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: 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.”

DODGING THE BULLET III – THE ENEMY

If you encounter news about nuclear weapons in one of the mainstream newspapers, or online, or see them mentioned briefly on TV, most likely the focus will be on Iran – which has no nuclear weapons – or on North Korea, which possesses fewer than ten.

We’re warned, by politicians and the mainstream media, of the great danger Iran poses (or would, if it had any nukes), and the existential threat we face from Kim Jong Il’s regime, and the need to maintain crippling economic sanctions against both countries. Think of the grave danger their nukes present! The Iranians have none. The North Koreans have eight, maybe, but no reliable delivery system. While the United States has four thousand viable nukes, almost two thousand of them on operational alert.

So we live in fear.

But fear of what? Fear of imaginary or hypothetical dangers? Or fear, perhaps, of our own political class and military-industrial complex — that they may not be able to maintain their “balance of terror” much longer, and that the nuclear war-fighting structure they have built with our money may yet end up being used.

A nuclear war sparked by accident, by a computer error, or through exasperation and in defense of “credibility” by fallible, not-too imaginative humans, is possible. An English government spokesman put it thus:

“North Korea seem to think possessing a nuclear
weapon makes them safe. In fact it’s the opposite.
Having a nuclear weapon makes them a target.”

That was the then-foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, commenting on a North Korean weapons test. But his statement applies to England too – a major nuclear target for her “enemies” because of her inventory of nukes and the presence of American military bases in the UK.

England’s nukes are aimed, one assumes, at Russia. The Russians know this (almost certainly they know more about English nuclear weapons and war-fighting plans than the English public does), and so they have presumably targeted air bases, power stations, and population centers in Britain, with thermonuclear bombs.

Rich nations which have substantial armed forces and face no danger of foreign military invasion. So they have brought danger on themselves, of an even worse kind, by developing nuclear weapons. As Strath observed, it might only take a dozen bombs to cause societal collapse, a small investment of Russia’s total nuclear capital.

Nuclear weapons invite war in three ways: by their use, by accident, and as targets for other nuclear weapons. As the British foreign minister said, possession of nukes invites preemptive strikes by one’s enemies.

Why do we have enemies? On a personal level I have very few, in fact I cannot think of one. If I encounter people of whom I don’t approve, I move on. There are so many nice people in the world! Why do nations have to have enemies? It might be argued that nations are not people, and can’t be dealt with on the same terms. I would agree: part of the problem is when societies fall for the notion of national “character” and end up acting like a bully or the neighbourhood sociopath.

President Kennedy said:

“No government or social system is so evil that its people
must be considered as lacking in virtue. In the final analysis…
we all breathe the same air… and we are all mortal.”

No nation is inherently bad. When politicians expend energy demonizing a foreign country, intelligence agents and media concubines go to work. Destabilization campaigns – like many government projects – take on a life of their own, and continue long after the politician who initiated them is dead, or in prison. Consider US Caribbean policy: the overthrow of the governments of Cuba, or Nicaragua, were long term projects with military and political support, involved alliances with drug dealers and other mafiosi, and required many media hours and written pieces demonizing the small country’s government, and by extension the country itself.

Fortunately neither Nicaragua nor Cuba was or is a hair-trigger-alert nuclear power. Let us consider Russia: a larger nation with vast resources and its own industrial base. Russia has a much smaller military than the United States, but compensates by possessing nuclear weapons equal to those of the Americans, and 25 times larger than anybody else’s.

Who threatens Russia? Only the United States. And the US’s allies in NATO – nuclear powers Britain and France, plus Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, who store American nukes, plus Poland and the new NATO countries bordering Russia, where the US “Strategic Defense Initiative” is being deployed.

Who does Russia threaten? All of the above, presumably.

Who else do the US and NATO threaten? Pretty much every other country in the world, in the light of the Bush Doctrine, by which President George W. Bush reserved the right to use any and all weapons, preemptively, against any adversary. But this was likely always the case.  And in reality the US and NATO are unlikely to attack Venezuela, or Argentina, or most other countries, with atom bombs. China is a different case, given her great size and economic power, and her territorial claims to Taiwan and elsewhere, which the US disputes. China has a slowly-growing nuclear weapons force, not on hair-trigger alert. China’s possession of nukes is presumably for “credibility” – possessing 200+ nuclear weapons of her own, she is less likely to submit to nuclear blackmail, even by a greater power.

Who threatens Israel, possessor of 80 to 100 nukes? A current nuclear threat to Israel is hard to conceive of. Will other Middle Eastern states acquire nukes to counter a perceived Israeli advantage and assert their “credibility”? Saudi Arabia has close ties to Pakistan and its nuclear-armed military. While western journalists focused on Iran, the Emirates have been developing their own nuclear power capability.

