On 6 December 1917 in the harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia, a cargo ship loaded with munitions bound for France collided with another ship carrying relief supplies to Belgium. The collision caused a fire on the munitions ship and then a massive explosion that killed nearly 2,000 people, injured 9,000 and destroyed much of the city
Yesterday’s terrible explosion in Beirut was smaller but may still have involved the detonation well over 1000 tonnes of ammonium nitrate, perhaps a kiloton equivalent of TNT. At least 4,000 people have been injured and well over 100 killed. What has made the Beirut disaster so visceral is that the fire and small explosions that preceded led hundreds of people to capture the main explosion on cameras and smartphones. These showed, in sharp detail, the massive shock wave that spread out at amazing speed and they went on to record the damage and casualties right across the city.
The Beirut disaster happened less than 48 hours before the start of Hiroshima Day, 6 August, which this year marks the 75th anniversary of the destruction of the Japanese city in 1945 by a US atom bomb. Three days later, Nagasaki was destroyed, the two bombs combining to kill over 150,000 people.
The death tolls in Japan was much higher than in Beirut or Halifax, partly because the bombs were far larger, exceeding 10 kilotons each in destructive power, and partly because they were detonated in a manner designed specifically to cause as many deaths as possible. Both of the A-bombs were detonated at altitude, Hiroshima at 8.15 am, during the morning rush hour, and Nagasaki at 11.02am Both cities had many flimsy buildings, but the Beirut explosion shows what even a much smaller explosion can do in a much more modern city.
By modern-day nuclear standards, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were small devices, similar in destructive power to the anti-submarine nuclear depth bombs that the UK deployed during the Falklands/Malvinas War back in 1982. A more relevant comparison with this week’s Beirut disaster would be the UK’s modern arsenal of nuclear-armed Trident MIRV missiles.
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A single Vanguard-class submarine can carry sixteen of these ballistic missiles and each normally carries three thermonuclear warheads, which can be released from the missile mid-flight to hit different targets (hence the MIRV jargon – ‘multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle’).
Each warhead has a destructive power of 100 kilotons, probably around 100 times as powerful as the explosion that devasted the port area of Beirut and damaged buildings right across the city, so a single British missile submarine could utterly wreck a place the size of Beirut along with 47 other targets.
Even then we are still in the small-time when it comes to world nuclear arsenals. At the height of the Cold War back in the mid-1980s, the US and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons numbering over 60,000 between them, with some of these many times more powerful than those current UK warheads. A combination of arms control agreements and unilateral decisions in the early 1990s did cut those numbers down a lot, but both the US and modern-day Russia currently deploy over 1000 nuclear warheads each, with many thousands more in reserve. Both countries also maintain strategic triads – long-range weapons that can be delivered by land-based missiles, bombers or submarine-launched weapons.
The ‘smaller’ nuclear states are the UK, France, China, Israel, Pakistan and India, all with under 500 warheads. The ninth nuclear state, North Korea, probably has twenty to forty. That may be bad enough in terms of the gross misuse of human resources, but the added worry is that in recent years, to the dismay of peace campaigners and many diplomats, we have moved away from an era of arms control and into the start of a new nuclear arms race.
Four factors are behind this. One is that neither former President George W. Bush nor current President Donald Trump have supported nuclear arms control, preferring to ‘make America great again’ partly by eschewing agreements while modernising the arsenals. Meanwhile, Putin in Moscow presides over a small economy that is no larger than that of Spain or Italy and has generally weak armed forces. He therefore chooses to emphasise three specialisms – cyber-warfare, well-equipped special forces and a substantial nuclear weapons arsenal, the latter being seen as a key attribute of great power status.
The second factor is that all the other nuclear powers are increasing or at least upgrading their nuclear arsenals. The UK, for example, is building a new generation of missile-carrying submarines at great cost and is now embarking on building a new nuclear warhead. Until recently China had land-based and sea-based long-range nuclear delivery systems but is also now developing a strategic stealth bomber, the H-20. It is well behind schedule in its development but is already being used by the US military-industrial complex to advocate more spending on the US’s own new B-21 stealth bomber.
Thirdly is the proliferation of nuclear forces. While this is happening much more slowly than in the tense days of the Cold War, the 1990s saw Pakistan acquiring nuclear status, India then upgrading its own forces and both countries expanding their arsenals since. More recently we have had North Korea building its own nuclear force and the collapse of the JCPOA agreement with Iran.
Finally, there is the matter of group memory. No one under the age of forty has much memory of the sheer destructive potential or multiple risks of a nuclear-armed world. All that Cold War history has been much diminished with the passage of time so that there is much less interest in nuclear arms control and disarmament in the nuclear-armed countries.
There is, though, genuine interest across much of the rest of the world, shown by the recent negotiations on the UN Treaty on the Prevention of Nuclear Weapons. That was passed on 7th July 2017 by 122 to one and has since been signed by 82 states and ratified by forty. It comes into force ninety days after the fiftieth state ratifies it.
That is welcome progress but 69 states, including most members of NATO and all existing nuclear-armed states, did not sign the original treaty. The latter, especially, will most likely ignore it when it comes into force. That is no reason to stop campaigning and part of this work is meeting the urgent need for much more knowledge of what a nuclear conflict would be like. The devastation in Beirut gives some small indication of those consequences and, coming just two days before Hiroshima Day, is an added reminder.