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On the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Louise Sarsfield Collins writes that accidental nuclear detonation is a much more pressing threat than nuclear war.

 

We all know that Japan was the first country the US dropped nuclear bombs on. What fewer people know is that the second country the US dropped nuclear bombs on was itself. It occurred in 1961 but was only confirmed with the release of classified papers in 2013.

 

While the first use was deliberate, the second was accidental. Two bombs were dropped over the North Carolina city of Goldsboro when a B-52 bomber broke apart mid-air, dispensing its cargo near a settlement of 30,000 people and just 50 miles from the State capital Raleigh. Neither bomb detonated: fortunate, considering they were 250-350 times more powerful than that which devastated Hiroshima.

 

US Defence secretary at the time, Robert McNamara, is quoted saying: “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”

 

A couple of weeks later, something similar happened in California. In fact, these so-called “broken arrow” incidents have happened in the US and elsewhere many times.

 

Plane crashes are the most common cause but missiles have also been left on runways unattended, transported in error and on one occasion, a dropped spanner almost caused a nuclear missile to detonate.

 

With this kind of inattentiveness, it is all the more worrying that such weapons are ready to launch in 60 seconds. And then of course, there are hackers….

 

If these incidents all seems a bit far away, then perhaps the collision of British and French nuclear-armed submarines, very possibly somewhere between Malin Head and Rockall, brings it all home. Russian and US nuclear subs also hang out in Irish seas.

 

The esteemed international affairs think-tank, Chatham House details 13 incidents of deliberate ‘near-nuclear use’ due to error, espionage or escalation between 1962 and 2002. These are separate from inadvertent detonations mentioned above.

 

In a seminal study published in 2014, it said the probability of inadvertent nuclear use, “is higher than had been widely considered, and because the consequences of detonation are so serious, the risk associated with nuclear weapons is high … For as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of an inadvertent, accidental or deliberate detonation remains.”

 

Last May, the five-yearly Review Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) decided to do nothing about it.

 

Though not for want of encouragement. Our own Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, highlighted the grim reality that “not a single nuclear weapon has been disarmed under the NPT… and there are no structures in place for this to happen”, despite obligations contained within the treaty.

 

The decision to make no decision came in spite of a new warning received since the last review conference in 2010.

 

Building on the work of the Red Cross and others, the United Nations found that in the event of a nuclear detonation, there is no possibility of humanitarian and relief agencies meeting the needs of survivors and no way to adequately protect those delivering assistance.

 

It is alarming to think that agencies that respond to emergencies every day say the most severe humanitarian crisis in history may not yet have happened.

 

A nuclear detonation would mean instant death for some and a slow death for others, while future generations would die or suffer extreme ill health from continuing contamination and morphed genes passing from generation to generation.

 

There are wider environmental implications too that cross borders: polluted water courses could damage ecosystems thousands of miles away and poisonous ash from fires that follow a nuclear detonation would wipe out crops globally as the Earth’s climate altered.

 

Irish Red Cross, along with our colleagues in the wider international movement believe that the humanitarian imperative means nuclear weapons must be eliminated. And we call on all states to work towards this goal before it is too late.

 

In December of last year, the Austrian Government issued a pledge to do just that, a pledge that has since been joined by over 100 states, including Ireland. Now is the time for these states to act on this so-called ‘Humanitarian Pledge’ to “stigmatise, prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons in light of their unacceptable humanitarian consequences and associated risks”.

 

If it all seems a bit exaggerated then consider this. Nearly 70 years ago, Hiroshima was flattened by the world’s first detonation of a nuclear weapon killing 100,000 people within 24 hours.

 

Somehow, the Red Cross hospital, just 1.5km from the epicentre, remained standing. Staff worked in unimaginable circumstances, trying to help the thousands of victims arriving at their door.

 

Today, Japanese Red Cross hospitals are still treating victims of cancer attributable to radiation from the bombing.

 

Louise Sarsfield Collins International Humanitarian Law Advocacy Officer at the Irish Red Cross.