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March 8, 2015

Bulletin 201: Ban bomb, save planet; stewards of the apocalypse; more

  1. Ban bomb, save planet
  2. Avoiding nuclear extinction
  3. Stewards of the apocalypse: post-Cold War political history of weapons labs in a nutshell
  4. Dumb and dumber (“Breaking dumb”?) in Los Alamos

Dear friends and colleagues –

It’s been a very busy month for us here.  We couldn’t go to Washington as mentioned in Bulletin 200 due to a death in the family.  That trip has been rescheduled to April.

  1. Ban bomb, save planet

Friends, it is time we all realized – and began to say and act upon the realization – that nuclear weapons provide no security, are inherently transgressive of moral and legal norms, are militarily useless in all cases, and therefore should be banned, now.

Taking this position, and incorporating it in practical programs, has great political power even in the United States, even prior to the appearance of a treaty, signed by a greater or lesser number of states, that bans the possession, development, production, use, and sharing of nuclear weapons.  (Such a treaty would certainly never be signed by the U.S. or any other nuclear weapons state, and certainly could not contain any definite framework or timetable for nuclear weapons elimination, but that is not important.)

This is a very different frame of discourse than is usual in the United States.  Unlike arms control discourse, which is based on the security value of some nuclear weapons but not others, with nuclear weapons in some hands but not in others, it has the merits of being factually accurate, logically consistent, and harmonious with the moral pillars of human civilization and of every religion.  No small differences, those.

Dozens of countries and hundreds of international non-government organizations (NGOs), many involved from their concern for human development issues, support banning nuclear weapons (see list of 67 countries’ statements calling for a ban or efforts toward a ban).  All 33 members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), have formally endorsed the Austrian Pledge, calling for a prohibition against possessing nuclear weapons.  The Pope has as well, as have many others (list of 44 states endorsing the Pledge as of March 5).  So this is quite a substantial movement.

To those of you who work in the nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament fields – will you wholeheartedly support prohibiting arsenals of nuclear weapons?  If not, why not?  If you have concerns about doing so, write me, or send your published arguments.

This is not any kind of radical position.  It’s merely a small part of the wider politics of solidarity, stewardship, and simplicity that we need to embrace desperately, if we would prevent mass extinction due to climate change and other crises, quite possibly including extinction of our own species.  Mass extinction is now a guaranteed outcome of the “stable” economic conditions and political relationships that are implied in our “stable” deterrence relationships.  In truth there is nothing stable about any of this.  It’s all a fantasy, a professional convention, like saying the earth is flat because all the authorities say so.

Instead of a doomed quest for nuclear “stability” and “security,” it is a time when we need to fall head over heels in love with the planet and our human family and show it, via political action.  We also can’t be content with depoliticized private actions, however laudable, that do not prevent the less scrupulous from continuing their assault on the environment and a vulnerable humanity.

Gradual liberal reform, which many of us would prefer, is not an option.  Not to put too fine a point on the matter, that failed.  We’ve come to the end of that string.  It was far too weak and easily coopted.  Its failure has led to the brink of a quite different politics, one of increasing human and habitat disposability, of continuous hybrid liquid war, of real fascism, of unrebutted propaganda from newspapers of record, of pervasive surveillance, criminalization, and social control.

At the moment the philosophy of unlimited, multidimensional war seems to be growing month by month, tipping the world toward wider conflagration and chaos.  Domestically, its hallmarks include rising inequality and “austerity,” loss of democracy and economic security, militarism, racism, and police violence.

Above and through it all, history is advancing rapidly toward immense environmental and resource crises, which can be likened to a great wedge which we cannot control or evade.  We have to pick which side we’re on.  The time for neutrality is over.  There’s the politics of aggressive war and ecological destruction on the one hand, or the politics of stewardship and solidarity on the other, with very little true middle ground.  Many are ignorant of this but we aren’t, so let’s not look back at the herd.  We bear a special responsibility to lead.

Nuclear weapons are part and parcel of these wider political struggles, and the outcome of these wider struggles is crucial for nuclear policy.  Nuclear weapons are not off in some neat little policy box by themselves where “experts” hold sway.  One reason for that is the money:

Modernizing the nation’s nuclear deterrent will begin to create “affordability problems” starting in 2021, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall told the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee this week. The 2021 period is just outside the five-year window included in budget documents earlier this year, and coincides with the beginning of construction on the Ohio Class replacement nuclear submarine, work on the long-range strike bomber, as well as a significant uptick in warhead refurbishment work. “In 2021 we’re going to start to have a problem finding ways to afford these systems,” Kendall said. “We will work to do that. It’s a very high priority and we will work to do that. But it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
Kendall said the modernization funding issues are about a “$10 billion a year problem” for the 2020s for which the Pentagon doesn’t currently have an answer. “We don’t have an obvious solution right now to that problem,” Kendall said after the March 4 hearing. “Deputy Secretary [of Defense Bob] Work has a team that I’m co-leading looking at that, looking at options. We’re going to be talking about that as we build the FY ‘17 budget.” Kendall stressed that difficult decisions would need to be made about national priorities. “I don’t think the United States of America cannot afford it,” he said. “It’s a choice. We can afford it if we choose to.” (“As Admin. Makes Pitch for Modernization Support, ‘Affordability Problems’ Loom,” Todd Jacobson, Nuclear Security and Deterrence Monitor, 3/6/15)

