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Bangor nuclear base: The reasons to worry about U.S. nuclear policy

Guest Opinion: Our leaders keep acting like they have things under control and that nuclear weapons protect us. That's irresponsible.
The U.S. Navy's Bangor facility, part of Navy Base Kitsap.

The U.S. Navy's Bangor facility, part of Navy Base Kitsap. akarmy (Andy Karmy)/Flickr (CC)

On Jan. 18 of this year, I trespassed onto property of U.S. Naval Base Kitsap at Bangor as part of a demonstration against nuclear weapons by Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action. Why would I commit this act which, from practical considerations, accomplished little and brought no benefit to me? My intention was to demonstrate to the U.S. government and to the public, through an act of civil disobedience, that nuclear weapons are a perilous threat to life on earth and that U.S. policy with regard to these weapons is disturbingly immoral. 

There is little discussion or thoughts these days about the threat posed by nuclear weapons to all life on earth. Such complacency is dangerous, because 50 years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, nuclear weapons pose as much of a threat to life on earth as they ever have. They are the greatest threat that mankind faces.

With the Bangor submarine base, which houses one of the greatest collections of nuclear weapons on earth, located only 20 miles from Seattle, residents of the area would stand no chance if there ever were a nuclear exchange between the U.S. and Russia.

As recent events in North Korea and Ukraine have dramatically demonstrated, the possibility of global confrontation escalating into nuclear war is still very real. However, a more likely possibility may be accidental nuclear annihilation: the launching of nuclear weapons because of an odd juxtaposition of technical failures, because of false warning, or because of misjudgment by an individual or individuals. 

In his seminal work, "The Limits of Safety:  Organizations, Accidents, and Nuclear Weapons," published in 1993, Dr. Scott Sagan, professor of Political Science at Stanford University, demonstrates in convincing fashion that nuclear weapons command and control systems are governed by the principles of "normal accident theory." According to this theory, systems which are complexly interactive and tightly coupled — meaning that they involve processes which are hard to stop and happen with rapidity — are virtually impossible to make fail-safe. 

The principles of this theory are most clearly seen in catastrophic accidents involving nuclear power plants and chemical manufacturing processes. Yet, the history of nuclear weapons command and control is littered with many accidents, though none have proved catastrophic to this point. However, a few of these accidents have brought the world perilously close to annihilation.  Two examples serve to illustrate how close the world came to oblivion.  

On Nov. 9, 1979, U.S. command and control computers all showed that the Soviet Union had launched a massive nuclear attack on the the United States. Minuteman missile silos and the continental air defense system were put on alert with a number of interceptor fighters taking off. It was later discovered that a realistic training tape had been inserted into the computer running the nation’s early-warning programs and had been mistaken for a real event. 

In January of 1995, American and Norwegian scientists launched a missile off the coast of Norway for the purpose of studying the northern lights. To Russian radar technicians the missile flight appeared similar to one that a U.S. Trident missile would take to blind Russian radars prior to an attack. For the first time in history, the nuclear football, which allows a commander to order a nuclear attack, was opened and presented to President Boris Yeltsin. It is thought that his military attaches advised a counterattack, but Yeltsin refused to do so.  

The Bangor submarine base has had its own problems. On Nov. 7, 2003 a nine-inch hole was punched into the nose cone, where the weapons are housed, of a Trident I missile aboard the USS Georgia by a ladder which had not been removed from the missile tube.  Recently, the Navy reported a 150 gallon oily water spill in Hood Canal which turned out to be closer to a 2,000 gallon oil spill that created a nine mile long sheen in the water. Operations which need to be perfect to be fail-safe are anything but perfect. 


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Comments:

Posted Fri, May 2, 7:44 a.m. Inappropriate

"My intention was to demonstrate to the U.S. government and to the public, through an act of civil disobedience, that nuclear weapons are a perilous threat to life on earth and that U.S. policy with regard to these weapons is disturbingly immoral."

Awww... how cute.

