Posts Tagged ‘Nuclear Weapons’

Nuclear peril was (and is) worse than we thought

January 8, 2014

We were in greater danger from nuclear weapons than we thought during the Cold War era, and that danger still exists.

That is what I learned from reading COMMAND AND CONTROL: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schosser, a history of nuclear weapons technology from World War Two to the present.

command-and-controlThe danger was not so much that the USA or USSR would intentionally start a nuclear war.  Deterrence did work.  The danger was an accidentak discharge or launch of a nuclear missile.  As Eric Schlosser documented, this nearly happened literally hundreds of times.   Evidently nobody knows the actual number because the U.S. government doesn’t keep a list.

Even Robert Peurifoy of Sandia Laboratories, the leading advocate of safer nuclear technology within the government, didn’t know of all of them.

The book has two narrative threads.  One is the evolution of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy from FDR to Reagan, the technical and engineering difficulties, and a relentless piling up of reports of bomber crashes, accident bomb drops, computer system failures around nuclear weapons and weapons being lost or left unguarded.  We’ve been on the brink of nuclear war and nuclear disaster many more times than we know.

The other thread is an hour-by-hour report on a near-disaster a Titan missile complex near Damascus, Arkansas, in 1980.   I had not thought of missile crews as brave in the sense that fighter and bomber pilots are brave, but the missile crews deal with dangerous and not completely predictable forces.

The accident began when an enlisted man, performing routine maintenance near the top of the missile, accidentally dropped a socket, which punctured the oxidizer tank of the lower stage.  Both the oxidizer and the fuel are toxic as well as highly flammable and explosive.  If the air pressure in the oxidizer tank were to fall below a certain level, the tank would collapse and the rocket fuel would explode.  The rocket carried a nuclear bomb with the explosive power of all the bombs dropped during World War Two, including the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The following few hours were a story of bureaucratic paralysis and individual heroism as a fire broke out in the complex and the rockets eventually exploded despite everything the crew could do.  It was only by good fortune the nuclear warhead was not detonated.

The U.S. nuclear arsenal, both as a whole and in its individual parts, is an example of what the writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls a fragile system.  The failure of any of its parts would have led to the cascading failure of the whole system.

Nuclear strategy for 40 years was based on the “Single Integrated Operational Plan,” which was an all-out attack which would have taken the lives of an estimated 200 million people in Russia, China and eastern Europe.  Some U.S. military leaders actually contemplated launching such an attack which would have taken the lives of more people than were killed by Hitler, Stalin and Mao combined; presumably the Soviets had a similar plan.
The U.S. had no plan for what to do after the attack.  Planning ended with the nuclear holocaust

Robert McNamara, Henry Kissinger and others sought alternatives.  Their efforts were unsuccessful for, in my opinion, good reason.  If the leaders of a nation are going to use nuclear weapons at all against an enemy which also has nuclear arms, it is too late to hold back.

Schlosser gives great credit to General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the Strategic Air Command from 1948 to 1957 and higher Air Force positions through 1965, for his strict insistence on proper procedures and checklists and tough unannounced inspections.  It was said of LeMay that he did not distinguish between the unfortunate and the incompetent, and that to err is human, but to forgive is not SAC policy.  This tough attitude saved many lives, Schlosser said.

The situation is different now.  In 2003, Schlosser reported, half of the Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections, despite three-day advance warnings.

Schlosser pointed out that the United States has never had an unauthorized detonation of a nuclear weapon—a remarkable achievement.  But each day that nuclear weapons exist is a gamble that a detonation won’t take place.  Meanwhile nuclear weapons proliferate.  India, as Schlosser noted, has double the industrial accident rate of the United States, and Pakistan has three times the rate.  How long until one of those weapons goes off?  And then what?


War and peace: Links & notes 11/29/13

November 29, 2013

‘Aleppo is nothing but hunger and Islam’ by Francesa Borri in The Guardian.

I’m glad that President Obama decided against overt U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict, but I admit I don’t know what to do to help the poor people of Syria.  It seems as if the only alternatives are continued rule by a ruthless and brutal hereditary dictator, and rule by local militias and warlords.

Islamist borri 12 novThe United States government, for all our high-tech flying killer drones and all our highly-trained special operations forces, does not have the capability to keep the peace in a country torn by civil war.  Arming one or more of the fighting factions makes things worse.  Bombarding the country makes things worse.  Helping victims is good to do, but it doesn’t solve the problem.  Maybe somebody who knows more about Syria than I do sees an answer.  I don’t see any.

