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.”

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