May: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

HISTORY, 9 May 2016

Jeffrey W. Mason | Nuclear Age Peace Foundation - TRANSCEND Media Service

napf_logo-150x150 nuclear age peace foundationMay 1974 – An attempt at nuclear extortion occurred sometime this month when an individual identified only as “Captain Midnight” forwarded a letter to the FBI claiming he would detonate an improvised nuclear device in the city of Boston unless he was paid $200,000.  In response to the threat, William Chambers, a physicist with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was tasked to organize a special team composed of scientific personnel from Los Alamos, Livermore, and Sandia national laboratories along with several other experts to determine if the threat was a credible one.  After a preliminary investigation, it was determined that the incident was a hoax. The Boston incident led to the creation of the U.S. Nuclear Emergency Search Team (NEST), which was activated in November 1975 to deal with another nuclear terrorism threat in Spokane, Washington.  Managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Nevada Operations Office, NEST personnel worked in a number of areas including threat weapon design, diagnostics, and health physics and they often participated in exercises as well as actual threat deployments.  Today, NEST is just one of many “assets” for emergency response mentioned on the DOE’s NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) website.  Comments:  The world has been lucky that there have been relatively few instances of WMD attack such as the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult Tokyo subway nerve gas attack, the 9-11 attack, numerous truck and car bombings that have killed hundreds at a time, and other incidents.  Due to catastrophic property damage as well as extensive human health impacts caused by nuclear weapons or the potential harm of other weapons of mass destruction such as “dirty bombs” (conventional explosives jacketed with radiological material) as well as natural disasters such as the 2011 Japanese tsunami and Fukushima nuclear accident, a large and permanently staffed nonpartisan International Crisis Response Force ought to be established.  Funded by proportional donations mandated by the U.N. General Assembly, the multinational military division-sized organization would consist of key experts with military, medical, scientific, humanitarian, first-response, and nuclear-chemical-biological WMD development experience and scaled-up NEST capabilities.  (Sources:  Richard A. Falkenrath, Robert D. Newman, and Bradley A. Thayer.  “America’s Achilles Heel: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Terrorism and Covert Attack.”  Cambridge, MA:  The MIT Press, 1998; Jeffrey T. Richelson, ed., The Nuclear Emergency Search Teams, 1974-96.  “The Nuclear Vault:  Resources from the National Security Archives’ Nuclear Documentation Project.”  The National Security Archives, George Washington University, Washington, DC.  http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/nukevault/ebb267/ and “Responding to Emergencies.”  NNSA, DOE, http://nnsa.energy.gov/aboutus/ourprograms/emergencyoperationscounterterrroism/respondingtoemergencies both accessed April 14, 2016.)

May 1, 1962 – On this date, a nuclear test code-named Beryl was conducted in French-occupied Algeria at an underground site inside Ekker Mountain in the Sahara Desert located 100 miles north of Tamanrasset and 1,250 miles south of the Algerian capital, one of 17 such tests conducted by France at this and another site in the Reggane region of the Algerian desert over a period of several years.  However, due to improper sealing of the underground shaft, a spectacular mushroom cloud burst through the concrete cap venting highly radioactive dust and gas into the atmosphere.  The plume reportedly climbed to 8,500 feet high and radiation was detected hundreds of miles away.  Approximately 100 soldiers and officials including two government ministers were irradiated along with an indeterminate number of desert-dwelling Algerians, who later reported seeing the test blast.  As recently as 2010, Algerian government scientists detected radiation levels twenty times normal near the test sites.  Comments:  This was just one of 210 nuclear weapons tests conducted by the French government in north Africa and the Pacific region in the period from 1960-96.  The resulting short- and long-term radioactive fallout from these tests and the aggregate total of over 2,000 nuclear weapons test explosions conducted by the nine nuclear weapons-states over the last seventy years has negatively impacted large numbers of the global population.  (Source:  Jack Mendelsohn and David Grahame, editors.  “Arms Control Chronology.”  Washington, DC:  Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC. and Lamine Chikhi. “French Nuclear Tests in Algeria Leave Toxic Legacy.”  Reuters News Service.  May 4, 2010.  http://in.reuters.com/article/idNIndia-46657120100304 accessed April 14, 2016.)

