The nuclear weapons launch site in San Cristobal that sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis was modelled on one at Plokštinė in Lithuania, which opened on New Year’s Eve 1961. The disused installation is no longer top secret – it’s now a museum – but it is still out of the way. Overlooked by dense pine forests, the silos yawn with ominous promise, like thermonuclear wishing wells. Each of the SS-4 rockets that might once have roared out of them had more than half the firepower used throughout the Second World War, including Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single warhead could have flattened London within ten minutes of take-off.
The decision to expand the UK’s nuclear weapons stockpile by 40 per cent was slipped onto page 76 of the government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in March. The only reason to announce a major strategic decision in such a quiet way is to avoid attention, which is exactly what happened. The UK is now committed to maintaining a larger stock of nuclear warheads than China (according to US estimates) and there has been too little scrutiny of the policy.
Britain’s ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ has been described by ministers as the basis of our defence strategy for nearly seventy years. Tony Blair proclaimed that ‘our independent nuclear deterrent has provided the ultimate assurance of our national security.’ We have used US missiles to carry our nuclear warheads but ministers of both main political parties have insisted that the nuclear weapon itself was British and designed at the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston. After all, we first exploded an A-bomb in 1952 and H-bombs in 1957-58 without help from the US or other state. Yet last year a defence minister hinted at the truth for the first time: Britain’s nuclear warheads are of American design.
Seventy-five years ago, on 6 August 1945, an American warplane destroyed the city of Hiroshima with a single atomic bomb. Over the following five months, 140,000 people died. The surviving 210,000 came to be known in Japanese as hibakusha, ‘bombed people’. A second atomic bomb destroyed the city of Nagasaki on 9 August, leaving 73,000 dead and 200,000 hibakusha.
Trevor Nunn’s movie Red Joan, starring Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench, claims to be ‘based on incredible true events’, namely the life of Melita Norwood. But the story told by the film is so far from the truth it’s nonsense.
A number of military experts – including the defense secretary, James Mattis – have warned that a US war against North Korea would be hard, incredibly destructive and bloody, with civilian casualties in the millions, and could go badly for US forces. But Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond McMaster, President Trump’s national security adviser, is apparently insistent that ‘a military strike be considered as a serious option’. One of Gen. McMaster’s claims to fame is a Silver Star he was awarded for a tank ‘battle’ he led in the desert during the so-called Gulf War of 1991. As a young captain leading a troop with nine new Abrams M1A1 battle tanks, McMaster destroyed 28 Iraqi tanks in 23 minutes without losing any of his own or suffering any casualties. McMaster’s exploit (later embellished with a name, the ‘Battle of 73 Easting’) was little more than a case of his having dramatically better equipment.
Not long after the Second World War, the scientists at Los Alamos realised that they could vastly improve the design of a nuclear bomb, making it light enough to fly on a rocket.
US presidents since John F. Kennedy have been followed everywhere by an army officer carrying a leather-bound metal Zero Halliburton briefcase. (Zero Halliburton was sold to a Japanese company in 2006, but Donald Trump hasn’t switched to an all-American manufacturer.) Inside the president’s ‘emergency satchel’, also known as the ‘nuclear football’, is a ‘black book’ containing such things as retaliatory options and the codes for launching them. The president has the power to choose any of these options and no one has the power to stop him.
At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick was living in England. He decided that it was not safe there and he should move his family to Australia. Since he refused to fly commercially, he booked passage on a boat. But when he found that he would have to share the bathroom facilities with a neighbouring cabin he cancelled the whole thing, preferring to take his chances with the bomb.
‘And by the way,’ Donald Trump said to Hillary Clinton in last night’s debate, ‘another one powerful is the worst deal I think I’ve ever seen negotiated that you started is the Iran deal.’ His view on the Iranian nuclear deal, and the nuclear weapons situation in general, hasn’t changed much since he spoke with two New York Times reporters in March. Not surprisingly he revealed an abominable ignorance of the subject.
Last month North Korea carried out its fourth nuclear test. As with the previous test, three years ago, the yield was equivalent to between six and nine kilotons of TNT. Yet while the first three tests were undoubtedly atomic bombs – the explosive energy came from the fission of the nucleus of plutonium-239 – this time North Korea announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb. An H-bomb’s energy comes from the fusion of the nuclei of the hydrogen isotopes deuterium and tritium. Whereas A-bombs attain yields measured in kilotons, H-bombs typically attain megaton yields. They are also known as thermonuclear bombs because the nuclei must be heated to a temperature as hot as the centre of the sun in order to initiate the fusion process.
Trouble over Trident has struck deep into the souls of disaffected Labour politicians, from those who say they ‘disagree with Jeremy’ to those making clear they will go to the stake for the ‘independent’ deterrent. Their belief in it turns on three considerations, spelled out three years ago by Luke Akehurst in Progress. First, jobs: the renewal of Trident is a jobs-protection scheme, worth £100 billion (Akehurst asks ‘what Barrow, or for that matter Derby or Aldermaston, are supposed to do to replace the highly skilled engineering jobs dependent on Trident renewal’). Second, ‘punching above our weight’ to ensure a ‘place at the table’, most notably as a member of the Permanent Security Council of the UN, a politically bankrupt arrangement if ever there were one. Third, insurance, a policy with a very high premium but worth every penny when heart-wrenchingly packaged: ‘I support Trident renewal because I want my children and hopefully their children to have a country in 50 years time which is still protected by a deterrent so powerful that no other power that arises in the intervening five decades, however hostile or malign, would risk bullying us with nuclear or other WMD threats.’ This is the family-man doctrine of deterrence.
