July 6, 2009

Hope for a Cure to Nuclear Insanity

Congratulations to US President, Obama, and Russia’s President, Medvedev, who have just announced a preliminary agreement to reduce each country’s stockpiles of strategic nuclear weapons by as much as one third. Even more encouraging, they declared an intention work toward a broader agreement to put the world on a path toward eliminating nuclear weapons altogether. Finally sanity has returned to the international stage. Obama stated: “This is an urgent issue, and one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership. It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way.”

The US has 1,198 land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles and bombers, capable of delivering 5,576 warheads; an estimated 2,200 nuclear warheads are deployed for immediate use. Russia reported 816 delivery vehicles capable of delivering 3,909 warheads Both sides also have nueclear weapons in storage and thousands of smaller yield “tactical nuclear weapons” that are not reported.

We have cute, euphemistic terms to describe hydrogen bombs that can destroy cities in seconds and leave a lasting legacy of radiation and devastation. An apocalyptic, world-destroying weapon becomes a “strategic warhead” delivered by a nice missile – the same kind that NASA uses to deliver goods into earth orbit. I was born in 1943 and grew up with the idea that the human world could be destroyed by nuclear bombs. In recent years the reality of these bombs has disappeared from view. I want to share the section in my book, Surviving Human Nature, that deals with nuclear weapons:


My early life was dominated by three horrific preoccupations; the holocaust, the hydrogen bomb and the destruction of animals and their natural environments all over planet earth. By age ten, I knew in theory how to construct both fission and fusion bombs and knew how destructive they were. I would study civil defense maps showing the extent of destruction from hydrogen bombs of different strengths exploded above Canadian and US cities. Later, I took courses in nuclear physics and the medical management of radiation sickness. For many years, I belonged to organizations that protested the development of more nuclear bombs. If you asked me in 1970, I would have told you that I had little confidence in modern civilization and wanted to live away from urban centers and the madness prevalent in the world. For me, the natural world of coastal British Columbia was sane, rational and enduring. Here, I felt part of an ancient natural order that would continue even if humans departed. I could ignore, at least for awhile, the folly of self-destructive humans.

Albert Einstein revealed the stunning relationship of mass to energy in the famous formula, E=mc². The speed of light, C, is a large number so that a small amount of annihilated mass produces a large amount of energy. This equation explains the prodigious energy production of our sun and other stars. Einstein did not imagine man-made devices that suddenly convert mass to energy, creating gigantic explosions. The discovery of the neutron chain reaction in radioactive materials such as purified uranium suggested the possibility of a nuclear bomb. A physicist friend, Leo Szilard, who had patented an atomic bomb design in 1934, feared that Germany might construct nuclear weapons and encouraged Einstein to sign letter to US President Roosevelt, warning him.

A second Einstein-Szilard letter was sent in March 1940 and led to the Manhattan Project in 1942, designed to produce nuclear bombs based on the fission of purified, radioactive uranium. Scientist from all over the US were recruited to purify bomb-grade uranium and to work out the details of a denotation system under the direction of physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. The scientists had been highly motivated to end the destruction inflicted on the world by Germany and Japan. Their work lead to the sustained proliferation of nuclear weapons in the US, Russia and six other countries. The US tested at least 1100 nuclear weapons and continues to maintain the second largest stockpiles of nuclear weapons in the world. Sensible humans were alarmed by the persistent belligerence of the US and the Soviet Union and sought to limit or abolish nuclear weapons.

Plutonium, the second fissile elements used to create nuclear explosives, is not found in significant quantities in nature. The production of plutonium started with the Manhattan Project and accelerated as nuclear reactors were built for weapons production and for power generation. Plutonium is created in a nuclear reactor by bombarding 238 Uranium with neutrons to produce the isotope 239 U, which beta decays becoming a neptunium isotope which again beta decays to 239 Plutonium. Uranium and plutonium are radioactive substances that release radiation – electrons, neutrons, alpha particles, X-rays and gamma rays.

When the bomb project began, scientists did not understand the health damaging effects of radiation. In the US, reckless if not cruel experiments were inflicted on naive “volunteers” to determine the effects of radiation on human subjects. Credit goes to the US Department of Energy who established the Office of Human Radiation Experiments in March 1994 to reveal the shocking story of radiation research using human subjects in the US.

The complete detonation of one kilogram of plutonium produces an explosion equal to about 20,000 tons of chemical explosive. Nuclear explosions produce blast effects, thermal radiation, ionizing radiation and delayed effects, such as radioactive fallout that can damage all living creatures hours to years after the blast. When a nuclear bomb is detonated on or near the Earth's surface, the blast destroys everything in a central zone, creating a large crater. A cloud of particles rises into the air and returns to the earth’s surface downwind as radioactive fallout.
An intense burst of thermal and gamma radiation travels at the speed of light in all directions. The flash of light is followed by a blast wave followed by hurricane-like winds.

