Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies


The Cold War was over years ago and the world, as far as the major powers are concerned, is now apparently at peace. But appearances can be deceptive


By Dr. Lloyd Dumas

A decade ago, when the Cold War ended, much of the world heaved a collective sigh of relief.

Fifty years of confrontation between two superpowers armed with arsenals of nuclear weapons had come to a close–peacefully. Finally, it seemed, the ticking nuclear time bomb had been defused. But things are not always what they seem.

Though the Cold War is over, it has left behind a deadly nuclear legacy that continues to threaten us. Late last summer, when the Kursk, the newest submarine in the Russian fleet, sank, the world’s attention was focused on the fate of the 118 Russian sailors aboard. But the sinking was more than just another tragedy at sea. It sent two more nuclear reactors, and possibly nuclear warheads as well, to the nuclear graveyard at the bottom of the sea. ’There is an average of almost one serious [nuclear] accident every six months for nearly half a century. In addition to submarines, these accidents have involved fighter planes, bombers, missiles, military nuclear waste storage facilities and surface ships.’

There they joined the half-dozen reactors and almost fifty nuclear warheads already scattered on the floor of the world’s oceans. It is not at all clear how much environmental damage this part of the Cold War legacy is currently doing or will do in the future. It is equally unclear just how stable all these reactors and warheads will prove to be as the years go by.

How did they get there? Two US and five Russian nuclear submarines preceded the Kursk to the ocean’s floor. Just one of those ships, a Yankee-class Russian submarine that sank because of an explosion triggered when liquid missile fuel aboard caught fire, added one reactor and 34 nuclear warheads to the total. It was carrying 2 nuclear torpedoes and 16 missiles with two warheads each when it went down 600 miles northeast of Bermuda in 1986.

In the mid-1990s, Russian scientists told American experts that the ship had broken apart, and that the missiles and warheads it scattered around the ocean floor were badly damaged. The Russians also reportedly said they believed it is “certain that the warheads are badly corroded and leaking plutonium and uranium.”

In the 45 years before the Kursk was even built, there were at least 89 serious, publicly-reported nuclear military accidents (listed in the appendix of my book, Lethal Arrogance).

That is an average of almost one serious accident every six months for nearly half a century. In addition to submarines, these accidents have involved fighter planes, bombers, missiles, military nuclear waste storage facilities and surface ships. Fifty-nine occurred in US forces, 25 in the Russian/Soviet military, four in the French and one in the British armed forces. These include: an A-4E Skywarrior jet loaded with a B43 nuclear warhead that rolled off the American aircraft carrier Ticonderoga and sank in 3,000m of ocean 200 miles east of Okinawa in 1965; a Soviet military aircraft carrying at least one nuclear weapon that crashed into the Sea of Japan before 1970; and a 1984 accident, also in the Sea of Japan, in which a Soviet Golf-2 class nuclear submarine was disabled and set adrift when the missile fuel it was carrying caught fire.

In 1989, the American military finally disclosed that the B43 nuclear warhead that fell into the sea near Okinawa was still at the bottom of the sea, only 100km from the nearest Japanese island. They also said they believed the enormous water pressure at that depth had almost certainly broken the H-bomb apart, contaminating the ocean floor with highly toxic plutonium.

Huge inventories of plutonium and enriched uranium are yet another part of the deadly Cold War legacy. Plutonium is particularly dangerous. In early 1996, the US Department of Energy (the agency running the American nuclear weapons program) issued a landmark report, “Plutonium: the First 50 Years,” in which it indicated that its stockpile of plutonium, combined with that of the Department of Defense, totaled 111,400kg.

Only 4 to 5kg of plutonium, a metal which is heavier than lead, is enough to build a typical nuclear weapon. Inhaling as little as 1 to 12mg of plutonium dust will kill half of the humans exposed within a year or two; inhaling as little as one microgram can cause lethal cancer after a long latency period.

