October: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

HISTORY, 5 Oct 2015

Jeffrey W. Mason – Nuclear Age Peace Foundation

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Copyright © Shutterstock. All Rights Reserved

October 4, 1957 – The Soviet Union launched Sputnik I, the world’s first artificial satellite, as the Space Age began.   U.S. government leaders concerned that a missile capable of launching satellites (particularly follow-up Soviet space missions that carried animals and hundreds of pounds of equipment) might soon be able to place a nuclear warhead on U.S. or allied territory led to fears of a “missile gap.”  Inflated estimates from the U.S. Air Force and intelligence community predicted that the Soviets might deploy up to 500 operational intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) by 1961.  However, some of the first U.S. military spy satellites, including CORONA, determined by 1960 that the Soviets, in fact, possessed only four operational ICBMs.   In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. military and scientific communities studied the deployment of nuclear weapons into outer space including a Deep Space Force nuclear-armed manned program, a nuclear-powered spacecraft (Project Orion), and the testing of nuclear weapons on the Moon.   The Soviets also worked on antisatellite weapons as well as orbital nuclear weapons platforms called FOBs (Fractional Orbit Bombardment system).  On October 17, 1963, multilateral negotiations culminated in the passage of U.N. General Assembly Resolution No. 1884 (XVIII) which called on nation-states “to refrain from placing in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction or from installing such weapons on celestial bodies.”  More negotiations followed which resulted in the signing and ratification of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Comments:  However, there are still active military plans by the U.S. and other nations to weaponize outer space.  Also, nuclear weapons are considered by some as a last ditch option to divert asteroids or comets that may one day threaten to collide with our planet.  (Source: Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, p. 28 and Bob Preston, et al., “Space Weapons:  Earth Wars.”  Santa Monica, CA:  Rand Corporation and Project Air Force, 2002, p. 11.)

October 7, 2001Al-Ahram, an Egyptian weekly newspaper reported that nuclear experts warned that depleted uranium (DU) munitions used against Iraqi forces in the First Gulf War of 1991 and by NATO against Serbian military forces in Bosnia in 1999 have resulted in an outbreak of cancers, birth defects, and other toxic-related health impacts among the populations of those nations. U.S. and allied military forces along with opposing forces have also been impacted.  The newspaper alleged that 15 European peacekeeping troops suddenly died from leukemia after inspecting former military sites in the Balkans where DU munitions were used.   Dr. Helen Caldicott’s 2002 book “The New Nuclear Danger” noted that the U.K. Atomic Energy Authority issued a warning after Operation Desert Storm in 1991 that 40 tons of uranium debris from DU weapons could potentially cause the long-term deaths of up to half a million people.  Comments:  Over the last 14 years additional journalistic accounts, often fueled by leaks from U.S. or allied military participants and partially acknowledged by public health information found on the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website, have verified that DU munitions were used not only in the 1991 Gulf War and Bosnia but also by U.S. and allied forces in the 2003 Iraq War and in operations in Afghanistan.   And there are allegations by Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post that Israeli military forces have used DU munitions in Gaza, Syria, and possibly elsewhere.   Comments:  Depleted uranium (DU) munitions, a different kind of nuclear threat with allegedly 40 percent less radioactivity but the same chemical toxicity as natural uranium, has been used in the last few decades by U.S. and allied militaries, but evidence of its negative health and environmental impact in combat areas has not been widely reported by the overwhelming majority of mainstream Western news media sources.  (Sources:  U.S. Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Public Health.  “Depleted Uranium.” http://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/depleted_uranium, RT.com.  “Depleted Uranium Used By U.S. Forces Blamed for Birth Defects and Cancer in Iraq.”  July 22, 2013, http://www.rt.com/news/iraq-depleted-uranium-health-394, Rob Edwards.  “U.S. Finds Depleted Uranium at Civilian Areas in 2003 Iraq War Report Finds.”  The Guardian.  June 19, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jun/19/us-depleted-uranium-weapons-civilian-areas-iraq all accessed on September 14, 2015.)

