DODGING THE BULLET VI: THE THREAT

Who threatens us – the nuclear-armed states? I return to this question because an external threat is the politician’s fallback position, justifying possession and possible use of atomic bombs.

There is a clear and present danger that a nuclear weapon could be launched by accident, by any state which possesses such weapons and has the means to hurl them into the air. But which of the nuclear powers is threatened by a potential foreign invader – England? France? The United States? The US is the largest military power in the world. Its two neighbors, Canada and Mexico, cannot threaten the USA. No “rival” power masses troops or military equipment on America’s borders. Britain and France, for all their disastrous colonial adventures, remain at peace. Perfidious Albion has made enemies in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in Libya, in Ireland, and many other places. But none of these countries is in a position to invade or militarily threaten London.

Okay, the politician might reply, but if we had no nuclear weapons, nuclear powers could dominate us. Yet other powers already dominate us. Multinational corporations are richer and more influential than most nations. Germany determines the economic policy of the EU and the Eurozone. The Americans tell the rest of us what to do. Big nations dominate smaller ones.

Step forward, then, the squirrely politician’s last respite: Russia. Russia is a threat! For many years Americans were encouraged to fear the Soviet Union, which followed the malicious creed of Communism. The Cold War dragged on for decades. Many people in the US and Western Europe made careers out of it – in “intelligence”, in academia, in journalism. It was a War with comparatively few casualties as each side formed a “defensive” alliance against the other, conducted witch-hunts, and stockpiled tens of thousands of nuclear bombs.

In 1990, the Cold War ended with victory for the Americans and their allies in NATO: the Soviet Union fragmented into various countries, the Warsaw Pact dissolved, and the Russians renounced communism. Americans assisted in securing the Russian nuclear weapons stock. Progress was made at reducing the enormous inventory. In the early twentieth century disarmament by the nuclear superpowers slowed, halted, and then reversed.

What does the United States have to fear from Russia? That Russia is its “rival” as a major power? CIA claims that Russian agents “hacked” the election? That its leader is a cold-looking character like out of a James Bond film? That people will prefer Russian cars and cilvil aircraft rather than American ones? That the Russians don’t automatically do what we say?

None of these fears is worth anything. Certainly not worth going to war over. The only fear that has any validity is that Russia has giant arsenal of nuclear bombs, many on high alert, waiting to be unleashed on us at any moment. That is something worth worrying about.

No doubt the Russians are equally fearful of the Americans’ and Europeans’ giant inventory of nuclear bombs. That would make sense. But do they, I wonder, have any other reason to be fearful, or to distrust the Americans?

Historically, they do — from the continuation of the First World War, which the Western powers dragged on for two more years in an effort to beat the Bolsheviks; through the creation of NATO – an American-led, anti-Soviet alliance which has now grown to Russia’s borders; via the nuclear arms race; the disastrous Yeltsin years; radar inferiority which leaves the Russian Pacific open to an American First Strike; to the US trillion-dollar nuclear upgrade, and the Pentagon’s development of insanely unnecessary and destabilizing weapons like the CPGS – “Conventional Prompt Global Strike” missile — the Russians have a number of reasons to fear the United States, and to distrust its intentions.

Right now, after the latest round of NATO expansion, in Estonia there are 800 English, Danish and French NATO troops and four German Typhoon military jets. In Latvia is a NATO battalion of 1,200 troops from Canada, Albania, Italy, Poland, Spain and Slovenia. In Lithuania is a German-led NATO battalion of 1,200 troops from Belgium, Croatia, France, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Norway, supported by four Dutch F-16 fighter jets. In Poland, there is a NATO battalion of 4,000 US troops, with heavy armor including 25 tanks, and Bradley fighting vehicles. 300 US marines are on rotation in Norway. As of this summer, four RAF Typhoon jets will be based in Romania to support NATO.

NewSTART is a diplomatic measure to somewhat reduce the US and Russian operational nuclear inventory. Instead of about 2,000 weapons, each side would have only 1,550 ready-to-go nukes. This is what the two Presidents discussed last week on the telephone. It is something, and almost nothing at the same time. Even if NewSTART is implemented, the numbers of nukes remain obscenely excessive, a genuine existential threat to both “sides”.

