Nuclear Near Misses – Are We Even Safe in New Zealand?

Emily Watson
One of the gravest misconceptions that the 2012 and 2013 Oslo and Nayarit conferences on the humanitarian impacts of nuclear weapons tried to address was that the risk of nuclear warfare has diminished since the end of the Cold War. In fact, the threat may well be higher than ever. Nuclear arsenals have certainly decreased since the peak Cold War years, however, more countries possess nuclear weapons and these weapons are more powerful than ever. Nuclear possessor states are by in large seeking to modernise their weapons in the name of deterrence. Moreover, United Nations bodies and the International Committee of the Red Cross have declared that they would not be able to adequately respond to a nuclear incident – the effects would simply be too devastating.

Risks arise not just through escalation of conflicts and manoeuvres for self-defence, but through the dangers of nuclear terrorism, accidental detonation, miscommunication and miscalculation. Eric Schlosser has produced a chunky work of investigate journalism on nuclear accidents such as the Damascus Incident which I have talked about before on this blog. (You can watch a four minute short film directed by Kevin Ford and inspired by his book here.) Recently, Chatham House produced a report “Too Close for Comfort: The Case of Nuclear Near Use and Options for Policy,” which details instances of miscommunication, misunderstanding and technical failure which have almost lead to decisions to use nuclear weapons. It is nothing short of extraordinary that we haven’t experienced a nuclear war or detonation in the years following Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As General George Lee Butler of the US Strategic Air Command has philosophisedWe escaped the Cold War without a nuclear Holocaust by some combination of skill, luck and divine intervention; and I suspect the latter in greatest proportion.

London-based think tank Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs,

is an “independent policy institute” with a mission to build a, “sustainable secure, prosperous and just world.”

I read the Chatham House report yesterday and it was very readable, but certainly made for sober reading. It’s amazing to think of the laxity so often shown to nuclear weapons: missile commanders sleeping on the job, weapons accidentally being loaded onto aircraft without the knowledge of the pilots, nuclear submarines colliding into one another in the Atlantic Ocean… Authors Patricia Lewis et al. have detailed 13 cases, in the Cold War years and afterwards, where nuclear weapons have nearly been used. They note that, “the decades since 1945 have been punctuated by a series of disturbing close calls.” Individual decision-making, often against the rules, on more than one occasion saved the day. But can we rely on sound decision-making when leaders are liable to become stressed (or to get drunk like Nixon and Yeltsin!) under pressure and to make rash decisions?

Here I will summarise a few of the more recent cases which the report covers.

  • In 2013, US missile officers were punished for sleeping on the job with the ‘blast doors’ open. The same year, the 341st Missile Wing at Malmstrom Air Force base, charged with overseeing a third of America’s land-based nuclear arsenal, failed a safety and security inspection.
  • In 2009, there was a collision in the Atlantic ocean between French FNS Le Triomphant and UK HMS Vanguard nuclear submarines. Submarines are near silent, hard to detect and states don’t provide others details of their locations.
  • In 2007, six US nuclear-armed cruise missiles went missing for 36 hours. It was discovered that they were under the wing of a B52 aircraft travelling from one base to another. If there had been problems during the flight, the crew would have been oblivious to the fact that they were transporting nuclear weapons.
  • In 2001-2, tensions rose between India and Pakistan over Kashmir. One million soldiers stood at attention. India affirmed its no first use policy, but Pakistan rejected this. India assumed Pakistan would never use nuclear weapons because the US would intervene before the situation was desperate enough to warrant their use. In this instance, the US did intervene and initiated peaceful negotiations with the two parties. But what if US diplomatic negotiations failed?
  • In 1995, Norwegian scientists launched a research rocket to study the aurora borealis. They sent letters to leaders from neighbouring states to alert them to the rocket. Russia had received this information, but due to an oversight it was not communicated. The research rocket was identified as a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile seemingly coming for Russia. President Boris Yeltsin was informed and fortunately decided not to retaliate.
Apparently research rockets can easily be confused with nuclear missiles.
As you can see, these are pretty hard-hitting case studies! Many of these studies have been little known until now. (States have sought secrecy to protect their public image, to prevent other states from gaining valuable intelligence and to ensure confidence in their national security policies.) But by releasing this information, Chatham House hopes to influence wise policy decisions. They have made a number of observations about how these near nuclear uses have come about and from this they have developed policy recommendations for preventing such mistakes in the future. It seems that accidents occur in times of heightened tensions between states when there is more pressure on leaders and less effective communication. Ongoing military exercises, which can be perceived as highly threatening, increase the risk. Chatham House recommended that policies should:

