“If the image is indeed from a nuclear weapons accident, it would constitute the first publicly known case of a recent nuclear weapons accident at an air base in Europe,” according to the Federation of American Scientists.
Was a U.S. nuclear bomb damaged in a recent accident at a European air base?
This question is being asked Monday after the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) discovered and published a photo—used in an April 2022 student briefing at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico—that shows four people inspecting what looks like a damaged B61 atomic bomb. The U.S. is set to soon deliver a new generation of this so-called “tactical” nuclear weapon to Europe.
“The document does not identify where the photo was taken or when, but it appears to be from inside a Protective Aircraft Shelter (PAS) at Volkel Air Base in the Netherlands,” according to Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, which analyzed the image in depth. “It must be emphasized up front that there is no official confirmation that the image was taken at Volkel Air Base, that the bent B61 shape is a real weapon (versus a trainer), or that the damage was the result of an accident (versus a training simulation).”
“If the image is indeed from a nuclear weapons accident,” Kristensen noted, “it would constitute the first publicly known case of a recent nuclear weapons accident at an air base in Europe.”
Most people would describe a nuclear bomb getting bent as an accident, but U.S. Air Force terminology would likely categorize it as a Bent Spear incident, which is defined as “evident damage to a nuclear weapon or nuclear component that requires major rework, replacement, or examination or re-certification by the Department of Energy.” The U.S. Air Force reserves “accident” for events that involve the destruction or loss of a weapon.
It is not a secret that the U.S. Air Force deploys nuclear weapons in Europe, but it is a secret where they are deployed. Volkel Air Base has stored B61s for decades. I and others have provided ample documentation for this and two former Dutch prime ministers and a defense minister in 2013 even acknowledged the presence of the weapons. Volkel Air Base is one of six air bases in Europe where the U.S. Air Force currently deploys an estimated 100 B61 nuclear bombs in total.
The United States is modernizing its air-delivered nuclear arsenal including in Europe and Volkel and the other air bases in Europe are scheduled to receive the new B61-12 nuclear bomb in the near future.
Just over a week ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin pointed to the United States’ positioning of tactical nukes in the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Italy, and Turkey to justify his plan to station similar weapons in Belarus. Subsequently, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said that he is also seeking to store more powerful intercontinental ballistic missiles.
After condemning the Kremlin’s “dangerously escalating proposal,” Daniel Högsta, acting executive director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), alluded to arms-sharing among the U.S.-led NATO military alliance and argued that “as long as countries continue their complicity in considering nuclear weapons as anything other than a global problem, this helps give Putin cover to get away with this kind of behavior.”
ICAN wrote Monday on social media that news of potential damage to a B61 atomic bomb “is a terrifying reminder of three things.”
First, the organization observed, Dutch, Belgian, German, Italian, and Turkish civilians are being put “at risk if anything goes wrong.”
Second, “if these weapons were used intentionally, it would be the military pilots from those countries—not the U.S.—dropping the bomb and committing mass murder of civilians,” ICAN noted. “No one in these countries voted or consented to have that done in their name.”
Finally, “accidents happen,” the organization pointed out. “The long history of nuclear weapons mishaps and near-misses shows just how much luck has kept us from nuclear war.”
“Luck is not a good security strategy,” ICAN added. “Responsible states should join the [United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons] and push to eliminate nuclear weapons altogether.”
Russia, the U.S., China, France, and the United Kingdom—the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council who control more than 12,000 atomic warheads combined—have expressed opposition to the body’s nuclear ban treaty, which entered into force in January 2021 when it was ratified by 50 governments.
Beatrice Fihn, the former executive director of ICAN who led the organization when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017, made the case last week that recent weapon-sharing proposals reveal the dangers of “nuclear deterrence” theory, which asserts that threatening to use atomic bombs dissuades governments from taking certain actions and therefore helps avert nuclear war.
“We have to stop being so stupid by continuing to say nuclear deterrence works,” Fihn argued. “We need to urgently stigmatize and delegitimize the use, threat to use, testing, stationing, and possession of nuclear weapons.”
For the first time since the 1980s, the world’s nuclear arsenal—90% of which is controlled by Moscow and Washington—is projected to expand in the coming years, and the risk of weapons capable of annihilating life on Earth being used is growing.
“We need to use all available methods and tools of the international community to pressure Russia on this,” Fihn said last week. “And then we need to urgently work to eliminate nuclear weapons and remove this option from all counties. For Ukraine and also for every other country and person on this planet.”
U.S. President Joe Biden warned in October that Russia’s war in Ukraine had brought the world closer to “Armageddon” than at any point since the Cuban missile crisis. Just days later, however, his administration published a Nuclear Posture Review that nonproliferation advocates said increases the likelihood of catastrophe, in part because it preserves the option of a nuclear first strike. The U.S. remains the only country to have used nuclear weapons in war, decimating the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic bombs in August 1945.
Izumi Nakamitsu, the U.N. high representative for disarmament affairs, warned Friday in a briefing to the body’s Security Council that “the risk of a nuclear weapon being used is currently higher than at any time since the depths of the Cold War.”
“The war in Ukraine represents the most acute example of that risk,” said Nakamitsu. “The absence of dialogue and the erosion of the disarmament and arms control architecture, combined with dangerous rhetoric and veiled threats, are key drivers of this potentially existential risk.”
“States must avoid taking any actions that could lead to escalation, mistake, or miscalculation,” she added. “They should return to dialogue to de-escalate tensions urgently and find ways to develop and implement transparency and confidence-building measures.”
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