Whole of humanity at risk

Weapons of genocidal destruction

Nuclear weapons pose the threat of a devastating accident waiting to happen, warns Yassamine Mather

The issue of a ‘nuclear deterrent’ is often debated in parliament or the media in a rather abstract manner. Some of the arguments put forward for and against Trident do not got beyond vague and at times irrelevant questions: what about the jobs in and associated with nuclear armaments? Can we afford the cost of such weapons at a time of economic crisis and when governments insist on austerity? Is Trident an insurance policy in a turbulent world, where many conflicts are raging?

For those involved in this weekend’s anti-Trident national demonstration in London, it is important not only to look at the current state of international nuclear arsenals, but to revisit arguments put forward by scientists and engineers who have consistently warned of the serious dangers posed by these weapons of mass destruction.

Although it is difficult to give a precise figure for the number of nuclear weapons deployed worldwide, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists puts the worldwide total number of nuclear weapons at 16,300, while the Federation of American Scientists gives a figure of 15,650.

The main two countries with weapons-grade nuclear capability are, of course, the United States and Russia, who between them possess 93% of the world’s nuclear arsenal. It is estimated that the US has a total of 7,100 warheads - around a third of this arsenal is currently deployed, a third is kept in storage and some 2,340 are now redundant and are due to be dismantled. For its part, Russia has around 8,000 warheads in total.

France has 300 warheads carried by military aircraft and a single nuclear-armed submarine. With 250 warheads, China, like France, is not a major nuclear power, although it is believed to be in the process of increasing its arsenal. As for Israel, it neither confirms nor denies its nuclear arms capability, but it is common knowledge that the Zionist regime has 80 nuclear warheads. India, Pakistan and North Korea have between them around 200 warheads.

According to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, another 40 countries have invested in nuclear power and research reactors; they are aiming to achieve or have achieved military capability: ie, the ability to use nuclear production for armaments.

Last year the think-tank Basic (British-American Security Information Council) was tasked with a review of Britain’s nuclear capability and not surprisingly, given the nature of this body, came to the conclusion that the UK needed Trident. However, its estimated budget for renewal was twice as much as the ministry of defence’s figure: £50.6 billion, to be spent between 2012 and 2062.

The UK has four nuclear-powered Vanguard-class submarines armed with Trident II D-5 ballistic missiles, able to deliver thermonuclear warheads. This arsenal, relying heavily on US expertise for maintenance and entirely dependent on the US for deployment, is unlikely to make any difference to ‘international security’ one way or another.

Why are so many scientists against such weapons? The answer is quite simple: they are more aware of the devastating consequences of testing and keeping nuclear armaments, never mind using them. Their fears relate not just to the intended targets, but to the world in general and indeed to the country hosting or deploying such weapons.

Scientists for Global Responsibility is one of many such organisations. This is what it said in 2015:

If used, the nuclear weapons carried by just one Trident submarine could cause such huge climatic disruption that global food supplies would be at risk and the survival of human civilisation itself would be threatened. If used, the nuclear weapons carried by just one Trident submarine could directly cause more than 10 million civilian casualties. Intentional use of the UK’s nuclear weapons would therefore be both genocidal and suicidal.1

Of course, whilst there is widespread consensus regarding other weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons, and numerous treaties ban their storage and use, the ‘nuclear club’, with their permanent seats on the United Nations security council, defend their own right to possess such weapons - while opposing their acquisition by any other country.

Unlike the report produced by Basic, the SGR conclusion is very clear: “Trident replacement should be cancelled, enabling active support of current international discussions to ban nuclear weapons in a similar process to other weapons of mass destruction.”2 The report also argues that, “to reduce the nuclear risk, the UK should take Trident off continuous patrol at sea and place our nuclear warheads in storage”.

Destructive effects

How do scientists assess the destructive effects of nuclear weapons?

Most of these studies are based on facts gathered after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. Data gathered after the deployment of nuclear bombs in 1945 is used to estimate devastation caused by use of a single nuclear warhead.

Each UK Trident submarine carries 40 nuclear warheads. This is equivalent to four million tonnes of explosive power, with an effect 320 times greater than that of the Hiroshima bomb, with colossal destructive consequences. The firepower of one Trident submarine is greater than the power of all the bombs dropped in World War II, including the two atomic bombs used in Japan.

A conservative estimate is that a single Trident-sized warhead would kill at least 80,000 people if detonated over a modern city and would injure at least 200,000 more. This in addition to the complete destruction of buildings, transport, communication and power networks, not to mention health and welfare facilities.

