With the film Oppenheimer opening in theaters on Friday and being widely heralded by media, and this past Sunday the 78th anniversary noted of the first explosion of a nuclear device, and, so importantly, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons becoming international law, the time for putting the nuclear genie back in the bottle has arrived with great timeliness and strength.
Can it be done? Can nuclear weapons be abolished?
Consider what the world did in the wake of World War I when the terrible impacts of poison gas had been tragically demonstrated. Mustard gas, chlorine gas, phosphene gas killed thousands on both sides of the conflict. Thereafter, the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1933 outlawed chemical warfare, and to a large degree the prohibition has held.
This month The New York Time ran a front-page story headlined: “Toxic Arsenal Nears Its End, Decades Later.” The July 6th article began: “In a sealed room behind…armed guards and three rows of high barbed wire at the Army’s Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, a team of robotic arms was busily disassembling some of the last of the United States’ vast and ghastly stockpile of chemical weapons. In went artillery shells filled with deadly mustard agent that the Army had been storing for 70 years. The bright yellow robots pierced, drained and washed each shell, then baked it at 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. Out came inert a harmless scrap metal, falling off a conveyor belt into an ordinary brown dumpster with a resounding clank.”
The article continued: “’That’s the sound of a chemical weapon dying,’ said Kingston Rief, who spent years pushing for disarmament outside government and is now deputy assistant secretary of defense for threat reduction and arms control. He smiled as another shell clanked into the dumpster. The destruction of the stockpile has taken decades, and the Army says the work is just about finished.”
“They were a class of weapons deemed so inhumane that their use was condemned after World War I, but even so, the United States and other powers continued to develop and amass them,” said the piece.
The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, adopted by the United Nations in 2017—with 122 nations in favor—and entered into force in January 2021 can be the nuclear counterpart to the chemical weapons genie being, at long last, put back in the bottle.
The nuclear genie began taking form in 1939 seven air miles from where I live.
It started in a little waterfront community in which Albert Einstein spent summers on the North Fork of Long Island, called New Suffolk, just across Little Peconic Bay from where I and my wife have lived for nearly 50 years, in Noyac, a hamlet on Long Island’s South Fork.
That is where Einstein worked on and signed the letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1939 after the splitting of the atom—fission—having the year before been done in Germany. The letter said: “This phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable—though much less certain—that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.”
It caused formation of the Manhattan Project, the program to build atomic weapons—to fight fire with fire against Nazi Germany. J. Robert Oppenheimer became the crash program’s scientific director.
In the end, Einstein regretted what he had wrought with that letter. “If I had known that the Germans would not succeed in constructing the atom bomb, I never would have moved a finger,” he wrote in his 1950 book Out of My Later Years.
I reprint a portion of the letter in my 1980 book, Cover Up: What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power and write about it, too, in my 1986 book Power Crazy. Power Crazy is about the plans to turn Long Island into, in the parlance of nuclear promoters then, a “nuclear park”—with seven to eleven nuclear power plants. The first to be built was at Shoreham, 25 miles west of New Suffolk. A groundswell of public and governmental opposition on Long Island stopped it from going into commercial operation; it sits now as a hulk. None of the other nuclear power plants proposed for Long Island were built. Further, the two nuclear reactors at Brookhaven National Laboratory, opened on Long Island in 1947 largely to develop commercial uses of nuclear technology, were shut down after they were found to be leaking radioactive tritium into the sole-source water supply of Long Island. The island is now nuclear-free—an example of how commercial uses of nuclear power (the other side of the coin to its military use) can be put back in the bottle.
Oppenheimer also had concerns about what came out of the Manhattan Project—especially the push by Edward Teller, director of its Theoretical Division, who pushed to and did develop an even more powerful weapon than the atomic bomb, a thermonuclear weapon, the hydrogen bomb. As Oppenheimer declared in 1947 in a lecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, “no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin.”
Oppenheimer, as explored in the film Oppenheimer, upon viewing the explosion of the first nuclear device in 1945 at the Alamagordo Bombing Range in New Mexico, remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
And here we are today.
At the start of this year, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved its “Doomsday Clock” forward to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest to midnight that the clock has been since it was set up in 1947. Says The Bulletin: “The Doomsday Clock is a design that warns the public about how close we are to destroying our world with dangerous technologies of our own making. It is a metaphor, a reminder of the perils we must address if we are to survive on the planet.”
