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Nuclear Weapons Now

Politics / Nuclear Weapons Oct 07, 2013 - 03:24 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


Pretending the destructive threat of nuclear weapons is overblown, or just as bad that they have been around a long time and haven't been used – so we can forget all about them – are two themes attacked by Eric Schlosser. Described as a techno-thriller by critics and given major acclaim and wide publicity, the book by reporter and author Schlosser, “Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety” (Kodiak-Penguin) includes a minute-by-minute account of a near-fatal accident at a Titan II nuclear missile silo in Arkansas, in 1980.

World War III, or massive accidental loss of life and economic damage can so easily come from totally “banal” human errors.

The main theme of the book is wide. Schlosser sets the question to which we don't want to know the answer, because it's “No”. Throughout his book he poses the question whether “rational political minds” can grasp the reality of nuclear weapons and their destructive power. He gives space to his own experience as a young American in the 1970s growing up amid constant talk about nuclear apocalypse and Atomic Armageddon – so much talk that like millions of others he came round to thinking nuclear weapons are just an overblown fiction. He didn't believe in their destructive power. The illusion of familiarity breeds contempt or at least fatal complacency.

He changed his opinion, slowly but totally. One of his snapshots is witnessing the launch of one of the USA's mega-missiles in 1999 - another Titan II. Many of them are more than 25 years age, like the “re-engineered and reformatted” nuclear weapons they can carry at very, very short notice. One moment the silver rocket the size of a ten-storey building and weighing 154 tons stood in its silo, hooked up to hissing, humming support units; the next it was gone, vanishing into the sky. Depending on the “throw” or range, up to 10000 kilometres, the missile can carry a payload from 3.7 to 4.8 tons weight. Apart from nuclear weapons, Titan II's also launch satellites and manned space capsules.

As Schlosser describes, back in 1980 a nuclear-armed Titan II exploded in its silo, propelling its nuclear warhead to land, luckily without detonating, in a ditch near Damascus, Arkansas. Schlosser, from 1999, started a 10-year-long study of how the USA's nuclear weapons are governed, an arsenal at least three times bigger than the 'declared strategic” nuclear capability of 1700 warheads set by the very long-running Start talks with firstly the USSR, then Russia. Schlosser made a decade-long probe into the shaky systems that control America’s nuclear weapons arsenal of nearly 5000 weapons.

Schlosser mainly focuses the terrifying spread of the “bomb cult”, with its equally terrifying familiarity – breeding complacency and contempt. Like Schlosser himself felt for many years, nuclear weapons do not terrify when we hear all the talk about them, but we don't want to know the real reason for this contempt. Another real reason is there are tens of thousands of them. When we add the giant Dirty Bombs of each and every large-sized nuclear reactor, called “civil” until it becomes an ultra-soft military or terrorist target, the global nuclear weapons tally rises by at least another 30 000 warhead equivalents, if we took the Hiroshima A-bomb (of about 13 – 16 kilotons TNT equivalent) as the accounting unit not by its explosive capability but by its radiological inventory.

His book tries to drive home the real dangers of nuclear weapons accidents. He was able to obtain sometimes secret or normally unavailable data on the huge, and continuing series of US armed forces' accidents with these weapons. Submarine launched nuclear missiles, in the USA, USSR, France and UK encountered a large number of near-fatal accidents, especially during their development, which were mostly declared Secret Defense and banned from public media. Schlosser found once-secret archives describing US warheads being launched, burning, then crashing into Arctic pack ice at 600 miles-per-hour with near-cataclysmic results. Schlosser discovered that at the height of the Cuban missile crisis an American pilot in a plane carrying nuclear weapons attempted to trigger dogfights over eastern Siberia, not knowing he was in Soviet airspace. He interviewed former US nuclear commanders who handed over nuclear weapons, such as a short-range small-sized “tactical” warheads to NATO units in Europe so untrained and unprepared that the commanders said that in retrospect, they wouldn't trust these youngsters “with a BB gun”.

In the research to my book with Martin Cohen “The Doomsday Machine” (Palgrave Macmillan), we found almost endless, seemingly “humorous” accounts of the Dr Strangeloves of the 1930s – the Mothers and Fathers of the Bomb. Competition for who could get the big contract and kudos to build the first atom bomb was so intense that all kinds of dirty tricks were used – extending to theatrical attempts at poisoning competing Atom Scientists, seducing them or sabotaging their lab equipment. Extreme and exaggerated claims were the norm, as Schlosser recounts for the Manhattan Team building the first atom bombs to use against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The pioneers of atomic weapons development theatrically pondered jaw-dropping fantasies. They debated if the bombs to drop on Japan would generate such intense heat they could set the atmosphere on fire, killing every living thing on Earth. One of the Nobel prize-winning team put the odds of the world ending at one in ten.

