October: This Month in Nuclear Threat History

HISTORY, 3 Oct 2016

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

napf_logo-150x150 nuclear age peace foundationOctober 2, 1981 – During his tenth month in office, President Ronald Reagan announced his strategic program and signaled the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. His nuclear buildup plan stated that the U.S. would “strengthen and modernize the strategic nuclear triad with the highest priority of improving the command-and-control system.”  President Reagan proposed a new cruise missile program that included the deployment of long-range nuclear attack cruise missiles on submarines, two new strategic bombers, 100 long-range Peacekeeper MX missiles carrying a total of 1,000 nuclear warheads, and a new class of Trident strategic nuclear submarines.  Many analysts and observers at the time were alarmed that this program confirmed the administration’s commitment to a nuclear war-fighting doctrine that included MX missiles, anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, and extensive ABM Treaty-violating ballistic missile defenses (which were announced later in President Reagan’s March 23, 1983 Strategic Defense Initiative “Star Wars” speech).  Although supporters of the plan justified the buildup as a means of addressing growing Soviet nuclear parity, many other nuclear experts expressed the grave concern that this buildup would increase the risks of global thermonuclear war.  Comments:  And indeed those concerns were realized as the world came dangerously close to nuclear war, several times during the Reagan presidency.   Contributing factors were the September 1, 1983 Soviet shoot down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 near Sakhalin Island, a September 26, 1983 Soviet false nuclear alert, the November 1983 Able Archer military exercise that Soviet leadership widely misinterpreted as a warmup for an eventual U.S. first strike nuclear attack, and the August 11, 1984 off-the-cuff sound check gaffe by President Reagan (“we begin bombing Russia in five minutes”).  After the Cold War ended in 1991, the promised Peace Dividend resulted in the cutting of nuclear arsenals by only a fraction.  Unfortunately, the recent return of Cold War tensions, particularly after the 2014-2015 Crimea-Ukraine Crisis, have substantially increased the risks of nuclear Armageddon.  (Source:  Raymond Garthoff.  “The Great Transition:  American-Soviet Relations and the End of the Cold War.”  Washington, DC:  The Brookings Institution Press, 2000, p. 36.)

October 9, 2002 – At a Congressional hearing on Capitol Hill held on this date, the Subcommittee on Health of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs discussed the purposeful use of chemical, biological, and nuclear agents against U.S. military personnel, as part of a Defense Department program known as Project SHAD (Shipboard Hazard and Defense) from 1962-73.  The purpose of the SHAD tests was to identify U.S. warships’ vulnerabilities to attacks with biological, chemical, or radioactive warfare substances and to develop procedures to respond to such attacks while maintaining a war fighting capability.   During the hearing, approximately 5,000 U.S. sailors were identified by the VA as victims of these previously classified tests.  The Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Christopher H. Smith of New Jersey, testified that, “Back in the 1980s, I was contacted by a widow of a sailor who served onboard the U.S.S. McKinley when it was sprayed with a plutonium mist as part of ‘Operation Wig Wam.’”  A nonsmoker, the sailor nevertheless died several years later of a very rare form of lung cancer, most probably as a direct result of inhaling just a minuscule portion of the deadliest poison ever invented by mankind.  Comments:  In a 1995 interview with Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Ma.), this member of Congress summed up the impact of decades of Pentagon testing on U.S. military and civilian subjects during the Cold War (1945-1991):  “A certain number of soldiers and civilians were used as human guinea pigs in order to determine what the effects of exposure to radiation, to plutonium, to other radioactive materials would be, and then those lessons would be applied to the planning for a nuclear war between the U.S. and Soviet Union…And unfortunately the government knew how dangerous radiation was before most of these people were ever put into those experimental situations.”  In conclusion, Rep. Markey said, “And so, to a certain extent, one of the unfortunate, ironic twists of the Cold War is that the U.S. did more damage to American citizens and soldiers in their use of nuclear material than they ever did to the Soviet Union.”  Comments:  One can’t help but wonder if the nuclear weapons states are still conducting such tests, perhaps in much more subtle, nontransparent ways, to set the stage for future nuclear war-fighting.  This represents yet another frightening reason why nuclear weapons must be reduced immediately and eliminated in the very near future.  (Sources:  America’s Defense Monitor.  Program No. 847, “The Legacy of Hiroshima.”  Center for Defense Information, aired August 6, 1995 and U.S. Congress. “Military Operations Aspects of SHAD and Project 112.”  Hearing before the Subcommittee on Health of the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, U.S. House of Representatives, 107th Congress, 2nd Session, Oct. 9, 2002, pp. 1-8 [Serial No. 107-43].)

