September: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

HISTORY, 7 Sep 2015

Jeffrey W. Mason – Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

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September 4, 1978 – War Resisters League (WRL) members and their supporters demonstrated against nuclear weapons and civilian nuclear power plants simultaneously in Red Square near the Kremlin in Moscow and on the White House front lawn in Washington, DC. WRL’s antinuclear protests, marches, and demonstrations such as the one above helped the organization become one of the leaders of the June 12, 1982 Mobilization for Survival U.N./Central Park peace demonstration that drew approximately one million participants. That protest was followed two days later by simultaneous civil disobedience actions at the U.N. missions of the five admitted nuclear powers.   Founded in 1923, WRL is just one of many global organizations that are working for the elimination of the nuclear threat.  (Source:  War Resisters League History, accessed August 10, 2015.)

September 5, 1995 – Three months after French President Jacques Chirac announced a resumption of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and after worldwide protests forced the French to scale back those tests, a 20-kiloton test explosion was conducted at the Moruroa Atoll. Further international condemnation forced France’s hand. Five days after that nation’s last test explosion was conducted on January 27, 1996, President Chirac announced that his nation had finished testing “once and for all.” In September 1996, France became one of 70 nations, including the U.S., China, and Russia, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), which it later ratified on April 6, 1998.  In all, France conducted 210 nuclear tests from 1960-1996 which inflicted extremely harmful short- and long-term health impacts to populations in an immense region of the South Pacific.  Increased cancer rates, groundwater contamination, and other detrimental health and environmental impacts still plague global populations decades after over 2,000 nuclear bombs were exploded below ground or in the atmosphere by members of the Nuclear Club.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 17, 18, 24.)

September 11, 1957 – A fire in a plutonium processing building broke out at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, a sprawling facility with about 800 buildings spread out over 6,500 acres, located 17 miles from Denver, Colorado.  Due to the failure of various safety systems, the fire spread through a ventilation system and reached a cache of highly radioactive plutonium.  Contamination spread throughout the plant.  Due to an official cover-up of the extent of the catastrophe by the Dow Chemical Company, and the Atomic Energy Commission, knowledge of the specific damage and contamination caused by the accident was kept from the public for years.  Another fire in 1969 sent toxic smoke over Denver.  Thirteen years after the 1957 accident, an independent group of scientists found much more extensive radioactive contamination than previously believed – of a magnitude 400-1,500 times higher than normal background radiation as far away as 30 miles from the plant.  On June 6, 1989, FBI agents and representatives of the EPA raided the plant to uncover suspected environmental crimes resulting in the closure of a facility that had been part of the U.S. nuclear bomb-making complex since 1952.   Many of the 40,000 people who worked at the plant became Cold War casualties as cancers and other diseases were tied to excessive exposure to chemicals and radioactive toxins.   Rockwell International Corporation, DOE’s contractor at the site, pleaded guilty in 1992 to ten environmental crimes and paid an $18.5 million fine.   Federal government-controlled clean-up of the site began with large amounts of contaminated soil and concrete entombed in the Central Operable Unit.   While the U.S. government claims it has been providing monetary compensation since around 2001 to former Rocky Flat employees, it is reported that only a small number of those claims have been adequately paid due to the unreasonably strict burden of proof imposed on those nuclear workers.  (Sources:  Andrew Cohen.  “A September 11th Catastrophe You’ve Probably Never Heard About.”  The Atlantic. September 10, 2012, and Electra Draper.  “Feds Raided Rocky Flats 25 Years Ago.”  Denver Post.  June 1, 2014,, both accessed August 10, 2015.)

