Martin Sieff / World Peace Herald – 2005-05-20 09:18:19
(May 18, 2005) — Helen Caldicott is an Australian physician who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 and is the president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute based in Washington. She spoke with UPI National Security Correspondent Martin Sieff.
Q. The New York Times reported Wednesday that the US Air Force is seeking approval from President George W. Bush for new weapons to secure the United States from attack from space. As a prominent opponent to the militarization of space, what is your response to that news?
A. Everything that was predicted at our conference this week on the weaponization of space in Airlie, Virginia, is already coming true. It seems as if the Bush administration and the Air Force are going to go ahead with everything that was said at our conference on the weaponization of space that was most alarming. This issue was under the radar of public opinion for a long time, but it is now coming into view.
Russia and China have both said for some years that if the United States puts weapons into space they will super-saturate any and all US anti-ballistic missile systems and space-based weapons by building thousands more nuclear weapons each to counter any US missile-defense system.
Q. The United States is the dominant space-faring nation with more military satellites in orbit than every other nation combined. How difficult would it be to disrupt or destroy US space-based systems?
A. Any nation. Military satellites are very vulnerable. As we learned at our conference the easiest way to paralyze the entire US space satellite system in low Earth orbit is by detonating a nuclear weapon at that level above the Earth to produce radiation in the belt where the satellites orbit. The satellites built to function for 10 years will then all die a slow death over just a few weeks as they pass through the most irradiated areas.
And if you detonate a single nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere you will produce an electric magnetic pulse, or EMP. One nuclear weapon detonated in near space would therefore melt down the entire electronic communications network of the United States.
This would of course ruin the US economy and utterly disrupt society across the country. But it would have even more grave consequences. There are 103 nuclear power plants across the United States. They all rely on external electricity supply that powers their water-coolant systems. If these were all knocked out, you would run the risk of more than 100 Chernobyl-scale nuclear core meltdowns across the United States.
All the power plants have their own back-up generators, of course, but they would all need time crank up and too often their testing and maintenance has been neglected because they so seldom, if ever, have had to be used in the past, and some of them don’t work when they’re supposed to.
Therefore there would indeed be a real risk of many Chernobyls all over the place. Thus a single EMP detonation in space aimed against US military space-based assets could produce a truly cataclysmic outcome, and it would be very easy to do.
Q. Does the United States have any plans to put nuclear weapons or nuclear power systems into space?
A. There are also serious plans being discussed to make nuclear reactors that will function in space to eventually power U.S. space ships to other worlds in the Solar System. Already a new plutonium-producing nuclear facility is being set up in Idaho, and the plutonium nuclear fuel that is being produced there is not even the regular plyutonum-239 but the far more toxic plutonium-238.
There are discussions well under way to eventually make a nuclear spaceship called Prometheus that could get people out to planetary destinations like Mars far more quickly.
Q. The Cold War has been over for almost a decade and a half. How serious is the threat of mutually assured destruction between the United States and Russia today?
A. Russia still has 2,500 nuclear weapons and the United States has 5,000. There are only 240 major cities in the entire Northern Hemisphere. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has concluded that 40 nuclear weapons are targeted on New York City alone. There are probably 50 or 60 of them targeted on Washington, DC. Every city and town in the United States is targeted with at least one H-bomb or thermonuclear weapon. And the Russians build really big H-bombs.
Q.. But surely, the Russian radar tracking and space-based surveillance networks keep them informed that the United States is not contemplating any surprise attack upon them?
A. None of the Russian early-warning satellites work. Therefore the Russians are acutely worried that the United States doctrine of pre-emptive war is a real threat to them and it makes them very paranoid, because their satellites to provide them with better warning just do not work.
Most Americans do not realize that the Russian nuclear system is already on hair-trigger alert, and even worse, the Russian early-warning system is in a dangerous state of decay. (Veteran U.S. arms negotiator) Ambassador Thomas Graham has said that we are already in a white-knuckle situation over this.
And Professor Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics, told our conference on Tuesday that the thing that scared him the most was that nobody else was scared, and they all ought to be.
Q. Have there been any near misses that ran the risk of triggering all-out nuclear war since the disintegration of the Soviet Union?
A. The United States and the world came far closer to total nuclear catastrophe in 1995 than anyone seems to remember or realize, even though it was documented and reported in The New York Times. Norway launched a missile near a US Trident submarine deployment. The Kremlin had been notified in advance that the missile would be fired, but just forgot the warning. The Russian radar picked up the Norwegian launch and concluded that they were under attack from a US strategic nuclear missile submarine.
For the first time in history, Russian President Boris Yeltsin opened the “football,” the suitcase containing the Russian nuclear launch codes, and he had three minutes to decide whether to authorize an all-out Russian nuclear response.
Only 10 seconds before the three minutes ran out, the Norwegian missile veered off course and this was reported to Yeltsin. There had even been a general at his elbow urging a full retaliatory strike. America was just 10 seconds from annihilation. This story was reported on the back page of the New York Times when it should have been on the front page.
Q. Was this a freak scenario that could never happen again?
A. This could certainly happen again. A retired senior Russian military officer said to me recently, “Helen, we’re so worried we could blow you up by mistake.” And there are other dire possibilities. The Russians have to deal with terrorists and extremists who could conceivably seize control of a missile-command center.
Q. What kind of priority should we therefore give reducing potential nuclear tensions between the United States and other nations, especially Russia?
A. This is the most urgent issue facing the human race. If America ever launched its 5,000 nuclear missiles and Russia its 2,500 nuclear missiles it would probably be enough to create a nuclear winter or “dark fall.” So much dust, smoke, debris and burned carbon material would be thrown into the atmosphere that plants would be unable to carry out photosynthesis. Most species of life would slowly freeze to death in the dark.
Q. You paint a horrifying scenario. Why do we not see more discussion about this?
A. What alarms me most of all is that nobody is talking any more about all this. The new reports on Wednesday about the latest plans for space militarization will dangerously escalate tensions with Russia and China.
President Bush won re-election by running on what he called the moral issues like banning abortion and gay marriage. But the real moral issue for all people and all religions is whether creation itself will continue to survive, and the possibility that total catastrophe could happen is not low.
Q. Why are U.S., Russian and other leaders not grappling with this issue more seriously?
A. Each side refuses to share its secrets with the other. The thinking of everyone still appears to be in the pre-World War I mode. That was what Einstein warned against. He said the creation of nuclear weapons changed everything. Thus we drift towards the precipice. Indeed, I would say now we are galloping toward it.
Martin Sieff is UPI Senior News Analyst
Copyright © 2005 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.