October 11, 1957 – As a B-47 bomber departed Homestead Air Force Base, Florida, one of the aircraft’s outrigger tires exploded causing the plane to crash during takeoff into an uninhabited area just 3,800 feet from the end of the runway.  The aircraft was carrying one nuclear weapon in ferry configuration in the bomb bay and one nuclear capsule in a carrying case in the crew compartment.  The nuclear capsule was recovered mostly intact later but when the plane’s fuel ignited at the time of the crash, intense heat triggered two explosions of the conventional high explosive charges jacketing the full-fledged hydrogen bomb.  Radioactive materials contaminated a large area of the crash zone and an extensive cleanup had to be conducted.  Comments:  Many of the hundreds if not thousands of nuclear accidents involving all nine nuclear weapons 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:  Bethan Owen.  “13 Times the U.S. Almost Destroyed Itself With Its Own Nuclear Weapons.”  Deseret News, Salt Lake City, Utah, July 13, 2014 at http://www.deseretnews.com/top/2605/10/October-11-1957-Homestead-Air-Force-Baser-Florida-13-times-the-U.S.-almost-destroyed-itself-with.html    and U.S. Department of Defense.  “Narrative Summaries of Accidents Involving Nuclear Weapons, 1950-1980.”  National Security Archives at George Washington University http://nsarchive.files.wordpress.com/2010/04/653.pdf both accessed on September 15, 2016.)

October 20, 2015 – Two nuclear waste dump fires reported by journalists on this date at two different locations in the U.S., one near St. Louis and the other outside Beatty, Nevada, highlight a growing concern about the large number of nuclear waste dumps that originally were established during the Cold War to sequester away toxic contaminants from the nation’s nuclear weapons production complex.  Almost all of those waste sites have been transferred over the last couple decades from strong U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) stewardship to local, privately-managed companies with weaker DOE scrutiny.  In addition to the hundreds of toxic nuclear dumps generated by decades of nuclear weapons production (most notable is the Hanford Reservation in Washington state which contains several leaking million-plus gallon highly radioactive waste tanks), there are also growing amounts of spent fuel and a huge volume of other nuclear wastes produced daily by around 100 U.S. civilian nuclear power plants.   Comments:  In addition to the dangerous risk of nuclear power plant accidents like Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima, and others too numerous to list here, the tremendously out-of-control civilian and military nuclear waste sequestration, remediation, and permanent storage conundrum as well as the terrorist targeting potential, the economic unsustainability of civilian nuclear power, and the potential for nuclear proliferation points logically to an accelerated phase-out of global nuclear power plants over the next decade.  Another priority is a new strategic government plan to have military weapons manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and many other firms significantly scale back their arms production and refocus on new technologies and strategies to address the nuclear waste transport, storage, and clean-up problem while at the same time addressing an accelerated nuclear weapons dismantlement imperative consistent with a global zero plan of action.  (Sources:  Keith Rogers.  “Fire That Shut Down US 95 Called Hot, Powerful.”  Las Vegas Review-Journal. October 20, 2015 at http://www.reviewjournal.com/news/nevada/fire-shut-down-us-95-called-hot-powerful and Matt Pearce.  “Officials Squabble as Underground Fire Burns Near Radioactive Waste Dump in St. Louis Area.”  Los Angeles Times. October 20, 2015 at http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-nuclear-fire-20151020-story.html both accessed on September 15, 2016.)