  1. Buy time. Weapons, especially those owned by the US and Russia, should be taken off hair-trigger alert. (This is something which the New Zealand government has advocated for many years.) Nuclear weapons should play a lesser role in security. All countries should follow a no first use policy.
  2. Trust building. There should be more diplomatic negotiations between Russia and the US, or India and Pakistan, in the tradition of the Nuclear Security Summit.
  3. There should be a ban on military exercises when tensions are high.
  4. More decision-makers should be involved to buy time. This could include a greater representation of individuals, for example, more women.
  5. There should be increased awareness of the need to secure nuclear weapons and to have effective channels of communication to prevent mistakes from occurring.
This all sounds pretty sensible to me – not that I’m a nuclear weapons policy expert! We must hope that the report is read by decision-makers in nuclear weapons possessing countries and that the recommendations are taken on board. There is too much at stake to ignore the threats posed by nuclear warfare. Which brings me to the next part of my post – are we safe from the impacts of a possible nuclear war in New Zealand?
The New Zealand Planning Council’s report which received much publicity on its release.
It’s all to convenient to believe that we would unequivocally be safe – the states possessing nuclear weapons are all Northern Hemisphere based and we are situated on the other side of the world. Surely we wouldn’t be a target of a nuclear strike! And if there were a nuclear winter, we have plenty of pasture and natural resources, so we would just become self-sufficient, right? Well not really. Researchers Wren Green, Tony Cairns and Judith Wright  from the New Zealand Planning Council were given six months to look into this question in 1987 and they produced the 166 page report, “New Zealand After Nuclear War.” Admittedly, this report was published was 27 years ago now, however, much of the information it contains is still relevant today. Wren Green and the team used a few different scenarios to base their conclusions on. New Zealand was not the target of a nuclear explosion, but there was a limited nuclear war in the Northern Hemisphere, and in one scenario Australian and Noumean military bases were also attacked. They investigated the effects of an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) on New Zealand.
The researchers concluded that New Zealanders would not experience the mass starvation that could occur in other countries in the event of a nuclear winter. (The IPPNW, as I have written about before, have conducted alarming research suggesting that 1 or even 2 billion people could be killed in the event of a limited nuclear war due to decreasing temperatures, crop failure and famine.) If temperatures did fall in New Zealand, this would however impact many of our crops such as grains, kumara, potatoes, beans and pumpkins, reducing their growth rates. If some radioactive fallout reached New Zealand, there would be an increase in the incidence of cancers. One of the main ways we would be affected would be through a loss in trade. New Zealanders are reliant on trade for many food products, medicines, petrol and other fuels, and for the functioning of our economy. Nuclear winter would cause countries to turn inwards and would virtually cut us off from the rest of the world. As a nation, we are almost 100% dependent on imported pharmaceuticals, so after 3-6 months of using up existing stocks, infectious illnesses would return. Most alarmingly, if New Zealand were affected by an EMP (gamma rays hit air molecules, releasing electrons which leads to a charge separation causing an intense electric field) all our systems containing sensitive electrical equipment would be affected. This includes our computers, radios, telecommunications, industrial control equipment, stereos, washing machines… It would see mechanical failures take place at health and transport facilities, oil refineries, radio and television networks and sewage plants.
If nuclear war affected the world, New Zealand could not simply become self-sufficient. Many parts of our agricultural systems rely on imported components, we would need imported fuel and an EMP could damage all our ubiquitous electrical systems.
The authors noted that New Zealanders have displayed much resilience in the past when coping with natural disasters, but the situation here would be vastly different since communication networks would break down and so little is understood about the impacts of nuclear war, radiation or EMPs. People would likely be panicked, especially considering links would be cut off with the rest of the world where there would be intense suffering. There would be great pressure on the government to release information, but communication channels might be limited and experts hard to come by. People might resort to looting food and staying away from work. Social cohesion would erode. In light of this understanding, Wren Green and his team made some recommendations to government. The book at first received much support, especially by the Ministry of the Environment – there were speaking tours organised, and radio and TV interviews – but then interest died down and nothing much has been done to implement the recommendations. Nevertheless, the team recommended: more public education, for example, on the effects of radiation. The establishment of protection systems built into computer systems and alternative means of communication in the event of an EMP. And much more contingency planning in the event of loss of communication and trade links.
The situation looks pretty bleak for New Zealand in the event of nuclear war. And we are thousands of kilometres away from the estimated location of any detonation! It is all the more reason for us to use our voice to support our anti-nuclear stance and to encourage other states to adopt the same line of thinking. The authors of these studies – Patricia Lewis, Wren Green, Eric Schlosser and others – have had to deal in their research with some very difficult concepts which would be far easier to ignore. Much easier to read about simpler, nicer topics than nuclear accidents and warfare! However, they have provided us with much-needed research into the real effects of these weapons on our societies and some recommendations for policy-makers. With a bit of luck, policy-makers around the world will appreciate the scholarship of these reports, discuss their findings and make changes which will prevent the risk of nuclear warfare and put measures in place to reduce its effects in the tragic event of an accidental or intended detonation.
* Emily Watson is an external contributor of this blog. The original post can be found from l