According to a document published by Scottish CND, entitled ‘If Britain fired Trident’,

One Trident submarine with 40 100kT warheads could cause at least 10 million casualties and as many as 20 million in 10-20 large cities, and hit a further 20 military targets, such as bases and command bunkers. Trident missiles have a range of 7,000 miles. This, combined with the submarine’s ability to sail into any ocean area, enables it to strike targets anywhere across the globe within around 30 minutes of launch.3

Then comes the issue of a nuclear winter. Politicians of all parties, including Conservatives (bar a few loony climate change deniers), are keen to portray themselves as ‘environmentalists’. Yet none of the supporters of Trident refer to the environmental devastation that the use of Trident could bring. Nuclear scientists have warned us time and again how the global climate is vulnerable to even a limited, regional use of nuclear weapons:

A climatic impact - commonly known as a ‘nuclear winter’ - arises because of the intense fireballs that nuclear weapons create. Unlike a fire from conventional weapons - even intense fire-bombing, such as in Dresden in World War II - the nuclear fireball would carry huge volumes of small, sooty particles far into the stratosphere, high above normal weather patterns. These high-altitude particles would reflect much of the incoming solar radiation, causing shorter growing seasons, major changes in rainfall and global disruption of weather patterns. It would take years for these particles to disperse. Such effects have been observed on a smaller scale following huge volcanic eruptions, and have been used to help calibrate current climate models. Other impacts such as long-term damage to the ozone layer are predicted.

The studies predict that as few as 100 Hiroshima-sized weapons - about one-third of the nuclear firepower of one Trident submarine and less than 0.1% of worldwide nuclear stockpiles - detonating over highly flammable cities, would likely cause severe weather disruption across the globe for 7-10 years, leading to severe food shortages. Critical food growing areas would be badly hit and monsoon rainfall disrupted, leading to dramatic shortages of wheat and rice - key staple foods. As current global food stocks would last less than 100 days, very severe consequences would follow. Recent estimates put the number threatened with starvation well outside the target zones at about two billion of the most vulnerable people - for example, those living in Africa and other poverty-stricken parts of the world.4

Nuclear accidents

The threat from nuclear weapons does not just arise from their intentional use - we also have to consider unintentional use of nuclear arsenal, as well as accidents both in storage and transportation of warheads.

The probability of unintentional use of nuclear weapons - whether through accident or miscalculation during a crisis - is not negligible. There have been numerous known cases across the world of ‘near nuclear use’ over the past 60 years, despite the fact that much nuclear history is clouded in secrecy. Many scientists believe it is only a matter of time before such an accident occurs.

The nuclear industry - both civilian and military - is extremely good at hiding and covering up unfortunate incidents. However, there are a number of known cases of what is described as ‘near nuclear use’ over the last 50- 60 years. This how Dr Patricia Lewis, research director for international security at Chatham House, assesses things:

Historical cases of near nuclear use resulting from misunderstanding demonstrate the importance of the ‘human judgement factor’ in nuclear decision-making. In addition to cases from the cold war, recent incidents, such as the 2009 collision of French and UK submarines, along with cases of misconduct in the US air force, revealed in 2013, suggest cause for concern regarding current laxity in safety and security measures and in command and control. Incidents similar to those that have happened in the past are likely to happen in the future.5

According to Dr Benoit Pelopidas of Bristol University,

In several cases the large-scale launch of nuclear weapons was nearly triggered by technical malfunctions or breakdowns in communication, causing false alarms, in the US, Russia, but also in most other nuclear-armed states. Disaster was averted only by cool-headed individuals gambling that the alert was caused by a glitch and not an actual attack or not willing to take the responsibility to use those weapons ...

Given that it took us several decades to learn about those cases and that most nuclear-weapon states have not reported cases of mismanagement of their own weapons, it is most likely that we can only see an incomplete picture.6

We are already aware of US attempts to hack into Iran’s nuclear industry, and we know that some governments, as well as a number of political organisations, have developed sophisticated hacking techniques. One of the worst-case scenarios considered by scientists opposed to nuclear weapons is the risk of a missile being deployed by mistake, as a result of hacking. This could involve a situation where communication with a submarine is compromised, a military command misinterpreted or a serious system failure occurs at a time when military exercises are in progress.

There is also a risk of contamination by highly radioactive material and explosions during transportation - in the case of the UK this material is transported from the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire to the Faslane submarine base in Scotland, with an inevitable risk of fire or explosion - not to mention the possibility of radioactive materials spreading in a number of regions en route. The movement of nuclear materials is also required in order to refuel submarines’ nuclear reactors.

Then there is the issue of nuclear waste, the decommissioning of submarines and the disposal of highly radioactive reactor cores. Both in terms of nuclear weapons and nuclear energy, there is currently no safe, permanent storage. In the case of the United Kingdom, such waste is transported and held in containers docked at a base in Plymouth, posing major environmental and health risks. We all know of the terrible incident in the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant that led to release of radioactive material and a major fire in 1957.

It is often said that third-world countries suspected of trying to achieve nuclear weapons capability would be incapable of storing and maintaining such ‘sophisticated’ weapons - the five permanent members of the security council, along with International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, remind us of the stringent security and safety measures required for keeping the world safe in a nuclear age.

Yet recent disclosures by a seaman who served on a Trident submarine has brought issues of safety and security in the UK’s military nuclear establishment into the public domain. In May 2015, The Sunday Herald published parts of a report compiled by William McNeilly, who claims:

Trident submarines are plagued by serious security lapses, beset by multiple safety blunders and are a disaster waiting to happen.

