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

The U.S. Navy's Bangor facility, part of Navy Base Kitsap. Credit: 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. 

Because much of the information about command and control systems and their record of failures is classified, it is difficult to ascertain the risk of nuclear annihilation through accident. Suffice to say, the risk is far too high. With limited information, Dr. Martin Hellman, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at Stanford, has attempted a risk analysis. He states that for an individual born today and living a normal 80 year life, this individual has at least a 10 percent chance of dying from nuclear detonation. Of course, if one person dies from nuclear detonation, it is likely that billions will die. 

Yet, the myopic and narcissistic demigods of American democracy, those political and military elites who set U.S. nuclear policy, can’t seem to grasp the danger. They argue that nuclear deterrence protects the U.S. population when, ironically, it is precisely the presence of vast numbers of nuclear weapons in our world that so threaten all of existence on this planet.  

In 2009 President Obama called for the abolition of nuclear weapons. To his credit he negotiated a new START Treaty with the Russians to draw down nuclear stockpiles. Yet, the number of nuclear weapons allowed is in the thousands and could destroy the world a number of times over. Perhaps they should have been more truthful in naming the treaty, and called it "Not Much of a START." Leaders continue to play nuclear Russian roulette with our lives. 

The U.S. Navy is beginning the process of replacing the Trident submarine fleet with new submarines carrying strategic nuclear missiles. The Congressional Budget Office estimates this replacement will cost over $100 billion. How should nations around the world view the apparent contradiction in what our president calls for and the planned nuclear upgrades of the US arsenal? Should they believe what our president declares or the actions taken by our military? The answer is obvious. 

The U.S. is in a preeminent position to bring about the destruction of all nuclear weapons and the establishment of international laws and treaties forbidding their development. With U.S. leadership, negotiations among nuclear powers and other nations of the world could commence to end the nuclear threat. Yet the message from Washington is the normal one: Do as we say, not as we do.     

Mankind is constantly plagued by unexpected catastrophes which were at one time deemed to be very unlikely. We can only hope that the world has the courage to rid our planet of nuclear weapons before the unlikely event of a nuclear exchange occurs. If not, it could well be the last catastrophe that we ever have to worry about.

Those are some of the moral and practical concerns that drove me to my action and the charges that were later dismissed. I hope some of you who share a hope for a safer world will join Ground Zero on May 10 for a peaceful day of demonstrations and training in nonviolent protest.

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