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Bringing nuclear weapons ‘back from the brink’

NCR Staff

The U.S.-Soviet arms race may be a thing of history but its legacy is that hundreds of nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert.

Rising concerns about the safety of these aging weapons, and alarm over the possibility of their being accidentally triggered, coalesced Dec. 9 with the launch of a nationwide “Back from the Brink” campaign to “de-alert” these weapons. Y2K accidental triggering worries have added to the sense of urgency, said organizers.

“There is no longer a Cold War requiring a hot trigger,” said Congressman Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., in a statement to the National Press Club. Earlier this year, with 84 sponsors, Markey introduced a House Resolution 177 urging President Bill Clinton to “trigger-lock” U.S. weapons and have Russia and other nuclear powers do the same.

There are reasons and precedents for the action.

According to Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, “Less than five years ago, on Jan. 25, 1995, millions of people were minutes away from being killed in an inferno from a mistaken Russian nuclear launch after their radar detected a U.S.-Norwegian weather rocket that looked like a Trident missile.

“The black suitcase with the Russian nuclear launch codes was already with president Yeltsin, and only several minutes remained in the countdown before the alarm was determined to be false,” Makhijani said.

In an odd twist of politics, Clinton is being asked to act like former President George Bush. Former Sen. Dale Bumpers, now director of the Center for Defense Information, suggested Clinton “take the first step as Bush did in 1991.” That year, as the Soviet Union was beginning to fall apart as a military-political entity and a threat in black market nuclear arms began to emerge, Bush withdrew virtually all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from deployment and de-alerted many larger strategic weapons. Within a week, Soviet President Gorbachev had directed the Soviet Union to do the same.

De-alert means a degree of deactivation. Possible steps recommended by the coalition of anti-nuclear activists, environmental groups and military and technical experts include suggestions to pin open the switches used to fire missile motors; store warheads separately from their delivery systems; remove the pneumatic mechanisms that open missile silo covers; cover land-based silos under mounds of dirt that would have to be removed before the missile could be fired; and remove tritium bottles from warheads, which does not completely de-alert a warhead, but dramatically reduces its explosive power.

Organizers stated that de-alerting could be carried out in parallel with nuclear arms reduction and disarmament programs, such as START I and START II. It would mean also that fewer weapons would have to be verified. However, de-alert verification would be a difficult task, according to the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability, which said the easiest method would be if warheads were stored separately from the delivery systems.

Former U.S. Air Force missile control officer Bruce Blair said, “If the launch order went out right now, the launch crews in the field would decode and validate the order, activate wartime targets in the missile’s memory, send arming codes to the missiles and launch them -- all within two minutes in the case of land-based missiles, and 15 minutes for submarines.” In minutes, nearly 5,000 strategic warheads (2,500 on each side), could be fired, the equivalent of 100,000 Hiroshima bombs.

“Both sides strive to maintain the ability to launch these arsenals after detecting an apparent hostile missile attack,” he said.

However, post-Cold War, Markey said, “there is no longer any justification for a ‘launch-on-warning’ capability.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 24, 1999