Who threatens India, and Pakistan? Both countries have similarly-sized arsenals, with which they threaten each other. In October 2015, Pakistani Foreign Secretary Aitzaz Ahmad Chaudhry said Pakistan was prepared to use “tactical” nukes in a conflict with India. And in April 2016, the Indian Army conducted massive war games – designed to counter nuclear bomb attacks – in the desert bordering Pakistan.

It all sounds so terrible and doom-laden… until you step back and realize that we are only talking a handful of nations here. Some very big nations are included, but there still aren’t very many nuclear-weapons powers.

The majority of countries do not own nuclear weapons and don’t seek to acquire them. It’s possible to be a highly successful and productive nation state without them: Canada, Scandinavia, Japan, Brazil and South Korea all manage this.

“Ah, but Japan and South Korea are protected by the US nuclear umbrella!” This theory as threadbare as the nuclear triad theory or the domino one. Who threatens Japan and South Korea? Presumably China and North Korea. Has the US “umbrella” prevented China and North Korea from developing nuclear weapons, or has it encouraged them to do so?

In every case, acquiring nukes or basing your policy around their use makes you a target. It does exactly what you don’t want — it encourages your enemies to acquire nuclear bombs.

Two last ditch arguments in favor of nuclear weapons: Rogue States, and Terrorism.

Kim Ryan and I went to see the Conservative Party shadow defense minister back in New Labour days. He bought us a canteen lunch in the House of Commons and we asked him why London wouldn’t show the way by dumping Trident, taking the high road, saving a lot of money, etc. His answer: “Saddam.” That was the official thinking. What if some foreign dictator got their own nuke, and we had none? They could blackmail us!

This was not profound. It is still very difficult to create a nuclear bomb. This is one reason only national governments with advanced technology have them. Satellites and other intelligence operations give intelligence agencies a very good idea of what is going on, all over the world. It would be impossible for a “rogue state” to develop a nuclear weapons industry from scratch, in secret (unless they already have a nuclear power industry, in which case it’s much easier — as we shall see). And if some foreign tyrant were able to secretly build a nuclear bomb, he or she would still need a delivery system for it to reach its target.

But what if “Saddam” succeeded? What if his boffins built a dirty bomb, and brought it over in a shipping container, and exploded it in one of our cities, like in that Ben Afflick movie, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS? Well, it would be horrible – much worse than the Hollywood nuclear-terror-lite Ben had to stumble through. But it would be a one-off. And the retaliation against the perpetrator state (even absent nukes, the US military would still be the world’s largest, by a massive proportion) would be devastating, non-nuclear or not.

What about nuclear terrorism, then? What if terrorists built a bomb?

Again, building an atomic bomb is very difficult. A greater danger is that a nuke might be stolen, or acquired on the black market — something which can’t happen once they are decommissioned. And again, how does possession of nukes prevent one from being attacked with nukes? In the event of a terrorist attack, possession of nukes by the victim state is a propaganda victory for the terrorist, underlining the nuclear power’s impotence — how can it respond proportionately, using its nuclear might, against a non-state actor?

Nukes are city-busting weapons. They are inappropriate and useless against small networks of individuals who don’t stay in one place or respect borders.

To raise the rogue state or terror argument is to make the case for nuclear disarmament.

(Today the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists announced it was moving the hands of its “doomsday clock” half a minute closer to midnight.)

 

ADDENDUM TO PART II

Re. Trident

The press has just reported a June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida, which went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, fired a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.

Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.

The Guardian defense correspondent, Ewen MacAskill, writes (Jan 22 2017), “the case made by proponents of the nuclear weapon is that any attack on the UK will result in inevitable retaliation. The whole basis of the argument is undercut if the UK cannot guarantee that it is capable of hitting the right target or even the [right] country.”

DODGING THE BULLET II

Nukes are particularly fiendish weapons. Over the last couple of decades, war-hungry politicians and generals have attempted to lump them into a generalized category called “weapons of mass destruction.” But this is word-play. No other weapon – no nerve gas, no weaponized disease agent, no chemical or radiological poison – comes close to the horrible destructive power of atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

Nukes kill in a variety of ways. A nuclear blast burns and disintegrates; its brilliant flash blinds the beholder; it issues shockwaves which rupture eardrums and knock buildings down; it sends clouds of ash and debris into the atmosphere; the mass fires which follow it (when the target is something burnable, such as a city or a town) continue to pollute the atmosphere and affect the climate; its radiation kills some people within hours or days; others take longer to die of a variety of cancers. The sheer size of a nuclear blast and its outlying disaster areas render recovery impossible. There are simply not enough first responders or firefighters to attend to the injured or evacuate survivors, especially as the transportation infrastructure of the town or city in question will be gone as well.

For all these reasons, after the first two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was widely remarked that “the survivors envied the dead.”

How could such fiendish weapons ever have been devised? What was the need for them?