Nuclear weaponry today involves yet ever more gigantic destructive power.
Consider the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines built across the Long Island Sound in Groton, Connecticut. As The National Interest, a middle-of-the-road publication, describes them: “If you do the math, the Ohio-class boats may be the most destructive weapon system created by humankind. Each of the 170-meter-long vessels can carry twenty-four Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles which can be fired from underwater to strike at targets more than seven thousand miles away…As a Trident II reenters the atmosphere at speeds of up to Mach 24, it splits into up to eight independent reentry vehicles, each with a 100- or 475-kiloton nuclear warhead. In short, a full salvo from an Ohio-class submarine—which can be launched in less than one minute-could unleash up to 192 nuclear warheads to wipe twenty-four cities off the map. This is a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse.”
“Let’s eliminate these weapons before they eliminate us,” said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, at the conclusion last year of a “Political Declaration and Action Plan” for implementation of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons—“important steps,” he said, “toward our shared goal of a world free of nuclear weapons.” Guterres said that with 13,000 nuclear weapons still held across the globe, “the once unthinkable prospect of nuclear conflict is now back within the realm of possibility.”
“In a world rife with geopolitical tensions and mistrust, this is a recipe for annihilation. We cannot allow the nuclear weapons wielded by a handful of States to jeopardize all life on our planet,” he said. “We must stop knocking at doomsday’s door.”
Recently I did a TV program with Seth Shelden, a professor of law, an attorney, and UN liaison for the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017. The Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was passed at the UN that year much due to the work of ICAN.
The program will be broadcast at 4:30 p.m. this coming Saturday, the day after the theater release of Oppenheimer, via Free Speech TV on nearly 200 cable TV systems in 40 states, on satellite TV networks and on internet platforms,
In the program Shelden details the provisions of the treaty termed by the UN as “a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination.”
You can view the program here.
The treaty declares that because of the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences that would result from any use of nuclear weapons, and recognizing the consequent need to completely eliminate such weapons, which remains the only way to guarantee that nuclear weapons are never used again under any circumstances,” nations agree not to “develop, test, produce, manufacture, otherwise acquire, possess or stockpile nuclear weapons.” Further, no country may “threaten to use” them.
Asked about the lack of coverage by media of the treaty creating a nuclear weapons-free world, and thus so few people being aware of it, Shelden points to “myopic framing” by media. He cites how long it took “for journalists to accept that there were not two sides to the climate crisis.” The horrendous impacts of nuclear weapons, “like the climate crisis, even more so, is a very black-and-white issue,” he says. Shelden notes that the abolition of nuclear weapons has been a focus of the UN since its formation, the subject of its first resolution. He discusses the years of work that have led to the treaty.
An issue for the treaty is opposition from countries with nuclear weapons—including the United States, Russia and China. The film Oppenheimer can help lead to a groundswell of action by people challenging that.
The coalition Back From the Brink has a website headed “’Oppenheimer’ Advocacy Resources” which has a graphic with the words: “LIFE WITH NUCLEAR WEAPONS: Not a Hollywood Movie.” The group says: “The film Oppenheimer provides an important opportunity to engage your community in efforts for a safer, more just world that is free of nuclear weapons.” It goes on: “The film is a lesson in what is possible when smart, committed people act. And today if smart, committed people act it is both possible and practicable to eliminate nuclear weapons and this unacceptable threat to our future and all we hold dear.” There are many pages of suggestions of what people can do.
ICAN on its website has an “Oppenheimer: Campaigners’ Action Kit.”
ICAN says: “The release of the Oppenheimer film, and the wave of (media) attention surrounding it, creates an opportunity to spark public attention on the risks of nuclear weapons and invite new audiences to get involved in the movement to abolish nuclear weapons. We can educate about the risks, and share a much-needed message of hope and resistance: Oppenheimer is about how nuclear weapons began, the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) is how we end them. That is why we have put together some resources for all ICAN campaigners—or anyone who is willing to take action—to use at local theatres around the world or to join the conversation online!”
Shelden of ICAN on my Envirovideo TV program also has many suggestions for action.