May 11, 1979 – Lord Louis Mountbatten, Earl of Burma, an admiral of the British Fleet, and the former Supreme Allied Commander of South Asia Command during the Second World War, gave an address on the occasion of the awarding of the Louise Weiss Foundation Prize to the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in Strasbourg, France.  Lord Mountbatten proclaimed, “The nuclear arms race has no military purpose.  Wars cannot be fought with nuclear weapons.  Their existence only adds to our perils…In the event of nuclear war, there will be no chances.  There will be no survivors – all will be obliterated.”  Killed by an Irish Republican Army bomb placed on his fishing boat on August 27, 1979, Admiral Mountbatten’s last speech discredited the doctrine of robust nuclear deterrence with these words, “There are powerful voices around the world who still give credence to the old Roman precept – if you desire peace, prepare for war.  This is absolute nuclear nonsense.”  (Source:  Gwyn Prins., editor, “The Nuclear Crisis Reader.” New York:  Vintage Books, 1984, pp. 5, 27.)

May 14, 1948 – The nation-state of Israel was founded on this date and has survived today despite four large-scale wars with neighboring Arab nations in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.  Although the September 17, 1978 Camp David Accords finally put an end to conflict between Egypt and Israel, neighboring Muslim nations and nonstate actors have continued to threaten Israel’s existence.  The Jewish state, with the support of decades-long U.S. arms sales and extensive military assistance, has continued to conduct military operations in Lebanon, Gaza, and in the region despite widespread international opposition.  Despite Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres’ assurance to President Kennedy in 1963 that Israel “would not introduce nuclear weapons into the region,” the Israelis did indeed develop nuclear weapons as an insurance policy in order to survive a region dominated by adversaries.  Their nuclear program apparently began at the Dimona reactor site in the 1950s and 1960s and is rumored to have obtained fissile weapons-grade materials through theft or illicit covert sale of U.S. or allied plutonium and/or highly enriched uranium.  A non-signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Israelis have considered long-standing United Nations’ calls for their country to join the NPT and/or participate in a Middle East nuclear-free-zone as unacceptably “flawed and hypocritical proposals.”  The estimate for Israel’s nuclear arsenal today extends from a low of 65-85 warheads cited in a recent Rand Corporation study to President Carter’s estimate of 150-300+ bombs and includes a probably biased figure of 400 warheads as guesstimated by Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during the 2014-2015 P5 + 1 Iran nuclear talks.  Some analysts fear that Israel may be the most likely nation to break the seventy year prohibition against the use of nuclear weapons.  Ron Rosenbaum’s 2011 book “How the End Begins” points out that since its founding, Israel has endeavored to prevent a second Holocaust using whatever means may be necessary.  His dire prediction is that, “sooner or later Israel will unleash nuclear weapons (possibly to destroy hypothetical Iranian underground nuclear weapons production or warhead storage facilities) and risk the inauguration of World War III to prevent what they perceive as an impending nuclear strike” on their Jewish state.  He continues, “They will not wait for the world to step in.  They may not even wait to be sure their intelligence on the strike that they wish to preempt is rock solid certain.  They feel they can’t afford to take that chance.”  More chillingly Rosenbaum presents credible evidence that, “even if Israel has been obliterated, its (German-made) Dolphin-class nuclear missile subs hiding stealthily in the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf will carry out genocidal-scale retaliation.”  Comments:  While the Iran nuclear agreement of July 2015 may have stabilized Mideast nuclear instability for the short-term, much more needs to be done diplomatically and politically to ensure that the Mideast is permanently denuclearized including, at the very least, Israel being persuaded or cajoled by its American ally to confirm its arsenal, sign the NPT, and open its facilities to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.  This represents yet another reason why Global Zero has a long and arduous pathway to reach fruition.  (Sources:  Julian Borger. “The Truth About Israel’s Secret Nuclear Arsenal.”  Guardian.com, January 15, 2014.  http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/15/truth-israels-secret-nuclear-arsenal and Daniel R. DePetris.  “Welcome to Israeli Nuclear Weapons 101.”  Nationalinterest.org, September 20, 2015  http://nationalinterest.org/feature/welcome-israeli-nuclear-weapons-101-13882  both accessed April 14, 2016.)

