The Guardian – “Risk of nuclear accidents is rising, says report on near-misses”
Most of what of what is in this is old news and a lot does indeed look recycled from Eric Schlosser’s excellent book “Command and Control“. For decades the military has wrestled with huge compromises in the design of nuclear weapons; many missiles were liquid fueled for a greater part of the Cold War making them inherently dangerous. Maintaining positive control of nuclear forces and making that survivable under attack has always been particularly hard to maintain. In fact I’m fairly certain that even today the British Trident fleet still does not have true positive control and a submarine commander could order an unauthorized launch. The US submarine fleet however is under positive control I believe. It was rumoured that during the 1970s the USSR looked into a Fail Deadly (Dead Hand) system of nuclear retaliation in response to US missiles’ improved accuracy and invulnerability thus presenting the USSR with the threat of a decapitating first strike.
If you want and keep nuclear weapons the fallibility of the design, the engineers, the operators and the command structure means that an accidental detonation is absolutely inevitable. The right combination of factors through accident, human error or even belligerence will result in such an explosion. It may take many more decades or even centuries for this to happen but it has to; already the proliferation of weapons and fissile material make this more and more inevitable. Ageing weapon systems, poor maintenance and the threat of terrorism add to these problems – not least the enormous former Soviet stockpile (here | here) which has provoked widespread concerns regarding condition, security and safety.
There has never been a weapon invented that is as potentially dangerous to its user than as to its adversary. However given the yield of modern weapons any criticality accident could range from injuring personnel to a catastrophic detonation. There is no safe threshold.
One of the more interesting bits of UK government propaganda came in the form of a film called “The Peace Game” from 1982. I think it’s worth setting out a proper historical context for this film; by 1982 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was very active with anything up to 100,000 members1 and the opposition to Cruise and Pershing missiles being based on Europe had gained significant momentum. Arguments over disarmament and unilateralism had also gained traction.
This became a major headache to the government of the day and was well documented in Duncan Campbell’s Secret Society in 1987 in the episode “The Secret Constitution: Secret Cabinet Committees” and how the government sought to advance its own arguments over the value of deterrence.
From my own point of view this film is an attempt to startle the viewer into accepting deterrence, and all the baggage that goes with it, by portraying the USSR as a vast military-industrial complex which was numerically superior to in nearly every respect to the West. Reinforcing this, is the portrayal of the USSR as an expansionist power, swallowing up numerous Balkan and Central European satellite states. It never presented an alternative view that the USSRs motivation could have been seen as defensive; with no natural border between itself and Europe the USSR had reason to create buffers between itself and the West. It had been invaded numerous times, spanning the time from Napoleon to Hitler and had suffered catastrophically at every occasion.
The none-too-subtle subtext of The Peace Game is of suggested defeatism by selective interviews of the public concerning neutrality, unilateral disarmament and our NATO membership. They never actually confront the core counter-argument that Britain’s nuclear weapons and her decision to allow the United States to base them on her soil directly imperiled Britain to a far greater degree than any political movement. The USSR had warned repeatedly they would treat an attack on their territory by a US weapon as coming from the continental United States regardless of the geographical origin of the weapon.
The film can be seen in short form on both the UK National Archives site and YouTube and in long form on JISC Media Hub for those with an appropriate login as part of the Imperial War Museum archives.