Supposedly, nukes were developed by the Americans and the British because they feared a fiendish regime, Nazi Germany, might also develop them. But the Germans never came close to building such weapons, and surrendered before the scientists at Los Alamos had achieved their goal. At that point, nukes became a massive and expensive war project without a purpose. So they were dropped on Japan, instead.

The nuking of two Japanese cities – targeting almost exclusively civilians – is debated to this day. Some claim that atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki “shortened the war” and “saved a million American lives.” Others assert that the Japanese government was desperate to end the war, and that President Truman ordered the bombs dropped as a “message” to the Russians — a warning to his Communist enemies of the new power the United States possessed.

Sam Cohen, one of the inventors of the Neutron Bomb, who worked with Edward Teller at Los Alamos – told me that the Nagasaki bomb was dropped as an experiment: to see if its untried technology would work or not. This may sound insane, a case of science losing all moral compass and descending into total evil, but one of Sam’s favorite films was DR. STRANGELOVE. He didn’t consider the film a comedy, but told me it seemed to him an accurate depiction of the nuclear establishment, and the environment in which he worked.

I became interested in this subject because of a film-related scandal. In the early 1960s, the BBC encouraged the careers of several talented young directors, including Ken Russell, Ken Loach, and Peter Watkins. In 1964 directed a highly-regarded docudrama, CULLODEN – “an account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain” according to its opening titles. CULLODEN was a fine film which pulled no punches, and on its strength, Watkins was commissioned by the BBC to make another faux-documentary: this one about nuclear war.

When Watkins delivered THE WAR GAME to the BBC, the broadcaster decided not to screen it. Watkins had done an enormous amount of research and made a meticulous, brilliant film about the consequences, on the ground, of a “limited” nuke attack on Southern England. But the film was perceived, by the BBC’s mandarins, and probably the government of the day, as simply “too much” for the general public. Ironically, Her Majesty’s Government already knew everything that was depicted in THE WAR GAME, and much worse: eight years earlier, the Strath Committee had reported:

If only 10 bombs were dropped on UK cities, the result would be
‘utter devastation’ with up to 12 million deaths, including 3 million
from radiation. There would be a further 4 million serious casualties
which would swamp the medical facilities available. Half of Britain’s
industrial capacity would be destroyed, the distributive system
would break down … water and food would be contaminated,
leaving the 40 million survivors living in siege conditions.”

We knew nothing of this. British school kids didn’t do “duck and cover” exercises in their classrooms. There were no signs indicating the whereabouts of a fallout shelter. Britain’s politicians went right on developing nuclear weapons, testing and stockpiling atomic bombs…

The banning of THE WAR GAME caused something of a controversy in the press. At the tender age of ten or so, I became aware of it, and was suitably offended that I wasn’t allowed to see this film, which my parents’ television license fees had paid for. I had seen CULLODEN on its first broadcast the year before, and found it quite disturbing. But I imagined THE WAR GAME to be some kind of science fiction film, perhaps with two-headed people, or giant ants… the kind of monster movies Jack Arnold made, back in the days of the fifties atom bomb scare…

I didn’t get to see THE WAR GAME for many years. But in 1967, rather amazingly, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Picture in the United States. So presumably Watkins’ non-documentary enjoyed an American distribution… Avon Books in the US and Sphere in the UK published an illustrated paperback, THE WAR GAME, based on Watkins’ script and maps and images from the film. Unable to see the picture, I could still buy the book! And so I too was immersed in this terrible vision of the likely consequences of a “limited” nuclear exchange.

Gone was the friendly BBC bobby-on-his-bicycle. In Watkins’ film, post-attack, the police are armed and put to work, first euthanizing the casualties of the attack, then executing killers and thieves. But food is running out, the surviving population is either desperate or apathetic, living in the vilest conditions, without medical attention, without hope of things being fixed…

This was the conclusion of the Strath Report, as well: “The Report found it impossible to predict whether Britain could recover, with the social and economic fabric of the country destroyed.” (John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995)

Nukes are civilization-killers. More than 90 percent of the population lives in towns or cities, and all of them – rich and poor – depend on efficient systems of food distribution to survive. If a metropolis is devastated by fire, blast, and radiation, and its infrastructure of highways, railways, bridges, tunnels, and surface streets severely damaged, how is the surviving population to be fed? What if multiple cities are similarly attacked? Who will fix things? Who will reconnect the grid?

That little book THE WAR GAME was my introduction to these things. Its images are devastating, but even more so are the narrative descriptions, which read like ghastly poetry:

This is a fire storm.

Rochester, in Kent.

2 1/2 miles from the impact point
of a Soviet thermonuclear missile
which has exploded off-course
on its flight to London Airport.

Within its centre a column
of hot air and fire one mile
broad at the base reaches
1 1/2 miles into the sky.

