America’s loose nukes: who’s reckless now?

on 14 Comments

Over here in the good old US of A, we like to think that we have it all together, that words like reckless, backwards, incompetent, irresponsible, unreliable, and rogue belong to other nations, particularly those of the developing and/or Middle Eastern variety. This is particularly true when it comes to the big, bad nuclear arms issue and the question of who has the right to possess, and theoretically, wield them. In this country’s warped cosmology, it’s entirely cool for us to have nuclear weapons (5113 of ‘em, in fact), and it’s also cool for some of our equally civilized allies to have them (I’m talking about you, Israel, France, and the United Kingdom). But it’s decidedly uncool for all those dusty cowboy countries to the east even to contemplate getting their hands on some nukes, because unlike us*, those reckless hot-heads are liable to use them or, at the very least, lose them. In fact, we’re so sure they can’t handle the responsibility, we’ll go to war (or claim we’re going to war) to make sure they don’t have them!

And yet.

A stunning report published last week by the Government Accountability Office (and flagged by Mother Jones) has revealed that the United States is “not fully able to account for US nuclear material overseas,” including separated plutonium and more than 16,000 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium. That’s right, the US effectively lost track of thousands of kilos of deadly “weapon-usable” material that it lavished over several decades on such currently- and formerly-friendly countries as Colombia, Chile (during the chummy Pinochet years), South Africa, the EU nations, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, China, Egypt, Iran (during the cozy Shah era, I presume), India, Pakistan, South Korea, and Israel, of course. The countries are supposed to use this material for “peaceful” purposes.

Given the profoundly dangerous (and coveted) nature of enriched uranium and separated plutonium, one would think that the US would keep sedulous track of how it is used, what happens to it, whether it’s secured, and so on. But one would thing wrong. Despite blandishing kilo upon kilo of radioactive matter on dozens of countries, allegedly for peaceful purposes, the United States does not require its partners to report on the status of the “inventory,” nor does it have a policy of tracking this inventory. In 1992, Congress did order the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to submit a report detailing  the location, status, and use of its highly enriched uranium exports, but this request resulted in little more than a bureaucratic shrug: when the NRC reported its findings to Congress, it stated, effectively, that it couldn’t produce the required information in the required 90-day time-frame. No other follow-up was ever attempted. In fact, it was only through the recent efforts of the Government Accountability Office, which actually bothered to tabulate the skeletal findings of the 1993 report, that it was discovered that the US could account for only 1160 kilograms of the estimated 17,500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium still floating abroad.

So who’s reckless now?

Actually, this isn’t the first time the US has lost track of its nuclear material. Over the decades, the self-appointed guardians of our nuclear fate, the politicians and bureaucrats who presume to stand in loco dei, have lost, temporarily misplaced, or otherwise fumbled countless (literally) nuclear warheads, weapon parts, and weapons-grade materials. In 1958, for instance, the US lost a hydrogen bomb, packed reportedly with the destructive power of 100 Little Boys, off the coast of Savannah, Georgia, never to retrieve it. Eight years later, a B-52 loaded with four hydrogen bombs crashed near the Spanish coast, sending three of the bombs hurtling toward the fields of Palomares, where they didn’t exactly detonate but they did spew radioactive material, and one bomb tumbling into the ocean. That bomb went missing for 80 days. Another nuclear bomb disappeared forever beneath the harsh ice of Greenland in 1968, another remains buried in a North Carolina swamp, and so on and so on, for a total, according to one count, of 11 unclaimed nuclear weapons.

Along the way — in fact, quite recently — the US lost more than 1000 “sensitive nuclear missile components,” accidentally shipped four nuclear missile detonators to Taiwan (and didn’t notice for 18 months), and mistakenly sent six nuclear warheads, together capable of 60 Hiroshimas, on a 36-hour cross-country flight. Oh, and Bill Clinton, careless shaggy-dog that he is, allegedly lost the “biscuit” containing the top-secret codes to authorize a nuclear strike (a story that seems preposterous, but who knows?).

None of this inspires much confidence. In fact, it’s terrifying, like discovering — well, like discovering that the world’s chief nuclear power has taken an unconscionably slip-shod approach to protecting large quantities of world-destroying, radioactive material. And yet, shockingly, the US doesn’t seem to have paid many, if any, consequences for such negligence: no sanctions, no special weapons inspection programs, no tsk-tsking by foreign governments. In theory, Mother Jones reported, the ”the country’s atomic accounting is so shoddy that the International Atomic Energy Agency—the same agency sent to search for Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—could potentially find the United States in violation of its international anti-proliferation treaty obligations.” But I have more faith that the Snooki will win an Oscar than that the IAEA will come knuckle-wrapping the US.

