Editorial: Incidents involving nuclear weapons are a catastrophe waiting to occur

Nuclear weapons can threaten the human race in more ways than one. A chilling side of modern history was recently revealed by the international media.

In 1961, a U.S. B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air over the state of North Carolina, located in the southern part of the United States, and the two hydrogen bombs on board became separated from the aircraft and plummeted to earth. The U.S. government had brushed off this incident as inconsequential, but it is now known that, in fact, one of the bombs came perilously close to detonating.

One of the bombs fell into a field, its parachute tangled in the branches of a tree, while the other plunged into a meadow. When the first bomb hit the ground, the device was triggered and three of the four safety mechanisms failed, leaving only one switch to prevent an explosion.

This hydrogen bomb was 260 times as powerful as the atomic bomb that devastated Hiroshima. If the bomb had detonated, the lethal fallout could have descended upon Washington D.C. and New York. An unparalleled catastrophe was averted through sheer luck.

This information was uncovered by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser, who used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a secret U.S. document, and reported by The Guardian, a British newspaper, and others. These articles also pointed out that other serious incidents involving nuclear weapons have occurred elsewhere.

For instance, in 1965, a U.S. carrier-based aircraft, with bombs on board, slipped into the sea from the deck of an aircraft carrier in Okinawa before it was returned to Japan. In Spain in 1966, and in Greenland in 1968, U.S. B-52 bombers loaded with hydrogen bombs crashed, contaminating the environment with radiation.

These accidents had already been made known, but they turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Recent reporting puts the number of significant incidents at roughly 700 between 1950 and 1968 alone.

During the Cold War between East and West, the United States flew its nuclear weapon-laden planes over the Arctic and the Atlantic Ocean on a regular basis in the event of nuclear war erupting with the former Soviet Union. In the process, it seems a number of accidents occurred.

But such incidents are not simply a feature of the Cold War era.

In 2007, a B-52 bomber flew over the U.S. mainland in error, carrying six nuclear warheads. And in 2009, nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear weapons, one from the United Kingdom and the other from France, suffered a minor collision in the sea. Such accidents remind us of what might occur in a worst-case scenario.

The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have long spoken out against the inhumanity of the damage wrought by the atomic bombings. It can be said, even, that these efforts to communicate this message to the world have served as “deterrence” so that no more victims of such attacks would be created. At the same time, nuclear weapons could still cause a catastrophic disaster in times of peace through human error, such as poor management or accidents.

This fact underscores the fundamental weakness in the belief that nuclear deterrence--“just possessing, not using, nuclear weapons”--can protect a nation’s security. The nuclear weapon states must recognize this truth.

And yet they remain slow to act. There are reportedly 17,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, and among them, 2,000 warheads could be launched within minutes. The system itself, as experts contend, is a grave danger.

Until nuclear weapons are abolished from the earth, this danger will continue to haunt humanity. The nations with nuclear arsenals must take heed from the incident recently revealed, which very nearly became a monumental disaster 52 years ago.

To sway the actions of the nuclear weapon states, the international community must press these nations vigorously. For the A-bombed nation of Japan, this is particularly true.

Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida will be visiting the United States to join a high-level meeting on nuclear disarmament that will take place at United Nations headquarters on September 26. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pay a visit to New York, too, to address the U.N. General Assembly.

As discussions on nuclear disarmament continue at the United Nations through December, eyes are on whether or not Japan will reverse course and signal its support for a joint statement on the inhumanity of nuclear weapons. Will the Japanese government state with confidence that the abolition of nuclear weapons is not merely an ideal, but a concrete challenge? It is hoped that the actions of the A-bombed nation will match its rhetoric.

(Originally published on September 23, 2013)