September 11, 2001 – Nineteen hijackers, 15 of whom were Saudi nationals, crashed four commercial aircraft onto U.S. territory destroying the World Trade Center in New York City and partially damaging the Pentagon in Washington, DC in an attack that killed nearly 3,000 people.  If the 9-11 attack had been conducted using a nuclear weapon, the impact would have been incredibly worse.  For instance, if Manhattan Island was struck by a 150 kiloton terrorist-fabricated nuclear fission bomb (although experts think it more likely the yield would be significantly smaller) exploded in the heart of downtown during daytime hours, the results would be devastating.  Estimated fatalities would be over 800,000 people with at least another 900,000-plus injuries not including those caused by later post-blast firestorms.  The bombing would result in 20 square miles of property damage not to mention catastrophic impacts on global financial markets if Wall Street was located in or near ground zero.   Comments:  While over a decade of nuclear threat reduction and similar multilateral and bilateral agreements and intergovernmental actions of sequestering and removing vulnerable nuclear materials and weapons from the former Soviet Union and other areas of the world has been overwhelmingly successful in circumventing nuclear terrorism, more must be done to prevent the criminal use of nuclear weapons by non-state actors.   World citizenry must push the U.S., the United Nations, NATO, the other members of the Nuclear Club, and other global entities to find a viable, comprehensive negotiated end to the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) as well as a renewed Cold War II.   Otherwise, the risks of another Hiroshima, Nagasaki, or a significantly deadlier nuclear Armageddon increases every day!  (Source:  Carrie Rossenfeld, Chris Griffith, et al., “New York City Example.”  Nuclear Pathways Project, National Science Foundation’s National Science Digital Library.  See  accessed August 10, 2105.)

September 14, 1961 – Within months after first being authorized by President Dwight Eisenhower’s December 2, 1960 signature, the first U.S. SIOP (Single Integrated Operational Plan) nuclear targeting plan went into effect around April 1.   Months later on this date, President John F. Kennedy was given his first expanded, comprehensive, “top secret” briefing on the SIOP which featured 3,720 targets grouped into more than 1,000 ground zeros that would be struck by 3,423 nuclear weapons aimed at the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, and Eastern Europe, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people.  After the briefing, the President commented to Secretary of State Dean Rusk, “And we call ourselves the human race!”  (Sources:   Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick.  “The Untold History of the United States.”  New York:  Gallery Books, 2012, p. 287 and Eric Schlosser.  “Command and Control:  Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety.”  New York:  Penguin Press, 2013.)

September 17, 1987 – U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze announced in a joint statement that in addition to concluding the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) Treaty for the Elimination of the Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Nuclear Missiles (later signed by President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev on December 8, 1989), both nations signed an agreement to establish Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers (NRRCs) in Washington and Moscow to reduce the risk of conflict between the U.S. and Soviet Union that might result from accidents, miscalculations, or misinterpretations.   The 24-hour, seven-days-a-week centers, which formally opened on April 1, 1988, featured a new dedicated communication link and included information exchange and a provision for military exercise and test launch notifications in addition to supporting the follow-through and verification requirements of a number of bilateral arms control treaties between the two sides.  Today, the U.S. NRRC, which is staffed by the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance within the U.S. Department of State, is located in the Harry S. Truman Building in Washington, DC.   The State Department’s website notes that, “The U.S. NRRC exchanges an average of 7,000 notifications annually with its international partners.   The U.S. and Russian NRRCs have exchanged nearly 5,000 New START Treaty notifications since entry into force in 2011.”   In 1998, Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin announced plans to build a Joint U.S.-Russian Data Exchange Center (JDEC) to further reduce the risks of unintentional nuclear war and specifically address Russia’s faulty radar warning system that almost triggered World War III during the January 1995 Black Brant Incident (whereby a U.S.-Norwegian scientific sounding rocket launch was misinterpreted by Russian military radar officers as a possible U.S.-NATO nuclear first strike decapitation attack on Moscow).   But before the center could be completed, NATO’s war in Kosovo in 1999 and the Pentagon’s insistence that radar data be filtered first through the U.S. Strategic Command before going to Moscow created a climate of bilateral tension that doomed further progress in the matter.  This led to an unfinished facility sitting unused in a Moscow residential neighborhood.   The JDEC languished further during the remainder of the Clinton Administration and for all of the years of the George W. Bush presidency as well.   The Obama Administration tried to revive the JDEC initiative in the form of a “Data Fusion Center” but that proposal went nowhere.  Comments:   However, the risks of nuclear conflict remain intolerably high as seen in the recent Crimea-Ukraine Crisis of 2014.   Despite what some envision as the beginnings of a Cold War II, politicians, military leaders, nuclear experts, activists, and a large number of nonprofit peace and antinuclear organizations continue to push for more concrete ways to reduce and eventually eliminate the risks of a nuclear Armageddon including reviving and strengthening a robust JDEC, and the priority de-alerting of U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals at the earliest possible opportunity.   (Sources:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, p. 50 and “U.S. Nuclear Risk Reduction Center” U.S. Department of State website: and Alexander Zaitchik.  “Old Nukes Don’t Die, They Just Sit Around and Wait To Be Launched.”  February 20, 2004, website, accessed August 10, 2015.)