BlueLight

Posted Fri, May 2, 8:41 a.m. Inappropriate

And naive. Destruction of all nuclear weapons? Ain't gonna happen. We live with the risks, we need to make command & control systems better. In today's violent and increasingly tribalistic world more people/countries/ideologies are seeking to acquire such weapons than those who would give them up.

Obama saying one thing and doing another? I'm just shocked, shocked I tell you.

Posted Fri, May 2, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks,Tom. It's the most inconvenient truth : we absolutely must eliminate nuclear weapons, for the reasons you give and so many more.

Posted Fri, May 2, 6:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Oh brother. While not a fan of nuclear weapons this weakly written piece sets the author up for mockery. Did this take a whole 15 minutes to write or what? If one's convictions are stong then put forth a suiitably stong argument. Otherwise you appear foolish. Oh the horror, someone forgot to turn off the bilge pump.

Treker

Posted Fri, May 2, 11:45 p.m. Inappropriate

The movie said it much better.

Djinn

Posted Sun, May 4, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Is this a weak piece? Perhaps.

On the other hand, it is quite possible the reader has not fully comprehended the implications of what is being stated here. The key is "normal accident theory" and what it portends for complexly interactive and tightly coupled systems such as nuclear command and control systems. The theory states that such systems will inevitably have catastrophic failures, though they may indeed be rare. For these systems to be fail-safe, the operators must be perfect. But no human is perfect.

Failures at Bangor such as the punching of holes in nuclear missile nosecones and loss of huge amounts of waste water into Hood Canal are examples of the imperfect performance of those entrusted with the keeping of horrendously destructive nuclear weapons. This could be just the tip of the iceberg. The Navy certainly isn't going to be forthcoming about reporting other serious mistakes we don't know about.

But the crucial point is the entire nuclear weapons complex of this nation and other nations. These systems are gigantic catastrophes waiting to happen.

KrebsCat

Posted Tue, May 6, 9:24 p.m. Inappropriate

What've you outlined pertains to all human built systems. The more complex, the greater the damage when failures occur. The most recent example is Japan. Getting rid of nuclear weapons merely reduces the risk by a percentage point or two. Getting rid of nuclear weapons on a world wide scale is a good idea. However, it won't prevent war or mass causalities though.

In the end, we live with risk all the time and I agree we should minimize risk whenever possible.

Djinn

Posted Tue, May 6, 10:16 p.m. Inappropriate

There are some systems which are more prone to failure than others. For instance, the nuclear power industry and chemical industry have had many failures. In the case of nuclear power, there have been three catastrophic failures.

There has never been a catastrophic failure in nuclear weapons command and control systems, but we have come very close on a number of occasions. And there have been innumerable minor failures.

Society may be willing to tolerate the risk of catastrophic failure in nuclear power systems because the destruction is limited in area. That is not the case with nuclear weapons systems. If there ever is a catastrophic failure in a nuclear weapons command and control system, that could well be the end of civilization as we know it. The human casualties alone could well be in the billions. That is not a risk that the world should be willing to accept.

KrebsCat

Posted Wed, May 7, 10:02 p.m. Inappropriate

What your talking about is a war between nuclear powers and to achieve the billions of casualties means it involves the USA and Russia or China. The rest are bit players. I don't think that will happen but I'd still feel better if there weren't nukes around.

That being said, no country is moving off top dead center on the issue.

Djinn

Posted Tue, May 6, 8:52 a.m. Inappropriate

The attempt wasn't missed - it's still a weak article. Your two paragraphs do a better job

Lily32

Posted Wed, May 7, 11:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Those who think that the only kind of nuclear confrontation that can cause billions of casualties is one between the US and Russia are wrong. A regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, two countries which have very tense relations, would bring about the immediate deaths of hundreds of millions of people in those two countries and would lead to nuclear winter which would likely produce famine and starvation for a billion or more people throughout the world.

Don't take my word for it. Watch this video on Youtube by Ira Helfand, current president of the Physicians for Social Responsibility:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ug-DJtvHFE0 .

KrebsCat

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