Deploying nuclear weapons will cost the U.S. about $35 billion (B) per year over the coming decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), with costs increasing as more modernization programs enter full-scale procurement.  Kendall is saying that in the 2020s, DoD has no identified source for about $10 B/year of this.  So where will it come from?  From “difficult decisions” about “national priorities.”  He may mean from the Army first of all, which has no nuclear weapons, but also from a veteran’s health program here, a school lunch there, and a Social Security benefit over there.

A further discussion of the nuclear weapons budget crisis must wait until next time.  In the meantime I would like to point out that the inevitable budget-driven gradual disarmament (see below and previous Bulletins, e.g. 180, and blog posts) proceeds within the paradigm that “nuclear weapons bring security,” and will not of itself produce all the benefits of nuclear disarmament (such as nuclear crisis stability, freedom from the risk of catastrophic nuclear war, an end to enshrinement of contingent mass suicide as a core principle of state security, and renewed human solidarity in the face of the grave crises we face, which is a cornerstone of the Pope’s argument).

An international ban on the possession of nuclear weapons, by itself and without endorsement by nuclear weapon states and prior to any actual disarmament, will however start to produce some of those benefits, through delegitimation of nuclear weapons and their supporting policies and establishments.

In many ways, a ban treaty on the one hand, and the gradual process of disarmament induced by now-inevitable crises in budget and government on the other hand, are complementary and mutually reinforcing.

Returning to the “wedge” analogy above, a having a ban in place helps establish which side of the wedge nuclear weapons are on: the side that gets the resources – the side that the harried state rallies around and holds tightly as its core identity, expressive of the society’s core values – or the side that gets short shrift when the hungry have to be fed, the transport system maintained, the dikes rebuilt, and the energy grid supplied.

In other words, a ban – even a prospective ban, to some degree – tilts the playing field toward disarmament, peace, and solidarity and environmental protection, everywhere.  That is why we should support efforts to produce such a ban – and act as if we had one.  For environmentalists, and for those who care about poverty and protection of the vulnerable as we all should, a ban on nuclear weapons ought to be a no-brainer.

Please notice that I did not say “a treaty to eliminate nuclear weapons.”  Such a treaty would require the participation and endorsement of nuclear weapon states.  It’s safe to say that kind of treaty is probably not going to happen “in my lifetime,” to quote Barack Obama.  That kind of de jure, idealized disarmament, which some are equating to disarmament period, is no disarmament at all, just more waiting for Godot.

Nuclear disarmament, assuming it does not occur through catastrophic nuclear war (in which case nobody will be around to enjoy it), will occur by a complex process of many variables, actors and events.  It will not occur through a comprehensive treaty designed by experts and disarmament diplomats, except possibly in the very last stages.  It is rather the rejection of nuclear weapons per se, and the development of that rejection as a political and then a legal norm through a political process between and within states, which gradually opens the door to a politics of survival.

A ban treaty, signed by some states but not all, is an essential milestone in that process.  Nuclear deterrence, as a norm, makes normative a relationship of mutual existential threat, not the cooperation we need to face existential threats from climate and resource exhaustion.  These threats have short timelines as far as both impacts and necessary mitigations and adaptations are concerned.  These crises are already recurring causes of war in the 21st century and could rapidly lead to more wars, of even greater extent and intensity – with nuclear weapons in the arsenals of warring parties.

Even a “small” nuclear war could kill billions (either through its direct physical effects on the climate or through various sequellae, in scenarios you can imagine), or drive humanity and millions of species over the cliff to extinction.  There is nothing stable about our situation.  We and others believe the risk of nuclear war is rising, as we mentioned in the last Bulletin.

  1. Avoiding nuclear extinction

The Helen Caldicott Foundation recently organized a fine symposium, which was livestreamed for those not physically present, entitled the "Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction."  A video of the entire conference indexed by speaker, with questions and answers, is available and recommended.  Hats off, again, to Helen, Mali, and everybody who worked on this.  It was also wonderful for me (Greg) to see friends new and old.

Study Group board member Ray Acheson moderated the second day, so as an organization we were very much involved.  Ray’s opening remarks were edited and published here.

Sherwood Ross was kind enough to convert a précis’ of my talk into a press release and then an op ed (“3 U.S. Nuclear War Labs Should Be Shut,, Mar 6, 2015).