September 19, 1953 – A New York Times article published on this date quoted U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles who warned that, “The central problem now is to save the human race from extinction.”  By 1953, both the U.S. and the Soviet Union had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb for the first time, the U.S. had contemplated using nuclear weapons in the recent Korean Conflict, and nuclear force levels were climbing steadily.   The Chicago-based Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Doomsday Clock (1947-2015) was set at two minutes until midnight, meaning two minutes before a global thermonuclear war.  The 1953 press release by the Bulletin read, “Only a few more swings of the pendulum and, from Moscow to Chicago, atomic explosions will strike midnight for Western Civilization.”   This dire time was the closest the world would come to doomsday in the last 68 years since the clock was started.   The next two most dangerous time periods, when the clock’s hands were set at three minutes to midnight, were in 1984 and 2015.   Comments:  Despite a vast proliferation of major and alternative (including social) media sources of information on the nuclear threat over the last few decades, most Americans are either unaware or unconcerned about a threat they believe virtually ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the termination of the Cold War in 1991.   In reality, seventy years after Hiroshima, nuclear risks to global civilization and the human species are as frighteningly dangerous as ever.   The time for action is now.  Drastic reductions and a time-urgent elimination of all nuclear weaponry and nuclear power is a firm, unalterable requirement for human survival in the 21st century!  (Sources:  Louis Rene Beres.  “Apocalypse:  Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics.”  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1980 and Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.  “Doomsday Clock Timeline.” accessed on August 10, 2015.)

September 25, 1990 – The U.S. Senate ratified the Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT) signed by the U.S. and Soviet Union on July 3, 1974, which banned underground nuclear tests that exceeded 150 kilotons and obligated the parties to continue negotiations for a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and also ratified the so-called “Peaceful” Nuclear Explosions Treaty (PNET) signed by both nations on May 28, 1976.   Importantly the PNET, which reinforced the 150 kiloton TTBT test limit, also provided for verification by national technical means, information exchange, and access to test sites.  The Supreme Soviet ratified the two treaties on October 9, 1990.   The leadership of past presidents and then President George Bush was important but even more critical was the push for peace by General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev, who was announced as that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner in October of 1990.  Comments:  While today it is recognized that any nuclear tests, no matter how small the yield or magnitude of the blast, have an overwhelmingly negative impact on public health and safety, environmental protection, and on world public perception of the testing nation(s), these treaties were nevertheless valuable in promoting continued negotiations toward a CTBT which was signed by President Bill Clinton on September 24, 1996 and by representatives of 70 other nations including the U.K., China, France, and Russia by September 26th.  Despite broad international consensus among the scientific and arms control community that seismic monitoring and other national technical means of verification were becoming more and more foolproof in detecting test cheaters, the U.S. Senate rejected the CTBT on October 13, 1999 and hasn’t reversed course on this unreasonable stance even with the ratification of the treaty by an overwhelming vote of 298-74 on April 21, 2000 by the Russian Duma.  In 2015 there is no longer any legitimate excuse for the U.S. Senate not to proceed with ratification.  Encouraging Congress to ratify the CTBT and the recent Iran nuclear deal, as well as having that body direct the Pentagon to de-alert hair-trigger U.S. strategic nuclear missiles and begin the accelerated phase-out of the U.S. nuclear triad (all through bilateral negotiations with Russia) ought to be top priority issues in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 11, 14, 22.)

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