Hollywood ‘Fight Club’ producer was Israeli spy with nuclear script by RT News.   Hat tip to O.

Arnon Milchan, producer of Hollywood movies such as Pretty Woman, Fight Club and LA Confidential, gave an interview about his earlier life as an Israeli secret agent in the 1970s who obtained materials and equipment for Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program.  This helps me understand the Israeli government’s fear of Iran’s nuclear program.  If Israel could develop nuclear weapons without the world’s knowledge, why couldn’t Iran?


Iran and the nuclear proliferation problem

November 15, 2013

War hawks in Israel, France and the U.S. Congress say there can be no peace with Iran unless that country gives up the possibility of developing nuclear weapons.

The Ayatollah Khamenei has said that use of nuclear weapons is contrary to Islam, but there are subtle, but important differences, between using nuclear weapons, having nuclear weapons and having the capacity to someday develop nuclear weapons.

iran.sanctionsAll the countries that have nuclear weapons today, except Israel, developed them because they feared being attacked by another country with nuclear weapons.  This includes the United States.  The Manhattan Project was begin because U.S. leaders and scientists feared that Nazi Germany would develop nuclear weapons first.  And the government of Israel in its early days had a realistic fear of being destroyed by invasion by its Arab neighbors.

The Iranian government was one of the original signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, on July 1, 1968.   All signers of the treaty except the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China renounced nuclear weapons, the five nuclear powers agreed to gradually reduce and then eliminate nuclear weapons, and they promised to share nuclear energy technology with the non-nuclear countries.  In all, 189 countries ratified the treaty, but India, Pakistan and Israel did not, and North Korea withdrew from the treaty.

It would be unfortunate if Iran, or any other additional country, acquired nuclear weapons, but I think the only way to avoid this is for the existing nuclear powers to abide by the intent of the treaty.   I don’t think the United States is in a position to say that it is all right for nations of which our government approves can have nuclear weapons, and the ones it disapproves cannot.  The Iranian government has the same treaty rights under the ayatollahs as it did under the Shah.


The day we nearly bombed North Carolina

September 30, 2013

The video is taken from a larger documentary entitled Always / Never: the Quest for Nuclear Safety, Control and Survivability, produced in 2010 by Sandia National Laboratories for internal use only and never officially released.  The incident in which an atomic bomb nearly exploded over Goldsboro, N.C., in 1961, is recreated through computer animation. 

This video excerpt was published by The Guardian.  Click on U.S. atom bomb detonation was averted ‘by the smallest margin of chance’ for The Guardian’s report on the video by Ed Pilkington.

Click on America’s biggest threat is its own N-weapons for my earlier post on nuclear near-disasters.

This is a dilemma.   I don’t advocate unilateral disarmament.  I don’t want the United States to be in a position in which other nations could attack us with impunity.  But this puts Americans in danger of accident nuclear explosions and even accidental nuclear war.

We will not be safe until there is general, enforceable nuclear disarmament among all nations, and this will not happen until no nation that possesses nuclear weapons or has the capability of possessing them is free of the fear of being wiped out.   This is a radical hope, but the present situation cannot go on forever.

America’s biggest threat is its own N-weapons

September 26, 2013

nuclearaccident1Americans are in greater danger from accidents in our own country’s nuclear arsenal than we are from the spread of nuclear weapons to countries such as Pakistan, North Korea or Iran.

An investigative reporter named Eric Schlosser tells in a new book, Command and Control, of narrow escapes from accidental nuclear explosions, and from launching of nuclear bombs based on false alarms.  The thing about narrow escapes is that you can’t count on them happening.  After

GEDSC DIGITAL CAMERAIn the period from 1950 to 1968 alone, he discovered 700 “significant” nuclear accidents.  The government was uncooperative, but he was helped by whistleblowers who were worried about lax handling of dangerous weapons.

An atomic bomb without its warhead was accidentally dropped on Mars Bluff, S.C., in 1958.  A fully armed atomic bomb was dropped near Goldsboro, N.C., in 1961; there were four fail-safe switches designed to prevent the bomb from going off accidentally, and three of the four failed.

Suppose you were President of the United States and you were told that an atomic bomb had been dropped on North Carolina.  Would you stop and do nothing until you figured out what had happened, or would you assume that the nation was under attack and strike back.

