I heard some commentators on television the other day say that for human beings to maintain nuclear weapons is equivalent to leaving a loaded shotgun in a kindergarten.
I thought when I heard it that it is a totally apt comparison, but it seems even more appropriate since the extraordinary statement by the nuclear-warrior-number-one, the United States president, that he is ready to load on to North Korea fire and fury “such as the world has ever seen before.” This can mean only one thing: nuclear war.
It happens I had been thinking about this recently, after having viewed an extraordinary film called Command and Control, made by PBS, the American TV channel, about a nuclear accident that occurred in Arkansas in 1980.This film confirmed all the doubts I have carried with me through my entire life about nuclear power, and (let me get this off my chest right here) this is a film that I believe every person in the world should see, and that should be required viewing in every high school on earth. It lasts for 91 minutes, was issued in 2012, and was directed by Robert Kenner.
I remember most clearly putting pen to paper to oppose nuclear power when I had briefly returned to New Zealand to live in the 1970s. Before that, I remember in 1950 in Montreal covering a luncheon address by the man in charge of nuclear research in Canada, who airily dismissed all objections based on the lack of control of the waste products, by uttering the infamous lie, that they had the waste disposal problem totally under control. Of course, it is so far from being under control, that they still have no idea how to dispose safely of the waste products, and it is known that leaks are occurring in many places from these supposedly safe storage places.
I 1975 I wrote an impassioned article opposing the proposal of the New Zealand government of the day to build a nuclear power station at the foot of one of the two harbours around whose shores is built the city of Auckland, with a quarter of the nation’s population. Of course, in response to my article the pro-nuclear people trotted out all their comforting bromides, but in the end the proposal was defeated by a combination of pressures brought by environmentalists in alliance with the indigenous Maori people, whose first objection was the simple but convincing fear that the power station would invade and ruin the bed of the shell fish they had always --- and in this case “always” means, for many, many centuries --- depended on. New Zealand is still free of nuclear power to this day, and is still refusing to admit into its ports American warships carrying nuclear power, a policy that is so popular that it has even survived a series of conservative governments.
However, back to this film which reveals, in its last moments after a harrowing hour-and-a-half in which it describes the horrors of a nuclear accident, that thousands --- I’ll repeat that, thousands --- of such accidents have occurred in the more than half a century that nuclear power and the weapon systems it has spawned have been bestriding the world.
The accident occurred to a Titan II, an immense underground missile that was armed with the most powerful of all hydrogen bombs, said to contain three times more explosive power than all the bombs used by all nations of both sides during World War II, including the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan, and all this power was aimed at the Soviet Union. One of the men interviewed in the film said it was assumed in the early days of nuclear weapons, that it would take between 50 and 200 nuclear bombs to completely annihilate the Soviet Union, which apparently was the objective of the system, but by the mid-1960s, the US had 32,000 of them and for those working on building them the “money was free”. They had bombers carrying nuclear bombs in the air at all times, and submarines around the world were armed with bombs ready to be fired at a moment’s notice. One of the former workers in the maintenance system says in the film that whenever he entered the missile silo, his team was in charge of it, and they had to be ready to discharge the missile on notice. He said, “I had no problem with that, even though I would be killing ten million people in seconds, I would never have hesitated.” It was being done in defence of his country, he argued, it was a deterrent, and to be convincing, “we had to show that we were ready to use it.”
I pause here to remark that merely to describe this programme must surely indicate to any sane person that the world has gone mad, and that especially lunatic are the persons who have undertaken to carry out these functions. One thing I have noticed throughout my life is that no matter how horrendous the ideas of certain leaders may be --- think Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Idi Amin, Emperor for Life Bokassa in the murderous Central African Republic, as well as a succession of American presidents (as well, I suppose, as the leaders of the Soviet Union, France, the United Kingdom) and there are plenty of others who could be cited --- these leaders always find people willing to carry out their orders.
The accident was caused by the simplest little thing: one of the maintenance teams that were constantly working to keep the missile in order was advised at the end of their shift of some trouble with the pressure in the oxidizer tank, which contained one of the two elements needed to fire the missile, the other being kept in an interlocking fuel tank. One member of the team who was interviewed said that before they entered the silo to examine this routine problem he had forgotten to take a torque wrench from his truck. He was not worried because this was a recent change in procedure: “I had spent three years using a ratchet, so instead of sending someone back to get the wrench, I grabbed the ratchet.” Of such small human errors are accidents caused. Using the ratchet, three feet long, with which he was completely familiar, when his hand slipped, a small but solid eight-pound metal socket attached to the ratchet fell and went hurtling down the seventy foot length of the several-stories-high missile, landed on the side of the fuel tank, making a small hole in it, and allowing a stream of fuel to eject. The fuel system required that the oxidizer and fuel be mixed to create the explosion that would launch the missile, and the worker was aware that they could not stop what was happening.
The rest of the film is a detailed account of the efforts made to save the missile from exploding, because the nuclear weapon already armed on the head of the missile was of such force that it could possibly have devastated almost the whole of the eastern seaboard of the US including doing grave damage to most of its big cities, and killing, certainly, hundreds of thousands of people.
The film describes an accident that occurred in North Carolina in 1961 when a B52 bomber carrying two hydrogen bombs broke up, and the two bombs were released. One of them on hitting the ground went through all its arming steps and a firing signal was sent, and the only thing that prevented a four megaton explosion was a single switch, just like a light switch on the living room wall. “If the right two wires had touched,” explains one worker in the system, “the bomb would have detonated, period.” At that time the number of nuclear accidents was increasing, and the same man said, “I read through all the known accident reports, and it scared the hell out of me.” They were shocked when they realized the weapons they had always said were safe were not nearly as safe as had been assumed. They now realized that thousands of American nuclear weapons were vulnerable in case of accident, including the biggest one of all, the very one sitting on top of the Titan II missile in Arkansas.
The alarm went off at 6.35 pm, and it took some hours before effective action could be organized to deal with the problem. Indeed, the story appears to be one of mistaken orders, mostly given by people higher up in the chain of command who were not that familiar with the circumstances of the maintenance teams on the ground. At one point the only man in the team who seemed to have a practical idea of what to do was ordered not to go into the silo. An early mistake was to abandon the control room, so that they did not have available to them only way of dealing with the problem. Eventually they had to go back in, but by that time it was too late, and at least one of the team was incinerated when eventually the missile site exploded with a monstrous roar.
It seems that the warhead was not ignited, but instead was blown off its place at the head of the missile to land more or less harmlessly outside the site. But the entire missile site was destroyed by the explosion and fire that followed.
This film is the most graphic I have seen demonstrating the dangers of nuclear power, but it is a wonder that we need to be reminded of these dangers. The Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986 sent its effects over all of Western Europe, and it was just a simple nuclear power generating station. More recently the Fukushima plant in Japan, carelessly sited in the path of a tsunami following a huge nearby undersea earthquake, is still, six years after the event, apparently still forty years from being normalized. I remember years ago passing by the Three Mile station in Pennsylvania that had a meltdown in 1979, which brought a sort of freeze to all future nuclear projects in the United States. All the bromides delivered by the nuclear apologists pale into insignificance beside the massive record of nuclear accidents, more than 100 in eleven countries according to the latest Wikipedia count. And they, of course, exclude the “thousands” that were admitted to in this film in relation to weapons systems.
We just can’t believe in nuclear power as one of the elements for beating our climate change problem. The sooner we shut down every nuclear power station, the safer we will be.