“It’s a near miracle that nuclear war has so far been avoided.”
– Noam Chomsky
Call it paranoia or forewarning, but human beings of planet Earth are rapidly hurtling towards civilisation’s end due to their own self-destructive approach.
The end of the world will not come as a result of some cosmic interloper hitting the Earth but a global nuclear war could cause a dark ‘nuclear winter’ gripping the planet. And it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that the only way to totally eliminate the possibility of this climatic catastrophe is to adopt global nuclear disarmament.
The nuclear-winter theory gained popular currency in the early 1980s when scientists were worried about the disastrous effects of a nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But the term ‘nuclear winter’ was first used in 1983 by Richard Turco, an American atmospheric scientist, to refer to the global ecological destruction in the event of a full-scale nuclear war.
During the cold war, both superpowers had adopted a strategic doctrine called Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), in which full-scale use of high-yield atomic weapons would cause the complete annihilation of human life. What it actually meant was that simultaneous explosion of a few hundred nuclear weapons would make the climate unsuitable for agriculture and block sunlight from reaching the Earth’s surface, letting us die a slow and painful death due to starvation.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a number of prominent atmospheric scientists carried out research assessing the outcomes of a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union. Their results showed that large-scale use of 5000 megatons of nuclear weapons would surely destroy a sixth of the world’s population across the northern hemisphere. A number of other studies came up with similar results that such an incident would produce enough smoke to fundamentally alter the global environment.
The peaceful end of the cold war decreased the likelihood of a severe nuclear winter but in recent years we are, again, at increasing risk of nuclear war because of the emergence of regional nuclear powers. The resulting unbalanced preponderance has further been reinforced by a number of factors, including the spread of nuclear weapons into unstable regions and the growing vulnerability of the global nuclear stockpiles to attack.
More importantly, an unintentional launching of a nuclear missile could also lead towards a nuclear war. Today nine countries of the world, including North Korea, have developed nuclear weapons and there is no guarantee against the use of these weapons after a false alarm or the possibility of warheads catching fire.
Two years ago, Eric Schlosser, a well-known American investigative journalist and author, published a book that examines the history of nuclear related risks, including many accidents and near-disasters. The book, ‘Command and Control’, explores the dilemma for countries possessing nuclear weapons that has existed since the dawn of the nuclear age: how do you deploy nuclear warheads without being destroyed by their unauthorised or accidental use? Schlosser reveals that most of the dangers faced by mankind from the existence of nuclear weapons emanate from the possibility of their inadvertent use.
In 1980, the US narrowly escaped a nuclear holocaust on its soil that would have killed hundreds of thousands of people. During a routine maintenance procedure at the site of a Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile in Arkansas, a nine-pound tool accidentally fell in the missile silo, causing a leak of highly inflammable rocket fuel. On top of the Titan II missile was deployed a thermonuclear bomb, 600 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb.
For the next few hours, hundreds of workers and security personnel put themselves in the face of grave risk to prevent the nuclear explosion that could cause incalculable damage. A recent study released by the Sandia National Laboratories has disclosed that more than 1,200 nuclear warheads were involved in various nuclear-related accidents from 1950 to 1968.
Since the early 1950s, the US has on more than one occasion come within a hair’s breadth of an accidental nuclear war or nuclear explosion on its soil due to a mechanical error. In 1958, a B-47 bomber carrying a Mark 36 hydrogen bomb caught fire in Morocco, resulting in a massive fire that kept burning for many hours.
If the explosives in the warhead had detonated, the world would have seen the whole of Morocco turning into a nuclear wasteland. The incident was kept secret but only six weeks later a Mark 36 bomb accidentally dropped in South Carolina, resulting in a massive state of fear in the surrounding areas. The unimaginable destruction was fortunately averted because the explosive core had not been inserted in the bomb.
When the incident became publicly known, it was revealed through various media sources that only a year earlier another hydrogen bomb, without a core, had landed in Albuquerque. In 1960, the North American Air Defence Command (Norad) interpreted the rising of the moon over the Scandinavian region as a nuclear attack from Moscow.
In the early 1980s, American national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was informed by Norad that 200 Soviet nuclear weapons would land on American soil within the next few months. But later it was identified that this false alarm was due to a defective chip in Norad’s computers.
Schlosser’s book, an excellent investigation of nuclear risks, has led many experts to point towards the alarming scenario that if nuclear-related accidents have been occurring so frequently in a country like the US, the situation in other nuclear countries would surely be more grave.
This view further adds to uncertainty in case of countries like Pakistan, India and Israel where paranoid nuclear establishments have always been reluctant to release information about any such kind of incidents.
Nuclear Winter | Rizwan Asghar