Nuclear technology not worth the risks
Published: Thursday, October 18, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 18, 2012 23:10
Mankind has been perched on the edge of an abyss for over 50 years.
Since the first use of an atomic weapon in warfare in 1945, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, technology and materials has kept the fate of the world in question, threatening to plunge billions of people into a darker and more miserable future at any moment.
In order to survive and to coexist with this horrifying possibility, our necessary response is to ignore it, lest we be overcome and transfixed by that horror.
As a result, we rarely get a real sense of how close we are to the edge of the abyss. At the beginning of this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset its Doomsday Clock to 11:55 p.m., five minutes to midnight, citing inaction on nuclear disarmament, the portentous Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the “potential for nuclear weapons use in regional conflicts in the Middle East, Northeast Asia and particularly in South Asia.”
The potential for two of the so-called “Axis of Evil” nations to acquire and use nuclear weapons for their invidious objectives has not only dominated recent headlines, but has also captured the attention of the debating presidential candidates.
But is five minutes an accurate assessment of the temporal distance that separates mankind from oblivion?
Surely if the Doomsday Clock could have been reset quickly enough during the nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s or the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Vietnam War, we might have found ourselves to be just a matter of seconds away from midnight.
Just two days ago, we were once again reminded of the proximity of mutually assured destruction at the height of the Cold War. A short column titled “Nuclear Fight Was Option In 1962 Memo” appeared on Wednesday in The New York Times, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
It described how, in the early stages of the crisis, the United States military was beginning to make plans for a ground invasion of Cuba in which nuclear weapons would be used.
In the memo, General Maxwell Taylor wrote, “Certainly, we might expect to lose very heavily at the outset if caught by surprise, but our retaliation would be rapid and devastating.”
In a sense, we can be thankful that President John F. Kennedy did not trust his rather trigger-happy generals with the finer points of diplomacy in US-Soviet relations.
But Kennedy, too, did his part to escalate the conflict, nearly to the point of no return.
His boisterous and bellicose rhetoric, compounded with the similar strategies and faults of Nikita Khruschev, pushed the whole world to the edge of the abyss.
Kennedy, more so than almost any other human, peered down into the abyss, and it is likely due to his fear at what he saw that the clock has not yet struck 12.
“Not yet.” There is the great, foreboding caveat. Some day our time will come, just not yet.
Humans have shown time and again that they are not to be trusted with nuclear weapons, or even with peaceful nuclear technology. Though we may be able to stop the two-bit despots of the world from dispatching fusillades of nuclear missiles against their enemies, we cannot stop the thousands of terrorists who covet that nuclear technology from doing the same.
We cannot prevent the innumerable errors of the humans whom we entrust with the construction, design and maintenance of nuclear reactors.
And perhaps most regrettably, we cannot shorten the half-lives of uranium and plutonium.
Admittedly, we have had some success in our first century of coexistence with the awesome power of the atom.
Human societies have endured and even thrived – we are not dead yet, of course!
But we should nonetheless anticipate the “yet.”
This must not be our legacy as a species, to perish in a flash of light and radiation that glows for eons afterward.
We have to realize that, in the course of human civilization, science has enabled us not only to encounter nuclear energy, but to harness it and to employ it for whatever purposes we can justify to ourselves.
It is good that we have discovered nuclear energy and learned its secrets, but it is better still that we can choose to set those secrets aside.
And the first to take action on that choice must be the powers of the Nuclear Club – the United States, France, Britain, Israel, India, China, Russia, Pakistan and North Korea.
For the good of humanity, all nuclear weapons must be dismantled and rendered harmless.
No nation should be permitted to acquire them or to stockpile them.
And we must also be more wary of civilian nuclear power generation, working eventually toward making it obsolete.
With every Chernobyl, every Three Mile Island, every Fukushima, the hands of the Doomsday Clock move inexorably toward midnight and toward our plunge into the abyss.