After his conversation about NewSTART with Mr. Putin, President Trump held a press conference and remarked,

By the way, it would be great if we could get along with Russia.
Just so you understand that. Tomorrow, you will say, “Donald Trump
wants to get along with Russia; this is terrible.” It is not terrible.

Nuclear holocaust would be like no other. They’re a very powerful
nuclear country, and so are we.

If Russia and the United States actually got together and got along —
and don’t forget, we’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are they.
There’s no upside. We’re a very powerful nuclear country and so
are they. I have been briefed. And I can tell you one thing about a
briefing that we’re allowed to say because anybody that ever read
the most basic book can say it, nuclear holocaust would be like no other.

They’re a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a
good relationship with Russia, believe me, that’s a good thing,
not a bad thing.

The President’s words were reported by Vox, under the headline “9 things it’s hard to believe the president of the United States just said.” (Jeff Stein, Feb 16, 2017)

The reporter is not a fan of President Trump, and presumably disapproves of these sentiments. It is, indeed, unusual for an American politician to discard the pious bombast and tell the press that Russia deserves respect and that a nuclear war between the US and Russia would be an inconceivable “holocaust”.

This portion of the President’s press conference was not widely reported.

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DODGING THE BULLET V: THE FIG LEAF

Nuclear Power

As the United States expanded its nuclear weapons infrastructure, nuclear power was proposed as a concomitant benefit. Nuclear engines, we were told, would be installed in cities, homes, aircraft and cars. Nuclear power stations would provide energy “too cheap to meter”…

The reader already knows that this did not occur. Nuclear power plants proved subject to enormous cost overruns. Some failed catastrophically and had to be entombed in concrete. Some were abandoned before they were complete. The power stations which were constructed provided very expensive electricity. No matter, as far as the mandarins were concerned: nuclear power was the icing on the weapons cake — essential icing, nevertheless, since without nuclear plants and fuel cycle facilities there would be no Highly Enriched Uranium, and no Plutonium.

The history of nuclear power is one of optimistic lies, accidents, near-disasters, and cost overruns. Its legacy, literally, is toxic garbage.

There are many good sources if you’re interested in nuclear power, its failures, and its enthusiastic promotion by the nuclear weapons states. Let me turn to just one — an interview in the Bulletin with Brice Smith, a professor of physics at the State University of New York and the author of Insurmountable Risks: The Dangers of Using Nuclear Power to Combat Global Climate Change. The interview ran in the Nov/Dec 2007 Bulletin.

Smith points out three “classic risks” of nuclear power: 1) the link between the fuel cycle and nuclear weapons proliferation; 2) the issue of reactor accidents; 3) the disposal of nuclear waste.

1) nuclear power generation is expensive and inefficient, but it puts the possessor of the facility well on the road to building an atomic bomb. This is why Israel bombed the Iraqi nuclear power facility at Osirak in June 1981, and why the US and Israel are obsessed with Iran’s attempts at atomic energy generation. Cuba began construction of a nuclear power plant in 1983 but never completed it. Fidel Castro’s son, Fidel Jr., trained as a nuclear engineer – I had the pleasure of meeting him a few years back and he is still an enthusiastic proponent of nuclear power. But the Juragua nuclear project was abandoned in 1992.

On the other hand, America’s allies are still encouraged to develop nuclear power complexes, and successive presidents winked as Israel, India and Pakistan all turned their nuclear power projects into weapons programs. Currently, with US approval, the United Arab Emirates is building nuclear power plants, while Saudi Arabia has also “embarked on a commercial nuclear power program that makes little economic sense, but could, if it becomes reality, aid a Saudi nuclear weapons program” (online Bulletin, 12/17/2013).

US policy of encouraging its client states to develop nuclear power is singularly stupid, since they don’t remain clients indefinitely, and before long will need to be bombed. In the early 1970s the Americans encouraged their proxies, the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, to develop nuclear power – using American technology, of course. In both cases a US ally soon became a US enemy. At which point the response was violence or apocalyptic threats — a good way to guarantee a blowback of violence and apocalyptic thinking in return.

