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What will alarm Americans about nuclear weapons?

U.S. citizens may need a jolt of fear, and the threat of terrorism has galvanized some former U.S. leaders. But worldwide, some peace groups see hope in more positive visions of nuclear abolition, and they want President Obama to do more than talk.

A statue near Seattle's University Bridge honors the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who died of leukemia after the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima.

A statue near Seattle's University Bridge honors the memory of Sadako Sasaki, a Hiroshima girl who died of leukemia after the U.S. nuclear bombing of Hiroshima. City of Seattle

The people of Hiroshima live with the devastating legacy of nuclear war, juxtaposed with the city’s dedication to working for world peace. A mindful American visitor to Hiroshima can’t avoid asking: Are people in the United States too comfortable with the existence of nuclear weapons? How do you motivate the public to care about the nuclear threat and instill the hope to work toward change?

At times it seems that a good jolt of fear might be the answer. Maybe then we would finally wake from denial and do something about the dangers of nuclear arms: the risk that one of the nuclear powers may choose to use the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the bomb’s distortion of power relationships among nations, the potential for accident or terror to unleash some catastrophe.

The difficulty of imparting a vision that enables change is brought home by "Countdown to Zero," a 2010 film on the dangers of nuclear arms. "Countdown" goes down a dramatic Hollywood path, using fear as a catalyst for action. The film’s publicity line, “More than a movie. It’s a movement,” promised it would focus public concern on nuclear arms in the way "An Inconvenient Truth," by the same filmmakers, did for climate change. "Countdown" failed to revitalize popular support for nuclear disarmament, but it did provide an insight into the pitfalls of crafting an urgent warning about pervasive danger.

By the end of "Countdown," wrote Jeannette Catsoulis of The New York Times, “all most of us will want to do is duck and cover” — exactly the concern of some of the country’s eminent experts and campaigners for nuclear abolition.

“I think that fear shuts people down,” says Jacqueline Cabasso, executive director of Western States Legal Foundation, which monitors U.S. nuclear weapons programs.

Countdown to Zero video still
Watch a trailer of "Countdown to Zero"

There are other difficulties of balance when it comes to presenting the complexities of contemporary nuclear armaments and policy. "Countdown" dwells on the terrifying chaos of our post-Cold-War world — weapons-grade uranium casually smuggled from the insufficiently regulated Russian nuclear industry and the ease with which terrorists could obtain material to assemble a crude but devastating “dirty bomb.”

The film does show one unexpected “benefit” of the threat of terror: getting some traditional supporters of nuclear policy to acknowledge that the United States can no longer hope to maintain a nuclear weapons stockpile while asking others to give up the bomb. As former Republican Secretary of State George Shultz said in an interview with YES! magazine in 2008, “You’re going to be more secure if there are no nuclear weapons in the world, because if you achieve this goal, you won’t be risking having nuclear weapons blow up in one of our cities.”

But for a film linked to the “Global Zero” movement, ending with the repeated message that the only safe number of nuclear arms is zero, "Countdown" leaves the viewer with little information about how this is to be achieved. It’s particularly striking how vague "Countdown" is about the responsibility of the United States and the other Western nuclear powers for the proliferation of nuclear weapons in the world; there are about 23,000, according to the film.

Nuclear weapons have long held a strong place in U.S. strategic doctrine, not just as a deterrent, and the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped an atomic bomb. The new nuclear states — Pakistan, for example — are portrayed in the film as dangerous, if not unbalanced. But if Western democracies continue nuclear policies that underpin global instability, what hope is there of reining in nuclear escalation elsewhere?


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Comments:

Posted Sun, May 1, 1:08 a.m. Inappropriate

Nice article. Nuclear weapons would alarm Americans if they knew the risks and the costs for maintaining them.

In the Puget Sound region, the Navy is currently conducting an Environmental Impact Statement for a second Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor to handle Trident nuclear missiles. The wharf will cover approximately 6.3 acres of Hood Canal, take four years to build, and cost $782 million.

The Navy’s Bangor submarine base is 20 miles from Seattle and homeport to eight Trident SSBN submarines. Approximately 1,000 nuclear warheads, about 20 percent of the entire U.S. arsenal, are deployed at Bangor.

The comment period for the Draft EIS for the second wharf has been extended to May 17. See the Navy’s website at https://www.nbkeis.com/ehw.

The Navy acknowledges that it has loaded Trident submarines at the Bangor base for nearly 30 years with just one wharf. Now, with already reduced numbers of ballistic missile submarines, and much greater reductions in missiles and nuclear warheads in the near future, the Navy wants a second wharf.

The Navy claims it needs the wharf for its so-called “Life Extension Program” for the Trident D-5 missile. The Navy does not mention that the Life Extension Program also involves shipping W-76 nuclear warheads at Bangor in unmarked trucks to Amarillo, Texas. There they are dismantled, rebuilt, and shipped back to Bangor. See http://www.kitsapsun.com/news/2010/nov/27/tridents-warheads-on-the-road-to-refurbishment

In its environmental assessment, the Navy stated the 1,250 to 1,500 pilings for the wharf and overwater structure will cause “insignificant” cumulative impacts to Hood Canal. The Navy adds that they have not dropped a missile, causing a catastrophic accident in Hood Canal in the past 30 years.

The Navy does not want the public to know about the explosives hazards involving missiles at the wharf. One Trident SSBN submarine contains enough rocket propellant to equal 3.7 million pounds of TNT. The 24 missiles on a submarine now each carry about four nuclear warheads. Although the risk of a catastrophic accident is small at the base, the risk of an accident increases the more often the missiles are handled.

A number of people in the Puget Sound region are working to inform the public of the second Explosives Handling Wharf at Bangor. For more information the wharf, please see http://psnukefree.blogspot.com. For information about an event at the Trident submarine base on May 7, please see http://www.gzcenter.org.

There are actions we can take that make a difference. We will have to tell each other. And we might as well start here, and now.

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