U.S. military false alerts were only revealed to members of the public a significant time after they happened thanks to the efforts of researchers and activists utilizing the Freedom of Information Act.  These incidents raise serious concerns about the stark possibilities that misperception, miscommunication including erroneous messages, unauthorized or accidental threats, especially made during times of crisis, could inadvertently trigger a nuclear conflict.  That is why it is paramount for the nine nuclear weapons states to immediately de-alert their doomsday arsenals and sign on to the July 7, 2017 U.N.-negotiated Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons at the earliest opportunity.  (Sources: Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura. “Days After Hawaii’s False Missile Alert, A New One In Japan.” New York Times. Jan.16, 2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/16/world/asia/japan-hawaii-alert.html accessed July 3, 2019 and Alex Wellerstein. “This Is Not A Drill: Lessons From The Hawaii False Missile Alert.” The Courier: Newsletter of The Stanley Foundation, Spring 2019.)

January 17, 1966 – Several hours after leaving its air base near Goldsboro, North Carolina, a U.S. B-52 strategic bomber carrying four Mark-28 hydrogen bombs each one 75 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, collided in mid-air with a KC-135 tanker aircraft near Palomares, on the southern coast of Spain.  The bomber crashed causing the high explosives jacketing two of the thermonuclear warheads to detonate spreading highly radioactive plutonium dust over a very large agricultural area where tomatoes were grown.  The third bomb landed intact but the fourth nuclear weapon disappeared until sometime later when the H-bomb was found resting on the nearby seabed. Part of the plane landed 80 yards from an elementary school, another section of the aircraft hit the earth 150 yards from a chapel.  A long and expensive search and clean-up operation by U.S. military and civilian authorities was undertaken.  Comments:  Hundreds of nuclear incidents including Broken Arrow accidents have occurred over the decades despite some innovative safety measures pushed on the Pentagon by U.S nuclear weapons laboratories and nongovernmental experts.  Nevertheless, the resulting leakage of nuclear toxins, due to accidents (many still underreported or even completely undisclosed for “national security” reasons) by members of the Nuclear Club have threatened the health and safety of large numbers of world citizenry.  (Sources:  Daniel Immerwahr.  “How to Hide An Empire: A History of the Greater United States.” New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019, pp. 352-354 and Tony Long.  “January 17, 1966:  H-Bombs Rain Down on a Spanish Fishing Village.”  Wired.com, January 17, 2012.  http://www.wired.com/2012/jan-17-1966-h-bombs-rain-down/ accessed July 3, 2019.)

January 25, 2016 –A dedicated antinuclear peace activist, Concepcion Picciottio (nicknamed “The Little Giant”), who emigrated to the U.S. from Spain, passed away on this date at the estimated age of 80 years old.  In what some considered as the longest running act of political protest in U.S. history, Ms. Picciotto, beginning in 1981, held a three decade-long vigil in Lafayette Park adjacent to the White House in Washington, DC.  “Connie” or “Conchita,” as she was known to volunteers at the N Street Village housing facility for homeless women, fashioned and displayed a variety of large signs and banners that read, “Nuclear Weapons: A Disgrace to Decency, Civilization, Reason, and Logic,” “Ban All Nuclear Weapons Or Have A Nice Doomsday!” and “Live By the Bomb, Die By The Bomb!”  Comments:  While the involvement in peaceful demonstrations, rhetorical pronouncements, educational activities, protests and political campaigns by celebrities (such as the actor Martin Sheen), business leaders (Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream), politicians both active and retired (Dennis Kucinich), lawyers (Ralph Nader), retired military officers (such as the late Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll, Jr., a former director of The Center for Defense Information), and medical professionals (Dr. Helen Caldicott) is critical to the future success of nuclear abolition, it is just as seminally important for groups of single activists or local grassroots organizations to grow in size, scope, and importance in the ever-expanding movement by hundreds of millions of global citizenry to eradicate nuclear weapons before it is too late.  Even one additional solitary voice can make a difference.  (Source: Caitlin Gibson, “Pennsylvania Avenue Activist Picciottio’s Vigil Lives On After Her Death – With Some Changes.”  Washington Post. March 1, 2016.)

