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News and Views

I have been debating with myself for the past several months about writing this article. The source of my angst was the December 2023 issue of Scientific American that devoted a significant portion of the issue to Pentagon plans to replace the 450 aging Minuteman missiles entombed in underground silos concentrated in the middle of Montana, the northern border of North Dakota, and the western border of Nebraska, with some spilling over into Wyoming and Colorado. The missiles were installed in the 1960s as part of the nuclear triad defense policy—silo-based missiles with multiple warheads and nucleararmed submarines and bombers. During the Cold War of the 1950s through the 1980s, the strategy was no doubt a deterrent to a hot war with the Soviet Union. But have they outlived their usefulness? If they are attacked, what are the consequences for Midwest agriculture? With the expansion of our submarine fleet and new and better bomber delivery systems, are they really needed? They were always sitting ducks, but more so in the 21st century with advances in targeting and delivery. The original intent of these missiles was to provide a retaliatory attack to any first strike by the Soviet Union. But warheads slowly decay, and no one knows at what point they become useless. So, in 2010, congress authorized a $1.5 trillion update to the nuclear triad: More and better submarines, more and better bombers, and a new missile, the Sentinel, for the silos, plus extensive modifications to the silos to accommodate the new missiles. And new warheads to ensure they will detonate on their targets. About 70 billion was allocated to the Sentinel production and silo upgrades. On January 19th of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that the estimated costs for this part of the triad project had soared to $107 billion, and becoming operational by the planned date of 2029 was in doubt. (Soaring Costs Plague Nuclear-Missile Rehab by Doug Cameron.) Cameron says “critics have long argued that U.S. nuclear deterrence is well served by submarines and bombers, rendering a multibilliondollar investment in underground nuclear missiles unnecessary.” And I will add my “yes” to that for another reason. When I was reading the Scientific American articles, this quote describing arguments from the late 1970s jumped out at me: “As missile guidance systems improved, it soon became clear that the land-based weapons were vulnerable to attack because of their fixed locations… The air force used the vulnerability of the land-based missiles to argue for their necessity. In 1978 general Lew Allen, then air force chief of staff, proposed that the silos offered ‘a great sponge’ of targets in the U.S. to ‘absorb’ incoming Soviet nuclear weapons. Destroying the missile fields would require such a massive attack that adversaries couldn’t manage it or even contemplate it. Absent the land-based missiles, the argument goes, an adversary would have far more resources available to seek out and attack other U.S. military and infrastructure targets or even cities.” A famous quote from William Jennings Bryan, congressional representative from Nebraska in the 1870s, immediately came to mind: “Burn down your cities and leave the farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic. But destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.” On April 26, 1986, an explosion of fuel in the No. 4 reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power plant in Northern Ukraine blew the roof off of the reactor. The radiation that was released was equal to the two A-bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. The fallout was worst in a large area around the reactor, but nearly all of Europe received significant amounts. Nearly 50,000 people were immediately evacuated from an area reaching 19 miles in all directions. Later, the radius of the exclusion zone was increased to nearly 200 miles—a land mass of approximately 1,000 square miles or 640,000 acres. A thriving forest full of wildlife now covers that area, but estimates of when it will be habitual for humans range from 300 years to 20,000 years based on the half-life of the radionuclides produced by the plutonium fuel. Hopefully, those estimates are significantly exaggerated. A few older people have moved into the zone. Studies of the plants and animals conclude mutations have increased by a factor of 20, but noticeable changes are rare. Small animals, such as voles and insects seem to have been affected the most. I don’t want to be an alarmist, nor do I think nuclear war is imminent. But if the unthinkable should ever happen, fallout from saturation bombing, perhaps two atomic bombs per silo, would spread radioactive soil and other debris over millions of acres of farmland. Prevailing winds blow west to east, and it’s likely mushroom clouds would drift over the Corn Belt, perhaps destroying its safe productivity for generations. No matter which direction the winds blew, millions of acres of farmland would be affected. As Representative Bryan so aptly implied, it takes farmers and farmland to produce food and new wealth to heal the cities. Should we retire the Minutemen missiles and silos? I think so, and spend the billions saved to expand and modernize our fleet of submarines.

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