Thirty-two countries that do not currently possess nuclear weapons own sufficient fissionable nuclear materials to construct them, some in a relatively short period of time. If one wishes to reduce the danger of nuclear weapons proliferation, one should remove the “fig leaf” of nuclear power.

2) if nukes as a means of electricity generation were left to the “invisible hand of the market”, they would not exist. Smith observes that reactor accidents are unique in the energy system as they are of statistically low probability, but potentially extremely catastrophic. There is literally no way to say how much damage – immediate and long-term – a power plant melt-down can cause. Chernobyl is still with us, its temporary concrete tomb cracking and in need of replacement; Fukushima is an ongoing disaster which continues to flood the atmosphere and ocean with radiation. Neither disaster has been contained, and there is no consensus as to the number of people killed or injured, nor as to the extent of the damage, nor what the final cost of “clean-up” – if it ever takes place – will be.

In circumstances where liability is unforeseeable and unlimited, no private insurance company will issue a policy. Thus it is with nuclear power: it is the state, not State Farm, who is the “insurer of last resort” – in other words, to have a nuclear power program, the government must guarantee that the taxpayer will pick up the entire tab when something goes wrong.

Ironically, nuclear power is anti-capitalist, a technology so risky and dangerous that the insurance marketplace won’t take a chance on it. So it relies on limitless taxpayer subsidies in order to survive.

3) waste disposal is probably the worst problem of all three, as it is so long-term. Since the time of the Manhattan Project, nuclear power has been generating volumes of extremely high-level radioactive waste. No one knows what to do with it. It is all still with us.

Smith says that the waste issue is even more problematic as “we don’t have a good way of understanding what it means to have a waste product whose peak risks occur thousands, tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of years in the future.” Consider that for a moment. When general readers such as you or I read about atomic “half life”, we tend to assume that the decay of nuclear material happens uniformly, and in a downward direction, and that as time passes the material becomes less dangerous, not more. This is not the case. Some forms of nuclear waste increase in radioactive toxicity as the years pass: Smith points out that much of the nuclear garbage military and civilian reactors have already accumulated is growing in toxicity, and will continue to do so for millennia.

In other words, stuff which is deadly now, and which we don’t know how to deal with, will be many times more deadly ten thousand or a hundred thousand years from now.

Consider what this means for us, as a species. What we call civilization is a few thousand years old. Christianity and capitalism have coexisted for two thousand years, at most. Most of the technology we use and think we cannot do without only appeared within the last two or three hundred years. Unless you believe a Divine Being is guiding humankind towards that City on the Hill, there is no reason to imagine our civilization will survive any particular length of time. Nuclear war, conventional war, disease, resource depletion, climate change, overpopulation — any one of these, or more likely a combination of several, could exhaust or even extinguish our current civilization within a few hundred years.

But the nuclear garbage will still be there, growing in poisonous toxicity, long after its creators have forgotten what it is.

And where will it be growing? The US plan has been, for several decades, to store its most toxic nuclear garbage under Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Poor Nevada! This lovely desert state has been the most ravaged of all by the military-industrial complex. A drive from Reno to Las Vegas will take you through a landscape of bunkers surrounding Hawthorne (which proudly proclaims itself “The World’s Largest Ammo Depot”), past the town of Mercury, which you are not allowed to enter and which is the dead centre of the US nuclear testing range, and skirting Creech Air Force Base (“Home of the Hunters”) where USAF Reaper and Predator drones are flight-tested.

How did Nevada get to be so lucky? Big state, small population, and an entirely predictable nexus between the mob, who run the brothels and casinos, and the military, who are among their customers.

Somehow, though, the plan to turn yet more of Nevada into a radioactive military playground has become bogged down. Patriotic to the core, Nevadans still aren’t keen on seeing their state turned into the permanent home of America’s most toxic nuclear waste.

The New York Times reassures its trusting readers that the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste site is “now deemed safe.” US representative John Shimkus (a Republican from far-off Illinois) has declared: “Nuclear waste stored under that mountain, in that desert, surrounded by federal land, will be safe and secure for at least a million years.”

Only an American politician could come up with such positive, decisive, and exceptional thinking. A million years? Really?

