MEDIA UPDATE On International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons civil society warns: If we don’t take action, a nuclear weapon accident will happen
As heads of state gather in New York next week at the General Assembly, the number of nuclear near-accidents is on the rise and a cyber attack on nuclear weapons infrastructures is more likely than we previously thought. A ban on these catastrophic weapons is urgently needed.
September 26 marks the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, established by the General Assembly in 2013 ‘to reaffirm its commitment to global nuclear disarmament as a high priority’. However the current status of nuclear affairs does not seem to reflect the UN’s stated ‘commitment’.
A worrisome state of affairs
Despite the clear evidence that nuclear weapons would cause catastrophic humanitarian consequences if used, the nuclear weapon states and the states under the US and NATO nuclear umbrella seem uninterested in reducing their reliance of these indiscriminate weapons.
Having recently failed to reach an agreement at its 5-year review conference, the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is not moving the world towards nuclear disarmament.
While the nuclear-armed states are ramping up the modernizations of their nuclear arsenals at an alarming rate, the number of near-accidents and security failures at nuclear weapon facilities are on the rise and the investments on securing those facilities are failing to adequately address the security gaps.
“The the Y-12 complex in Oak Ridge never found the first opening we made in the outer fence located well back in the wooded area." Says Sr Megan Rice, 85, a Roman Catholic nun of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, who together with two activists of the organization Transform Now Plowshares broke into the facility in 2012, "Our friends knew this and in December, retraced our route to see if the flap had been repaired or found. To their surprise, it was wide open.”
A disaster waiting to happen
In the past 10 years, a number of accidents and security breaches in the US and NATO nuclear facilities made the news. These incidents have uncovered an extremely worrisome state of affairs.
In July 2015, terrorists were arrested in Italy for planning an action against the NATO nuclear base of Ghedi. The Ghedi Air Base stores 20 US B61 nuclear bombs earmarked for delivery by Italian PA-200 Tornado fighter-bombers in war. This military base is one of several national air bases in Europe that a US Air Force investigation conducted in 2008 concluded did not meet US security standards for nuclear weapons storage.
In 2009, a Royal Navy submarine and a French submarine collided deep below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. Each UK Trident submarine is said to carry 40 warheads of 100,000 tonne
explosive power each. The collision of the submarines, both with nuclear reactors and with nuclear weapons on board, could have been a disaster of unimaginable proportions. This was not an isolated case. Naval nuclear weapons technician-turned-whistleblower, William McNeilly revealed that UK nuclear bases are "a disaster waiting to happen".
The risk of cyber attacks on nuclear facilities is also growing. According to recent research from Harvard Law School Berkman Center for Internet & Society, Columbia University and the Institute for War and Peace Studies, “nuclear weapons-related facilities are by their nature vulnerable to cyber-attacks: they may be prime targets in view of their strategic importance, and they are heavily computerised systems”.
Cyber weapons targeting nuclear assets can therefore take advantage of the numerous vulnerabilities of these ‘ complex machines’, create great damage and conceal their traces while tricking systems into believing nothing unusual is underway.
Prohibit before it’s too late
Given the lack of transparent and accessible information we have on many of the world’s nine nuclear weapon states, these incidents could very well be just the tip of the iceberg. The world has avoided an accidental detonation out of sheer luck, but we cannot count on it forever.
Recent data on the magnitude of the consequences of nuclear weapons, paired with the failures in ensuring the safety of nuclear arsenals, has increased the urgency of finding a way to address the catastrophic humanitarian threat that nuclear weapons pose.
A growing movement of non-nuclear weapon states and civil society organisations are mobilizing to take matters in their own hands. As a result of the third conference on the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons in Vienna, 116 states has joined Austria by endorsing a pledge to work for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons.
These states must now start work on negotiating a treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons, even if the nuclear weapon states wont join.
’It is frankly stunning that weapons able to produce such disastrous consequences are not yet prohibited. Those states that don't possess nuclear weapons should not settle for the current status quo, which puts the world at risk of a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportion. We've been fortunate to avoid a detonation so far, but we now must stop relying on sheer luck and start negotiating a ban on nuclear weapons.’’
Beatrice Fihn, Executive Director of ICAN
RESOURCES High-resolution photos Jody Williams and Desmond Tutu on nuclear weapons (video)
Unspeakable Suffering: The humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons
The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) is a coalition of more than 400 non-governmental organisations in 95 countries. We are calling on governments to launch negotiations in 2015 on a treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons, which would place them on the same legal footing as chemical and biological weapons and help pave the way to their complete elimination.