Every system for keeping track of inventories includes a category that amounts to a margin of error. The US plutonium accounts are no exception. Up to 1978, it was called “material unaccounted for” (MUF); after 1978, it was changed to “inventory difference” (ID). The meaning, however, remained the same: MUF/ID is the difference between what the record keeping system says is in the inventory and what a physical count shows is actually there.

The First Fifty Years reported that the MUF/ID for US plutonium accounts averaged about 2.5 percent. It claimed that improved practices lowered the MUF/ID to only about 0.8 percent in later decades. Yet even an MUF/ID of 0.8 percent applied to the enormous American plutonium inventory would leave some 890kg in the “uncontrolled” fringe, enough to build 180 nuclear weapons–more than enough to destroy any nation on earth.

And we have not even considered the inventories of plutonium held by Russia, where there is reason to believe that records of nuclear materials are far less accurate. At least as recently as 1996, Russia still did not have accurate records of the quantity, distribution and status of nuclear materials at many of the 1500-2000 specific nuclear areas throughout the former Soviet Union.

Being in the “uncontrolled fringe” does not mean that the plutonium is lying around unprotected in some school yard or parking lot. It means that that much plutonium could have been taken from the stockpile without the record keeping system ever showing that it had disappeared.

The MUF/ID problem also exists for inventories of other nuclear materials, chemical explosives, conventional arms and for that matter, nuclear weapons. We know that police in Western Europe have recorded hundreds of arrests in schemes to sell nuclear materials on the black market that have apparently been stolen from facilities in the former Soviet Union.

General Alexander Lebed, former security advisor to Boris Yeltsin, claimed in 1997 that more than 100 “suitcase” nuclear bombs were missing from the Russian arsenal.

Less than perfect control of these inventories could encourage proliferation to other countries. Equally frightening is the possibility that terrorists or criminals might someday get their hands on either nuclear weapons themselves or the nuclear materials critical to building them.

The knowledge required to design workable nuclear weapons has been in the public domain for a long time. More than 25 years ago, two American undergraduate college students designed workable weapons independently of each other in a matter of months, using only publicly available information.

The key issue is access to the required nuclear materials. According to contemporary reports, the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subways in 1995, was also suspected by Japanese police of having tried to acquire uranium to be used in building nuclear weapons.

About the same time, it was reported that 17 scientists at Los Alamos nuclear weapons laboratory in the US had been given the assignment of trying to build terrorist-type nuclear weapons using technology no more sophisticated than that found at typical consumer electronics stores and nuclear fuel of the type that might be acquired on the black market. They successfully built more than a dozen “homemade”nuclear bombs. The legacy of the Cold War also includes a huge amount of nuclear waste, the byproduct of nuclear weapons production.

In Russia, the Kola Peninsula has become a junkyard for a hundred Soviet era nuclear-powered submarines, rusting away with their nuclear reactors still on board. 50,000 nuclear fuel assemblies from those reactors sit in storage tanks, some of which are undoubtedly leaking, and in open air bins on military bases and shipyards. It may take decades to transport them for reprocessing or safer, more permanent storage.

More than 20 percent of the US population now lives within 50 miles of a military-related nuclear waste storage site. Millions of gallons of liquid nuclear waste are stored in tanks above or just below ground. There have been many problems. At one site, in Hanford, Washington, more than 900,000 gallons of radioactive waste leaked from 68 storage tanks and another 1.3 billion cubic meters of liquid radioactive waste and other contaminated fluids were deliberately pumped into the ground.

The government had claimed that there was no reason to worry, because none of the waste would reach groundwater for at least 10,000 years. Yet by November 1997, it was already there.

The fact is, no one yet knows how to safely dispose of or store all the nuclear waste we have generated, some of which must be isolated from the biosphere for more than 10 thousand years.

