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“Nuclear weapons are dangerous, mmmkay?” According to a recent CRS Report “U.S. Strategic Nuclear Forces: Background, Developments, and Issues” (RL33640) — Thanks Steven Aftergood for posting this and many other reports from the Congressional Research Service! — the United States has about 2000 deployed nuclear warheads (I forgive John Oliver for his incited number of 4800). Over the years, there have been several potentially catastrophic accidents with nuclear warheads. The Associated Press has recently documented a huge list of massive dereliction of duty in the US nuclear missile corps. John Oliver goes over the terrifying issues surrounding the US nuclear forces — in an admittedly hilarious way:
- Nuclear weapons are the most dangerous things on earth
- The United States has a lot of them
- Some are controlled by floppy disks … literal, actual floppy disks
- You probably wouldn’t trust the people in charge of them to watch your dog for a weekend
- We’ve kind of, sort of, accidentally, nearly dropped them on ourselves a few times
- No one seems to care about any of those facts
- And, once again, they are the most dangerous things on earth
Top Secret NSC Net Evaluation Subcommittee reports describe “Nuclear Stalemate” and terrible costs of nuclear war
Here’s the National Security Archive’s latest, Electronic Briefing Book No. 480 “Studies by Once Top Secret Government Entity Portrayed Terrible Costs of Nuclear War”, part of their insane but fascinating Nuclear Vault which includes briefing books and declassified documents on the history of US nuclear policy. This one brings to light parts of several annual reports from the National Security Council’s top-secret NSC’s Net Evaluation Subcommittee — read President Dwight Eisenhower’s National Security Directive 5511 which set up the NESC to evaluate the capacities of the USSR.
On the morning of 20 July 1961, while the Berlin Crisis was simmering, President John F. Kennedy and the members of the National Security Council heard a briefing on the consequences of nuclear war by the NSC’s highly secret Net Evaluation Subcommittee. The report, published in excerpts today for the first time by the National Security Archive, depicted a Soviet surprise attack on the United States in the fall of 1963 that began with submarine-launched missile strikes against Strategic Air Command bases. An estimated 48 to 71 million Americans were “killed outright,” while at its maximum casualty-producing radioactive fallout blanketed from 45 to 71 percent of the nation’s residences. In the USSR and China, at the end of one month 67 and 76 million people, respectively, had been killed.
This was President Kennedy’s first exposure to a NESC report, but the secret studies of nuclear war scenarios had been initiated by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower. It may have been after this briefing, described by Secretary of State Dean Rusk as “an awesome experience,” that a dismayed Kennedy turned to Rusk, and said: “And we call ourselves the human race.”
The National Security Archive yesterday published a new “Electronic Briefing Book” entitled “New Details on the 1961 Goldsboro Nuclear Accident” which details the 1961 nuclear weapons accident in Goldsboro, North Carolina as described by a recently declassified Sandia National Lab report. The report was originally declassified by a FOIA request by Eric Schlosser, who wrote about this and other nuclear accidents in his 2013 book Command and control : nuclear weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the illusion of safety. If the bomb had detonated, it would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima!
By the way, all of the National Security Archive’s electronic briefing books have been cataloged in Worldcat so you should download the records to your library catalog post haste!
Washington, D.C., June 9, 2014 – A recently declassified report by Sandia National Laboratory, published today by the National Security Archive, provides new details on the 1961 Goldsboro, North Carolina, nuclear weapons accident. While both multi-megaton Mk 39 bombs involved in the mishap were in the “safe” position, the report concluded, by the time one of them hit the ground it was in the “armed” setting because of the impact of the crash. If the shock had not also damaged the switch contacts, the weapon could have detonated.
Since the advent of the nuclear age, the nightmarish possibility of an accidental detonation has made weapons safety a boiler-plate item in the U.S. nuclear weapons program — yet potentially serious errors continue to occur. A series of 2013 reports on the Goldsboro accident provided a fresh reminder of the role of luck in preventing nuclear disaster: the same switch involved in the 1961 event had failed in other incidents.
Steven Aftergood says that State Department historians are still, in a new volume of the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), unable to provide a definitive account of an event in October 1969 when the Nixon Administration secretly placed U.S. nuclear forces on alert.
- Purpose of 1969 Nuclear Alert Remains a Mystery, by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News, (October 25th, 2011).
- Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969–1976, Volume XXXIV, National Security Policy, 1969–1972. [PDF, 3.4MB]
This volume documents U.S. national security policy in the context of the Vietnam War and the changing Cold War strategic balance between the United States and the Soviet Union.
The Oak Ridge Associated Universities ([w:Oak Ridge National Laboratory] is the DOE’s largest energy laboratory) has put together a Nuclear Slide Rule online exhibit (part of the Health Physics Historical Instrumentation Collection). Mr jalopy points out that it’s “staggering to think of a world with nuclear bombs but no pocket calculators.”
[Thanks Dinosaurs and Robots for the heads up!]