Humans who survive the direct blast can be injured in many ways. For example, gamma radiation exposure causes radiation sickness and death. Thermal radiation and secondary fires will cause burns in many of the blast survivors. Third-degree burns over 24 percent of the body, or second-degree burns over 30 percent of the body, will be fatal unless prompt, specialized medical care is available. Fallout consists of particles made radioactive by the explosion, distributed at varying distances from the site of the blast. The fallout is greater if the burst is close to the surface. The area and intensity of the fallout are determined by local weather conditions. Winds and rain distribute radioactive particles.

Areas receiving contaminated rainfall become "hot spots," with greater radiation intensity than their surroundings. Radioactive isotopes enter the soil, the groundwater and accumulate in rivers and lakes. Lower level radiation exposure received by people hundreds to thousands of miles from the blast center leads to delayed consequences such as cancer many years after exposure.

The ongoing manufacture of plutonium is one of the many features of political processes that ran amok after the Second World War. While nuclear energy offered an alternative to burning fossil fuel to produce electricity there are contingent problems that have never been resolved. One of the problems is the increasing stockpiles of plutonium created by nuclear reactors.

Sherwin summarized the nuclear insanity:” Armed with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons capable of being launched from land, sea, and air, the United States and the Soviet Union became prisoners of a cold war process that neither controlled. Locked into a nuclear arms race justified by national security, they increased their peril, diminished their economies, and promoted an international atmosphere of impending catastrophe. While each government held the population of the other hostage to annihilation, both engaged in conventional wars on the territories of other nations. Occasionally, as in the Berlin crisis of 1961 and the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, they pushed each other to the nuclear brink. Living in the nuclear bull's-eye became a way of life. How to prevent the nuclear system from becoming a way of death was the question that dominated the debate over nuclear weapons from their inception. Most responses to it promoted the nuclear arms race, including the massive retaliation doctrine, limited nuclear war plans, the concept of mutual assured destruction (mad), the Strategic Defense Initiative, and even the salt and start arms control negotiations.”

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Federation of Atomic Scientists was founded in the fall of 1945 by scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project that produced atomic bombs in the US. The first two atom bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. The scientists had cooperated in an accelerated, well-focused program to build the atomic bombs, but realized afterwards that the US government and indeed all governments would not be competent to control the development and use of nuclear weapons. They wanted to insure that nuclear weapons were never again used. One of their tasks was to educate everyone about the unprecedented destructive power of these weapons. A “doomsday clock” has been a feature on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947.

The idea is that a group of concerned scientists would keep the rest of the world’s citizens informed about the danger of nuclear war. They estimate man's proximity to nuclear war and expressed this as minutes to midnight. The doomsday clock has hovered close to midnight since its inception. In 1947 we were 2 minutes to midnight. Just after the cold war ended, we were 17 minutes to midnight. In March 2005 we returned to 7 minutes to midnight, partly because of the renewed belligerence and irrationality of the Bush administration in the USA.

The Atomic Scientists stated: “We move the (clock) hands taking into account both negative and positive developments. The negative developments include too little progress on global nuclear disarmament; growing concerns about the security of nuclear weapons materials worldwide; the continuing U.S. preference for unilateral action rather than cooperative international diplomacy; U.S. abandonment of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and U.S. efforts to thwart the enactment of international agreements designed to constrain proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; the crisis between India and Pakistan; terrorist efforts to acquire and use nuclear and biological weapons; and the growing inequality between rich and poor around the world that increases the potential for violence and war… More than 31,000 nuclear weapons are still maintained by the eight known nuclear powers, a decrease of only 3,000 since 1998. Ninety-five percent of these weapons are in the United States and Russia, and more than 16,000 are operationally deployed. Even if the United States and Russia complete their recently announced arms reductions over the next 10 years, they will continue to target thousands of nuclear weapons against each other. Furthermore, many if not most of the U.S. warheads removed from the active stockpile will be placed in storage (along with some 5,000 warheads already held in reserve) rather than dismantled, for the express purpose of re-deploying them in some future contingency. As a result, the total U.S. stockpile will remain at more than 10,000 warheads for the foreseeable future. Russia, on the other hand, seeks a verifiable, binding agreement that would ensure retired U.S. and Russian weapons are actually destroyed, a position we support… As a first step in moving toward a safer world, we urge the United States and Russia to commit to reduce their nuclear arsenals to no more than 1,000 warheads each by the end of the decade... Both countries should commit to storing and disposing of the resulting fissile material in a manner that makes the reductions irreversible. “

Luongo and Hoehn stated: “The cooperative threat reduction programs operating in Russia and other former Soviet states have been an unprecedented nonproliferation success. But the threat reduction agenda now faces a potential crisis driven by mounting unsolved problems and lingering policy disputes. If new agreements are not reached and greater flexibility is not introduced soon, major elements of the agenda could be derailed. Threat reduction--securing and eliminating weapons and weapons of mass destruction materials--is a unique post-Cold War tool, filling the gap between diplomacy and negotiation on the one hand and sanctions and military action on the other. “

You could argue that we need not worry. We have lived with nuclear weapons since 1945 and we are still alive. Or, you could argue that nuclear weapons remain extremely dangerous, evil and stupid beyond any stupidity that humans have previously manifest. If you tend toward the second argument, as I do, you will need to actively promote disarmament. The people who can best do this live in the US and, by numbers, are in the minority there.

