If Only the Nuclear Arsenal Were Fool Proof


In his book Atomic Accidents (Pegasus, 2014), James Mahaffey reports that the US has lost, destroyed or damaged nuclear weapons 65 times between 1945 and 1989. Jan. 24 was the anniversary of a B-52 crash in N. Carolina where two 6,500-lb hydrogen bombs fell from the plane and nearly detonated when the bomber broke up in the air. Two recent accidents highlight the dangers today’s weapons still pose to the people who pay for them.

Trident submarine runs aground, Capt. sacked

On Nov. 25, 2015 the nuclear-powered Trident submarine USS Georgia ran aground in Kings Bay, Georgia. The Navy is still investigating the crash, the sub’s Capt. David Adams was fired Jan. 4, and the service estimated the cost of repairs would be at least $1 million.

Imagine being among the terrified 160-member crew, thrown about your cramped quarters — along with anything else not tied down — not knowing the cause of blaring alarms. If fire suppressors spring on when the 560-foot, 18,000-ton sub bashed the shoreline, it was a rainy night in Georgia.

Capt. Adams told the press he would “miss sailing …again to stand against our nation’s enemies.” But who needs enemies with friends like Adams literally running $2 billion weapon systems into the ground?

Minuteman III missile damaged, launch crew fired

Meanwhile, in the nuclear heartland, three Minuteman III missile launch officers were fired after a recently disclosed accident that left one missile with at least $1.8 million in damages. [The missile is named “Damned if you do” in Nukewatch’s new Revised Edition of “Nuclear Heartland: A guide to the 450 land-based missiles of the United States,” which features maps of all three of the US’s active missile fields.]

The damaged, single-warhead rocket was in its underground silo near Peetz, Colorado, where Warren Air Force Base operates 150 of the missiles. The rocket, which has a 300-to-335-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, was shipped to Hill Air Force Base in Utah for repairs.

The Air Force’s Accident Investigation Board of the mishap report is being kept secret in spite of standing USAF policy. The Associated Press noted that under the Air Force’s own regulations such reports “are supposed to be made public.” Robert Burns reports that the AP’s request for a copy, under the Freedom of Information Act, was denied. A brief summary of the AIB report issued Jan. 22 says the accident “posed no risk to public safety,” a claim made unverifiable because no details of the damage were disclosed.

Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, interviewed by Burns Jan. 23, said, “By keeping the details of the accident secret and providing only vague responses, the Air Force behaves as if it has something to hide and undermines public confidence in the safety of the ICBM mission.”

The public summary says the weapon “became non-operational” during a test on May 16, 2014 and that the next day, the chief of a “mishap crew” violated “technical guidance” during the team’s checkup “subsequently damaging the missile.”

Blunder kept secret from higher-ups

Although the accident happened 20 months ago, it was first revealed this month. In fact, commanders at Warren AFB kept it secret from their military and civilian superiors in the Pentagon. At the time, the Minuteman missile system, its launch control staff in particular, was under investigation for narcotics trafficking, mass cheating on exams, performance failures, and misconduct by command authorities. On orders from Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel, nuclear-weapons experts conducted a three-month investigation of the missile “wings” at Air Bases in Great Falls, Mont., Cheyenne, Wyo., and Minot, North Dakota.

Asked if the May 17 accident was reported to the high-level investigators, Lt. Col. John Sheets, spokesman for the Air Force Global Strike Command in Omaha, which controls the ballistic missile force, said, “No” and referred further questions to the Pentagon.

It bears repeating that nuclear weapons accidents have the potential for catastrophic radiation releases with long-term health and environmental consequences. These two accidents amplify the seriousness of recent high-level calls for the elimination of the missiles.

Former Pentagon Chief William Perry said last Dec. 3, “Nuclear weapons no longer provide for our security, they endanger it.” He pointed specifically to the land-based missiles, saying ICBMs “aren’t necessary,” are “destabilizing,” and “are simply too easy to launch on bad information and would be the most likely source of an accidental nuclear war.”

In an essay titled “A Threat Mostly to Ourselves,” Paul Nitz, a personal advisor to Ronald Reagan, wrote, “I see no compelling reason why we should not unilaterally get rid of our nuclear weapons. To maintain them is costly and adds nothing to our security.” Gen. James Cartwright, a retired four-star general of the Marine Corps, issued a report in 2012 signed by Sen. Chuck Hagel (later Sec. of Defense) that recommended getting rid of the land-based missiles.

Perhaps Gen. James Kowalski, a retired three-star general and Deputy Commander of StratCom which oversees the ICBMs, said it best. Recalling a string of scandals, accidents and staff firings in Dec. 2014, Gen. Kowalski said, “The greatest threat to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Scores of accidents documented by Mahaffey and by Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, beg the question: What is the government waiting for? Is a self-inflicted nuclear weapon disaster the only way to force the military to turn the nuclear pistols away from our heads and put the safety on?

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John LaForge is a Co-director of Nukewatch, a peace and environmental justice group in Wisconsin, and edits its newsletter.

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