May 17, 2014 – A serious U.S. Air Force nuclear accident characterized by the code phrase “Bent Spear” occurred on this date at the Juliet-07 Minuteman III ICBM silo nine miles west of Peetz, Colorado by three airmen of the 320th Missile Squadron of the 90th Missile Wing based at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Cheyenne, Wyoming.  While troubleshooting the nuclear-tipped missile, the three airmen, who it was later determined failed to follow technical safety protocols, inadvertently caused $1.8 million in damages to the intercontinental ballistic missile.  But more disturbing was the fact that this incident (and possibly others) was purposely omitted from a three month-long safety review of U.S. nuclear forces completed on June 2, 2015 by an independent Accident Investigations Board due to Air Force secrecy restrictions.  Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists noted that when this fact was inadvertently revealed to the public in January 2016 that, “By keeping the details of the accident secret and providing only vague responses (to subsequent Freedom of Information Act requests by news media and organizations like FAS), the Air Force behaves as if it has something to hide and this undermines public confidence in the safety of the ICBM mission.”  Comments:  Cold War secrecy and non-transparency on nuclear weapons accidents, Bent Spears, Broken Arrows, and other incidents continue not only for alleged reasons of “protecting national security” but to prevent public scrutiny on tremendously expensive, globally destabilizing, dangerous, and completely unnecessary and unusable nuclear arsenals by the U.S. and other members of the Nuclear Club. (Source: Robert Burns.  “Air Force Withheld Nuclear Mishap From Pentagon Review Team.” Bigstory.org. January 23, 2016.  http://bigstory.ap.org/article/e9367f645d894bd1b743cccb79592478/report-says-errors-air… accessed April 14, 2016.)

May 22, 1957 – The crew of a U.S. Air Force B-36 bomber ferrying a nuclear weapon, a Mark 17 ten megaton hydrogen bomb weighing 42,000 pounds, from Biggs Air Force Base to Kirtland Air Force Base near Albuquerque, New Mexico, experienced a serious Broken Arrow accident on this date.  As the aircraft dropped to 1,700 feet altitude and lined up to approach the landing strip, a crew member tasked to manually remove the locking pin designed to prevent the in-flight release of the bomb (a standard operating procedure at the time) was jostled suddenly by unexpected air turbulence causing him to accidentally depress a lever releasing the H-bomb.  The nuclear weapon struck the ground 4.5 miles south of Kirtland control tower and a third of a mile west of the Sandia Base reservation and about sixty miles southeast of Los Alamos.  The weapon was completely destroyed by the detonation of its high explosive charges creating a crater 25 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep.  While no one was injured in the incident, an extensive clean-up of radioactively contaminated material in and around the crater ensued.  The incident was not publicly revealed until the Air Force complied with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and provided information on the nuclear accident almost thirty years later in 1986.  Comments:  Many of the hundreds if not thousands of nuclear accidents involving all nine nuclear weapon states still remain partially or completely classified and hidden from public scrutiny.  These near-nuclear catastrophes provide an additional justification for reducing dramatically and eventually eliminating global nuclear weapons arsenals.  (Sources:  “Accident Revealed After 29 Years:  H-Bomb Fell Near Albuquerque in 1957.”  Los Angeles Times. August 27, 1986.  http://articles.latimes.com/1986-08-27news/mn-14421_1_hydrogen-bomb and Les Adler.  “A Hydrogen Bomb Was Accidentally Dropped From A Plane Just South of Kirtland AFB in 1957.”  Albuquerque Tribune. January 20, 1994.  http://www.hkhinc.com/newmexico/albuquerque/doomsday/ both accessed April 14, 2016.)

May 26-27, 2016 – Meeting in Tokyo, the Group of Seven (G-7) economic summit of world leaders, including U.S. President Barack Obama, will address their usual “steady as she goes” western-dominated economic and political agenda amidst public concerns that all nine nuclear weapons states plan on increasing funding for the research, design, development, production, and deployment of new nuclear weapons and their accompanying production infrastructure including new or expanded nuclear arsenal laboratories at a time when these trillions of dollars could have instead gone to addressing global warming, educating large numbers of young people, improving crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, and urban residences, and other critical global needs.  Comments:  The peoples of the world would be better served if not only this forum but other international fora such as the U.N. Security Council approved a major denuclearization of the planet including easily verified substantial reductions and eventually an elimination of not only deployed but inactive and stored tactical and strategic nuclear weapons as well as all fissile materials (with a small internationally verified exception for radioactive medical isotopes).  At the very least, the U.S. president should comply with a symbolically important request from a Japanese A-bomb survivor, Kiko Oguro, an eight-year old victim of the August 6, 1945 U.S. atomic attack on Hiroshima, who recently noted that, “President Obama should come here (to Hiroshima) and see for himself.  He and other leaders would realize that nuclear weapons are not about making allies and enemies, but about joining hands and fighting this evil together.  We don’t want to tell the world leaders what to think, or make them apologize. They should just view it as an opportunity to lead the world in the right direction, because only they have the power to do that.”  (Source:  Justin McCurry.  “Hiroshima Survivor Urges Obama to Visit Site of World’s First Atomic Bombing.”  The Guardian.  March 23, 2016.)

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