Some of the smartest and most politically effective people I have known live in the US. I have admired their consistent activism that began in the 1960’s, liberated women, liberated black Americans, ended the Viet Nam war and put the country on a course toward disarmament. When Mikhail Gorbachev emerged as the great peacemaker from the Soviet Union, there were enough sane people in the US who were ready to negotiate disarmament to overcome Regan’s resistance. The problem, revealed in the US, is that Presidents and their administrations often act irrationally and arbitrarily without compassion or remorse. They can be, in other words, sociopathic. Belligerent attitudes in government are least likely to be constrained by ordinary political processes and must be opposed by citizen’s coalitions who are committed to rational and peaceful solutions to world problems and are willing to act with courage and determination close to home.

The organization, United for Peace and Justice stated in May 2005: “Sixty years ago, the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing hundreds of thousands of people. World leaders and citizens from around the world are converging on the United Nations to decide the fate of the endangered Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The nuclear weapons states, led by the U.S., are hypocritically accusing other nations of seeking nuclear arms while ignoring their own disarmament obligations. The Bush administration lied when it went to war in Iraq by claiming Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction.” This war rages on, with mounting casualties on all sides, a country in ruins, and escalating costs here at home, Washington is turning its sights on Iran and North Korea, seeking again to inflame public fears of a new nuclear threat. At the same time, the U.S. is modernizing its nuclear arsenal and expanding the role of nuclear weapons in its “national security” policy. On Sunday, May 1, the day before the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review begins at the United Nations, United for Peace and Justice held a massive demonstration for global nuclear disarmament, culminating in a rally in New York City's Central Park. We call for an end to the Iraq war and the worldwide abolition of all nuclear weapons.”

In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the United Nations' nuclear monitoring agency, suggested that the world should stop treating the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea as isolated cases and instead deal with them in a common effort to eliminate poverty, organized crime and armed conflict. He stated: "More than 15 years after the end of the cold war, it is incomprehensible to many that the major nuclear weapon states operate with their arsenals on hair-trigger alert. Despite some disarmament, the existence of 27,000 nuclear warheads in various hands around the world still hold the prospect of devastation of entire nations in a matter of minutes. No less dangerous, he added, are the presumed efforts of extremist groups to acquire nuclear materials. We cannot respond to these threats by building more walls, developing bigger weapons or dispatching more troops. These threats require multinational cooperation. “

The world economic crisis that began in 2008 became an opporutinity for world leaders to meet as crisis managers with a new willingness to overcome old obstacles, seeking greater cooperation. A 2009 editorial in the journal, Nature, stated:” Nuclear non-proliferation's moment has come. Scientists must help governments to seize a historic opportunity to avoid future apocalypse. Nothing poses a greater threat for creating further crises than nuclear weapons, either in existing stockpiles or through their acquisition by an increasing number of states — or by terrorists… UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, has signalled that he is ready to put cuts to his country's arsenal on the table. US president Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev are expected to sign a pledge at the G20 meeting to reach an agreement by the end of the year to make substantial cuts to their nuclear arsenals… But the world's leaders need to go much further. Over the past decade the whole fabric of the nuclear non-proliferation regime has begun to unravel — notably through the failure to implement ways to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, such as through a Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The situation is now dire. North Korea, which tested a nuclear device in 2006, seems set to test an intercontinental ballistic missile within days. Pakistan, which is estimated to have dozens of nuclear warheads, is politically unstable. And Iran, according to many scientists, now has enough fuel-grade low-enriched uranium to convert into a bomb's worth of highly enriched uranium, should it choose to do so. These challenges will only grow more acute if, as expected, nuclear power is revived around the world as a way to mitigate climate change. A solution is urgently needed to ensure that the fuel intended for civilian nuclear reactors, as well as the huge amount of waste they produce, is not diverted to military ends. Some radical solutions are already under discussion, such as bringing all fuel-production facilities under multinational control… scientists and engineers can play a crucial part by redoubling their efforts to create informal scientific and diplomatic backchannels. Indeed, there is cause for optimism on the nuclear front. Obama's pledge to work towards a world free of nuclear weapons seems sincere, and is galvanizing support for new multilateral efforts in non-proliferation. With quick action, moreover, there is still time to build enough political momentum and preparation to make substantial progress at next year's crucial review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The United States could send a strong signal here by sending the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty to the Senate for ratification — as Obama has said he intends to do. As Brown said in a landmark speech on the topic on 17 March, it is time "to transform the discussion of nuclear disarmament from one of platitudes to one of hard commitments".”

See Surviving Human Nature by Stephen Gislason

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