We’re living in real fear of the mushroom cloud again for the first time since the Soviet Union collapsed more than three decades ago.
That event signaled the end of the Cold War, the half-century-long standoff between the United States and the USSR with each side brandishing thousands of nuclear weapons and promising to incinerate the planet should the other side push its luck too far.
Following the Soviet collapse, people’s fears about a coming nuclear holocaust eased off. By the time the Millennial generation started becoming aware, few of them gave the merest thought to the dreaded mushroom cloud. Those of us alive in 1962 or 1985 lived in constant panic over the possibility that, at any moment, we’d witness, in the last fleeting second of their lives, the pikadon, Japanese for flash boom, the otherworldly brilliant white light and hellish concussion signaling the detonation of a nuclear bomb over a city.
But, for a tantalizing few years, we forgot about nuclear weapons.
Then, when Donald Trump was technically elected president in 2016 and immediately engaged in a verbal pissing match with the equally lunkheaded leader of North Korea, Kim Jung-un, nuclear dread became a thing again. It wasn’t as acute as it had been a few decades before, but people actually began thinking about the bomb. Now that Vladimir Putin, perhaps even loonier than either Trump or Kim (although it’s a real contest) has launched his invasion of the Ukraine, nuclear anxiety is again becoming foremost in our minds, especially after he reminded the globe that Russia might nuke the hell out of anyone who tried to stop his Ukrainian adventure. Nearly three-quarters of Americans now fear nuclear war may break out sooner rather than later, according to a late March Associated Press/National Opinion Research Centers poll.
But, again, during the thirty-year period after the USSR’s collpase, if anyone thought about nukes, it was the fear that, say, India and Pakistan might find themselves in a shootin’ war or that some terrorist gang might stumble upon an old Soviet bomb and use it to blackmail an entire nation. Even so, not too many people fretted over either possibility.
The problem is, a terrorist group may well have mined, refined and weaponized uranium, and built its own nuke as far back as the mid-1990s.
Oddly, there was a only brief but terrifying report in the New York Times back in 1997 about an unexplained seismic event in Australia a few years earlier. In the middle of the night on May 28th, 1993, seismographs around the world jumped and the very few people within hundreds of miles of a point in the Great Victoria Desert reported seeing a sky-filling flash followed by an earth-shaking rumble.
The blast — or whatever — was so big that scientists at first thought it had to have been a meteor or asteroid striking the Earth. But no evidence of such an event has ever been found. The Times report revealed that the Japanese doomsday cult, Aum Shinrikyo, had purchased a huge tract of land in the desert, had mined uranium, constructed a state of the art refining laboratory, and — here’s the kicker — had been joined by several nuclear scientists from the old Soviet Union.
Aum Shinrikyo, you may recall, was the gang that released the toxic nerve gas, sarin, into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 14 people. It was merely the group’s latest attack at the time. Aum already had carried out assassinations and other less ambitious poison gas attacks in Japanese cities. Investigators determined that Aim Shinrikyo members hoped to trigger World War III, at the very least, or, believing in a predestined apocalypse, wanted to get the ball rolling on it.
Investigators also learned Aum already had tried to purchase a few Soviet nuclear weapons on the black market but had been unsuccessful.
The Great Victoria Desert blast force was estimated to be the equivalent of 2000 tons of TNT — two kilotons in nuke parlance. The nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima, for comparison, delivered the equivalent of 15 kilotons. So, if the desert blast really was a nuke, it would have been a baby. Some land-based thermonuclear weapons possessed by the United States and Russia today yield explosive forces in the megaton range — that’s a million tons of TNT.
So the putative Aum bomb — it’s never been proven it was a nuke — would have been a firecracker, albeit one that, had it been exploded over a city, would have killed tens of thousands of people in a…, well, a flash.
Suffice it to say that although the Great Victoria Desert incident remains a mystery, where there’s smoke there’s fire, and there was plenty of metaphorical smoke in the western Australia bush that May night in 1993.
Even if Aum Shinrikyo was only trying to develop new and creative uses for nerve gas to hasten the expected apocalypse, the fact that a cult of loons was mining uranium and recruiting nuclear engineers should terrify the bejesus out of us to this day. Aum Shinrikyo has been de-fanged in the years after the Tokyo sarin attack, but there surely exist in the world plenty of doomsday-ists and similar hoodlums hoping to put millions of us out of our misery.
Why hasn’t it happened yet? Why, when they had the chance, did the United States and the Soviet Union refrain from frying the planet? Why, for that matter, haven’t any of the purported nuclear states — the US, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea — pressed the button as yet?
A pollyanna might suggest that the threat of existential annihilation has prevented world leaders, presumably sane, from ending it all. But what if one of those nine nuclear states comes to be headed by a psychopath? And what if one or more of them happens to be in power as we speak?
Equally as terrifying, how lucky are we that no doomsday cult or wild-eyed terrorist organization has, as yet, accumulated enough money, materials, and maniacs to wipe a city off the face of the Earth?
How long will our luck hold out?