So where does this leave us? President Obama has made a powerful push for countries around the globe to secure all loose nuclear material by 2014, a worthy aim directed in particular at urging countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa to keep their nukes far from the hands of would-be terrorists. But while he’s saving the world from everybody else’s rogue foreign nukes, he might also consider taking charge of his own storehouse.

* Never mind Hiroshima and Nagasaki

About Lizzy Ratner

Lizzy Ratner is a journalist in New York City. She is a co-editor with Adam Horowitz and Philip Weiss of The Goldstone Report: The Legacy of the Landmark Investigation of the Gaza Conflict.

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14 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    September 16, 2011, 9:06 am

    “So who’s reckless now?”

    Shhhh. Don’t tell. You’ll frighten the natives.

  2. Dan Crowther
    September 16, 2011, 9:33 am

    I have to say, I wasnt very surprised when I first heard of this –

    I have an idea for a gameshow/news program:

    “America, or Third World Hell-Hole?”

    A Country that cant account for its nuclear material:
    A country with 22% of children living in poverty:
    A country where the top businessmen make 500 times the avg worker:
    A country that cuts social services to finance tax cuts and its military:
    A country with no national health insurance plan:
    A country with a huge surveillance appartus:
    A country that affords elites immunity for their crimes:
    A country that disregards popular opinion:
    A country that legislates in secret:

    Im thinkin’ two contestants with a buzzer in between them.

    A lightning round could be: a guy comes out and recites a political statement from an american leader – but does it in German. Take for example Michele Bachmann’s defense of the National Origins Act the other night. The co-host of the show would come out and read her comments, and Americans would hear it in German (we’re used to hearing horrible shit said in different languages, especially German; then having it translated) – the contestants would have to decide if this was a statement by a foreign fascist or an American.

    Just an idea, i think i would watch

    -

    • Elliot
      September 17, 2011, 8:07 am

      Dan – how unAmerican of you. We must at all times accentuate the positive!
      As in, let’s:
      a. create this highly dangerous material and,
      b. have faith that at every system and every person who is ever charged with handling this material is, at all times, 100% reliable.

      It’s the same with wars, junk bonds, mortgages etc. We must imagine the best, most surgical war or the most attractive investment and jump off the cliff in perfect faith that that will be the outcome.

      Never mind that we are relying on the great unknowns of human frailty. Not to mention criminality.

  3. Taxi
    September 16, 2011, 9:35 am

    We’re kinda good at this ‘vanishing stuff’ act eh?

    Billions vanish, nuke stuff goes poofff disappeared without a trace – and all this under supposedly everyone’s professional noses. Okay…

    Seems to me the crime never changes but it’s scale sure keeps getting bigger and bigger and…

  4. LeaNder
    September 16, 2011, 9:41 am

    thanks, Lizzy, reminds me of the occasional story surfacing in post-Glasnost times about the ill-guarded nuclear arsenal from the former USSR.

  5. DBG
    September 16, 2011, 10:37 am

    The hatred for America on here astounds me. I guess if I hated America I’d do my best to leave.

    • Dan Crowther
      September 16, 2011, 10:50 am

      Ummm, hatred? What are you talking about?

      And what is “America” other than 7 letters lumped together? What I hate is total ineptitude on the part of our government – which is clearly on display here. You can call that “america” but thats on you.

      Everyone always carts out the flag when someone points out how bass-ackwards somethings are in this country.

    • MarkF
      September 16, 2011, 3:09 pm

      Pointing out the flaws and hypocrisy of those in power is not hatred of the country. I would consider trying to bring transparency and accountability of politicians love of country.

      After all, pointing out wrongs that we both agree upon, such as the Iraq war, and making sure it doesn’t happen again is true love, isn’t it? Making sure the neocons don’t send thousands more American soldiers to their deaths is true love, isn’t it?

    • Avi
      September 16, 2011, 6:07 pm

      DBG September 16, 2011 at 10:37 am

      The hatred for America on here astounds me. I guess if I hated America I’d do my best to leave.

      Taking his cues from AIPAC’s latest press release on shared values and other cockamamie ideas, DBG feigns indignation on behalf of the US and elevates himself to HASBARAT $$ status.

      • seafoid
        September 16, 2011, 6:25 pm

        Is it just me or has the whole tone of Mondo changed in the last few days ? Is Israel panicking?

