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The author stands alongside Satan, regarded as the world's most powerful and destructive nuclear weapon. (Robin Esrock)
The author stands alongside Satan, regarded as the world's most powerful and destructive nuclear weapon. (Robin Esrock)

Top secret no more: touring Ukraine's underground nuclear base Add to ...

In a tiny room, crammed with gadgets and monitors, is a small button. An officer monitors the equipment 24 hours a day, awaiting a single phone call. On orders, he punches in an access code, takes a breath and presses the small white square. In just over half an hour, a missile carrying 10 thermonuclear warheads will hit multiple targets in the United States. All it takes is one push of the button, located in a control room 33 metres below the Ukrainian countryside.

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Before its independence in 1991, Ukraine had more nuclear missiles than any other country outside the United States and Russia. Strategically and secretly distributed throughout the countryside, missile units were surrounded by armed guards and 3,000-volt electric fences and protected from attack in deep underground bunker silos built to survive a nuclear war. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the newly autonomous nation of Ukraine chose to become a nuclear-weapon-free zone and, with U.S. support, dismantled its missiles and bases. Today, just a 3½-hour drive from Kiev near the town of Pervomaisk, the legacy of potential Armageddon is open to the public inside one of the world's most bone-chilling tourist attractions.

The Museum of Strategic Missile Troops is a former Soviet nuclear missile base. Under the guidance of former officers who once operated the base, visitors are led on a tour explaining how large-scale nuclear missiles were managed, maintained, guarded and later dismantled. The location appears innocuous - a few low-rise barracks, a tall radio tower. But massive green trucks customized to transport thermonuclear warheads hint at something more sinister: deep beneath the surface lie the control and missile solos. As a thick iron door locks us in, I descend into a long tunnel toward the command silo. Immediately, the atmosphere becomes dense, cold and heavy.

Former Colonel Mikael Kamenskov had his finger on the button for more than a decade. If the orders had come down, as they nearly did on several occasions, he was responsible for pressing the button, launching the missiles and annihilating entire cities. Mustachioed and balding, he is serious man, explaining the detailed security measures and base design using scale models and a stick pointer. He describes how a two-man combat crew would take six-hour shifts, capable of surviving in their subterranean silo for up to 48 days without surfacing. The colonel does not present the face of a cold-stone killer, and yet his actions would have resulted in the slaughter of millions.

The air is cool as we walk along a narrow tunnel, once reserved for top-secret military personnel only. Heating, air, plumbing and radiation filters line the walls while, above us, a 120-ton cap protects the giant test-tube-shaped silo. The 12-level underground command post silos were built on hydraulic suspensions, to function in the event of earthquake or, more likely, missile attacks. In the eyes of many Soviet soldiers, the colonel explains, mutually assured destruction was not so much an if as a when.

We cram into a tiny elevator and descend slowly toward Level 12. A loud ringing accompanies the elevator, along with an old rotary dial telephone in case we get stuck. I open the flap doors to find a small circular room with low ceilings, the air musky and dank. Two bunks are fastened to the walls, a simple airplane-like toilet behind a door. Bleak as a tomb, this was the living quarters for the two officers on duty. An iron ladder takes us up to the next claustrophobic level, the command room. All signs of life are removed. Trees, animals, seas, clouds and cities exist here only in the imagination. I take my seat and imagine myself on duty, the hotline ringing.

Even though the button is useless and the missiles long since destroyed, it feels like I'm playing with a loaded gun. I'm thinking about the horrifying photos from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, displayed in the museum above. Is the barrel empty? My hand shakes. I can't bring myself to do it. Some buttons are just not meant to be pushed.

My bones are chilled when we exit the silo, and it takes some time in the hot sun to warm up. Various missiles are on display outside, including the CC18, a massive black rocket considered to be the most advanced and deadly nuclear missile ever built. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization dubs this modern Russian-made missile "Satan," an apt name for pure technological evil, carrying 10 warheads in its cap, each 50 times more powerful than the atomic bomb that exploded over Hiroshima.

The most distressing part of visiting this unique Ukrainian museum is knowing that hundreds of similar bases still exist around the world, its officers on duty, waiting for the phone call, for real.

Perhaps one day all nuclear missile bases will be dismantled, and similar museums will demonstrate just how close we came to cleverly engineering our own destruction. Considering Ukraine voluntarily chose to dismantle its substantial nuclear arsenal, turning this tool into a vital and chilling museum, there is always reason to hope.



Special to The Globe and Mail

Catch up with Robin on the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels , or at www.robinesrock.com.

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