In fact, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has not yet approved Yucca Mountain as an underground repository for nuclear waste. When the site was chosen it was believed to be dry, but Yucca Mountain has turned out to be full of underground channels of flowing water. The canisters holding US nuclear waste are metal and subject to corrosion. Their life expectancy, according to the Energy Department, is one thousand years – after which the radioactive garbage will leak out and enter the water channels and the environment.

But worry not! The Energy Department has proposed a plan to the NRC to make Yucca mountain a viable dump after all: corrosion-resistant, titanium-alloy “drip shields” which will sit above the canisters of nuclear waste, preventing them from getting dripped on.

Given the enormous cost of these titanium shields, and the difficulty and precision of their installation, the Energy Department doesn’t plan to install them for a hundred years – presumably to spread the enormous cost of the repository over several generations. The idea is to stick the nuclear waste in there now, and forget about it. Then, in a hundred years time, robots will go in, carrying the five-ton drip shields, and meticulously install them.

That is the official plan. Stick the nuclear garbage under Yucca Mountain now, forget about it for 100 years, and then robots will fix it. Robots which don’t currently exist. Because the canisters will already be leaking radioactivity, and it won’t be safe for humans to venture into those tunnels for hundreds of thousands of years…

“Realistically, a century into the project, the underground tunnels would have deteriorated considerably and collapsed in part. Dust would sharply limit visibility. The tunnels would have to be cleared of rubble for a remotely operated underground rail system to transport robotic equipment and the five-ton drip shields to the waste canisters. The shields would then have to be installed end-to-end, so as to form a continuous metal cover inside the tunnels, obviously a delicate, complex, and extremely expensive operation. Is it reasonable to believe that after 100 years, with the nuclear waste in the repository long out of the public mind, that Congress would appropriate enormous sums of money for the Energy Department to go back into the tunnels to install the shields? Can we really rely on an agency that hasn’t yet cleaned up a nationwide radioactive mess that dates from World War II to keep a promise that it will do something a century into the future? Will there even be an Energy Department in 100 years?”

Those were the words of physicist Victor Glinksy, who worked for the State of Nevada, which opposes the insane robots-will-save-us scheme. You can read his excellent piece about the current state of Yucca Mountain here.

Climate Change

Over the last decade or two there’s been a trend among some Greens to say that nuclear power should be forgiven its terminal vices, and embraced as a “carbon-neutral” or even “carbon-friendly” energy source, given the threat of global warming. The nuclear industry and its media supporters have promoted such claims with vigor, but they have not brought about a nuclear power renaissance.

There are two clear objections to this argument, I think: 1) George Monbiot’s new-found enthusiasm notwithstanding, nuclear power is far from “carbon free” or “carbon neutral” and 2) the nuclear power and weapons industries are interlinked, and if a nuclear war occurs, all bets are off regarding climate change.

1) The claim that nuclear power is eco-friendly is easily addressed. It’s the same fallacy as the notion that having your groceries delivered by solar powered drone helps the environment.

Mechanical things like cars or power plants don’t just exist at the moment of fueling, or fuel consumption. They have to be made. They have to be maintained. And, when no longer useful, they have to be disposed of. Where were the metals in your Tessla mined? What powered the plastics factory? The true environmental cost of a thing must include both manufacture and disposal. So, in the case of nuclear power, the plant has to be built, with metal and concrete and plastics and glass and cement mixers. Construction of a power plant consumes an enormous quantity of gas and diesel and electricity. Once the nuclear plant’s built, it has to be protected – by fire trucks and security guards in cop cars and armored vehicles, for the duration of its life.

None of this is ‘green’. If it takes tonnes of burned carbon to make a brand-new car car, imagine the carbon contribution of a brand-new nuclear power plant to the atmosphere.

And then there is the waste. Which no one knows what to do with. So, long after the plant has ceased to operate, it sits there, under guard, or gets trucked around the country, or gets dumped illegally, in a landfill or off-shore.

2) Nuclear power produces the fire-power for nuclear weapons: HEU and Plutonium. To rely on nuclear for power generation guarantees a continued supply of material which can be used as  warheads, or as bombs. The more nuclear power plants, the more countries developing nuclear power facilities, the more likely the spread of nuclear weapons technology, and of nuclear weapons.