In a bookstore in Santa Monica a dozen years later – Midnight Special – I ran into a copy of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Amazing thing! Here was a regular glossy magazine, written in reasonable English, apparently by atomic scientists, for their colleagues and the general public to read. It dealt both with nuclear power and with the nuclear weapons complex. For the next decade, I was hooked. I doubt that I missed an issue. It taught me more than I needed to know and much of it became infused a lot of my work – including THE HOT CLUB, a script I wrote for Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and THE HAPPY HOUR, a screenplay I wrote for the English director Adrian Lyne.

REPO MAN was originally the story of a runaway nuclear scientist, the inventor of the Neutron Bomb, and an LA repo man’s attempt to track down his car full of stolen nuclear materials. The screenplay ended with the Neutron Bomb concealed within exploding – killing off the protagonists and the population of the city center with a massive radiation dose. But as we progressed with the film we became more bonded with the characters, and, I suppose, with that strange place, Los Angeles. And so we came up with another ending which did not require the city’s nuclear devastation. Salutary though it might have been.

So what?

Comparatively few films deal with the prospect of nuclear war. It is an awful, saddening subject, and people, we are told, want to be entertained.

Yet is it not the great story – fiction or non-fiction – of our time?

The nuclear-weapons-complex is vast, powerful, and currently expanding, thanks to President Obama’s trillion-dollar nuke upgrade. It includes two branches of the military (as far as I know the Army no longer fields nuclear bazookas), a huge raft of corporations and specialist manufacturers, labor unions, an attendant nuclear-power-complex, and an array of politicians, academics, consultants, security experts, and lobbyists.

The complex holds within its hands the power of life or death over an entire planet — or at least that planet’s northern hemisphere. It would be crazy to use it, right?

We’d better hope so. Our best hope that all the workers with good union jobs assembling plutonium triggers, and the air force crews and pilots, and sailors on the nuclear subs, and the security people, and the contractors and big businessmen, and the generals and the admirals, and the president and his or her associates are all really well-intentioned, level-headed people. That they do what they do with pure intent, and make the right decisions, and don’t make any mistakes, ever.

And we’d best hope the same about “the enemy” – possessor of a similarly-large nuclear force, to be delivered by aircraft, missile, and submarine, very much in need of an expensive upgrade: that all the workers in their nuclear-weapons complex, their air force and navy guys, their security and  kontraktniki and oligarchs, their generals and admirals, their president and associates, are all sane, thoughtful, level-headed. With good intent, always making the right choices, never, ever, making any mistakes.

Because if that IS the case then we don’t need to worry about human error, or a misunderstanding, or a crazy person, starting a nuclear war. All we need to worry about are electrical short circuits, power or equipment failures, accidents, or terrorists getting their hands on nukes.

Unfortunately, various heads of state have over the years threatened to use nuclear weapons for political purposes. The dread dictator of North Korea may spring to mind, and we shall investigate the danger of his nuclear stockpile later. But democratically elected Presidents have also threatened to use nuclear weapons.

During the Korean War, President Truman authorized the Pentagon to use nukes against Korean targets – just as he had against Japan. The Pentagon declined, not being able to identify any surviving targets. President Eisenhower offered the French the use of two American nuclear weapons as they wound down their Vietnam War; they, too declined. President Kennedy twice brought the United States to the brink of nuclear confrontation with Russia, first over Berlin, then over Cuba. President Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger frequently threatened to the Russians that the United States might use nukes to destroy dams and harbors in Vietnam. The Russians became so accustomed to Nixon’s nuclear threats that, uncertain what to believe, they discounted all of them. President Carter let it be known that he was “contemplating the unthinkable” when Iranians stormed the US embassy in Teheran.

Ordinary people do not find politicians in the least credible. Politicians, perhaps aware of this, cling to the word “credibility” and use it frequently when describing US relations with foreign nations. “Creditability” is a dangerous word when used thus, suggesting a willingness to engage in acts of violence, possibly nuclear, to obtain unclear goals.

Even if we assume that the current class of American politicians are all above this, and unlikely to fly off the deep end into nuclear combat with the Russians or the Chinese, even if we assume the human aspect of the nuclear-weapons-complex is 100% perfect, can we discount the danger of an accidental nuclear exchange?

We, the public, know of several occasions when such an exchange almost occurred.

On Nov 9, 1979, three US command posts showed a massive Russian nuclear strike incoming. US missiles were put on high alert, jet bombers scrambled, and “Looking Glass “ – the President’s doomsday command plane – took to the air without the President on board. But there was no attack. A training tape, simulating a Russian first strike, had been mistakenly inserted into the Pentagon’s computer system.

On June 3, 1980, another red alert took place – showing anywhere between two and 200 missiles on their way to devastate the USA. An investigation revealed no missiles, just a faulty computer chip.

On Sept 27, 1983, the Russian satellite warning system reported five American Minutemen missiles heading for Moscow. The Russian military command prepared for war, then stood down when it became apparent that the satellites had mistaken sunlight reflecting off clouds for missile launches.