October 16, 1962 – The 13-day long Cuban Missile Crisis began on this date after President John Kennedy discovered that a U.S. U-2 spy plane had detected evidence of Soviet nuclear-tipped medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles on the island.  Most historians and nuclear experts believe this incident is the closest the world has ever come to a thermonuclear World War III with the possible exception of the 1983 NATO Able Archer exercise, interpreted by Soviet leaders as a military exercise disguising a nuclear first strike by the U.S.   In 2003, Robert L. O’Connell, a former member of the U.S. Delegation to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva, wrote a frighteningly realistic hypothetical account of what might have happened in October 1962 if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed.   For instance, if a Soviet naval commander had fired a nuclear torpedo at U.S. military vessels enforcing the Cuban Quarantine Line and/or if SAC General Curtis Le May, on his own authority, had launched a “surgical strike” to wipe out Cuban missiles killing hundreds of Soviet technicians, those actions would have triggered an uncontrollable nuclear escalation, O’Connell credibly argued.   As a result of these unintended consequences, he envisioned the survival of a handful of Soviet nuclear missiles which were then quickly launched from Cuba against U.S. targets, “The SS-4 missile warhead detonated approximately 2,000 feet above the Lincoln Memorial.  The resulting nuclear blast, 640 kilotons, leveled the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon – the entire National Command Authority.  Now, without President Kennedy and his key advisors able to respond in a measured and judicial manner, the entire Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP) would be executed against the Soviet Union without regard for the consequences.  Approximately half an hour after the initiation of the SIOP and after Russian nuclear-armed Frog missiles obliterated the U.S. military base at Guantanamo, SAC bombers dropped nuclear weapons over Cuba, ultimately killing 95 percent of the population and creating serious fallout problems in South Florida and the Caribbean region.”  The Two Days’ War, as O’Connell called the hypothetical World War III, resulted in “the near-simultaneous explosion of more than 1,300 nuclear devices which resulted in approximately 100 million tons of fine radioactive dust being expelled into the upper atmosphere, spreading a cloud that within a month girdled the northern hemisphere.  This nuclear twilight set off severe famine in India and China and very serious food shortages across Europe and North America.  Of the initial population of 233 million people, around 80 million Soviets were alive a month after the war and roughly two-thirds of this number would succumb to starvation and the effects of radiation during the following year.”  An extremely fortunate United States suffered only a few million casualties but the resulting global consensus of world opinion settled on the firm belief that the U.S. was primarily responsible for the outbreak and consequences of the Two Days’ War.   Thankfully, this what-if scenario never occurred but unreasonably high risks of nuclear conflict remain a deadly serious global problem in 2015 and beyond.  Comments:  Even military hawk President Ronald Reagan eventually pronounced that a nuclear war can never be won and must never be fought.  Today’s global political leaders still haven’t truly embraced George Santayana’s dictum:  Those who forget the past, are condemned to repeat it.  (Source:  Robert L. O’Connell.  “The Cuban Missile Crisis:  Second Holocaust.”  in Robert Cowley, editor.  What Ifs? of American History.  New York:  Berkley Books, 2003, pp. 251-272.)

October 24, 1990 – After 42 years of testing (1949-1990), the Soviet Union conducted its last of 715 nuclear tests before entering into a unilateral moratorium.  On September 26, 1996, Russia joined the U.S. and 70 other nations in the signing of a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Russian Duma ratified the CTBT by a vote of 298-74 on April 21, 2000 despite the U.S. Senate’s rejection of that treaty six months before on October 13, 1999 (by a vote of 51-48).  Increased cancer rates, groundwater contamination, and other detrimental health and environmental contamination 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.   Comments:  With a sure fire global verification regime, in the form of hundreds of seismic monitoring stations, as well as reliable national technical means of verification in place, there is no credible reason for the U.S. not to ratify the CTBT.  A newly elected Congress should place this at the top of its agenda in January of 2017.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, 2002, pp. 14, 19, 22.)

October 31, 2014 – French security officials, according to an Associated Press story dated November 3, 2014, investigated a series of illegal drone flights, at least 15 in number, over more than a dozen civilian nuclear power stations in the month of October with five alone on this date of October 31st.   No arrests were made and speculation on the origins of the drone flights ranged from would-be terrorists to a prank by drone hobbyists.   Comments:  Besides the obvious long-term serious health and public safety concerns coincidental with running a nuclear power plant, the natural (earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tsunami, tornadoes, etc) and manmade (terrorist takeover of reactor sites or crashing airliners or armed drones into containment domes or reactor waste collection ponds) disasters make dangerous, overly expensive toxic waste-generating, and uneconomical nuclear power a deadly global risk that calls for the immediate dismantling of the international nuclear power infrastructure in the next decade.  (Sources:  Various press accounts including Associated Press and alternative news media sites.)

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