Since Lynn Eden’s book was published, other authors have delved further into the results of mass fires started by atom bombs and a picture has emerged of their likely impact on the climate.

It is the exact opposite of what scientists currently anticipate as “climate change.”

A majority of scientists believe that global warming is taking place, and that it is mainly caused by man. It’s the scientific consensus that temperatures are rising as a result of anthropogenic releases of carbon, methane, and other gases into the atmosphere. If the temperature continues to rise at its current rate, there will be mass extinctions, and a rise in sea-levels which will make many coastal areas uninhabitable. The rise in temperature will stress agriculture, and almost all the surviving life-forms.

Despite the efforts of the Fossil Fuel Party in the United States, most governments of the world acknowledge that the temperature is rising, that this climate change is man-made, and have begun to make some small efforts to combat it. World-wide, politicians, scientists and the media focus on the danger of global warming and the need to mitigate it, or combat it. Some activists call for a declaration of “war” on climate change. As a pacifist and a Green I’m not keen on that particular characterization of the struggle, but I have a more fundamental criticism of this heroic focus on global warming.

It may not happen. A belief that the planet’s temperature will rise by five degrees by the year 2100, say, is predicated on an expectation of continued capitalist growth and human population increase. Most academics and politicians are drawing up plans to combat global warming – with the best intentions – based on the notion that ahead of us lie eighty years of relative world peace. Perhaps their calculations include a number of regional, non-nuclear wars, fought also with the very best intentions. But they cannot include a serious nuke war in their calculations, because that would cause an entirely different catastrophe.

If a nuclear war takes place, instead of a gradual, predictable global warming, the northern hemisphere (which is where that war will occur) will undergo a sudden, unpredictable but severe cooling. The ensuing climactic changes will affect the entire planet.

Steven Starr, the Director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at the University of Missouri, has written a paper on the state of scientific understanding – in 2008 and 2009 – of the environmental consequences of nuclear war. He also discusses a right-wing backlash to the original notion of nuclear winter which seems to have operated very effectively two decades ago. His piece is titled The Catastrophic Climactic Consequences of Nuclear Conflict.

In the case of a “small” nuclear war, in which two countries attack each other’s cities with 50 Hiroshima-size bombs, Starr writes:

“Although there would not be enough sunlight blocked to create a “nuclear winter”, the massive smoke emissions from the fires of a small “regional” nuclear war would cause a global climate change unprecedented in human history. In a matter of days, average temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere would become colder than any experienced during the last 1000 years. Growing seasons in the middle latitudes would immediately be significantly shortened, completely eliminating some crops that had insufficient time to reach maturity.”

So a war between India and China would result not only in millions of deaths in both countries and widespread radiation, but also harvest failure, disruption of agriculture, and famine. (Researchers believe that as many as a billion people might be threatened by famine following this “small” nuclear war).

Starr reports that for three years, the temperature worldwide would drop by 1.25 degrees Celsius. For ten years, the ozone layer would be seriously depleted, with unpredictable results.

Using more powerful computers, the same researchers modeled the climactic results of what they called “moderate” and “large” nuclear wars between the US and Russia. In the “moderate” scenario, one third of the global nuclear arsenal (1,667 megatons) was used. In the “large” war scenario, the whole arsenal – 5,000 megatons – was exploded. Following the “moderate” war, the world’s temperature would drop by 4 degrees Celsius. The “large war” would be followed by a temperature drop of 8 degrees. Researchers with even more powerful software found these figures conservative, and estimated that a “large” war would be followed by temperature drops of 20-30 degrees.

No matter what the scenario, then, nuclear war between the United States and Russia means the end of civilization, and possibly the end of the species itself. Agriculture would fail completely and daily minimum temperatures would be below freezing…

Starr concludes: “we cannot allow our political and military leaders to ignore the grave threats which their nuclear arsenals pose to the global environment and human existence… The environmental consequences of nuclear war must be included as primary considerations in the ongoing debate about the abolition of nuclear arsenals… The US and Russia must recognize the senselessness of continued planning for a nuclear first-strike, which if launched would make the whole world – including their own country – uninhabitable.”