A few years ago, an Israeli F16 fighter pilot I know went on a training exercise for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear reactors. When he got back I asked him if such an operation could actually succeed. He said he thought Israel had the capacity to carry it out, but the military leadership was against it. When I asked him why, he explained that even if an airstrike were completely successful, the Iranians would be able to rebuild their reactors within two years. The operation, he said, would only work if sanctions were intensified immediately after the attack, and most sanctioning countries would be unlikely to agree to that.
In Quebec in 1943, the US and the UK agreed that any use of nuclear weapons would require both countries’ prior approval. The British government gave its formal assent to the US bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the Combined Policy Committee meeting in Washington on 4 July 1945. Deliberations over the decision were remarkably perfunctory. On 30 April, Field Marshal Henry Maitland Wilson had written from Washington that the US was eager to know British views. The ensuing discussions focused only on the phrasing of London’s assent.
The Iran University of Science and Technology in Tehran was founded in 1929 as a school of engineering. It became a general technological institute in 1972. It now has more than a dozen departments with thousands of undergraduate and postgraduate students. Few if any American universities have a more complete list of undergraduate physics courses. Looking at the faculty reveals an interesting split. The senior professors all did much of their degree work abroad. One of them for example was an undergraduate at Columbia. The junior faculty, including one woman, all did their degree work in Iran. In another generation, it may be that all of Iran’s physicists will have been educated in Iran. No other country in the Middle East would show a demographic like this. Taken in the large this means that Iran has a serious scientific infrastructure, which must be taken into account in any negotiations over its nuclear programme. The notion that the country can be negotiated into a scientific stone age is nonsense.
The latest round of nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members and Germany) held on Friday and Saturday in Almaty promised much. Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, had described the previous meeting (in February) as a ‘turning point’ and the foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, had said negotiations were ‘on the right track and moving in the right direction’. Western diplomats, too, had expressed quiet confidence. Which was perhaps foolish. We have been here many, many times during the eleven years that this saga has rumbled on, and, sure enough, the latest round of talks broke down with each side blaming the other for the lack of progress. No common ground was reached; there wasn’t even an agreement to meet again for more talks.
In September 1995, at a conference commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a senior Iranian arms control adviser, Hassan Mashadi, told reporters that Iran was ‘keeping its nuclear options open’. The country’s tough security environment, the threat it felt from the United States and Israel, were all reasons, he argued, that it should pursue nuclear research. The extent of this research was made clear ten years ago, on 14 August 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed full details of Iran’s nuclear activities, precipitating the current crisis. The Mujahedin e Khalq claimed it received the information from contacts ‘inside Iran’; privately, diplomats have told me that ‘everyone knows’ the real source was Israel.
Three weeks ago, Binyamin Netanyahu flew to Washington to insist once again that Israel would not accept a nuclear-armed Iran; and neither, he intimated, should the United States. Mitt Romney, to gain a few votes in Florida, promised that under any administration of his, the US would deal with Iran once and for all. Iran, as well as the American electorate, is listening. If you want to convince the mullahs to accelerate a drive towards the bomb come November, that’s the way to do it.
As assassinations go, last Wednesday’s killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist was unusually competent. Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who worked at Iran’s Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, was blown up when a passing motorcyclist slapped a magnetic bomb onto his car that killed everyone inside but left the area around the vehicle unscathed. It was the fourth killing of an Iranian nuclear scientist in the last two years. An explosion at a missile base near Tehran on 12 November 2011 killed 18 people including Brigadier General Hassan Moghaddam, the architect of Iran’s missile programme. Take into account the Stuxnet computer virus that attacked the centrifuge system at Natanz, not to mention several defections of key scientific personnel, and it is clear that ‘non-diplomatic’ solutions to the Iranian impasse have become the norm.
Among the evidence for ‘possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme’ in the new Report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is that a foreign expert... who, a Member State has informed the Agency, worked for much of his career... in the nuclear weapon programme of his country of origin... was in Iran from about 1996 to 2002, ostensibly to assist Iran in the development of a facility and techniques for making ultra-dispersed diamonds, where he lectured also on explosion physics and its applications.
On 22 September 1979 at about 1 a.m. GMT, a US Vela satellite passing over the South Atlantic detected a double flash of light in the vicinity of Prince Edward Island. The satellite had been launched in 1969 in order to detect atmospheric nuclear tests. When a nuclear weapon explodes in the atmosphere, the heat of the fireball strips the electrons off the atoms and molecules of the surrounding air. For a fraction of a second the ionised air is opaque, until the blast blows it away. The resulting double flash is the signature of a nuclear explosion. At the time the Vela had successfully detected 41 such explosions. Guy Barasch of Los Alamos, the laboratory which ran the Vela programme, concluded that ‘naturally occurring signals would not be mistaken for that of a nuclear explosion’ and that