  1. Stewards of the apocalypse: post-Cold War political history of weapons labs in a nutshell

I was assigned to speak on the nuclear weapons labs and did so (“Stewards of the Apocalypse: the new and improved doomsday racket at the warhead labs, and what to do about it,” Feb 28, 2015).  My talk did not precisely track these slides, and I want to add one or two words here about the post-Cold War political history of these labs.

Although differing taxonomies are possible, I suggest in those slides that looking back one can discern roughly five stages of what I called “breakout” since the Cold War at the weapons labs.  By “breakout” I mean a breakout from government control, a movement away from ordinary constitutional government toward corporate control, or more accurately, control by a sort of “Deep State” of loosely-allied forces inside and outside government but not under the formal control of government.  This is what I observe in Washington.  Government is weak for various reasons, the labs and their friends are strong.

I hasten to add that what power has been gained at the labs has been also in large part squandered through mismanagement and excessive greed.  These are ineluctable aspects of these institutions and huge factors (among others) in whether any particular project – or management as a whole – will be successful.

I included a thread showing some of the highlights in the rise of the neocons, which in the past two years or so have seized control of much U.S. foreign policy, greatly affecting prospects for arms control and disarmament.

I identify two major “deals” made by the arms control community and its funders that helped allow the labs’ budgets and powers to grow (along with other nuclear weapons institutions), and dashed hopes for disarmament.  The first of these was in 1996, regarding the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), that enabled a huge “stockpile stewardship” program that has made the labs larger than during the Cold War.  The second was in 2010, concerning New START ratification, which enabled modernization of the entire nuclear force and warhead complex.  Both were concluded during Democratic presidencies, both of which ended without significant disarmament progress (in stark contrast to the father and son Bush presidencies, both of which did).

In the international arena there was something similar to a deal in 1995, but without any domestic policy quid pro quo, namely the highly-mobilized support by U.S. NGOs and funders in favor of indefinitely extending the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) without any of the additional disarmament provisions sought by the majority of the world’s countries.  It was a staggering loss.  It effectively ended nuclear disarmament in the early post-Cold War period, and many believe it has weakened the NPT.  As noted in the slides, support for indefinite extension of the NPT without conditions by some NGOs was the impetus for creation of the so-called “Abolition Caucus” by others, with this organization among the latter group at the time (and since).

It’s not that hard to avoid pernicious “deals,” if one stays alert and is willing to risk being cast into outer professional darkness.

  1. Dumb and dumber in Los Alamos (“Breaking dumb”?)

Three years ago I received a slide show describing a proposed new program for Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).  It’s called “A Bold New Mission for LANL,” or, using another internal title, “The Nuke Resistant City.”  The original PowerPoint version plays itself; here is the pdf version in case you don’t have PowerPoint.

I am not going to tear this to bits; it is self-destroying.  Or you and your friends can have fun with it yourself.  Remember this is LANL, not The Onion.  Unfortunately in Washington it might not be seen as a joke (as I was told by friends in government), which is why I sat on it for three years, letting it get good and stale.

You might want to compare the general perspective in the proposed LANL program slides, which concerns terrorist nuclear weapons (the “bad” kind, OK, but tacitly opposed to the really big ones that LANL designs, which are the “good” ones that make us secure) with the analysis of real nuclear weapon detonation consequences by external experts Steven Starr, Lynn Eden, and Theodore Postol (“What would happen if an 800-kiloton nuclear warhead detonated above midtown Manhattan?”, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 2/25/15).  Or you can watch the very good talks of Steve Starr and Alan Robock here.  Starr has a useful nuclear detonation simulator integrated with Google maps here, emphasizing firestorms.  Alex Wellerstein, at Nukemap, has integrated nuclear weapon effects into Google maps using still other formulae from Glasstone and Dolan (The Effects of Nuclear Weapons).

Life is too short to catalog all the dumb “science” I have seen at LANL, but this briefing is in the running for “dumbest.”  When, 25 years ago, an X Division scientist described to me the incompetence and corruption he saw at work, over many hours, I tended to think his stories were exaggerated somewhat, despite having seen some pretty crazy stuff there myself as a hazardous waste official.  Twenty-five years later, I have learned that those stories contained no exaggeration.  And LANL still exceeds expectations – just as it did when LANL “scientists” approved mixing organic (wheat and wheat mill waste) kitty litter with concentrated nitric acid and nitrate salts in plutonium waste, in some cases also with triethanolamine, and without any clear idea of what other materials were actually present, producing the results we have seen.

There will be more accidents and management fiascos in the future.  You can count on it.

Many of these will be effectively secret – the news won’t reach the public.  For example, during this past December 8 people were apparently contaminated with Pu-238 at PF-4.  That one fell between the cracks at the newspapers, apparently.  Like us they have only so many hours in the day.

Speaking of that, there are very important pieces of articles and analyses, by us and by others, that are not in this Bulletin.  I fear it is getting too long, however, and the weekend is nearly over.

Thank you for your interest and attention, and more to follow,

Greg Mello, for the Study Group

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