Global warming or a post-nuclear ice age? Which does the reader think more likely: decade upon decade of world peace? or a nuclear war?

DODGING THE BULLET IV: THE BULLETIN

For almost sixty years perhaps the very best source of information about nuclear power and weapons has been the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. First published in the 1940s by Manhattan Project scientists from the University of Chicago, it was a magazine written by atomic scientists. Their style was comprehensible by any English-speaker, and according to Kennette Benedict, the former publisher, the magazine’s purpose was “to inform as many as possible about the dangers of a nuclear arms race. Then as now, the goal was to stimulate facts-driven international discussions, leading to policies and treaties that would protect all of humanity and the planet we inhabit.”

Excellent goal! And the Bulletin, at its best, did exactly that. It reported on nuclear weapons developments in layman’s terms. It counted the numbers, estimated the megatonnages, calculated the throw-weights. It reported on efforts at nuclear disarmament It covered nuclear power, inevitably. And, as of June 1947 it carried a graphic by Martyl Langsdorf – the Doomsday Clock.

The Doomsday Clock is – unfortunately, maybe – the artifact for which the Bulletin is most famous. Over the years, as the danger of nuclear war has grown greater, or seemed to recede, the minute hand of the Clock has moved forward and back. In 1984 it was three minutes to midnight — midnight being the outbreak of nuclear war. In 1991, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it stood at sixteen minutes to midnight. Since then, that minute hand has crept steadily forward. Last year it was three minutes to midnight. Last week the clock went forward by thirty seconds.

It was even worse in 1952, when the President authorized the use of American nukes against North Korea, and the clock moved forward to two minutes to midnight. But two and a half minutes to midnight is not a good sign.

Indeed, Langsdorf’s Doomsday Clock graphic is so strong that it’s tended to be the only thing reporters note about the Bulletin, and to overshadow all the good writing and reporting produced therein. For most of its life, it remained focused on the general reader, growing from a  home-made production to an impressive glossy magazine. I picked up a copy in that Santa Monica bookstore and was transfixed. This was the most amazingly informative magazine – about the most important subject possible: nuclear weapons and war. As long as I lived in Los Angeles I would drop by Midnight Special to pick up my bi-monthly copy. I lost track of the Bulletin while I worked in Nicaragua and Mexico, but reconnected with it and took out a subscription.

For facts about nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it was a great resource. It covered some issues persistently and in depth, and ran a great series of articles about nuclear weapons production at Rocky Flats and the entirely bogus “remediation” of the poisoned plant. In reporting like this the Bulletin spared no one – not the government, nor the contractors. It was equally hard-hitting about the military nuclear base at Hanford: a sub-headline from a 1988 article about that plant reads, “Plutonium production has been contaminating the Northwest for decades… Patriotic citizens who have lived near the reactors feel betrayed.”

This was a magazine which took a position – often a position of outrage against the conniving cupidity of contractors and the supercilious stupidity of the state. Over time, it changed. Perhaps keeping up a head of steam against the nuclear-military establishment indefinitely was impossible. Maybe there were changes on the board. As the years passed, particularly post-9-11, the magazine broadened its focus, including reportage on other matters – intelligence issues, biological warfare, nanotech, the origins of Picasso’s Guernica, and in particular non-nuclear terrorism and climate change. I’m sure these articles were of a high standard, but they weren’t necessarily the remit of the Atomic Scientists, or why one bought the magazine.

But what a mag it was!  The cover of May/June 2006 issue — a graphic masterpiece, depicting yellow robotic cans of nuclear waste articles against an orange sky — is worth the eight dollar price alone. And then the articles! About the far-from-finished nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mtn, NV; about Nixon’s response to the Israeli nukes; about John Kennedy’s handling of demands from all branches of the service for more nuclear weapons (in 1962, the US had 27,000 nuclear weapons stockpiled); plus letters, book reviews, high-quality graphics.

And only eight bucks.