In November 1983, the US and its NATO allies embarked on a nuclear weapons exercise called ‘Able Archer.’ This came during a period of great US-Russian tension. The US was siting Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe; the rhetoric of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher was bellicose, and Russian President Andropov believed that the US was planning a nuclear first strike. According to CIA director Robert Gates, “the KGB concluded that American forces … might have begun the countdown to nuclear war … we in the CIA did not really grasp how alarmed the Soviet leaders might have been.”

The Able Archer incident is perhaps the closest the US and Russia have come to full-scale nuclear war. We have no way of knowing for certain, since most of these mistakes and misunderstandings remain classified. Yet they continued: on Jan 25, 1995, Russian radar mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a US Trident submarine missile launch. Again, the Russian commander realized the alert was a false alarm.

Nuclear weapons delivery systems are extremely complex. There are many things that can go wrong. As Command and Control points out, the US Minuteman fleet is decrepit and dangerous, with widespread dereliction of duty by its crews. The Russian submarine fleet is similarly unreliable. In 2000 a Russian sub, the Kursk, sank with all hands: most of the Russian boats are in such bad shape that they cannot leave port. Smaller nuclear “powers” may suffer even worse maintenance problems: whistleblower and UK Navy submariner William McNeilly describes serial technical mishaps and breakdowns aboard HMS Neptune, one of the subs Britain maintains as launch platforms for the Trident missiles it rents from the US.

McNeilly’s report – released by WikiLeaks – depicts what the whistleblower calls “shockingly extreme conditions” ranging from a complete absence of security, via contaminated food and flooded toilets, to “a blazing inferno in the Missile Compartment.”

A June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, launched a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.

Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.

Perhaps the above has given some indication of the instability of the nuclear weapons systems themselves, and also of the instability of those who allegedly maintain them and decide when and where they will be used.

Let us turn next to the numbers. How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? And how many would be needed to wipe us out?

It’s impossible to say how many nukes there are. None of the nuclear weapons states is entirely honest regarding its inventory. One of them refuses to acknowledge possessing any nukes, a fiction which permits the New York Times and other American newspapers to omit Israel entirely when listing nuclear weapons states.

According to the Bulletin, based on the best information available in 2014 there were approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 97 sites in 14 countries. Approximately 4,000 were operationally available,and some 1,800 were on high alert.

Russia and the US possessed then (and possess today) the largest concentration of nukes: 93 percent of the total global inventory. Seven other countries had (and have) nuclear weapon stockpiles: England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Five NATO countries also possessed nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These were supposedly under the control of the Americans.

In terms of rough numbers, in 2014 the Russians had some 8,000 nuclear weapons, of which 4,300 were operational or potentially operational (the others were in theory retired and awaiting dismantlement). In 2016 the Bulletin estimated that Russia had 4,500 warheads “assigned for use.” In 2014 the United States had some 7,300 nuclear weapons, of which 4,760 were operational or in military custody (the others were in theory retired). In January 2017 the Bulletin reports that the US now has 4,480 operational warheads.

In 2014 France possessed roughly 300 nukes, China 250, and England 225 (I use the term ”England” throughout since though London’s nukes are stored in Scotland, that country, like Ireland and Wales, is resolutely anti-nuclear. As with all the worst aspects of my country, this is all about London. London runs the sorry show.)

Of the “lesser” nuclear powers, Israel had approximately 80 weapons, Pakistan more than a hundred, India roughly the same number, and North Korea less than ten. By 2016 the Bulletin estimated that China had 260 warheads, India 110–120, and Pakistan 130—140.

Both the US and Russia rely on a perverse variant of the Holy Trinity called the Nuclear Triad. This is a nuclear weapons attack force divided into three parts: ground-based ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft-based missiles and bombs. Keeping a constant array of nukes underground, in the air, and under the sea is supposed to guarantee their survivability, just as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are supposed to promise the eternal survival of the human soul.

(Apparently the Israelis share the same nuclear creed, as in addition to nuclear-armed rockets and aircraft they are buying three nuclear-capable submarines from Germany.)

So, strictly in terms of numbers it might seem that the Russians are slightly ahead of the Americans, and the Pakistanis ahead of the Indians. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Each warhead has a certain megatonnage – the size of its destructive power. There are “small” bombs, and gigantic ones. Some are “dirty” bombs, designed to maximize the spread of radiation. The bombs’ utility depends on the delivery system: how reliable is the missile or bomber which carries them? Does the delivery system contain only one bomb, or multiple warheads, each assigned a different target? What is its range?

There are certainly fewer nuclear weapons today than in the mid-1980s, when the US and Russia possessed 70,000 nukes.

But the nukes which remain are more accurate and more versatile than the multiple bombs of yesteryear. Just as the Americans are upgrading their nukes at a cost of a trillion dollars, we must assume that the Russians will do the same: credibility and the “deterrence” theory make this obligatory.  So – if we recall that the Strath Committee reported that “only” ten bombs could cause the complete collapse of British society, how many would it take to cause the collapse of the USA, or of Russia?

