Trump Ascent Raises Nuclear War Fears: yet a nuclear accident remains far more terrifying

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.

Some fear that a Trump presidency will lead to nuclear proliferation and perhaps war

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.

Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986
Disaster at Chernobyl, 1986

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.

Blackened ice at the Thule crash site
Blackened ice at the Thule crash site

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.

Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire - possibly caused with a collision with a US sub - in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered
Soviet submarine K219 sunk after a fire – possibly caused with a collision with a US sub – in a missile tube. It went down with 34 nuclear warheads which were not recovered

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.

 

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Kerry in Landmark Hiroshima Visit: Lesson for China as US-Japan Relationship Shines

John Kerry has become the first US Secretary of State to visit the Hiroshima Peace Park memorial in Japan, which commemorates the approximately 140,000 people killed when the Enola Gay became the first aircraft to drop an atomic bomb against a human target.

Hiroshima in ruins
Hiroshima in ruins

The decision of Harry Truman and his commanders to launch ‘Little Boy’ from the hold of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress on the 6th August 1945 has remained one of the most controversial turning points in history.  The Americans – and their allies – saw the deployment of the atomic weapon as the only way to force Tokyo to surrender, a concept completely anathema to Japanese culture.  Others decried the devastation of a city and the deaths of so many innocent civilians.

There has been an almost respectful quiet between Tokyo and Washington over the atomic bombings of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki – which took place on the 9th August 1945 and resulted in some 50,000 civilian deaths – since WWII.  The Americans have been careful not to act in any way that would signal an apology for what they deemed a necessary, if tragic, act of war.  The Japanese, meanwhile, have generally not followed the Chinese example of demanding unending apologies for wartime aggression. 

The Eisenhowers welcome Crown Prince Akihito and his wife Michiko to the White House
The Eisenhowers welcome Crown Prince Akihito and his wife Michiko to the White House

Of course, Japan was heavily-reliant on the USA post-WWII for its reconstruction and economic redevelopment, as well as its security and reintegration into the international community. It has therefore not been in the interests of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) – the almost perpetual rulers of post-War Japan – to antagonise the Americans by demanding an apology for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Rather, the spectre of the atomic bombings has created a positive bind in US-Japanese relations, whereby both countries are committed to preventing any similar event from occurring again.  Indeed, Japan is probably the staunchest non-proliferation state in the world, and the USA has made it a primary focus of its foreign policy to prevent nuclear proliferation, particularly with regards to so-called ‘rogue states’ such as Iran and North Korea.

Kerry’s visit is therefore unlikely to have any significant impact on policy, and is rather just another symbolic gesture proffered by the Obama administration during its final days in office.  Indeed, reports suggest that the President himself may visit Hiroshima next month.

Whereas the legacy of WWII has created an almost impenetrable barrier for normalising Sino-Japanese relations, it has ironically served as a platform for creating the most enduring alliance in the Asia-Pacific; the Japan-US relationship.  Despite fighting some of the most bloody battles in modern history and wreaking almost untold devastation on each other, Tokyo and Washington have adopted a pragmatic approach to reconciliation that is a testament to their responsible, global leadership. Mr Kerry’s visit will only serve to reinforce this view.

Japan was forced into a humiliating surrender after the atomic bombings, yet this has not prevented the development of positive contemporary alliance with the USA
Japan was forced into a humiliating surrender after the atomic bombings, yet this has not prevented the development of positive contemporary alliance with the USA

Whilst the atrocities of the past should never be overlooked – and Japan has apologised for the behaviour of its troops in China between 1937 and 1945 whatever Beijing might say – China needs to be similarly mature if it is to equate its economic might with diplomatic ascendancy, thereby elevating itself to become a true ‘global leader’, which at the moment it cannot be considered.