The Trident D5 missile, used by both the UK and US, is designed with nuclear warheads closely wrapped around the third-stage rocket motor. This has been highlighted as a design flaw by US experts in the past, but has not previously been acknowledged by the ministry of defence. The results of a rocket fuel fire at sea or on land could be catastrophic for submariners and the public, critics have warned. The MoD, however, said it had to train for every scenario, no matter how extreme and unlikely.

McNeilly alleges 30 Trident security and safety concerns in an 18-page dossier. He has also filmed the weapons safety manual on his smartphone. Code-named CB8890, it is a book kept in a safe in the submarine missile control centre. Extracts quoted by McNeilly disclose that the warheads clustered around the third-stage rocket motor are at risk from a rocket motor propellant fire. Exposed to heat, the warheads’ conventional high explosives could cook to (non-nuclear) detonation, releasing radioactive materials and aerosols over a wide area, according to the manual.

If warhead containment is breached, “several radioactive and/or toxic materials may be exposed to the atmosphere,” it says. “These include plutonium, uranium, lithium compounds, tritium gas and beryllium. If mixed with water, fumes or toxic gases will be generated. “The navy manual paints a dramatic picture of what could happen. “The chief potential hazard associated with a live missile is the accidental ignition of the first, second or third-stage rocket motor propellant.”7

In fact the MoD’s own nuclear regulator agrees that “submarine nuclear reactors are inherently less safe than their land-based counterparts”.8

In addition Trident missiles manufactured in the United States are regularly moved across the Atlantic for maintenance and replacement. A Trident submarine has been involved in at least one underwater collision with another nuclear-armed submarine.

Ready to fire

During the cold war, US military policy for the rapid deployment of nuclear weapons was called ‘hair-trigger alert’. Accordingly all missiles are kept in what is called a ‘ready-for-launch status’, staffed by crews who work around the clock ready to launch these weapons if necessary - and we are talking of minutes before planes are airborne, or submarines are deployed. The UK’s Trident missiles are part of this policy.

Military experts claimed it was a necessary response to a ‘bolt from the blue’ Soviet ‘first strike’:

The Soviet Union would launch an attack with hundreds or thousands of nuclear weapons, making it impossible or at least difficult to respond and retaliate in time . By keeping land-based missiles on hair-trigger alert - and nuclear-armed bombers ready to take off - the United States could launch vulnerable weapons before they were hit by incoming Soviet warheads. This policy was to ensure retaliation, and was seen as a deterrent to a Soviet first strike - a concept known as ‘mutually assured destruction’.9

This is one of the ironies of a nuclear war. No-one envisages victory - all you can hope for is a kind of equilibrium. In the pre-nuclear era, each state would aim to defeat its enemy. However, in a nuclear war the weapons used can kill millions of people, including in countries that are your allies. The flight time of each missile is measured in minutes and the nuclear winter it creates will threaten the entire planet. There can be no winner.

The 21st century version of ‘hair trigger alert’ is ‘launch on warning’, whereby missiles are despatched when the US receives warning of an impending nuclear attack and retaliates immediately.

In addition the UK and three other nuclear powers - the US, Russia and France - have a policy of maintaining their weapons in a ‘ready to fire’ state. Given the fact that a small fraction of weapons held by these countries could wipe out humanity, such a deployment poses an enormous risk to all life on the planet. A number of former US commanders have argued that weapons should be taken off ready-to-fire status to remove the possibility of catastrophic accidental nuclear war - this is a particular risk during times of heightened international tensions, such as what we are currently witnessing in the Middle East.

But in the meantime nuclear missiles remain on a 15-minute alert, ready to be fired if radar shows (or is believed to show) that enemy missiles are heading our way. But there have been false alarms, even after the end of the cold war. In 1995 Norway reported it had informed Russia and the world that it was launching a space research rocket in the direction of Moscow. However, the notice failed to reach the relevant officials and the Russian government was unaware of the exercise. It concluded that the single ‘missile’ was part of a much more serious attack aimed at paralysing Russia’s nuclear capability. The alert was sent from Moscow and a countdown began. The process was only aborted after Russian military officials realised it was a false alarm.

Some scientists believe the fact that Russia’s alert systems are older and less reliable than their western counterparts, and the fact that Russia has fewer satellites with sensors and fewer radar stations, means that the world is in more danger from an accidental nuclear confrontation. They argue that an international ban on storing and developing these weapons of genocidal destruction, in line with the bans on biological and chemical weapons, is well overdue.


1 . www.sgr.org.uk/resources/uk-nuclear-weapons-catastrophe-making.

2 . www.sgr.org.uk/resources/uk-nuclear-weapons-catastrophe-making.

3 . www.icanw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/ifbritainfiredtrident.pdf.

4 . http://documents.mx/documents/asats.html.

5 . www.chathamhouse.org/publications/papers/view/199200.

6 . www.bristol.ac.uk/news/2014/may/nuclear-report.html.

7  . www.heraldscotland.com/news/13215092.Trident_missile_flaw_could_cause_explosions_and_radioactive_contamination__reveals_whistleblower.

8 . MoD The future of the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent 2006. See also MoD Initial Gate parliamentary report 2011, p8; and subsequent updates to parliament.

9 . https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bulletin_of_the_Atomic_Scientists.