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Nuclear weapons: an accident waiting to happen via The Guradian

In July 1956, a plane crashed in Suffolk, nearly detonating an atomic bomb. In January 1987, an RAF truck carrying hydrogen bombs skidded off a road in Wiltshire. Other near-misses remain top secret. Who is really at risk from Britain’s nuclear weapons?

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Thirty years later, the cold war is a distant memory, the Soviet Union is gone, Reagan and Thatcher are gone – and a British Trident submarine is still continuously at sea, day and night, waiting for the order to fire its D5 missiles and dozens of nuclear warheads. Over the next few years, Britain will have to decide whether to replace its four ageing Trident submarines. David Cameron wants to build four new subs, at a cost of about £25bn, so that one will always be at sea, safe from attack and prepared to launch. The Labour party seems to endorse that policy: its shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, recently expressed support for “a continuous at sea deterrent”. Though the Liberal Democrats have criticised Cameron’s position, their preference hardly seems radical: building one, or perhaps two, fewer submarines in order to save money. The three main parties are broadly agreed on the need for nuclear weapons. The strongest opposition to Trident comes from politicians in Scotland, where the submarines are based. Alex Salmond, head of the SNP, has promised that if Scotland gains independence next year, its new constitution will include a ban on all nuclear weapons. This could be disastrous for the UK’s nuclear deterrent: building a new submarine base and weapon storage facilities in England would take many years and cost tens of billions.

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In 1946, the US conducted its first postwar tests of the atomic bomb. One of these tests sought to discover the effect of a nuclear blast on a fleet of warships. The results were discouraging. Of the 88 ships moored near the point of detonation, in the Bikini atoll, only five sank. The Evaluation Of The Atomic Bomb As A Military Weapon, a top-secret report sent to Harry Truman, concluded that “ships at sea” and “bodies of troops” were poor targets. “The bomb is pre-eminently a weapon for use against human life and activities in large urban and industrial areas,” the report argued. Such weapons were useful, most of all, for killing and terrorising civilians. According to the report, some of the best targets were “cities of especial sentimental significance”.

America’s first nuclear war plan, adopted in 1948 and codenamed Halfmoon, called for 50 atomic bombs to be dropped on the Soviet Union. The number was subsequently increased to 133, aimed at 70 cities. Leningrad was to be hit by seven bombs, Moscow by eight. There seemed no alternative to the threat of mass slaughter. This US strategy was called “the nation-killing concept”.

At congressional hearings in October 1949, the US had its most publicised, high-level debate about the ethics of such nuclear targeting. A group of admirals strongly condemned the war plan the US air force intended to use against the Soviets. “I don’t believe in mass killings of noncombatants,” Admiral Arthur W Radford testified, while Rear Admiral Ralph A Ofstie, who had toured the burnt-out cities of Japan, described the atomic blitz as “random mass slaughter of men, women and children”, and said the whole idea was “ruthless and barbaric”, contrary to American values.

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The safety problems with American nuclear weapons were kept secret until the conclusion of the cold war. A study later sponsored by the US Congress gave a “safety grade” to each type of nuclear weapon in the nation’s arsenal. The grades were based on the potential risk of accidental detonation or plutonium scattering. Three weapons received an A. Seven received a B. Two received a C-plus. Four a C. Two a C-minus. And 12 received a D, the lowest grade.

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Two of the accidents occurred at RAF Lakenheath. On 27 July 1956, an American B-47 bomber was practising touch-and-go landings. The plane veered off the runway and slammed into a storage igloo containing Mark 6 atomic bombs. An American officer who witnessed the accident described what happened next in a classified telegram: “The B-47 tore apart the igloo and knocked about 3 Mark Sixes. A/C [aircraft] then exploded showering burning fuel overall. Crew perished. Most of A/C wreckage pivoted on igloo and came to rest with A/C nose just beyond igloo bank which kept main fuel fire outside smashed igloo. Preliminary exam by bomb disposal officers says a miracle that one Mark Six with exposed detonators sheared didn’t go. Firefighters extinguished fire around Mark Sixes fast.”

The nuclear cores of the weapons were stored in a different igloo. If the B-47 had hit that igloo instead, a large cloud of plutonium could have floated across the Suffolk countryside. Plutonium dust can be lethal when inhaled. Once dispersed, it is extremely difficult to clean up, and it remains dangerous for about 24,000 years.

 

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