Calcutta Notebook


While it is widely realised that any nuclear war poses serious survival threats, what is not so well known is that even without a war among nuclear powers, storage of nuclear weapons involves very serious hazards and risks.

The United States is widely believed to be most well-equipped to take care of its huge arsenal of nuclear weapons, so there was understandable shock when it was revealed that in 2007, the Air Force had transported six live nuclear weapons from North Dakota to Louisiana. This should've prompted urgent action for better safety in upkeep of nuclear weapons, but in a recent review published in the International New York Times in November 2014, Elbridge Colby has said that the situation is even worse now than in 2007.

This well-documented review titled Atrophied US Nukes says, "Last week a senior Pentagon official claimed in a background briefing that unless immediate and substantial action is taken to modernise antiquated infrastructure, priorities the issue, and relieve suffocating bureaucratic pressure, the nation's nuclear complex risks coming apart at the seams."

To avert this, this review states, the Pentagon has identified 100 remedial actions. However these are estimated to cost around 1.5 billion dollars annually, which'll have to be added to the huge existing budget.

What is clear from this debate is that the proper and safe maintenance of nuclear weapons can be very costly. If arranging this budget is proving to be difficult for the USA, one can imagine the situation in Russia which is already in a serious economic crisis, following the fall in the price of its main exports of oil and gas.

A combination of huge nuclear arsenals and severe budget constraints can be very dangerous, and one can only hope that Russia will be able to maintain safety standards even during the economic crisis.

Israel has perhaps the most secretive nuclear weapons programme; so concerns about its safety are obvious. However nowhere are the risks more grave than in the case of Pakistan because of the extreme risks this country faces from terrorists who are also known to have sympathisers in its armed forces and intelligence agencies.

Nuclear weapons, even small tactical ones, falling into the hands of terrorists raises very dangerous possibilities. All previous terrorist attacks pale in comparison with these possibilities.

Apart from nuclear weapon stockpiles nuclear power plants and other nuclear sites are also at risk from attacks of terrorists. According to David Lawry, a consultant for the Vienna based World Institute for Nuclear Security, "My general view is that all nuclear facilities are at risk of malevolent terrorist attack."

Such concerns acquired a sense of urgency recently in France when some unmanned vehicles were sited near nuclear installations. This raised possible fears that the nuclear sites could be under surveillance by potential attackers.

This prompted a London-based expert John Large to prepare a report on the possibility of using drones to attack Britain's nuclear power plants. The overall analysis revealed very high vulnerability of nuclear plants to drone attacks.

All this raises serious safety concerns given the complete insensitivity to human suffering shown by terrorists in recent attacks, most visible in the recent school attack in Peshawar.

Thus clearly on the one hand there is a threat from negligence aggravated by lack of adequate budgets for safety aspects. On the other hand, there is the significantly enhanced threat from terrorist groups. This threat increases due to the known interest of some terrorist groups in nuclear weapons.

The best long-term solution to such serious risks is of course to eliminate nuclear weapons. Till this becomes possible, the next best solution of close cooperation among nations (for minimising the risk from safety negligence and terrorist attacks) should get high priority. The United Nations should also be involved in ensuring international cooperation for this.

Vol. 47, No. 32, Feb 15 -21, 2015