Great magazines which you can hold in your hand are an endangered species. Where is Garbage? Covert Action? Lobster? ZAP Comix? For the Bulletin, the virtual axe fell in November 2008: “the Bulletin is taking an exciting next step in its evolution and will now be an entirely digital publication.” Oh, whoopee. It continues in online form and if you are at a university or other institution with a paid subscription to academic publications you may be able to access the full version. A more limited Bulletin is available for the general public. Often abridged versions of articles lack citations, or are simply on-going talking shops between “experts”.

As times get more dangerous, the public needs access to the best and most accurate information (as opposed, say, to a diet of unsubstantiated allegations and truthiness). It also needs to hear a strong moral voice speaking out against genocidal evil. On the news stand, the Bulletin provided that reach. And – especially in its early days – it provided that voice. No multiple “expert” opinions on off-topic matters, no academic firewall, but strong words like these from Jonathan Schell:

“… nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy, which actually
trade on genocide for political purposes, called mutually
assured destruction, threaten not just individual people,
in however large numbers, but the order of creation,
natural and human, and that is something new.”

In a piece tilted Genesis in Reverse in the Jan/Feb 2007 edition (five minutes to midnight), Schell continued,

“Let me quote something that Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice said a few years ago about the possibility that Iran would
obtain nuclear arms. ‘If they do acquire WMD their weapons
will be unusable because any attempt to use them will
bring national obliteration.’  She did not threaten them with
defeat, or even with regime change, but with ‘national
obliteration’ – a perfect synonym for genocide.

“But such threats have been the stock in trade of nuclear
policy for more than 60 years.”

The Bulletin (Jan/Feb 2004) introduced most of its readers to Prof. Lynn Eden’s groundbreaking book Whole World on Fire: Organizations, Knowledge, & Nuclear Weapons Devastation via a long extract, entitled City on Fire. Eden shows how the US military, in calculating the damage likely to be caused by nuclear weapons, was very specific in its estimates of blast damage, but made no estimates at all of damage from fires. In the event of a nuclear blast above combustible material – a city, a factory, a forest – there is going to be a fire, almost certainly massive and uncontrollable. How far it extends and how much it destroys depends to some extent on the weather and the season, but could have been modeled; instead it was ignored.

By neglecting to calculate the effects of mass fires and add them to their estimates of nuclear devastation, US war planners misled politicians and the public as to the consequences of nuclear war and were able to demand a far larger nuclear arsenal than “necessary.”

City on Fire describes the effects of one 300-kiloton nuclear blast above Washington DC. Eden is an extremely good writer and you must read her terrifying description for yourself. I can’t do it justice via any paraphrase.

Unfortunately it is no longer available to the general reader. If you search for it on the Bulletin site you will find yourself directed to “Taylor and Francis” academic rip-off-land, where 24 hours’ access to the article will cost you twenty bucks – or you can buy a month’s access to the entire issue (originally priced at eight bucks) for one hundred and two dollars. The same is true of Jonathan Schell’s article, cited above. For a mere forty dollars the general reader can gain access to both pieces for an entire day! (City on Fire was reworked for the online Bulletin as the depiction of an 800 kiloton blast over New York but this iteration is briefer and less powerfully written than the original, even though the event described is technically worse.)

The most awful aspect of her depiction is the “hurricane of fire” which arrives ten minutes after the blast. Gigantic mass fires create their own environment, Eden observes, and don’t require external winds.

Eden wrote: “Washington, D.C., has long been a favorite hypothetical target. But a single bomb detonated over a capital city is probably not a realistic planning assumption.

“When a former commander in chief of the U.S. Strategic Command read my scenario, he wanted to know why I put only one bomb on Washington. ‘We must have targeted Moscow with 400 weapons,’ he said. He explained the military logic of planning a nuclear attack on Washington: ‘You’d put one on the White House, one on the Capitol, several on the Pentagon, several on National Airport, one on the CIA, I can think of 50 to a hundred targets right off. . . . I would be comfortable saying that there would be several dozens of weapons aimed at D.C.’

“Moreover, he said that even today, with fewer weapons, what makes sense would be a decapitating strike against those who command military forces. Today, he said, Washington is in no less danger than during the Cold War.”

City on Fire was a high point of the old, print-copy Bulletin: intelligent, moral, informative, unafraid to depict the insane horror of nuclear weapons without equivocation, for the sake of “all humanity and the planet we inhabit.”