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In Jean Shepherd’s “The Christmas Story” little Ralphie is repeatedly told “You’ll shoot your eye out!” when he asks for a Red Rider BB gun for Christmas. Somehow everyone around him understands that the BB gun is dangerous.
That simple wisdom applies to our nuclear weapons as well.
At the end of August six nuclear warheads were transferred from Minot, North Dakota to Shreveport, Louisiana without proper security or authorization. [“ Nukes on the loose: How it happened,” Seattle Times, Sunday, September 23, 2007 ] Sixty Hiroshima bomb equivalents of thermonuclear devastation were loose inside the most secure nuclear weapons program on the planet.
Closer to home on November 7, 2003 a nuclear-armed missile being winched out of a Trident sub on Hood Canal had its nose cone pierced by a ladder left in the silo. In each case we are assured that there was never any real danger that the weapons would explode, even if dropped from the sky. There are multiple safeguards both technical and administrative.
Back in 1961 a B-52 crashed and dropped a 20+ megaton hydrogen bomb near Greensboro, South Carolina. On review it was reported that 5 of the 6 safeguards against detonation had been breached.
The very first reported nuclear weapons accident happened around January 1950 over the coast of British Columbia when a B-36 headed from Alaska to Texas crashed, igniting the explosive materials but not the nuclear pit of a test weapon.
In the late 1990s former Strategic Air Commander General Lee Butler told the audience at a Physicians for Social Responsibility conference that 23,000 service people had been reassigned or retired over the prior years of the nuclear weapons security program, including people in the silos responsible for launch of the missiles.
As much as I am concerned about US security for these unusable weapons (who are we going to legitimately bomb with a 475,000 tons of TNT equivalent W-88 hydrogen bomb from a Trident submarine?), I worry much more about proliferation and theft of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons grade fissile materials.
Current US nuclear policy allows for first strike use of nuclear weapons in a number of scenarios including an attack on Israel, Taiwan, or South Korea, even if nuclear weapons are not used in the attack. These US policies violate the spirit if not the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which requires the nuclear weapons states to disarm and to forego use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear nation. Instead the US is in the process of rebuilding our nuclear weapons production capacities under a program called Complex 2030 and designing new nuclear weapons under the guise of a Reliable Replacement Warhead program.
These aggressive nuclear weapons programs by the world’s only superpower and strongest conventional military power have driven other nations like North Korea and Iran to develop nuclear weapons, just like Israel, India and Pakistan did.
We very well could be on the verge of another nuclear arms race with China entering the competition in response to US and India. Russia’s pride is resurfacing in a more militaristic approach to international relations.
These developments should be ample warning that “We’ll shoot our eyes out!” if we don’t eliminate these weapons of mass destruction from any legitimate use or possession.
Nuclear weapons and fissile materials for making nuclear weapons must be placed under secure international safeguards, if nuclear weapons are ever to be eliminated. That will only happen when the United States takes the leadership in dismantling our own nuclear weapons complex in concert with international agreements by the other nuclear weapons states and with the cooperation of the thirty or more non-nuclear nations that now have the capability to go nuclear in a very short time.
The only way to avoid the hostile use again of nuclear weapons is by international cooperation in a verifiable safeguards regime.
As the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists states, “The doomsday clock is ticking.”
Particles on the Wall is an interdisciplinary exhibit exploring elements of the nuclear age, science, Hanford history, their thread through our lives and their bearing on the Columbia River and natural world. POTW's first venue is in Seattle's University District at the Allegro Cafe.