The possibility of nuclear war is a persistent concern of the human race. It seems to be the only way in which we can destroy ourselves in one fell swoop. Perhaps Donald Trump’s ascent to the US presidency will exacerbate these fears; perhaps his isolationist tendencies will alleviate them. Either way, the fear of nuclear destruction remains a constant, even if such a likelihood is in reality remote.
Whether it is rogue states possessing nuclear weapons (North Korea, Iran), deranged leaders with their fingers on the red button (Kim Jong-un, Trump?), the potential for swift nuclear proliferation (the Middle East, Asia-Pacific) or the acquisition of nuclear devices by terrorist organisations, the worst-case scenario of nuclear war never fails to unsettle world leaders.
In part it is a hangover from the Cold War when mutually assured nuclear destruction did at times seem imminent, no more so than during the Cuban Missile Crisis. However, as Dr Strangelove magnificently parodied, it would have taken major misunderstandings and maniacal decision-making for such an eventuality to have materialised.
A more plausible scenario for nuclear annihilation is an accident. We have seen in recent years the devastating radioactive fallout caused by the Chernobyl disaster – whose crumbling reactor is soon to be encased by a giant shield – and the Japanese tsunami of 2011 which caused major damage to the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.
Such terrifying incidents have raised major questions over civilian nuclear power generation, not to mention further strengthening the case for nuclear non-proliferation.
Just as alarming as these unfortunate, if potentially avoidable, disasters are the ‘near-miss’ operational incidents involving nuclear weapons, most of which remain shrouded in secrecy.
The possible discovery by a diver last week of a missing Mark IV nuclear bomb off the coast of British Columbia brought such eventualities back into the spotlight. In 1950, a US Air Force B-36 aircraft began to experience engine trouble during a flight between Alaska and Texas. The device now thought to have been uncovered off the Canadian coast was jettisoned before the crew ejected, allowing the plane to continue on autopilot until it crashed into a mountain range. This was the first recorded loss of a nuclear weapon in history.
Although some aviation experts have dismissed the possibility of the device being the missing Mark IV, either way it is not nuclear-ready; i.e. it is has a lead, uranium and TNT filling but not the plutonium necessary for a nuclear detonation.
Other past operational incidents have further demonstrated the precariousness of ‘routine’ nuclear weapons deployment.
For instance, on the 27th July 1956 a B-47 bomber crashed into a storage igloo at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk, within which three Mark VI nuclear bombs sat silently. As with the B-36 incident, the bombs did not contain any fissile material yet they had a considerable amount of high explosive content and a detonation could have proved catastrophic.
More controversially, on the 21st January 1968 a B-52 bomber crashed near Thule Air Base in Greenland with four hydrogen bombs on board during a ‘Chrome Dome’ alert mission at the height of the Cold War.
The nuclear payload of the four devices ruptured and dispersed across the sea ice as the conventional explosives in the aircraft detonated. More worryingly, despite an extensive clean-up operation by the American and Danish authorities, it has since been revealed that a secondary stage of one of the weapons was never accounted for. The Danes had kept the American nuclear presence on Greenlandic soil a secret from their own people, leading to a major political scandal almost three decades later.
There have been further military-related nuclear incidents, several associated with the meltdown of reactors in Soviet submarines. It is likely that others have yet to be disclosed and perhaps never will be without a whistleblower breaking the radio silence.
It seems that the apocalyptic consequences of a military-nuclear disaster resonate with us and our leaders in a more poignant way than ongoing crises such as climate change, rising sea levels and mass population displacement, all of which will ultimately have dire consequences if left unresolved.
Whilst efforts to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons and nuclear technology at a state level remain critical, putting further safeguards in place to avert an accidental nuclear catastrophe are even more important, for such a scenario is considerably more likely than nuclear war.
As Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control has demonstrated, there is an ‘illusion of safety’ when it comes to nuclear weapons, regardless of the perceived responsibility of those powers controlling them.
In the absence of a nuclear-free world – now an unattainable goal – it is hoped that military leaders, and their counterparts in the civilian world, take note of the near misses of the past to try and securitise the future as best they can.