One hundred?

And the United States and Russia between them possess almost 9,000 useable nuclear weapons.

Redundancy and survivability, the nuclear mandarins will reply (if they bother to reply, since their expertise, and the practicality of political/nuclear planning are almost never discussed, much less questioned). Obviously, some delivery systems will fail — missiles will explode on launch, showering the motherland with nuclear weapons debris; some planes or missiles will be shot down by enemy defenses; some bombs will fail to go off. Hence the need for redundancy.

Survivability is justified by the threat of a surprise attack. What if the enemy launches a massive, nuclear sneak attack against our nuclear forces and our heads of state – a “decapitating” strike? Our beloved leaders may be lost, but at least we can retain sufficient nuclear weapons – dispersed in triad form around the world – to mount a “credible” counterstrike.

These are the arguments for massive over-capacity in nuclear weapons systems: we have so many bombs that even though some of them won’t work, or will kill the wrong people, some of them will work. Those weapons will kill our enemies, and destroy their industries, and their unused weapons.

“Brinkmanship” was a popular political style in the United States at one time. Among other outcomes it gave us MAD — the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” which holds that the US and the Russia will play ball because neither can win a nuclear war due to the mightiness of their respective arsenals.

Destruction mutually assured through redundancy! “Survivability” becomes a contradiction here because that word implies that after nuclear war breaks out the survivors will be left with something to protect, or to promote, or to prove. And that the destruction will not be mutual, but to one side’s advantage. And hence that there can be winners in a nuclear war!

It’s hard to see how victory can be achieved, in a large war or a small one, between two nuclear-armed powers.

Three professors, Brian Toon, Alan Robock and Rich Turco, have written a paper, Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War. It is very worth a read. They estimate major pollution from even a “small” war as likely to cause 44 million casualties and a brief ice age, and quote a book with the same title as their paper, by M.A. Harrell and TC Hutchison: “Earth’s human population has a much greater vulnerability to the indirect effects of nuclear war, especially mediated through impacts on food productivity and food availability, than to the direct effects of nuclear war itself.”

Toon, Robock and Turco also consider a “counterforce” nuclear war in which Russia targets 1000 weapons on the US, and 200 each on France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, and the UK; and the US targets 1100 weapons each on China and Russia. They estimate 770 million immediate casualties, depending on the areas targeted and the resulting fires. Such a war would devastate noncombatant countries, and bring mass starvation the southern hemisphere as well as the north. The human death toll would be in the billions.

(The “counterforce” strike involves less than half Russia or the United States’ actively available nuclear inventory.)

DODGING THE BULLET

TOMBSTONE RASHOMON is almost complete, and so I return to this poor blog, which I have left abandoned for quite a while.

What concerns me now isn’t filmic, specifically. It’s how close we’ve come to nuclear war. Not just a “little” war between India and Pakistan, involving only 200 nukes or so, but the big one. The one I’ve spent my entire life hoping to avoid — the multiple-warhead, multiple-strike nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia.

When I was teaching film at CU Boulder, I taught a colleague’s class on DR. STRANGELOVE. One of the students, an extremely bright woman in her early twenties, objected to being made to watch Kubrick’s film. “Just because there was an atom bomb scare in the 1950s doesn’t mean we have to watch this antiquated stuff today,” she told me. Now, this was a very bright person. Almost all the students I met at that fine research university were very bright, with good communication skills. They had only two weaknesses: none of them (unless their parents were first-generation immigrants) could speak a foreign language. And none of them had been taught any history at high school.

In the 1960s, thanks partially to Kubrick’s film, and also to Peter Watkins’ banned masterpiece, THE WAR GAME, ordinary members of the public were aware of the danger nuclear weapons presented. This is no longer the case. Instead we have perhaps the least-educated, most distracted polity that has ever existed. Most journalists don’t do journalism any more – certainly not investigative journalism which may go against the interests of their bosses or a hugely-powerful and wealthy military-industrial complex. Hollywood and the BBC are similarly contant to toe the propaganda line, and parade their usual array of cardboard foreign villains, fictional or “real”. The political class is largely too young and too privileged to have participated in any kind of war, and with rare exceptions is uninterested in educating itself regarding nuclear power and weapons.

Which leaves us with the totally bizarro situation we currently face: the “liberal” US and British media beat the drum for confrontation with Russia; the losing candidate in the recent presidential election was determined to impose a “no fly” zone over Syria, knowing this would involve American troops in combat with the Russians; while the winning candidate is excoriated because he doesn’t demonize Mr Putin or follow the orders of the CIA.

