Nuclear War Not Survivable

At 11 a.m. on Thursday, February 15, 1979, the five
Commissioners of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) heard a presentation from NRC engineer Demetrios L. Basdekas that must have chilled them into numbing inaction. At least that is the charitable view.

For had the NRC been less secretive and more forthright, the nuclear superhawks inside and outside the Reagan Administration would have been far less likely to peddle the mad fiction that a general nuclear war is survivable. And the builders of nuclear plants would not have gotten away with their smugness about the absence of national security perils that atomic power has brought to the United States.

Take the superhawks principal thesis–long ago rejected by the likes of Generals Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower–that a major nuclear exchange can be survived with a national civil defense system in place. After the bombs explode, after the firestorms and the destruction of all that is above ground, the superhawks say that life can once again emerge from the under¬≠ground shelters because there is not that much radioactivity from the bombs to make the land uninhabitable.

Enter Demetrios L. Basdekas and his numerous NRC memoranda that he wrote to alert his agency. Basdekas was worried about the effects on the safety systems of nuclear plants when Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) is generated by a nuclear weapon’s explosion. There are over 70 atomic power plants operating now in the United States.

Here are Basdekas’ words from his memo of February 15, 1979:

“A single 3-4 megaton nuclear weapon exploded over the lower 48 States, somewhere say over Kansas City, at an altitude of 200-250 miles will produce a sufficiently strong EMP to affect every nuclear power plant operating anywhere in the lower 48 States. It is not known what the exact degree of these effects would be on each power plant affected. It will probably range, depending on location and design of the individual plant, from a shutdown to a catastrophic nuclear accident.

“The consequences of such a scenario are so enormous that our society might not recover from them. Early deaths in the hundred of thousands of people, and property and other economic losses in the trillion dollar range, with millions of people subject to latent cancer and genetic effects in future generations will be only part of the consequences.”

All this can occur from only one nuclear weapon provoking the release of enormous amounts of radioactivity (a thousand megawatt nuclear power plant has far more radioactivity than a nuclear bomb).

Like a good civil servant and patriot, Basdekas told his agency that they were “not doing anything in terms of regulatory requirements for license applicants to start addressing this aspect of nuclear weapons effects. Considering that EMP may represent the largest common mode failure event imaginable, NRC should assume a leading and aggressive role in addressing this issue.”

After testifying in early December, 1976, before the NRC’s Advisory Committee, Basdekas was muzzled and removed from all licensing review responsibilities.

The official NRC position was that the EMP issue was the Department of Defense’s job. But on February 23, 1977, the Advisory Committee advised the NRC regarding EMP that the agency’s job was to ascertain “the sensitivity of nuclear power plants under all circumstances. . .” The following January 1978, the NRC submitted its annual report to the Congress on unresolved safety issues without mentioning the EMP issue.

Basdekas told the NRC in 1979 that it should “direct its analysis and resolution [e.g. adequate shielding] with dispatch. The American People would demand so.” But the American people were never informed by their government, although all governments with nuclear weapons know about this vulnerability. Now that the “nuclear war is winnable” superhawks have their base at the White House, the Basdekas alert must be sounded loud and clear.

EMP is not the only catastrophic by-product of nuclear explo¬≠sions. Many others have been described in recent books ranging from effects on the Ozone layer to raging massive firestorms to vast epidemics. Such information is arousing the American people to demand mutual arms control and reduction. But what is unique about EMP is that it can occur, as Basdekas said, “even without a single hostile nuclear weapon penetrating the atmosphere over our air-space.”

Reagan’s arms control director, Eugene Rostow, may say that “the human race is very resilient,” when asked by Senator Claiborne Pell whether he believed a country would survive a full nuclear exchange. But the more accurate description comes from Nobel Prize physicist, Hans Bethe who declared: “If there is an all-out attack on the Soviet Union and the United States, there will afterwards be no United States nor a Soviet Union.”

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