Ira Chernus  


Every year, on August 6, people around the world gather together to face the reality of what happened on that day, and again three days later, in 1945. It is a terribly hard reality to face. No one every grasps it fully. There is no way to grasp it fully. But it is important to make the effort, because it reminds us that when we talk about nuclear weapons we are talking about real flesh-and-blood people, just like us. It reminds us that those weapons are built to kill ordinary people, just going about their ordinary day-to-day business, just like us.

All too often discussions of nuclear issues are couched in abstract language, with words like throwweight and circular error probable and and radionucleides. It’s easy to think that we can’t understand it, that we shouldn’t even make the effort. When we remember the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we realize that these abstractions are smokescreens that hide the true reality of the matter: the death and suffering of ordinary people like us, who simply wanted the chance to go on living and loving.

And we realize that it is only ordinary people like us who can abolish nuclear weapons and put an end to this madness forever. Every year, as we gather to face that tragedy of the past, we rededicate ourselves to building a more peaceful and life-affirming future.

We also take the occasion to look at the situation in the present. The cold war is long over, but the nuclear age goes on and on. Yet it is so easy to believe that the danger is past. Perhaps the greatest danger now is that very belief, and the public apathy it creates.

The news media would have us believe that the only danger now comes from nuclear weapons in faraway places like India, Pakistan, North Korea, or Iraq. But those are places that have at most a few weapons. North Korea and Iraq don’t have any at all. Occasionally we hear about the decaying nuclear technology in Russia, as if that were somehow the fault of the Russians. Old cold war habits die hard. Rarely do we hear about the very sound plans for U.S. - Russian cooperation, which have been gutted by insufficient funding from our Congress.

But the one subject the mainstream media will not talk about at all is the most dangerous of all: our own nuclear arsenal, which still numbers in the thousands, with many warheads on a hair-trigger launch-on-warning alert. Some of them all still mounted on Minuteman missiles right here in Colorado. We are supposed to take it as an article of faith that our government would never actually use those weapons in war, that they are only for deterrence.

But deterrence has one simple rule. Threats do not deter unless you are really prepared to carry them out. And the United States government is prepared. It is the only government ever to use nuclear weapons in war. It has made serious threats to use those weapons many times in the last half-century. It has never renounced its right to be the first to use nuclear weapons. It still spends billions every year keeping the weapons ready to use.

And, as we learned once again this past spring, our government is perfectly prepared to drop bombs and kill thousands to get its way. What will happen when we decide to bomb some other nation into submission, but conventional bombing simply doesn’t get them to capitulate? Our new style of no-ground-troops, no-risk-to-Americans war makes the temptation to use nukes even greater. There is no reason to think of U.S. nuclear weapons as unusable. There is no reason to think that the real nuclear threat comes from Russia or so-called rogue states.

If the real threat came from other countries, there is one simple step we could take to diminish it: ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It is not a perfect guarantee. But the longer we refuse to ratify the treaty, the longer we encourage other nations to develop and test their own nuclear weapons. India and Pakistan did just that. Most people around the world realized that they were simply doing what the big boys do.

The Test Ban Treaty is now being blocked by that senator we all love to hate, Jesse Helms. But once it gets to the Senate floor, the real problem will begin, because a package deal has been cooked up in Washington. The price we are asked to pay for ratification is a promise of huge sums of money to the nuclear labs in New Mexico and California. It’s called the Stockpile Stewardship Program.

The official story is that the money will go only to keep existing weapons safe and reliable. But there is plenty of evidence that most of it will be spent to design new and better weapons for the future. The military makes no secret of its plans. It wants to have perfect pinpoint control of every square inch of every battlefield in the 21st century. And it wants a new generation of nukes to help it do that job.

Of course new nukes mean new waste. The Department of Energy, which has to clean up the old waste, estimated that at Rocky Flats alone the job would take 70 years. But once again the powers-that-be in Washington cooked up a deal. We will give you guaranteed money for the next 7 years, the Congress told Rocky Flats. Take it or leave it. So the folks at Rocky Flats announced that they could clean up the whole place by 2006.

To do that, though, they have to redefine the word "clean." Now "clean" means leaving Rocky Flats with a level of soil radiation thousands of times higher than the natural level, and hundreds of times higher than most other nuclear sites. "Clean" means hiding radioactive waste far underground, at the WIPP site in New Mexico. Out of sight, out of mind.

To take waste that will be for a quarter-million years and burying it in a geologically unstable area, you have to be out of your mind. We have to keep that waste in mind, to keep working on ways to neutralize it and make it permanently safe.

There is one crucial fact to understand about WIPP. The DOE says that all the waste it wants to send to WIPP could be stored safely, above ground, for the next century. Why send it to WIPP? The people at Rocky Flats are very honest about it. It’s cheaper. They have a limited pot of money, and it runs out in 7 years. They can send about 10% of their waste to WIPP, which is 10% they don’t have to pay for. That’s why they will send over two thousand truckloads of plutonium waste through Superior and Broomfield and Westminster and Denver, to join the other thirty thousand or more that will roll down I-25.

I don’t think all those truckloads of waste will ever get to WIPP. I think we will force them to shut it down long before that. But if all of it did get there, WIPP would still have immense amounts of space. That’s to store the waste from the bombs they plan to make in the next century. Los Alamos is already gearing up to make the plutonium pits that used to be made at Rocky Flats. That is why the government wants WIPP so badly.

So you see, all these issues are tied together: nuclear proliferation, missiles in Colorado, de-alerting, the Test Ban Treaty, Stockpile Stewardship, WIPP, Rocky Flats. And when we look at that big picture, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed, especially when we are gathered to remember the horrific human reality of nuclear destruction. It is easy to fall prey to psychic numbing, the psychological fallout of the nuclear age.

Even if no more nuclear bombs are ever dropped, psychic numbing makes us all victims of the bomb. Under its shadow, we all want to scurry to our private shelters, to avoid the dangers of the world. We despair of collective action to make a better world.

But the nuclear age has left us another legacy. There have always been people gathered on August 6, people dedicated to a better future, without a nuclear shadow. And they have won victories: the Limited Test Ban Treaty, the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the various arms control treaties, the elimination of intermediate range missiles. None of these would have happened without the hard work of peace activists all over the country.

But the greatest victory has been convincing the vast majority of Americans that we just do not need nuclear weapons. Three-quarters or more of the public want an end to nuclear testing, and more than half want total abolition. We no longer have to persuade people that nukes are the problem, not the solution. They know it. Once we give them the facts, the people will make the right choice.

The challenge now is to persuade them that the issue is worth caring about, that the facts still matter. The challenge is to break through the numbing, to build a movement of ordinary people who say No to nukes and Yes to life. We are doing it here in Boulder. In the last year, we have seen a tremendous surge of concern about and understanding of these continuing problems. Folks are getting together again, as they did twenty years ago, to make democracy work, to see that the will of the people is done.

The 20th century will be remembered as the century of nuclear madness, when humanity went to the brink of destruction and came to understand the folly of it. The 21st century must become the century of sanity, when people act on what they know and demand an end to nuclear testing, an end to nuclear weapons, an end to fake cleanups.

The waste is with us forever. We must guard it responsibly, above ground, with a massive effort to make it as safe as it can be. But the knowledge we have gained is with us forever, too. The mistakes of the past, which began at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, need never be repeated. We can take responsibility for ourselves and our children. We can join together to guide and preserve our destiny. We can be sure that in the next century, and in centuries to come, there will be no nukes, anywhere, ever again.