February 5, 2020 – This date represents exactly one year until the deadline expires for either the new 46th President of the U.S. or a reelected President Trump to have negotiated with Russia a renewal of the 2010 New START Treaty, which became effective on Feb. 5, 2011.  This “Moscow Treaty,” as it is also called, committed Russia and the U.S. to reducing the number of nuclear warheads and bombs by 30 percent over seven years and specifically set limits of 1,550 warheads for deployed strategic nuclear weapons held by each nation.  On January 28, 2017, Democracy Now reported that aides to President Trump leaked information that during a Putin-Trump phone conference when asked if he favored extending the New START Treaty, the 45th President allegedly responded in the negative and claimed it was another “bad deal negotiated by President Obama.”  Even more telling are the remarks of former National Security Advisor John Bolton who called the treaty “profoundly misguided” in a Wall Street Journal article published shortly after New START was signed.  “The President has made clear,” a senior White House official recently stated, “that he thinks that arms control should include Russia and China and should include all the weapons, all the warheads, all the missiles.”  Evidently we now are being persuaded to believe that the President wants to outdo Obama and past presidents in the area of arms control.  While some applaud this ambitious gesture to allegedly rein in nuclear arms, others worry that Trump is deliberately setting his target too high as a pretext for walking away without any agreement as he is obviously taking the nuclear talks too close to the expiration deadline of New START.  Some experts like Alexandra Bell, a senior policy director at The Center for Arms Control and Proliferation, feel that Trump could care less if he scuttles arms control, “The only reason you bring up China is if you have no intention of extending the New START Treaty.”  Comments: If the Moscow Treaty is not renewed before the Feb. 5, 2021 deadline, U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals would be unregulated for the first time since 1972!  Once again Americans are discovering that the “election” of the host of a reality game show, a fraudulent business man (examples are too many to cite but one of the most recent is the scandalous “Trump University” affair) without any governmental experience who is sadly lacking in knowledge or expertise in the areas of international law, foreign policy, diplomacy, arms control, and the species-threatening history of the extremely dangerous nuclear threat has put the world horrendously closer to an irreversible Armageddon.  The entirety of humanity won’t be able to breathe easy until his reign has ended – if we survive that long! (Sources:  Matthew Chapman. “Experts Warn Trump’s Huge Scheme to Negotiate ‘All The Missiles’ With Russia and China Will Collapse in Failure.” Raw Story. April 25, 2019 https://www.rawstory.com/2019/04/experts-warn-trumps-huge-scheme-negotiate-missiles-russia-china-will-collapse-failure/ and David Cay Johnston. “The Making of Donald Trump.” New York: Melville House, 2016, and “The U.S. Threatened to Withdraw From A Major Nuclear Arms Treaty With Russia.  Now What?” PBS News Hour. Dec. 6, 2018 https://www.pbs.org/newshour/world/the-u-s-threatened-to-withdraw-from-a-major-nuclear-arms-treaty-with-russia-now-what both accessed July 6, 2019.)

February 25, 1986The Wall Street Journal published one of the first nationally distributed mainstream newspaper articles on another serious but little known threat of the nuclear age – uranium mill tailings.  The tailings are the by-product and one of the dangerous side effects of the mining of uranium, an essential component not only of “peaceful” civilian nuclear power plants but also the production of nuclear weapons.  According to a 2016 article in World Nuclear News, over three million pounds (equivalent to about 1,500 tons) of uranium ore was mined in 2015 with the most important mining sites in Utah along with leaching operations conducted at several sites in Wyoming, Texas, and Nebraska.  The WSJ piece described the tailings as fine sand-like residue left over after uranium is extracted from the mined ore.  Uranium-bearing minerals are removed from the mining products in a chemical leaching process involving the use of acids and bases.  The tailing sands contain a deadly sludge that includes about a dozen radioactive nuclides including thorium-230, radium-226 and radon-222 (i.e., radon gas) and are known to retain up to 85 percent of the ore’s original radioactivity and when stored above ground, this radioactive sand can be carried long distances by the wind to negatively impact our biosphere, particularly the human food chain and sources of fresh drinking water.  The likelihood of toxins like selenium and arsenic leaching out beneath these massive tailing mounds and contaminating large amounts of groundwater led the authors of this 1986 article to refer to these tailings as “an ecological bombshell just waiting to blow up.”  The same article also mentioned that the mill tailings represent one of the largest clean-up jobs in American history as millions of tons of this residue should legitimately be buried in geologically stable areas away from vulnerable water aquifers in order to avoid compromising our nation’s water supply.  In 2002, the Department of Energy filed a lawsuit against uranium mining firms decades after they negligently allowed huge amounts of mill tailing residue to contaminate the Colorado River.  The historical legacy of uranium mill tailings also has impacted native peoples in the United States in serious ways despite the fact that the many of these mining activites ended in the 1980s.  From 1944 to 1986 almost 30 million tons of uranium ore were mined under leases signed by the Navajo Nation.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there were over 500 abandoned uranium mines in Navajo lands covering an area of 27,000 square miles in Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.  Legal actions to remedy these abuses have a more recent history and notable successes are unfortunately somewhat limited.  A recent $600 million settlement was announced on May 22, 2017 as administered by the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona between the EPA and two former uranium mining companies now represented by the subsidiaries of Freeport-McMoRan which called for the cleanup of over 90 abandoned uranium mines and the adjacent mill tailing mounds on Najavo lands in that state.  Comments:  The issue of uranium mill tailings, an international as well as American problem, is in many ways, ‘out-of-sight, out-of-mind.’  It takes a backstage to many other more prominent risks associated with nuclear power and nuclear weapons, including proliferation, nuclear waste generated by decades of nuclear bomb production as well as civilian nuclear power generation, and the threat of nuclear war.  But the tailings issue obviously represents yet another critical reason why phasing out nuclear weapons and power is a global priority.  The tremendous monetary savings associated with ending the wasteful and destabilizing worldwide nuclear arms race will not only fuel the building of new infrastructure, educating a new generation of youth, creating sustainable jobs, providing Medicare for all, but it will also allow for the accelerated cleanup of global nuclear messes and the creation of sustainable, renewable energy sources to help address global warming.  (Sources:  Robinson, Paul, et al., “Uranium Mining and Milling:  A Primer.”  The Workbook. Albuquerque, NM:  Southwest Research and Information Center, 4 (6-7) 1979 https://webarchive.org/web/20100708033445/http://www.sric.org/uranium/1979_SRIC-URANIUM_PRIMER.pdf  and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  “Case Summary: $600 Million Settlement to Clean Up 94 Abandoned Uranium Mines on the Navajo Nation.” https://www.epa.gov/enforcement/case-summary-600-million-settlement-clean-94-abandoned-uranium-mines-navajo-nation both accessed July 17, 2019.)

