This is the fifth part in the series, Original Child Bomb. Below I've given an all-too-brief description of the environmental devastation, close calls, and insanity of nuclear deterrence policy: all are part of the legacy of those first bombs dropped on Japan. You can find the rest of the series here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.
The history of US nuclear weapons since Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a history of tragedy and poison - for the environment, below ground and above ground, for many who were used as guinea pigs, and for those unfortunate enough to be downwind to test sites. Results: cancer, tortured landscapes and people, superfund sites, waste. There has been the loss of staggering amounts of money that went into research and development for bigger and bigger weapons…and now, smaller and smaller weapons (mini-nukes, bunker-busters).
The Realm of Pluto
|Rocky Flats being disassembled|
Back in the fall of '98, I went on a tour of Rocky Flats, a former nuclear weapons production plant that was in the process of being disassembled. For forty years Rocky Flats had manufactured what were called plutonium triggers, or "pits". When I was there most of the buildings had been broken down and shipped to salt caves beneath the earth near Carlsbad, New Mexico (Waste Isolation Pilot Plant), a place licensed to permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste left over from the research and production of nuclear weapons (more on that below).
Here are a few of the incidents that occurred at Rocky Flats over the years:
|Glove-box after fire, 1957|
"On September 11, 1957, a plutonium fire occurred in one of the gloveboxes used to handle radioactive materials, igniting the combustible rubber gloves and plexiglas windows of the box. The accident resulted in the contamination of Building 771, the release of plutonium into the atmosphere, and caused $818,600 in damage. An incinerator for plutonium-contaminated waste was installed in Building 771 in 1958.
"Barrels of radioactive waste were found to be leaking into an open field in 1959. This was not made publicly known until 1970 when wind-borne particles were detected in Denver.
"In 1967, 3,500 barrels (560 m3) of plutonium contaminated lubricants and solvents were stored on Pad 903. A large number of them were found to be leaking, and low-level contaminated soil was becoming wind-borne from this area. This pad was covered with gravel and paved over with asphalt in 1969." (Rocky Flats Plant/Wikipedia)
A close encounter with Pad 903
On the Rocky Flats tour, we had a guide who worked for the Department of Defense (Dante had his Virgil, as a guide through the underworld, the realm of Pluto, and we had a former journalist, who made cliché statements about the harmlessness of current radioactive levels by talking about how much radiation a banana gives off. I ended up naming him our "Crap Virgil."). At one point, we were standing on the edge of Pad 903, and Crap Virgil told us about the leakage and how the problem of the contaminated soil was solved by paving it over. Those of us on the tour looked out over the pad (you could see Denver and the northern suburbs of Denver in the distance). There were numerous cracks in the asphalt. Mullein and thistle were growing out of the cracks. Someone pointed at one of the larger cracks and said, "But…" And then everyone laughed. A high, keening, nervous kind of laughter.
The list of accidents and leaks of radioactive materials continued through 1989. In 1989, things got so bad at the facility that it was raided by the EPA and the FBI and was shut down. Operators of the plant eventually pleaded guilty to criminal violations of environmental law.
|Nuclear Industrial Complex/Nukewatch|
What is not listed here are all the accidents that are constantly happening among the other nuclear powers. And there are now nine: The US, Russia, China, the UK, France, Pakistan, India, Israel, and North Korea. God knows what has gone on and is still going on in their nuclear industrial complexes.
The clean-up (List of Superfund Sites/Wikipedia ) from all the chemicals, the radioactive materials, has cost and is currently costing the US billions of dollars that could be have been funneled back into our crumbling infrastructure, into our schools, into job skills programs, into rebuilding our inner cities and our rural areas, into rehabilitation-oriented drug programs, into clean energy research…the list seems endless.
With this tremendous power has come tremendous waste.
Bombing Ourselves: Close Calls, Tests
|Nevada Test Site, 1951|
It has been sheer luck that the world (or, at the very least, a city or two) hasn't burned in a nuclear conflagration. There are no highly qualified, omniscient "masters" at the helm of all this power who will protect us from harm. There are only human beings working in this underworld - human beings just like you and me. I find this terrifying.
|Nuclear Explosion seen from Las Vegas, 1950's|
The list of military nuclear accidents since 1944 is quite long (and can be found here: List of Military Nuclear Accidents). In fact, there are so many incidents that I'll only list one, from 1966: A B-52 bomber, carrying four hydrogen bombs, was on routine patrol and collided with a re-fueling jet over Spain. The four nuclear weapons fell to earth. There were explosions, but the warheads did not detonate. One bomb was temporarily lost in the ocean, and two bombs exploded, spreading plutonium over the village of Palomares. "In
1966, American troops removed about 5,000 barrels of
contaminated soil after the accident and called the cleanup complete. But about
a decade ago, the Spanish authorities found elevated levels of plutonium over
99 acres. Some of the areas of elevated radioactivity almost touched private
homes, as well as fields and greenhouses. (4
Hydrogen Bombs from '66 Scar Spanish Village, NYT, June 20, 2016)
|Fuselage in field/Palomares accident, 1966|
|Nuclear Fallout from Tests/Nukewatch|
It is common knowledge that the US tested in Nevada and the Pacific across four decades - above ground and then below ground. There were numerous "tests" on soldiers in the field, resulting in thousands of deaths from cancer many years later. Those living downwind from these tests had inordinate amounts of cancer compared to the rest of the population. (You can see on the Nukewatch chart above where the radioactive waste was carried.)