        The hasbaradim are as visible as Qaddafi loyalists in Tripoli.

      • Chaos4700
        September 17, 2011, 4:51 am

        Do you suppose we could convince Phil Weiss or Adam Horowitz to put a little alert bar along the side of the blog to track that? The number of dollar signs, and then maybe color code it? We could use it to keep an eye on it the same way you could use Bush’s color-coded terror alerts to forecast election activity!

  6. DICKERSON3870
    September 16, 2011, 2:57 pm

    RE: “the US…mistakenly sent six nuclear warheads, together capable of 60 Hiroshimas, on a 36-hour cross-country flight.” ~ Lizzy Ratner

    SEE: The Air Force Report on the Minot-Barksdale Nuclear Missile Flight: Incompetence or Cover-Up? ~ by Dave Lindorff, Counterpunch, 11/01/07

    There is something deeply disturbing about the Air Force’s official report on the Aug-29-30 “bent spear” incident that saw six nuclear warheads get mounted on six Advanced Cruise Missiles and improperly removed from a nuclear weapons storage bunker at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota, then get improperly loaded on a B-52, and then get improperly flown [during September, 2007] to Barksdale AFB in Louisiana-a report that attributed the whole thing to a “mistake.”…
    …There is speculation that the order may have come via an alternate chain of command.
    Vice President Dick Cheney is known to be pressing within the administration for a war with Iran, to be launched before the end President Bush’s second term of office. According to some reports, Cheney has even, on his own authority (or lack thereof), urged Israel to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, in hopes that Iran might retaliate, thus drawing the US into a war.
    Could the nation’s war-mongering VP have used his neo-con contacts in the Defense Department or some of the Armageddon-believers in the Air Force to bypass the official chain of command and spring those nukes from their bunker?
    Was there a plan to use one or more of those nukes-W80-1 warheads that can be calibrated to detonate with an explosive power ranging anywhere from 150 kilotons down to just 5 kilotons-against Iran? The Advanced Cruise Missile, a stealth weapon almost impossible to spot on radar, is designed to be launched from a remote location by a B-52, and then to fly close to the ground to its target, using terrain maps and GPS guidance. It is also designed to penetrate hardened sites, such as Iran’s nuclear processing and research facilities.
    Or was there a plan for a so-called “false-flag incident, “where a small nuke-made to resemble a primitive weapon of the type a fledgling nuclear power might construct-might be detonated at a US target abroad, or even within the US?…

    SOURCE – link to counterpunch.org

    • DICKERSON3870
      September 16, 2011, 3:04 pm

      P.S. ALSO SEE: Israeli Nuclear Strike on Iran Turned Back, By William Thomas (Jan. 11/07)

      (excerpts) A strike by nuclear-armed Israeli Air Force fighter-bombers bound for targets in Iran was turned back after being intercepted by U.S. fighters over Iraq, this reporter has learned.
      Two sources have independently confirmed the encounter, which took place on January 7, 2007. Though the first informant offered few details beyond an initial tip, a second source long-known by this reporter to have well-placed U.S. and “non-U.S.” military and government contacts provided specific information regarding the raid, which was aimed at the radical religious ayatollahs holding ultimate power in Iran…
      …According to this very reliable source, on two previous occasions Israeli fighter-bombers armed with nuclear bombs have headed “downtown” [to bomb Iran - JLD] before being turned back over Iraq.
      The January 7th mission, which trespassed beyond 160 Station [in Iraq - JLD] before being recalled by Israeli authorities, comprised three IAF F-16s. Each carried conventional munitions-as well as a single 20-kiloton nuclear bomb. The atomic
      detonation that razed the city of Hiroshima and killed 140,000 people outright was a 13-kiloton blast. [Agence France-Presse Aug 6/05] …

      SOURCE – link to willthomasonline.net

    • Charon
      September 16, 2011, 7:32 pm

      That story gets even stranger and scarier. The B-52 sat on the runway unattended armed with the nukes for quite some time. The runway was not in a secure location either. There is strong evidence that not all of the nuclear warheads were accounted for.

      Nearly all of the AF personnel involved in this incident are now dead, many died mysteriously while one leave. The official line is that foul play is not suspected and it is a coincidence. They must really think we are dumb or something but people fall for believing the official line all the time. Like the two News of the World whistleblowers that died and the cops said it wasn’t foul play. Whatever! One guy was the chief whistleblower. They already said early on that the COPS WERE CORRUPTED by Murdoch’s goons so why are people so gullible to believe these corrupted cops at face value?

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