March 12, 2007The Boston Globe published an article, “Iran’s Nuclear Vision First Glimpsed at MIT” by Farah Stockman on this date.  The piece noted that in 1974, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in coordination with officials in the Nixon Administration, signed an agreement with representatives of the long-time ally of the United States – the Shah of Iran – to pay MIT physicists a half million dollars in order to train hundreds of Iranian engineers to master the nuclear fuel cycle and uranium enrichment.  Although the Shah’s regime was overthrown in 1979, those same Iranian engineers, and those that they have trained, have worked decades on not only plans to utilize civilian nuclear power but also to develop nuclear weapons.  The successful Iran nuclear agreement of 2015 showed great promise in preventing an Iranian bomb until it was unwisely scuttled by the Trump Administration.  Comments:   This example of U.S.-caused proliferation in Iran was not unusual for the same knowledge and expertise of nuclear proliferation has spread unwittingly in the last 70 years from the U.S. to Britain, France to Israel, Russia to China, and from Pakistan to North Korea.  A quote from American philosopher George Santayana (1863-1852) hits the nail right on the head, “Those who forget history, are condemned to repeat it.”  Today, President Trump has responded affirmatively to long entreaties by Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi royalty along with their Arab allies to build more than a dozen nuclear reactors in the region, which is clearly a violation of past U.S. tradition and laws, particularly the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act of 1978.  Some media reports indicate that this Trump nuclear deal with the Saudis had its beginnings even before his inauguration in January of 2017!  Unfortunately it seems that the U.S., at its own peril, has focused on the alleged benefits of ‘peaceful’ nuclear power for the region rather than scrutinizing recent public statements made by Prince Salman whose ethical standards have been tainted by his alleged involvement in the conspiracy to viciously murder Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October of 2018.  One example is a February 15, 2018 interview by CBS News in which the Prince indicated that the Saudis will develop nuclear weapons if their Islamic rival Iran does so first.  This is why it is critical for all nations on the planet to halt the proliferation of all nuclear materials, knowledge, and fissile products and sign onto the 2017 Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) and negotiate an all-encompassing Fissile Materials Control Treaty to halt forever the nuclear arms race and eliminate these doomsday weapons. (Sources:  Many mainstream and alternative news media sites and https://archive.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2007/03/12/irans_nuclear_vision_first_glimpsed_at_mit/ and https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2019/02/19/trump-administration-sell-nuclear-plants-saudi-arabia/291735702/ both accessed July 29, 2019.)