The Psychopathology of Deterrence
Since WWII, nuclear deterrence theory postulates that possessing nuclear weapons is a deterrence against nuclear attack by another nation. Nuclear strategy and "security" has relied on Mutually Assured Destruction" (MAD): the idea that that any attack would result in massive retaliation and ultimately the annihilation of ALL combatants. By destroying your enemy, you destroy yourself. What is rarely pointed out is that nuclear weapons have not secured the world against war at all - they have only deterred the world from nuclear war. A strange irony, that. The creation and possession of the weapon gives rise to the deterrence of war with that very weapon? Some dark humor involved in that. Hideously dark. It seems once you become a nuclear power, you become a nuclear target…
Two men, one in the military, the other a civilian - but both involved in the nuclear military-industrial complex, have had important things to say about its psychopathology: General George Lee Butler, commander of SAC (1991-2) and head of Strategic Command (1993-4); and William Perry, Secretary of Defense (1994-7).
Butler has said: "Mankind escaped the Cold War without a nuclear holocaust by some combination of diplomatic skill, blind luck and divine intervention, probably the latter in greatest proportion." He also said that nuclear deterrence is "a slippery intellectual construct that translates very poorly into the real world of spontaneous crises, inexplicable motivations, incomplete intelligence and fragile human relationships." (Many articles on and speeches by Butler can be found at wagingpeace.org)
Perry described strategic nuclear thinking in the 60's (of which he was a part) as "surreal." In his book, My Life at the Nuclear Brink (Stanford University Press, 2015), he says:
What truly alarmed both Perry and Butler was that strategic planning "saw nuclear weaponry as the high end of conventional weaponry - and could be used tactically." (The Violent American Century, 2017, John W. Dower, p 41)
& The New Nuclear Weapons Race
The belief that nuclear weapons can be used tactically is still very much in vogue. Although the world's nuclear arsenals have been decreased by substantial amounts since the end of the Cold War, production on new forms of nuclear weaponry has resulted in a new Cold War pace of production.
"Moscow is fielding big missiles topped by miniaturized warheads, and experts fear that it may violate the global test ban as it develops new weapons. According to Russian news reports, the Russian Navy is developing an undersea drone meant to loft a cloud of radioactive contamination from an underwater explosion that would make target cities uninhabitable…. The Chinese military…is flight-testing a novel warhead called a 'hypersonic glide vehicle.' It flies into space on a traditional long-range missile but then maneuvers through the atmosphere, twisting and careening at more than a mile a second. That can render missile defenses all but useless…and as part of the modernization process, it (the US military) is also planning five classes of improved nuclear arms and associated delivery vehicles that, as a family, are shifting the American arsenal in the direction of small, stealthy and precise." (Race for latest class of nuclear weapons, New York Times, April 16, 2016)
And this: Military experts argue that miniaturized weapons will help deter an expanding range of potential attackers. "The United States needs discriminate nuclear options at all rungs of the nuclear escalation ladder," said a report in 2015 from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research group in Washington.
And this: "Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, has confirmed that as part of the Pentagon's ongoing nuclear posture review, it is looking at a new generation of low-yield 'mini-nukes' in order to ensure that the threat from America's nuclear arsenal remains credible."(Pentagon considering mini-nukes for maximum deterrence, Washington Examiner, August 5, 2017)
How This Will Play Out:
Money, Money, & More Money
"You might think that the most powerful weapons in the U.S. arsenal -- nuclear warheads -- would be paid for out of the Pentagon budget. And you would, of course, be wrong. The cost of researching, developing, maintaining, and “modernizing” the American arsenal of 6,800 nuclear warheads falls to an obscure agency located inside the Department of Energy: the National Nuclear Security Administration, or NNSA. It also works on naval nuclear reactors, pays for the environmental cleanup of nuclear weapons facilities, and funds the nation’s three nuclear weapons laboratories, at a total annual cost of more than $20 billion per year." (William D. Hartung in an article at Tomdispatch)
There's gold in them thar bombs! That's why they keep getting made, why there is more and more research done. There are people and corporations out there making a killing. Once again, as it was in the beginning, it's clear that very few involved in the making of or the strategy about nuclear weapons are facing the consequences. Who among them will have the courage to look back at the devastated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and say "Stop"? Who among them will ask who was that person standing in front of a bank when the first bomb exploded, leaving only an anonymous shadow on the stone steps?
(the final section...for now)