‘Un-Inventing’ Nukes

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Ever notice how we’re always getting the “done deal” treatment from the powers that be? We blunder into Iraq on lies and inanities and suddenly, you know, the proprietors of the Pottery Barn step out from behind the counter and inform us: “You break it, you bought it.”

And so we have no choice, apparently, but to keep on stomping our unintended purchase with a mad frenzy — that is to say, allowing the same swaggering blunderers who precipitated the disaster to do more of the same, except at greater cost and with more collateral damage. The only logic here is the self-perpetuating logic of incompetence. This becomes our foreign policy: a fait accompli sinkhole.

Thus temporary necessity is the fallback justification for every initiative that pushes against conscience and sanity, however permanent the ramifications. Nowhere is this more evident than in the nuclear weapons industry, which has managed to remain viable and prosperous a generation after the Cold War ended. Its latest ploy is to develop something called the Reliable Replacement Warhead, a $100 billion program to modernize the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

“While the program has gotten very little attention here, it is a public-relations disaster in the making overseas,” the New York Times editorialized this week. “Suspicions that the United States is actually trying to build up its nuclear capabilities are undercutting Washington’s arguments for restraining the nuclear appetites of Iran and North Korea.”

Against such basic arguments, defenders invoke the done deal. Gen. James E. Cartwright, head of U.S. Strategic Command, put it as simply as possible: “We will not ‘un-invent’ nuclear weapons,” he recently told the Times. In other words, sorry, peaceniks, you’re too late. From this observation everything flows, including a multibillion-dollar “make-work program championed by the weapons laboratories,” as the paper of record called the Reliable Replacement Warhead Program.

Meanwhile, the editorial board of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just moved its Doomsday Clock, which has been graphically representing humanity’s state of danger from self-annihilation since 1947, forward by two minutes, to five minutes till midnight.

“We stand at the brink of a second nuclear age,” the board members’ statement reads. “Not since the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has the world faced such perilous choices. North Korea’s recent test of a nuclear weapon, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, a renewed U.S. emphasis on the military utility of nuclear weapons, the failure to adequately secure nuclear materials, and the continued presence of some 26,000 nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia are symptomatic of a larger failure to solve the problems posed by the most destructive technology on Earth.”

As Gen. Cartwright says, we can’t “un-invent” nuclear weapons, but by no means does carte blanche, unimpeded weapons development follow as the only possible option. Our only hope as a species is to rise above this invention and redefine ourselves as less fearfully impulsive and short-sighted than has heretofore been the case.

This is a tall order when so many powerful people have a stake in our fearful short-sightedness. A massive reinvestment in our nuclear arsenal is more than just “hypocritical,” as the Times put it.

“It’s insanity.”

This was the assessment last week of Iris Mortensen, as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune. Mortensen, widow of a veterinarian and one of the “downwinders” — folks living downwind of the Nevada Test Site who were exposed to cancer-causing radiation during the glory days of nuclear testing there in the 1950s and ’60s — was among those who voiced never-again anger when the Defense Threat Reduction Agency came to St. George, Utah, to sell the locals on an above-ground test, known as Divine Strake, the Bush administration wants to conduct at the site.

This 700-ton “sub-nuclear” blast, which would raise a 10,000-foot mushroom cloud over Las Vegas and quite likely stir up contaminated ground, has generated fierce opposition in one of the most conservative corners of the country for more than a year, from people who know the true cost — their own health, and that of their loved ones — of our WMD program.

Last summer, the agency, in the face of opposition from across the political spectrum, postponed the test. Now they’re back with a slicker power-point program, but the firestorm of opposition is not going to abate, Preston Truman, director of Downwinders United, told me.

At five minutes to midnight, people are taking a stand. Maybe we can’t “un-invent” nuclear weapons, but we can reinvent citizenship and insist on a sane self-defense policy.