For all the bloviating going on about the growing North Korean nuclear arsenal –which for sure bodes no-one any good at all- one would think that the DPRK and its wacky regime had the capability to make the planet uninhabitable and to put a question mark over human survival in an hour and a half. In order to do that it would need to have thousands of megaton or half megaton – sized nuclear warheads poised for launch in a minute or less.
In fact the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal, while slowly growing, consists of less than 20, and most likely around a dozen, very small fission nuclear weapons.
While the DPRK has trumpeted that its test of Jan 6 is of a hydrogen bomb, there is no evidence whatsoever that this is the case. The explosion seems to have been around 6 kilotons, compared to previous DPRK explosions of approx four kilotons. This is not remotely near the size of even a trigger for a hydrogen device, which would be around 40 kilotons. The Hiroshima blast was between 10 and 15 kilotons, while early US and Soviet hydrogen weapons were around megaton size. The US Castle bravo blat in the Marshall islands was 15 megatons, while the largest nuclear device ever, the Soviet Tsar Bomba was of 60 megaton size.
Picking up the most recent DPRK blast was quite an achievement for the CTBT global monitoring system. The Tsar Bomba made seismographs worldwide go off scale.
The US and Russia each have around 1000 missile-based, silo-based, nuclear warheads able to be launched within a minute or less. Those warheads vary in size from a smallish 150 kilotons to 800 kilotons to a megaton. Russian warheads are significantly bigger than US ones. They also have a number of thousands of submarine-based warheads able to be launched in a few minutes, plus bomber-based warheads and so – called ‘tactical nukes’ which are (relatively) small weapons mounted on shorter- range missiles for ‘war fighting’ and battlefield use. DPRK nukes would qualify as the extreme smallest end of the ‘tactical nuke’ category.
Most alarming however is the fact that US and Russian nuclear warheads are maintained in a state such that the silo-based weapons at least, can be launched in seconds, based on computerised, space-based, warning systems.
There have been at least a dozen occasions from the 1960s onwards in which the fate of the planet has been in the balance, with sirens in nuclear command centres wailing and secretaries of defence and national security advisers awoken in the small hours of the morning as computers in the US indicated thousands of incoming Soviet warheads….because of a faulty 40 cent microchip in Colorado. In Russia we owe our existence to Colonel Stanislav Petrov, who on 26 Sept (now the International Day for the Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons) as sirens wailed at the Serpukhov15 warning centre, decided NOT to take steps that would have resulted in the launch of over 10,000 up to megaton sized warheads at the US and its allies.
The risk of nuclear war NOW, in 2016, is not only still with us but has grown by orders of magnitude in the last few years. The doomsday clock stands as it did in 1983, at three minutes to midnight. Yesterdays nuclear test by the DPRK does not help, and certainly makes the world a more dangerous place. But the DPRKs piffling little nuclear arsenal can’t of itself, destroy the world. The danger is that the DPRK’s test will give other governments an excuse to say ‘see- the world is a dangerous place. We must keep our own nuclear weapons’, when the monster arsenals that the US and Russia continue to hold CAN still destroy the world, and the risk of THAT taking place is as great as it was in 1983 when Colonel Stan made his fateful and fortunate decision.
The DPRK’s test shows if we needed to be shown, that the time to eliminate nuclear weapons is now.
John Hallam is spokesperson for People for Nuclear Disarmament NSW.