This illegal CIA involvement in US domestic politics has reached unprecedented heights. Not since Dallas or Watergate has the CIA intervened so heavy-handedly to influence either the result of a presidential election or the foreign policy of the president. James Clapper, a serial liar who should be in jail for perjuring himself before Congress, insists that Russian spies won the election for Mr Trump. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon billionaire with multiple military-industrial-technical contracts, has bought the Washington Post and uses it as a propaganda tool to beat the war drums: Counterpunch and The Intercept are conduits for Russian spy propaganda! The Russians have taken over the electricity supply of the Eastern Seaboard! The New York Times and The Guardian follow grovellingly along.

One can’t say for sure that CIA murdered President Kennedy – Mark Lane and others make an excellent case for this, but there are too many other candidates – but there is no doubt that the CIA was involved in domestic politics a few years later, when three CIA operatives (Hunt, McCord and Sturgis) burgled the Watergate Hotel, bringing down Nixon’s presidency and giving us the unelected President Ford. CIA encouraged its Contra proteges to flood the US with crack cocaine, founded the Mujehedeen, and then fabricated evidence which took us to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anyone involved in such pestilential activities should be in jail. Instead, mysteriously fearful of this new president, the intelligence community is going all out to either 1) discredit the Trump presidency, or 2) force him to adopt an aggressive posture towards the Russians.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, we would be hearing a lot about US “creditibility” from her and her supporters in the military-industrial complex: Kissinger, Cheney, McCain et al. US “credibility” in foreign affairs means that the US reseves the right to be the biggest bully on the block, and – when its bullying ways have caused multiple disasters – to redouble its efforts to screw other nations up. This works with smaller countries – the Pentagon has the largest military in the world so the US has managed to turn Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, El Salvador and other unhappy places into failed states. In the case of medium-sized countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil it’s a question of turning up the screws until the economy screams, and then stealing the vote. But Russia isn’t like these other countries. It is very large, has a substantial population, and most important of all, several thousand nuclear warheads, all ready for launch.

CIA and the Pentagon and the bozos on Capitol Hill can play the game of empire for a while yet. In the 1990s they were even able to influence elections in Russia, and keep Yeltsin in power for a additional term. Now things are different. The Russians aren’t fools and unfortunately for them and us they are armed to the teeth with nukes — just like the Americans. The liberal media denegrate Mr Trump for alleged instablity, and unsuitability to put his finger on the nuclear trigger. But it is Mr Obama who has embarked on a trillion dollar upgrade of America’s nuclear weapons. And it was Ms Clinton who, as secretary of state, destroyed Libya and cackled “We came, we saw, he died” after that country’s president was murdered.

This is sort of important stuff. There are fewer nukes in Russian and American service now than there were thirty years ago. But the nuclear face-off never ended, and of the thousands of bombs and missiles which still exist, many are only seconds away from launch. Once that war begins, things will happen so quickly that a “limited” nuclear war between the two great powers is almost certainly impossible.

So, under the rubric of DODGING THE BULLET (something which is also impossible, no matter what Hollywood may claim)  I’m going to visit matters nuclear. Specifically, how – as a mere English schoolkid – I became aware of these issues thanks to a film I wasn’t allowed to watch; how The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inspired and educated me (before ceasing physical publication and retreating behind an expensive academic firewall); why WHOLE WORLD ON FIRE is the most important book you can ever read; the enviromental consequences of nuclear warfare (and why it isn’t worth worrying about global warming as a result!); how many nukes there are, and who has them; how nuclear power continues to serve as an expensive and deadly figleaf for nuclear weapons; and what is to be done about all this?

Even as Bezos and CIA seek to set us up for military confrontation with the Russians, remarkable things are brewing at the United Nations. This will be an interesting year.

DEADWOOD … AND McCABE & MRS MILLER

I haven’t written much about TOMBSTONE RASHOMON of late — though there is much to tell, it’s been going directly to the film’s backers as updates. So if you backed the film you already know how the shoot went, and what’s happening in post.

But last week I was struck down by a summer cold and, incapacitated, decided to watch the first season of DEADWOOD, which Cindy and Drew – the kind neighbours who also donated boots to the production – had lent me. I live in my own little world, do a lot of reading, and don’t watch television. So this was the first eposodic TV drama I had watched in its entirety since THE PRISONER.

The biggest surprise of my binge-watch was how linear the whole thing was. I had imagined that DEADWOOD would consist of separate, free-standing episodes with the same basic cast — like RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, or THE MAN FROM UNCLE, or early STAR TREK. This is a nice format which permits the shuffling of directors, multiple writers, many cast members, and sometimes permits an individal episode to stray far from the reservation (“Living In Harmony”).  Instead, I was presented with something very old fashioned indeed: what they used to call a “TV series”.

The constraints of a TV series seem very tight indeed. First: the characters must be established in the first episode, and reappear in every episode thereafter. Once they have been established as characters, they cannot be killed — unless their death is a necessary part of the historical story, as in the case of Wild Bill Hickock — so you can guarantee that almost everyone you met in episode one will still be hanging around at the end of episode ten.

