Sunday, June 25, 2017

Nuclear accident: Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Nuclear weapons are immensely powerful, with the potential damage from an explosion being of much higher levels than all previous such weapons. The explosions of a nuclear weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan that caused the end of the second world war showed the immense power of nuclear weapons, and those were on the smaller scale. Modern nuclear weapons, especially the hydrogen bombs, are of a scale that is much more powerful than the ones that were used in Japan. And the number of these weapons (stored in missile systems) are in the thousands, spread all over the country. Most people staying near to these missile silos are totally unaware of how close they live to such destructive power; although these warheads are supposed to be designed that they will not explode unless a specific series of processes are carried out, and hence the risk of detonating accidentally is ruled out.
This book showcases that while even a powerful explosion next to the warhead did not explode it, there is always some amount of uncertainty when dealing with such a weapon. Even the fact that the missile has a large amount of very dangerous fuel adds to the complication in dealing with such matters.

The Titan missiles were a significant part of the US strategic missile fleet and were mated to a 9 megaton warhead, the most powerful warhead in the US stockpile of nuclear weapons. These were sited in silos across many parts of the country and were loaded with a fuel that was more stable than previous (although stability is always a relative measure - these propellants were far more dangerous and unstable than the petrol or gasoline we use in our normal vehicles). One of these silos was near Damascus in rural Arkansas, close to Little Rock. A missile is essentially a metal pipe that contains a lot of high explosive power propellant with a much more explosive warhead on top.
Imagine a regular maintenance of the missile, and a socket drops from the personnel who are doing the maintenance. They watch in horror while the socket plummets down into the silo, finally hitting the body of the missile and cause the fuel to start gushing out from the hole. From then on, it becomes like a real life high speed film, with disaster starting everyone in the area, conflicting scenes of responsibility, local authorities knowing that some disaster is unfolding but not having control of the area (that control was with the military), and finally sending in volunteers to control the situation, followed immediately by such a huge explosion that the warhead was thrown some distance away (and recovered).
The incident has been covered in books and in documentaries, and when you see the documentary, the theory that a warhead is totally safer even under these circumstances seems like theory, not something that you really want to see being under test.

Eric Schlosser - Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety

Monday, June 5, 2017

Israel and the Bomb - By Avner Cohen (1999) - The fascinating story about the Israeli bomb

Israel is a very small country in the Middle East, a country that was formed soon after the Holocaust saw millions of Jews in Europe to be murdered in hideous ways, using the official state machinery of Nazi Germany. It caused a huge upheaval in the politics of the Middle East, with large migrations of Jews from all over Europe to the Middle East with a demand for a country of their own, where they would not be subjected to extermination. However, safety of the new nation was not easy, with it being invaded by its neighbors as soon as it was formed, and struggled to defeat them. There was nothing easier for a neighboring dictator (or democratically elected leader) to become popular than to promise the defeat of Israel and force the population to the ocean (and with the size of Israel and its width), this was no empty threat. 
As a result, the safety for the Israeli nation was in having a military that was far superior to the combined might of its neighbors (or in terms of tactics, such as destroying the standing Egyptian Air Force in a quick attack in a war); and a weapon that promised a much superior capability was the atomic weapon (and Israel has not flinched from attacking those who also sought to develop nuclear weapons, such as its attacks on nuclear reactors in Syria and earlier, in Iraq). However, for developing a nuclear weapon, you need a strategy, you need technology and you need nuclear material. This book seeks to explain all of those, including the development of the Israeli nuclear effort and its attempts to hoodwink the French and US Governments over a period of time. 

For Israel, the nuclear weapon remains an enigma; the Government has never admitted having one; anybody in Israel who seeks to expose any details finds the full might of the Israeli state descending on him; and because of its internal politics, the US Government and political class have not had any discussion on this topic for decades now. Neighboring countries also do not try to talk about it, since that would admit to their people that they cannot seek to defeat the Israelis and that their own leaders are impotent in developing a counter nuclear weapon. However, the Israeli nuclear weapon has come close to being used twice, in the 1967 and the 1973 (the position in the 1973 war more dire, and Golda Meir, the Israeli PM, had apparently felt that the war position was very adverse and had considered the option of using 13 nuclear weapons unless Israel became safe again).
The book provides a history of the 2 decades that led to the development of nuclear weapons in Israel, the period of the 1950's and 60's. It was David Ben-Gurion, the warrior leader of Israel, who authorized and started the process of this development; collaborating with France and the United States for getting the technology and the material, but without them really believing that Israel was upto this (or in the case of the US, by the end, tacitly admitting the program - to the extent that it was supposed to be stolen material from a US nuclear reactor that was used for many of the weapons developed by Israel). 
Some of this was at a time when the US administration (especially under President Kennedy) was against nuclear proliferation besides those who had already had the weapons and hence was trying to figure out what Israel was doing. But other administrations in the United States struggled with how hard to push, till the Nixon administration finally gave it up, with the understanding that Israel would not test the bomb, and the US would not ask about the bomb.
The book is worthy reading, and is not a boring thesis, but more like a novel, making for interesting reading for a wider audience.

Israel and the Bomb - By Avner Cohen (1999) - The fascinating story about the Israeli bomb