Helen Caldicott; 18/7/09
While it is helpful and hopeful that US President Barack Obama is engaging with the Russians in specific dialogue aimed at reducing nuclear weapons after eight fallow years of the Bush administration, it is obvious that the urgency of the threat of nuclear war is little appreciated by world leaders. I came to know and work with former US defence secretary the late Robert McNamara 5½ years ago and he was adamant that this threat remains as vital and omnipresent as it was during the Cuban missile crisis. He lived the last years of his life passionately devoted to the abolition of nuclear weapons. It is clear that Obama also understands this urgency. Indeed as a young Columbia University student in the early ’80s, he was deeply concerned about the threat of nuclear war and wrote several fine articles proposing total nuclear disarmament with the Soviet Union. He also participated in the 1 million people peace march in New York in June 2002 at which I spoke.
Living with an element of danger
Jake Lynch; 18/7/09 – Jake Lynch is erector of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
- Plutonium: A History Of The World’s Most Dangerous Element – Jeremy Bernstein; New South.
- In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary History Of The Nuclear Age – By Stephanie Cook’ Black Inc
The Sydney Moring Herald; No Internet Text
Otto Hahn learnt that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry from a British newspaper delivered to Farm Hall, where he and several German colleagues were interned at the end of World War II.
This was shortly after the detonation of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Hahn – who was honoured for the discovery of nuclear. fission – fell into deep despair at the implications of his life’s work.
It’s a pivotal moment in the enjoyable narrative by Jeremy Bernstein, which relates “the history and science of plutonium, and its role in nuclear weapons, in accessible form”. The dramatis personae have names the general reader may remember from school physics: Rutherford, Bohr, Becquerel and Rontgen.
Scientific papers are described as “magisterial” or “monumental”.
Excitement at their exploits – prying ever deeper into the secrets of the atom – is belied by the grave consequences, of course. Another turning point comes in 1942 in the American nuclear project that paralleled and surpassed its German counterpart, when “the army, in the shape of General Leslie Groves, took over and called all the shots”.
Bernstein is a marginal player in the history he recounts, his lifelong preoccupation with nuclear physics forged in the Nevada Desert at the height of the Cold War in 1957, when he witnessed a test explosion and cradled the core of an atomic bomb in his hands.
He was an intern at the Los Alamos military nuclear laboratory before opting instead for an academic career with a sideline in writing columns for The New Yorker.
The element at the heart of humanity’s deadliest weapons is plutonium and Bernstein describes the science leading to its eventual production in sufficient quantities to manufacture bombs, along the way evoking intrigues that crossed the borders of Mitteleuropa with protagonists fleeing Nazi persecution and heading for points west.
The book ends with a wry commentary on the sheer uselessness of plutonium for any but military purposes.
From the initial laboratory quantities measured in millionths of a gram, the world is now “awash” with the stuff, he says: 155 tonnes in total.
The problem is how to get rid of it. The Hanford reactor that produced plutonium for Los Alamos was mothballed long ago. The risk from leaks to swimmers and anglers downstream on the Columbia River was hushed up when it was operational but it now represents a $10 billion time-bomb that might just be made relatively safe within six years.
Bernstein stops short of the deeper philosophical questions raised by these events. Instead he contents himself with quoting an assessment by one of the scientists involved that the war was costing half a million lives a month and had to be stopped.
There is more to it than that, of course, and for further exploration we must turn to Stephanie Cooke’s “cautionary history of the nuclear age”. She accepts that one bomb could have been rationalised as necessary to end hostilities but two?
The real reason for the second, she says, was that “the first nation to detonate a weapon based on the energy inside an atom would control the world”.
Moreover, the openness that had enabled liberal democracy to flourish was now consigned to the past. “For the new order, security and secrecy were essential. America became a classified nation, at once fearsome and fearful.”
Her book attempts to lift the lid on the political calculations and human motivations and doubts behind the official version of nuclear-age nostrums.
Atomic power stations were supposed to produce electricity “too cheap to meter” but, Cooke says, their real purpose was to win public acceptance, as a fortuitous by-product, of an arsenal rapidly expanding in size and destructive potential.
She meets Joseph Rotblat, the physicist who left the Manhattan Project and founded the Pugwash group, dedicated to promoting. understanding between the superpowers: proof, in his own trajectory, that there was nothing inevitable in- scientists consenting to their expertise being harnessed for martial ends.
And she recounts the doomed diplomatic effort, led by Henry Kissinger, to prevent Israel from acquiring nuclear capabilities because, in his words, it was “more likely than almost any other country” to use them.
Kissinger’s sworn Washington foes, the neo-conservatives, eventually had their moment in the sun and Cooke ends by considering the slippage, under the Bush administration, in thresholds for the first use of nuclear weapons by the US itself.
In the civil domain, the “nuclear renaissance” now under way creates a lucrative market for uranium suppliers such as Australia but, she observes, also multiplies the both accidents and
The industry has jumped onto climate change as a reason to embrace fissile fuels and Cooke presents this as a challenge to science and politics alike.
We need a network of internationally controlled depositories, she says, where countries could send their weapons systems for dismantling.
And we need “an aggressive, solution-seeking worm to meet future energy demand”, one characterised by the “brilliance” on display the creation of nuclear weapons in the first place.
Nuclear fission, an artefact of modernity, represents a great achievement of progress but it could end all human life.
That paradox has close has done as much as anything to propel us in equably, into a post-modern condition – one in which we are now more pessimistic about human agency in its ability to shape the world around us.
Can we come through the nuclear age to create a safer shared future?
I would venture yes, we can, perhaps on no better grounds, ultimately, than the words of Sir Ernest Rutherford, quoted by Bernstein, when asked to justify his assessment of a new experiment: “I feel it in my water!”