PD Smith

Our Nuclear Future

04 March 2009 | Atomic Age, Barack Obama, Dr Strangelove, nuclear weapons | Post a comment

wwweptcpowerforprogress-power-for-progressAt the end of January, Scientific American posted two wonderful comics from the nuclear age on their site: The Atomic Revolution (1957; also here) and Power for Progress from 1971 (also here). I was struck by the contrast between their optimism and a news story that appeared about the same time. 

Lawyers representing 1,000 ex-servicemen in Britain are going to court to try and win compensation for illnesses, including cancer, skin defects and fertility problems, they claim are the result of exposure to radiation during 1950s nuclear bomb tests in the South Pacific. As the BBC reported, tests were 70 times more powerful than anticipated and on one occasion, a group of men were so badly contaminated by the penetrating radiation that they produced radioactive urine.

A few weeks later, two nuclear missile submarines — one British, one French — armed with a likely total of well over 100 thermonuclear warheads collided under the Atlantic Ocean. BBC radio had recently been allowed access to Britain's nuclear weapons infrastructure in order to consider whether it really is (to use that infamous Cold War phrase) fail-safe.

"One of Britain's four Trident submarines is always out there," they reported, "somewhere under the Atlantic, carrying more destructive power than was unleashed in the entire campaign of World War II."  But they didn't consider the possibility that a British sub might collide with another nuclear armed sub. History suggests that nothing can ever be truly fail-safe.

The nuclear issue has rather receded from the headlines in recent years, but as this incident shows the danger is still very real. As a New York Times editorial said, the election of Barack Obama to the White House provides an ideal opportunity for real progress on nuclear weapons. Of course, there is no shortage of people ready to offer the new president advice, including Strangelovian figures from the Cold War like Henry Kissinger. Indeed, it's reported that Obama quietly sent Kissinger to Moscow in January to test the waters regarding cuts in nuclear warheads.

The need for cuts is clear and urgent. Obama faces opposition within his own administration, indeed (according to Time) from his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, no less. And as ever, events - such as Iran's nuclear ambitions - will conspire to throw him off course. But let's hope he can do it.

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