There are more than 17,000 warheads held by Russia, the US and the other seven nuclear-armed states. Russia and the US still have an estimated 1,800 warheads on high alert, ready to launch between five and 15 minutes after receiving the launch order. For as long as nuclear weapons exist, the risk of an inadvertent, accidental or deliberate detonation remains.
Chatham House report lists 13 instances since 1962 when nuclear weapons were nearly launched. The Chatham House authors say the risks appear to be rising. Nuclear weapons are spreading – most recently to North Korea – and disarmament is stalling.
Richard Nixon and Boris Yeltsin both raised concerns among their top advisers with their heavy drinking. In May 1981 the French president, François Mitterand, left the French nuclear launch codes at home in the pocket of his suit. President Jimmy Carter did the same in the 1970s, and the suit as well as the codes were taken to the dry cleaners. The US launch codes went missing again when Ronald Reagan was shot on 30 March 1981. FBI agents had them, along with the injured president's bloodied trousers. From 18 to 21 August 1991, an attempted coup in the Soviet Union resulted in President Mikhail Gorbachevlosing control of his nuclear briefcase for three days after it was confiscated by Minister of Defence Dmitry Yazov, one of the coup leaders. Yazov executed Order 8825, which stated that ‘all branches of the USSR Armed Forces on Soviet territory shall move to Increased Combat Readiness’, described by Deputy Prosecutor General Yevgeniy Lisov as a state of ‘readiness for war’. Lisov later suggested that, in hindsight, one cannot eliminate the possibility that nuclear weapons could theoretically have been used.
Overall, between 1975 and 1977, 120,000 members of the US military forces had direct contact with nuclear weapons. Over the years, a large number of servicemen and servicewomen have been removed from their posts for alcohol and drug abuse, and delinquency.
In January 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up over North Carolina, dropping its two nuclear bombs over the town of Goldsboro. One of the bombs activated, engaging its trigger mechanism. A single low-voltage switch was all that stood between the eastern US and catastrophe.
In September 1980 in Arkansas, a maintenance engineer dropped a socket wrench into a silo holding a Titan II nuclear missile, igniting its fuel and triggering an explosion which sent the warhead flying. It landed near a road but did not detonate.
In the early 1960s, NATO weapons handlers pulled the arming wires out of a Mark 7 nuclear warhead while they were unloading it from a plane. When the wires were pulled, the arming sequence began – and if the X-Unit charged, a Mark 7 could be detonated by its radar, by its
barometric switches, by its timer or by falling just a few feet from a plane and landing on a runway.
In another incident, on 16 January 1961, at the Lakenheath Air Base in Suffolk, England, when the pilot started the engines of his F-100D fighter carrying a Mark 28 hydrogen bomb, the underwing fuel tanks were mistakenly jettisoned, and ruptured when they hit the runway.
Washington, June 1980 A faulty computer chip triggered a nuclear attack warning on the US, giving the impression that more than 2,000 Soviet missiles were on the way.
Cuba, October 1962 Four nuclear-armed Soviet submarines were deployed in the Sargasso Sea at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. US warships had warned Moscow that they would be practising dropping depth charges, but the message did not reach the submarines. With his communications cut off and believing himself under attack, one commander ordered a launch of nuclear warheads, declaring: “We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all – we will not disgrace our navy!” He was unable to communicate with the Soviet General Staff at the time, and therefore was under pressure to retaliate without being able to clearly assess the nature and context of the risk that the submarine faced: “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here" He was persuaded to desist by his second-in-command. In a similar situation, the commander of submarine B-130, Captain Nikolai Shumkov, ordered torpedoes to be readied in an effort to give his crewmen the impression that he was ready to launch a nuclear response to US bombardment. However, this was primarily because he was concerned that the political officer on board would report to superiors any reluctance to do so under crisis circumstances.
Soviet Union, September 1983 Shortly after midnight on 25 September an alert sounded at a Soviet satellite early warning station. The data suggested five intercontinental ballistic missiles were heading towards the country. Lieutenant Colonel Stanislav Yevgrafovich defied protocol by not reporting the incident to his superior, gambling that it was a false alarm. It turned out that sunlight glinting off US territory had confused the satellite.
Russia, January 1995 On 25 January Norwegian scientists launched a rocket to study the aurora borealis over the Svalbard region. They warned Moscow but the message never reached the radar operators at the Russian early warning stations, who mistook the rocket for an incoming Trident submarine-launched missile. President Boris Yeltsin was discussing his decision with his top military commander when the rocket fell wide of Soviet territory.
The first time that Israel considered a ‘nuclear demonstration’ was on the eve of the 1967 war when it assembled two or three nuclear explosive devices. The second episode when Israel considered nuclear use was during the early days of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. According to Arnan ‘Sini’ Azaryahu, an aide to Yisrael Galili (a senior adviser to Meir), some of the Israeli leadership considered nuclear deployments during the 1973 war. Azaryahu relates how Dayan requested that the prime minister authorize the head of the nuclear agency, Shalheveth Freier, to initiate the preparatory steps for creating ‘immediate operational options of nuclear demonstration’
In 2001 and 2002, India and Pakistan went into a renewed cycle of hostility as a result of the unresolved Kashmir conflict and additional provocations. For 10 months, between December 2001 and October 2002, India and Pakistan kept one million soldiers in a state of high readiness. India had rejected the first use of nuclear weapons, but President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan refused to do the same and stated that the “possession of nuclear weapons by any state obviously implies they will be used under some circumstances”.