March 21, 1961 (Spring – approximate date) – In response to requests from the Kennedy White House, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) formally submitted specific information to the Office of the President on the estimated casualty figures associated with a U.S. nuclear first strike against the Soviet Bloc.  Daniel Ellsberg, the Pentagon Papers whistleblower of 1971, was then someone in the inner circle of nuclear war planning.  His stark remarks about this time period are still as profound today as they were almost sixty years ago, “The total death count from our own attacks (against not only targets in the Soviet Union but also China and Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe) supplied by JCS was in the neighborhood of 600 million dead (revised upwards to one billion, one-third of humanity, when the tremendous destructive impact of the associated firestorms caused by these large magnitude nuclear blasts were factored into the equation), almost entirely civilian, the greater part inflicted in the first day or two, the rest over six months…the graph (of casualties that the JCS provided) seemed to me the pure depiction of evil.”  Ellsberg also noted that, “3,000 warheads would be delivered on the Soviet Bloc and China in the first stage of the execution of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (SIOP)…Most of them I knew would be ground bursts, with fallout that would annihilate the population not only of the Sino-Soviet Bloc but at its neighbors including allies and neutrals…I was looking at the way the civilized world might end…This is what the U.S. had come to…Plans and preparations, awaiting only a presidential order to execute (or lower level officials as I’d discovered) for whose unforeseen consequences the term ‘genocidal’ was totally inadequate.”  The famous whistleblower, who faced over a hundred years in prison in 1971 for his release of the previously hidden trove of documents on unconscionable U.S. political and military decision making during the Vietnam Conflict, concluded that this 1961 SIOP, “exposed a dizzingly irrationality, madness, and insanity at the heart and soul of our nuclear planning.”  Comments: Unfortunately, strong-held prejudices about the efficacy of relying on the twin heavily flawed doctrines of ‘nuclear deterrence’ and ‘peace through strength’ (in a time when over 10,000 U.S. soldiers and contractors have died and over 50,000 have been wounded, as well as the tens of thousands of enemy combatants and innocent civilian casualties have been recorded in Iraq and Afghanistan during the perpetual Global War on Terrorism [GWOT]) pervade the ruling military and political leadership of all nine nuclear weapons states.  Even more pessimistically, the U.S. nuclear arsenal held by STRATCOM is ultimately steered and controlled by a President who confesses he is a nationalist and who sees nuclear weapons as the ultimate expression of American power. Let’s hope that our species can survive the Trump presidency and look forward to a day in the not too distant future when conservatives and progressives alike agree that nuclear war is unwinnable and that nuclear weapons are dangerous anachronisms of a genocidal era in human history and must therefore be eliminated. (Sources:  Daniel Ellsberg. “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner.” New York: Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 138-141, Jill Lepore. “This America: The Case for the Nation.” New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2019, pp. 24-25, and Christopher T. Mann. “In Focus: U.S. War Costs, Casualties, and Personnel Levels Since 9/11.” Congressional Research Service, April 18, 2019.)

March 24, 1953 – The second nuclear device, Nancy, of a series of eleven nuclear weapons tests called Operation Upshot-Knothole, was exploded on a 300-foot high tower at the Nevada Test Site on this date with 21,000 soldiers from the four armed services (in an exercise called Desert Rock V) observing from what in retrospect was an ill-advised proximity to these explosions.  This nuclear blast’s magnitude was 24 kilotons, about fifty percent more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  Comments:  This atmospheric explosion was a snapshot of the entirety of thousands of such detonations which, in total, equaled approximately 29,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs discharged between 1946 and 1998.  The impact of this madness, the deliberate contamination of our fragile biosphere by a plethora of highly toxic radioactive elements, reached all across the planet as in the name of ‘peace’ and ‘deterrence’ U.S, Russian, Chinese and other Nuclear Club military and political leaders waged global nuclear war.  No geographical area was untouched.  Alaskans, Welsh, and Scandinavians were contaminated by Soviet bomb tests at Novaya Zemlya.  Australians and Pacific Islanders were raked by fallout from U.S., British, and French fission and fusion blasts conducted in a wide swath of the Pacific Ocean.  Chinese and Soviet nuclear scientists set off explosions that polluted the Eurasian interior, Indians exploded underground atomic bombs close to the Pakistani border endangering water aquifers while their neighbors responded with fission blasts of their own.  Despite decades of U.S. military classification of the effects of such tests as ‘Top Secret’ and unavailable to the public, eventually dedicated scientists and researchers ascertained the impacts on the United States and the planet.  The Nevada tests delivered to milk-drinking children across the U.S. and the world an average collective dose of radioactive iodine similar to people living in the contaminated zones of the April 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant accident.  Rates of thyroid cancer in the U.S. tripled between 1974 and 2013 and better detection did not account for all or even most of these increases as some nuclear apologists argued.  In Europe and North America, childhood leukemia, once a medical rarity, increased substantially every year after 1950.  Even today, Australia, hit by Pacific test fallout, still has the highest incidence of childhood cancer worldwide.  Award-winning environmentalist and nuclear historian Kate Brown, who cataloged all these dire global impacts in a recent book, justifiably called the period of nuclear testing “the most unhinged suicidal chapter in human history.”  Unfortunately today as the world is gripped by yet another insane nuclear arms race, one wonders if this forgotten history will be repeated again by a current generation of global Dr. Strangeloves to the extreme detriment of 21st century populations.  Global citizenry must rise up and demand no more nuclear testing and the elimination forever of these doomsday weapons! (Sources:  Kate Brown. “Manual for Survival: A Chernobyl Guide to the Future.” New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2019, pp. 309-312 and Thomas B. Cochran, William M. Arkin, Robert S. Norris, and Milton M. Hoenig. “Nuclear Weapons Databook: Volume II.” Natural Resources Defense Council, 1987, p.153.)