The prospects for major reductions in world nuclear arsenals seem pretty slim these days. US-Russia relations are cooling, with a scheduled summit meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin canceled and a slowing of nuclear weapons negotiations. As reported in the Bulletin’s recent Nuclear Notebook, estimates of world nuclear arsenals stand at about 17,000 warheads, enough to destroy whole societies and render the Earth uninhabitable. Governments appear to be drifting away from recent pledges to reduce nuclear weapons, and that means inertia will likely take over.
Unfortunately the individuals, companies, and agencies whose livelihoods are tied to nuclear weapons programs will try to make sure that spending continues as usual. As I noted in my August column, three communities in particular benefit from continuing support for nuclear weapons: weapons scientists and engineers, private military contractors, and the government nuclear weapons bureaucracy.
In the face of these entrenched interests, who can be mobilized to provide a counterweight?
Scientists, physicians, engineers, clergy, and civic leaders spurred the outlawing of atmospheric nuclear tests in 1963, stopped a US weapons buildup in the 1980s, and inspired an end to Cold War nuclear hostilities in 1989 which, in turn, led to a reduction in nuclear arsenals from nearly 70,000 in 1989 to today’s 17,000. Where will today’s anti-nuclear-weapons leaders come from?
Since the 2007 statement by George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn, in which the former government leaders called for a “world free of nuclear weapons,” new organizations have drawn attention to nuclear dangers and mobilized high-level former government officials, military commanders, Nobel laureates, and celebrities around the world to support the cause. Among the most well-known are Global Zero and the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. They join sitting officials at the more-established Mayors for Peace and Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, as well as citizen groups like Abolition 2000, in advocating for a prohibition on nuclear weapons.
All of these efforts are motivated by a sense of duty to protect humanity. Yet few address the vested interests supporting nuclear weapons programs. And while these organizations do tremendously important work, the goal of a nuclear-weapons-free world remains elusive.
The fact is that to disrupt the status quo, a belief in protecting humanity may not be enough. It will also require the efforts of self-interested groups who are fighting for their rights. That’s how successful social change has usually occurred: In anti-Vietnam war protests, the civil rights movement, and women’s struggle for equality, the sacrifices were rarely deemed too great to achieve the ends because the injustices were so keenly felt; the same is true of today’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement. Of course, for a movement to succeed, political leaders also need to see their interests served by policy changes that meet the demands of the disenfranchised. But without the self-interested drive of lots of ordinary people, calls for radical change will fail in the face of entrenched interests.
So whose interests would be served by nuclear weapons disarmament? Which groups have everything to gain and very little to lose by challenging nuclear weapons programs?
First and foremost are those whose health and well-being have been damaged by working in plants that have produced materials for nuclear weapons and where radioactive material is stored. Many of these individuals suffer from exposure to materials like cesium 137, strontium 90, and tritium. Even those living near weapons-design plants are often exposed to radioactivity when materials leak from storage facilities. The US government’s facility at Rocky Flats, Colorado, was ultimately closed in 1989 after years of worker protests, investigative reporting, and careful epidemiological studies that demonstrated the harm caused by exposure to bomb-making materials.
Today, people who live near facilities at Livermore, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Savannah River have organized to monitor public health and leaks from those facilities. For example, since 1983, Tri-Valley Cares in Livermore, California, has been monitoring environmental clean-up efforts and bringing lawsuits to support compensation claims for illness and disability from overexposure to radioactive materials. Those who work in and live near nuclear bomb facilities are among the most affected in their daily lives by nuclear weapons programs. Although the plants offer employment, the price in illness and premature death is often too high a price to pay. For instance, a 1995 California Department of Health Services’ investigation found six times the incidence of malignant melanoma in children and young adults born in Livermore, as compared to those in the rest of Alameda County, and elevated levels of brain cancer among children born in Livermore in the 1960s.
A second group that has a direct interest in challenging nuclear weapons programs is made up of physicians whose professions require that they protect their patients. Many health workers have a deep understanding of the harmful health effects of nuclear materials. Indeed, the International Physicians to Prevent Nuclear War and the associated Physicians for Social Responsibility won the Nobel peace prize in 1985 for their efforts to halt the arms race.
A third group with interests opposed to the nuclear weapons establishment is made up of scientists and engineers with nuclear expertise. Of course, many physicists, chemists, and technical experts work in nuclear weapons laboratories and see their livelihoods tied to nuclear weapons programs. But others question the wisdom of nuclear armament and instead use their expertise to challenge government policy that legitimizes these weapons of mass destruction. Since the creation of the bomb, they have sounded the alarm about the catastrophic consequences of deploying nuclear weapons and have worked with their counterparts in other countries to press political leaders to reduce their reliance on these arms in national security policy. In fact, proposals for the major international treaties limiting nuclear weapons—including the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty opened for ratification in 1996, and the Fissile Material Cut-off Treaty yet to be negotiated—were initially drafted and circulated in scientific forums like the Pugwash International Conferences on Science and World Affairs.
In the United States, independent scientists working through advisory bodies like the National Academies of Science’s Committee on International Security and International Cooperation have prevented weapons systems even more dangerous than today’s nuclear bombs from coming on line. Others with the Federation of American Scientists, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as contributors to the Bulletin itself, provide independent assessments of nuclear weapons policies, frequently drawing attention to the extraordinary danger of maintaining huge arsenals. These scientists see their long-term interests best served by working for nuclear disarmament, rather than preserving the capacity for mass destruction.
A fourth group whose professional interest may serve disarmament is made up of independent journalists, especially investigative reporters. The secrecy of nuclear weapons programs, and the opportunity for corruption and waste that are often byproducts, flies in the face of everything that journalism stands for. The most heralded reporters are those who dig deep to uncover malfeasance and bring dubious practices to light. Journalists at the Program on Government Oversight and the National Security Archive, for example, regularly report on the nuclear weapons complex, including weapons design laboratories, private contractors, and the US Department of Energy. Their stories are often considered breaking news and are taken up by the mainstream media.
Workers in the nuclear weapons complex, doctors, independent scientists, and journalists all have direct interests in nuclear disarmament. Their livelihoods, and in some cases their health and longevity, depend on eliminating the most dangerous and secrecy-shrouded technology on Earth. Every day they bring their experience and expertise to challenge business as usual in the trillion-dollar nuclear weapons industry. But if they are to succeed they need more like them and more resources. In the end, those whose everyday self-interest lies in nuclear disarmament may be the vanguard we need to ensure the survival of humanity.