The Cold War is over, but both the United States and the Russian Federation still have their nuclear missiles ready to launch, and an nuclear false alarm is just as possible now as it was then.

I don’t know which is worse—to think, as Schlosser does, that the U.S. Air Force is negligent in its handling of nuclear weapons, or to think that the current system is working as well as is humanly possible.


The threats: Iran vs. North Korea

April 5, 2013

Which is the greater threat, North Korea or Iran?

Juan Cole, who teachers Middle East history at the University of Michigan, made an interesting comparison on his web log.

Another comparison. Click to enlarge.

Another comparison. Click to enlarge.

North Korea has eight nuclear weapons.  As Cole noted, its ruler, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un, has threatened to attack United States territory.  North Korea has 1,106,000 troops under arms, including 85,000 in its Air Force.   Its armed forces have 3,500 tanks and 8,500 artillery pieces

Iran has zero nuclear weapons.  As Cole pointed out, its ruler, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, has stated that Iran will never use nuclear weapons because killing innocent civilians is contrary to Islam.  Iran has 585,000 troops under arms, including 30,000 in its Air Force.  Its armed forces have 1,613 tanks and 3,500 artillery pieces.

Why, then, does the United States treat North Korea’s government with such forbearance while threatening and waging economic warfare against Iran?  Part of the answer is that it is safer to threaten a nation that might someday get nuclear weapons than a country that already has nuclear weapons.  But I don’t think this is the main reason.   The North Korean government must know that the United States military has the power to obliterate its armed forces.

The main reason that the North Korean government has the power to engage in threats and blackmail is that it is perpetually on the brink of political and economic collapse, and that if that happened, the U.S., Chinese and South Korean governments would be faced with the question of how to deal with 25 million desperate starving people in a state of anarchy.  It is easier to tolerate provocations—up to a point—than to deal with that responsibility.   I wish I knew a better answer, but I don’t.

Click on If N. Korea Is the Threat, Why Is All the War Talk About a Weak Iran? for Prof. Cole’s post on his Informed Comment web log.

Negotiations with Iran

April 16, 2012

Here is good news—maybe.   Representatives of Iran and of the United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China agreed to meet in Baghdad starting May 23 to discuss Iran’s nuclear program.  The negotiations will be based on the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which Iran has signed, which gives countries the right to develop nuclear energy in return for renouncing nuclear weapons.  If Iran can demonstrate that its nuclear program is not a weapons program, then crippling economic sanctions can be lifted—maybe.

Click to enlarge

President Obama has said that he does not rule out an attack on Iran, but only after all efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution have failed.   If negotiations are successful, and Iran’s government really does demonstrate to the satisfaction of the U.S. negotiators that it renounces nuclear weapons, then Obama’s brinksmanship will have proved successful.

But given that the U.S. government attacked Libya after Col. Qadaffi renounced nuclear weapons, and given that the U.S. government refrains from attacking nuclear-armed North Korea, I doubt that I, if I were an Iranian leader, would be willing to give up the possibility of developing a nuclear deterrentThe main threat to Iran comes from Israel, and Israel is not a party to the talks.

Click on Agreement reached with Iran on formal talks in May for details from McClatchy newspapers.

Click on Did U.S. miss 2010 chance for Iran nuke deal? Turkey says yes for background from McClatchy newspapers.

Click on Iran nuclear talks: A positive first step? for Iranian and Russian as well as U.S. perspectives from Al Jazeera English.

Preliminary talks in Istanbul

Click on Israel’s Secret Staging Ground and False Flag articles by investigative journalist Mark Perry in Foreign Policy magazine about Israeli operations against Iran.

Click on What Iran Can Learn From Kazakhstan for the case for Iranian renunciation of nuclear weapons, and Uranium Double-Standard: The U.S., Kazakhstan and Iran for the case against Kazakhstan as a model.

One ironic aspect of all this is that the talks are being held in Baghdad because the Iranian government considers Iraq a friendly venue.  But that would not be the case had not U.S. military forces overthrown the regime of Iran’s arch-enemy, Saddam Hussein, and replaced it with government headed by Sunni Muslims friendly to the Sunnis of Iran.