In 1946, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American-led group of politicians, generals, and scientists called for the UN to control the conventional-armed, as well as nuclear forces of every country. At the time, following the A-bomb drops on two Japanese cities, this plan was backed by a huge majority of public opinion in countries like the US, Britain and several other European states. This however didn't last very long. By the time the Cold War started in 1948 this pacifism was swiftly replaced by secret plans for “nation-killer” first strike capability, mutually assured destruction, and “megadeath” became the strategic accounting unit for future wars.

Schlosser's book covers the very well known Dr Strangelove theme – but as he says this is one of the real problems – familiarity breeds contempt. For many, Strangelove was a “cold war folly” and that is all over, now. But the nuclear weapons are not over – they have grown like mushrooms. With the vast crop of Dirty Bomb targets in the shape of “civil” reactors, fuel fabrication plants, reprocessing facilities, waste disposal sites and nuclear waste transport and shipping, nuclear wars of the future are more probable than ever. As Schlosser says, we don't even have to think about wars. His book supplies chilling accounts of the US bureaucratic struggle – to hamper or prevent safety improvements in weapons laboratories and nuclear bases. He describes that when nuclear arsenals get to be monstrously complex and infiltrated by bureaucratic meddlers and control freaks, the overall weapons system becomes less and less controllable – and of course more and more accident prone.

Nuclear weapons are only a part of the somber NBC threesome – nuclear, biological, chemical. In theory but only strictly in theory, there is an active global movement to inventorying, limiting and destroying these weapons. I repeat – only in theory.

Formal or “declared strategic” large-sized nuclear weapons held by the US and Russia can be and are destroyed or their highly radioactive materials cut-down and diluted to make civil reactor fuel under the “Megatons to Megawatts” program – which is reaching the end of its life, supposedly because there are “no more warheads to decommission”. But like pushing on a string, new entrant nuclear weapons-owning countries are always building more. As examples, the non-signatory to the NPT, Israel, has a contested arsenal of between 80 and 200 warheads. India, also a non-signatory, may now have reached 750 warheads with neighboring Pakistan – of course - trying to keep in the race. Neither the UK nor France, and certainly not China intends to cut back their nuclear arsenals to anywhere near zero, from their combined present “declared strategic” arsenal of around 3000 warheads.

In fact, due to cuts in defence spending, the “technological progress” towards ever-smaller nuclear weapons is running flat out. Below some totally arbitrary kiloton threshold, say 5 or 7.5 kilotons, nuclear weapons can be called “non-strategic” and secondly can be claimed to be “almost clean” due to much lower radiological inventory and fallout. Depleted Uranium munitions production is now a major worldwide industry, and a nice way to use up “civil” nuclear wastes. Familiarity breeds contempt.

As shown by both Chernobyl and Fukushima, catastrophic reactor accidents cause fantastic economic damage – which is the basic goal of war, other than the “megadeaths”. NBC weapons development, as shown by the Syrian crisis, certainly demonstrates that “turn of a screwdriver” chemical processing of organophosphorus pesticides, or their precursors, can produce sarin-type nerve gases. Nothing prevents new Dr Strangeloves from concocting mixed-bag weapons combining nuclear wastes with CB agents for greater punch at lower cost.

Since nuclear weapons can only be destroyed and cannot be uninvented, Schlosser covers some of the options that could or might be used to remove the imminent and permanent threat of total nuclear destruction. He cites expert witnesses—military commanders and nuclear scientists—who think that the least perilous, quickest solution might be a “minimum deterrent” of the US cutting back to a few hundred warheads, with explicit formal advice to potential belligerant foreign powers of where these warheads would be targeted. To be sure, this would be totally useless if other nuclear weapons powers refused to join suit. It also does nothing with the rising threat of accidents – or deliberate military attacks – on so called “civil nuclear” facilities. The world's aging nuclear reactors are on a count down to zero-hour, at which they will by statistical probability suffer a worst-credible accident.

Schlosser's book provides a real insight into the dilemma we face. The biggest problem, as he explains very well, is very simple. Familiarity breeds contempt – or at least criminal complacency.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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