That is longer than all of recorded human history. Considering all that has changed–politically, socially and technologically — from a time thousands of years before the pyramids of Egypt to the space and computer age, it is difficult to imagine that we could even keep track of, let alone precisely control, so much dangerous material for so long.

Another part of the legacy, Cold War institutions, ways of operating and ways of thinking are still very much with us. Today, a decade after the Cold War, thousands of American nuclear weapons, and presumably Russian nuclear weapons as well, continue to be operated on quick response alert.

While it is true that many US and Russian missiles are now targeted at the open sea, it is also true that they can be retargeted within minutes. This is a very dangerous situation. It is not difficult to invent a scenario in which the failure to de-alert these weapons could lead the world into an accidental nuclear holocaust. But it is also not necessary.

On January 25 in 1995, Russian warning radars detected the launch of a rocket from the Norwegian Sea. About the size of US submarine- launched Trident missile, it seemed to be streaking toward Moscow: time to impact, only about fifteen minutes.

The radar crew transmitted the warning to a control center south of Moscow, which relayed it up the chain of command to President Yeltsin. Alarms sounded on military bases all over Russia to prepare to attack. Only a few minutes before the response deadline, senior military officers finally decided that the rocket was headed far out to sea. It was not a threat to the Russian homeland.

Where did this missile come from? It actually was an American rocket — a scientific probe designed to study the aurora borealis, launched from the Norwegian island of Andoya. Norway had notified the Russian embassy in advance of the launch, but somehow the message never reached Russian military commanders.

In January 1987, the Indian Army was preparing to carry out a major military exercise near the bordering Pakistani province of Sind. Because there was a great deal of secessionist sentiment in Sind, the Pakistanis mistakenly concluded that India was preparing to attack, and moved their military forces to the border. Seeing this, the Indian military sent reinforcements.

Soon these two nations, which had fought three wars with each other since 1947, had one million troops on the border, waiting for war to begin. Fortunately, intensive diplomatic efforts managed to clear the confusion, and the crisis ended.

India and Pakistan had come very close to having a major war by accident.

Today, they have made little progress resolving the tensions that brought them so close to accidental disaster. Today, both are armed with nuclear weapons.

We must find a way to free ourselves from the deadly legacy of the Cold War. We cannot simply assume that all of the nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors littering the world’s oceans will remain stable indefinitely and do us no harm.

Careful studies must be done of the feasibility and desirability of alternative methods of retrieval, treatment or permanent entombment in place.

Since this is a global problem, the results of these studies should be made public and subjected to open international criticism and debate. And when a decision has been made as to the best approach, whichever nations can most effectively implement it should be mobilized in a concerted, cooperative and timely effort.

We must assure that worldwide inventories of plutonium and enriched uranium are reduced to a form not easily converted into nuclear weaponry, carefully stored, monitored and guarded. Far more attention must be paid to the development of improved technology for the treatment and safest possible storage of nuclear waste. At present, funding levels for this kind of research are paltry compared to the magnitude of the problem nuclear waste poses to our present and future wellbeing.

Without any further delay, all nuclear nations should de-alert their nuclear arsenals. It is hard to imagine by what logic that was not done years ago. But we must go much farther. It is time, not just to reduce arsenals of nuclear weapons.

It is time to build a movement strong enough to rid the earth of them. In the mid-1990s, George Lee Butler, the general in charge of all US strategic nuclear weapons from 1991-1994, and General Charles Horner, head of North American Aerospace Defense publicly declared their belief that nuclear weapons can and should be abolished.

In 1996, more than 50 other retired generals and admirals from the US, Russia, Britain, France and China signed a statement at the UN endorsing that idea. The Cold War ended long ago. It is time that we do everything possible to permanently bury its remains. To do anything less is to court disaster on a global scale. Lloyd Dumas is author of Lethal Arrogance: Human Fallibility and Dangerous Technologies (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999). From 1994-1996, he was consultant on conversion to Los Alamos National Laboratories. Currently he is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Texas at Dallas.

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