Iran’s nuclear deterrent

May 19, 2011

I think it is likely that Iran is working on nuclear bombs and missiles because that is what I would do if I were Supreme Leader of Iran.  So long as people in the United States or Israel talk about attacking Iran, the rulers of Iran will try to acquire a deterrent.

Jonathan Schell in The Seventh Decade: the New Shape of Nuclear Danger, pointed out that every country that acquired nuclear weapons did so in response to some external threat.

The United States developed nuclear weapons for fear that Nazi Germany was trying to do the same thing.  The Soviet Union developed nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear attack by the United States.  Britain and France sought to deter a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union as well as to not be completely dependent on the United States for their defense.  China sought to deter the Soviet Union and the United States.  India sought to deter China as well as to assert great power status.  Pakistan sought to deter India.  North Korea and Israel are countries under siege with a need for deterrents.

It is understandable that the leaders of Iran, surrouned by a nuclear Israel, Russia, China, India, Pakistan and U.S. fleet, would also seek a nuclear deterrent.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that a nuclear Iran would be a threat to the United States.  That is not so.  Russia is the only nation with a sufficient nuclear stockpile to threaten the existence of the United States.  But if Iran had only one nuclear weapon, and a missile capable of delivering it to the United States or Israel, that would be sufficient to deter an attack by either of those countries.  The United States would not be attacking Libya if the Libyan government had nuclear weapons.

I admit I could be wrong about Iran.  I thought Saddam Hussein was working on weapons of mass destruction for the same reasons I now think so about Iran – because that’s what I would have done.  I was surprised when Iraq’s nuclear weapons program turned out to be nonexistent.  I may be surprised about Iran, too, but I don’t think so.

The development of nuclear weapons by Iran’s would be a very bad thing.  It would likely spur acquisition of nuclear weapons by Arab nations whose rulers, as the Wikileaks documents revealed, are deeply concerned about the possibility of a nuclear Iran.  The more nations whose leaders have their finger on nuclear buttons, the more likely it is that someday that one of those buttons will be pushed.

But I don’t know what can be done to prevent it.  Possibly Iran would drop its nuclear weapons program if peace could be achieved with the United States, Israel and Iran’s Arab neighbors.  I don’t see a path as to how this can be accomplished.  I don’t think sanctions and threats will achieve this purpose.


U.S. electricity from Russian nuclear warheads

July 1, 2010

I’ve believed for a long time that dismantled nuclear warheads would be a good source of electricity. By reprocessing the nuclear material into fuel, you would (1) alleviate the nuclear waste problem, (2) reduce consumption of non-renewable fossil fuels while (3) refraining from creating greenhouse gasses and (4) reducing the world’s supply of weapons-grade nuclear material.

I was surprised to learn while surfing the Internet this morning that this already is being done. According to a Wikipedia article, 10 percent of U.S. electricity is generated from nuclear material in former Russian warheads.


The return of nuclear power

February 18, 2010

President Obama earlier this week announced a loan guarantee for the first nuclear power plant in the United States in nearly 30 years. His decision is in line with his State of the Union address in which he called for “a new generation of clean, safe nuclear power plants.”

I guess I am reluctantly in agreement with what he is doing.  If we want to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, if we want to stop emitting greenhouse gasses that burn up the planet, we have to find alternatives to fossil fuels, and nuclear energy is an alternative source we have available right now.

Nuclear power is dangerous, as the Chernobyl disaster showed, if you don’t follow elementary safety precautions, but like many dangerous activities, it can be carried on safely if operated by people who know what they’re doing and who don’t gamble with margins of safety.  The U.S. Navy runs on nuclear power.  France generates 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power plants, and has electricity to export. In contrast, the United States is a net importer of electricity.  This isn’t likely to change any time soon, because a lot of our alternative energy plans, such as development of electric cars, depend on abundant electricity. I of course favor development of photovoltaic electricity, wind energy, geothermal power and other renewable sources with all deliberate speed.

I think that the United States someday will have to rethink its policy on reprocessing of nuclear fuel. This would be a way of reducing the amount of nuclear waste (in terms of total radioactivity; the physical volume would be greater) and of burning up the nuclear material in nuclear weapons.  We discontinued reprocessing under the Carter administration because reprocessing technology can be used for nuclear bombs as well as nuclear power plants, and we wanted to set a good example. It would set a better example to use the nuclear bomb material to produce useful electricity.

Here is commentary on President Obama’s action, and here is some background information on nuclear power in the United States.


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