October 27, 1969 – As part of President Richard Nixon’s and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger’s detailed top secret “Madman Strategy” encompassing the period from October 13-30, 1969, on this date a squadron of 18 B-52 strategic bombers carrying dozens of multi-megaton hydrogen bombs departed from the western U.S., were refueled by KC-135 tanker aircraft near the Canadian Arctic, and proceeded to fly to the eastern borders of the Soviet Union in perhaps the biggest, most destabilizing, and horrendously dangerous case of nuclear saber-rattling in Cold War history.  A 2015 book by William Burr and Jeffrey P. Kimball titled, “Nixon’s Nuclear Specter:  The Secret Alert of 1969, Madman Diplomacy and the Vietnam War,” detailed President Nixon’s new Vietnam War strategy to threaten the Soviet Union with a massive nuclear strike and persuade its leaders, especially General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, to believe that the President was actually crazy enough to go through with a first strike.  The ultimate purpose of this extensively planned series of global military moves (which included military operations in the U.S., Western Europe, the Mideast, and the Atlantic and Pacific regions) was to coerce the Soviets to pressure North Vietnamese leaders to make significant military concessions at the negotiating table to allow the U.S. breathing space it needed to withdraw its military forces from Indochina, Vietnamize the war, and prevent a quick victory by the communist North.  Comments:  At risk was the future of the human species because many Soviet leaders actually knew about previously leaked nuclear first strike plans by the Pentagon.  Ironically, a pre-emptive Soviet nuclear first strike became much more likely due to Nixon and Kissinger’s Strangelovian “logic.”  This situation represented another example of how extremely fortunate the human race has been to avoid a nuclear Armageddon.  But one’s luck eventually runs out!  The penultimate issue facing our world today is:  Will the growing risks of nuclear war finally be zeroed out?  Only a growing global citizens’ movement can coerce our leaders to do what is right and eliminate forever the nuclear threat.  The alternative is inevitable omnicide.

October 30, 1961 – The Soviet Union’s “Tsar Bomba,” the most powerful nuclear weapon ever constructed was detonated after being dropped from a TU-95 bomber at approximately four kilometers altitude over Novaya Zemlya Island in the Russian Arctic Sea.  This hydrogen bomb formally designated RDS-220, which weighed about 27 tons and was eight meters long, had an estimated yield of 50 megatons or the equivalent of 3,800 Hiroshima bombs.  The tremendous blast triggered a seismic shock wave, equivalent to an earthquake registered at 5.0 on the Richter Scale, that travelled around the world.  The bomb’s zone of total destruction measured 35 kilometers in radius and the mushroom cloud generated rose to the altitude of 60 kilometers.  Third degree burns would have been possible at a distance of hundreds of kilometers.  Comments:  This blast was just one of 715 nuclear explosive tests conducted by the U.S.S.R./Russia from 1949-1990 and over 2,000 such tests conducted by all nine nuclear weapons states.  Although both the U.S. and Russia signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), only Russia ratified the agreement.  A U.S. vote for ratification failed in the U.S. Senate on October 13, 1999 by a vote of 51-48.  Clearly, ratifying the CTBT ought to be a top priority of the incoming 45th President of the United States, along with other essential steps to address the global nuclear threat such as de-alerting U.S. nuclear weapons (and persuading Russia, China, and other powers to follow suit), reversing planned improvements in nuclear weapons development (which will cost our nation over $1 trillion over the next 30 years), beginning the phase-out of civilian nuclear energy (not just in our nation but worldwide), and many other critical unilateral and multilateral moves.  (Source:  “30 October 1961 – The Tsar Bomba.”  Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) Preparatory Commission website.  https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/30-october-1961-the-tsar-bomba accessed on September 15, 2016.)


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