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Nuclear Lessons Unlearned

VIENNA – Much of the world marked the 50th anniversary in early August of the Berlin Wall’s construction. But, while that Cold War abomination has truly been consigned to history’s dustbin, September 1 marks another 50th anniversary, one that resonates far more directly today.

As of 1961, some 200 nuclear bombs had been exploded, most of them in the atmosphere, but two on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Three years earlier, in October 1958, nuclear testing had ground to a halt after the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom agreed on a moratorium. During most of this period, one could get the impression, although it was deceptive, that nuclear testing was actually over.

But the moratorium had been fragile from its very beginning, with nuclear-weapons establishments pushing hard for a resumption of testing. Like the run-up to an earthquake, political tension was building behind the scenes. It peaked with the construction of the Berlin Wall in August 1961. Then, on September 1, the Soviets broke the moratorium, joined shortly thereafter after by the US.

What followed was a veritable nuclear-testing frenzy. More than 250 tests were conducted in the 16 months following the aborted attempt to put the nuclear genie back in its bottle – more explosions than in the 16 preceding years. One test explosion set the infamous record for the largest-ever manmade explosion: the Soviet Tsar bomb, detonated on October 30, 1961, was the equivalent of 4,000 Hiroshima bombs. It is no coincidence that a year later, in October 1962, the world found itself on the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.