Two: there cannot be a plethora of characters. Supporting actors may come and go, but DEADWOOD relies on a basic cast of about a dozen individuals, all of whose stories must be told. This is unfortunate, since few of the supporting characters have much character: there is a doomed gunfighter, an angry, alcoholic doctor, a no-speakee-English Chinese merchant, more than one whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, and so forth. We are familiar with these stereotypes which is why regular feature Westerns give them so little screen time. But in TV series, we are invited to share their lives at some length.

Three: it all moves extremely slowly. The first season of DEADWOOD contains as many gunfights as the average Italian Western. An Italian Western may run from eighty to 180 minutes. The first ten episodes of DEADWOOD are five hundred minutes long. My dog Pearl doesn’t like gunshots, so she won’t stay beneath my desk if I watch MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. But she lay happy and at peace there thoughout DEADWOOD, gunshots being far less frequent than sentimental music and closeups of people looking at things. The slow pace is exacerbated by the sub-plots involving the various stereotyped supporting characters, who often fill up their screen time by describing what is happening, or what has just occurred.

In a feature film, obviously, there is no time for this. In 90 minutes (what Buñuel wrote was the duration of a human dream cycle) you must introduce your characters, depict things as they happen, show the results, and wrap it up. This is the type of storytelling I’m used to, yet strangely I find my DEADWOOD viewing reassuring. Pondering the future of REPO MAN when it reverts to me three years from now, I’d imagined that to create an episodic TV series involved a very complicated plot and scores if not hundreds of characters. Not a bit of it! Just write a regular feature treatment, slow it down by a factor of 25, and hire Walter Hill to direct the pilot. Leisurely if not glacial pace guaranteed.

Not that I mean to be mean. There are good things in DEADWOOD. Some of the acting is excellent. Who cannot admire Ian McShane’s horrendous saloonkeeper, or his scurrilous henchmen, or the posh ex-laudanum-addict in widows’ weeds? There was a tendency to sentimentalize McShane’s character as the series progressed, though: in the first episode, he is the mastermind of the murder of a pilgrim family, offering $50 apiece for severed Indian heads; by the end of the first series he is the upright hero’s supporter and friend, performing mercy killings and revealing he is an orphan. Aaahhh…

It’s interesting to compare DEADWOOD to McCABE & MRS MILLER, a film the series’ creators have presumably seen. Both feature a similar number of characters, similarly attired. McShane’s character (at least before he starts to reform) is a combination of McCabe – who relies almost exclusively on charm and vision to get his way – and the gigantic English murderer who is sent by corporate interests to execute McCabe and appropriate his saloon. McShane is such a good actor that he pulls the mixture off, but his character is graphic novel-deep at best. He beats his whores and threatens to murder them, and is the master of every situation, whereas Beatty’s saloonkeeper is consistently charming, never swears, doesn’t abuse women, doesn’t even raise his voice, and fails at everything, in the end.

McCABE & MRS MILLER is a fine film, from that fecund period of New American Cinema, which ran from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, which experimented with a new type of protagonist, and achieved amazing things. DEADWOOD is a product of its times, as well.

 

TO TUCSON

Four days’ drive has brought me and Pearl to Tucson, where we shall shoot TOMBSTONE RASHOMON in three weeks’ time. Before I left Oregon my friend Drew Pratt gave me five pairs of boots which he thinks either are, or resemble, “period.” I shall give them to Sam, our costume designer, when we meet this week. After the shoot we’ll donate them to the Old Tucson wardrobe dept. The lovely boots can be seen here:

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I made a slight detour en route to visit Earp, a town in California originally called Drennen. Wyatt Earp and Josephine Marcus lived there in the early 20th Century and Wyatt prospected there for a while. In 1929, after his death, Josephine petitioned to have the town’s name changed to Earp. I’d forgotten that I’d already been to Earp – we shot part of SEARCHERS 2.0 there: the scene where Mel, Delilah and Fred stand overlooking the Colorado River and decide to eschew the freeway entirely, en route to Monument Valley.

But I had not ventured inside the general store (the only building that remains) and so was rewarded with a substantial shrine to Wyatt Earp. There is a life-size dummy of Earp, wearing a long black coat, a mural of the Tombstone gunfight, a replica of his pistol, and, best of all, a Wyatt Earp fortune telling machine. This comes to life if you stand near it, and Wyatt says, “Step up, pardner, and get your fortune told.”

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It cost a dollar, and I could not resist, though my fortune was pretty strange:

“You may be riding the winds of change… As the blessings of health and fortune have a beginning, so they must also have an end… He who could foresee affairs but three days in advance would be rich for thousands of years.”

Well, okay. I get the idea of making money by being able to predict the future. But to stay rich for thousands of years might be more of a curse than a blessing. So I guess I’ll eschew that and carry on as before.

Over the next three weeks I’ll meet the local actors, do some rehearsin’, and spend a lot of time with the art department, and our designer, M.

Time will fly. No doubt there will be developments along the way.