By Frida Berrigan, April 16, 2010
There is a lot of news about nuclearism these days. President Barack Obama just concluded his Nuclear Security Summit. The new START agreement between the United States and the Russia will cut the number of long-range nuclear warheads on each side by hundreds. And the upcoming Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty Review Conference will take place at the United Nations next month.
It's good that nuclear weapons reductions and security are in the news. When they are asked about it, Americans are concerned. According to a Pew Research survey last fall, a little more than a half of the American public believes that "an attack on the United States with a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon is a greater danger now than it was 10 years ago."
That is an alarming statistic. And a quick look at the nuclear landscape reinforces this anxiety. There are four more nuclear powers — Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea — than when the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty entered into force in 1970.
And here in the United States, despite the White House's pledge to seek a world without nuclear weapons and recent agreements for arms reductions with Russia, the 2011 federal budget for nuclear weapons research and development is likely to be more than $7 billion. If the Obama administration has its way, it could reach $8 billion per year by the end of this decade. This steady and growing investment contradicts the White House's promising rhetoric of disarmament.
In addition, the administration recently unveiled its Nuclear Posture Review, which affirms a more limited but "essential" role for nuclear weapons in U.S. national security and does not rule out "first use" of nuclear weapons. This "right" allows the United States to drop the first bomb in an atomic war, thus leaving U.S. global dominance through military power unchallenged and unchecked. Another key Pentagon document, the Quadrennial Defense Review, suggests that as nuclear reductions are completed, more powerful conventional (i.e. non-nuclear) weapons capabilities — called "Prompt Global Strike" — will be necessary.
Existential Threat, Daily Impact
It isn't just the existential threat of global annihilation by accidental or deliberate nuclear strike that is of pressing concern. Whole communities throughout the world are affected daily by nuclear weapons, their land forcibly subjected to decades of nuclear testing, mining, and dumping of toxic radioactive waste.
In the United States, these practices disproportionately affect indigenous communities throughout the Southwest, permanently damaging land that was legally granted to them through treaties. This targeting underscores the racism, colonialism, and illegality at the heart of the nuclear project, one that continues to envision, build, and retain the ability to destroy the world many times over.
Today, nuclear mining and nuclear waste dumping on Native lands is back with a vengeance, as the Obama administration pushes for a renaissance of nuclear power production in the United States. In January, the White House approved a $54 billion dollar taxpayer loan in a guarantee program for new nuclear reactor construction, three times what Bush previously promised in 2005. Right now, there are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States that supply 20 percent of U.S. electricity.
Since 2007, 17 companies have sought government approval to build 26 new reactors, at an estimated cost of more than $12 billion each. These new nuclear reactors need uranium and the mining industry has applied to open (or reopen) 22 mines in New Mexico, many of which are on Diné (Navajo) and other tribal land. In terms of waste, nuclear reactors today produce about 2,000 metric tons of nuclear waste every year, which gets added to the 75,000 metric tons of waste stored in temporary containment around the country (122 temporary storage sites in 39 states).
At the end of April, people will be coming to New York City from all over the world to participate in and monitor the UN Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference. They will gather at the "For a Nuclear Free, Peaceful, Just and Sustainable World" conference at Riverside Church in Manhattan on April 30 and May 1.
The 2010 NPT Review Conference represents a vital opportunity to put needed pressure on the U.S. government and kickstart the antinuclear movement. It's also the anti-nuclear movement's opportunity to excite the American people with a vision of what a world free of nuclear weapons looks like and how to get from here to there.
In 1982, the War Resisters League initiated a "Blockade the Bombmakers" series of mass actions in New York City at the UN Missions of the five nuclear powers of the time. It was day one of the UN Special Session on Disarmament, and nearly 1,700 people were arrested in the blockades. The day before, one million people crowded into Manhattan to press for nuclear disarmament.
This year, we'll have another opportunity to take to the streets. On May 2, the "Disarm Now: For Peace and Human Needs" march across 42nd St. will bring the world's message of disarmament to the UN. The War Resisters League, a secular pacifist organization founded in 1923, invites everyone to Grand Central Station to declare NYC a "nuclear weapons free zone," and imagine what our city would look like without the billions spent on nuclear weapons and the terrorism of the nuclear threat.
To cut through the verbiage of treaties and agreements and summits, and move people from fear to action, we need to focus on three concepts. The United States is the biggest problem when it comes to nuclear weapons. We need a new treaty to replace the NPT. And no nukes means no nuclear power.
Between them, the United States and Russia control about 90 percent of the 27,000 nuclear weapons that exist in the world today, and the United States is the only state to have ever dropped nuclear weapons in war. The August 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed or wounded over 350,000 people, and left many more wounded survivors of the devastation. During a speech in Prague on April 5, 2009, Obama acknowledged that in light of what we wrought 65 years ago, "the United States has a moral responsibility to act." We can take that one step further and assert that nuclear abolition begins at home, with unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Next, we need a simple and fair treaty. The NPT entered into force in 1970 and set up a bargain between nuclear haves and have-nots. The five acknowledged nuclear powers at the time — the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, France, and China — committed to disarmament. They also agreed not to transfer nuclear weapons material or know-how to any other country. The rest of the signing nations committed not to build nuclear weapons or accept delivery of that material or know-how.
Nuclear weapons states have not disarmed, and more than one has transferred nuclear know-how and materials to other nations. The treaty is broken. But there is an opportunity to channel the will toward disarmament into a new treaty framework that is free from the old constructs of haves and have-nots.
The Lawyers' Committee on Nuclear Policy and other groups established a framework for real action towards disarmament. The "Nuclear Weapons Convention," which Costa Rica submitted to the 2007 UN meeting in preparation for the NPT Review Conference this spring, would simply and universally "prohibit development, testing, production, stockpiling, transfer, use, and threat of use of nuclear weapons" [and] calls for "states possessing nuclear weapons [to] destroy their arsenals according to a series of phases." There is much more to the treaty that these few sentences, but in essence it says: "Let's build a safer world and start dismantling nuclear weapons."
Finally, no nukes means no nuclear power. The NPT enshrined nuclear power as the ultimate carrot to be exchanged for nonproliferation. It didn't work. And, just as importantly, nuclear power is not clean, green, or cheap. As uranium mining begins again under Obama, one need only visit Grand Canyon, Arizona (where uranium mining is once again under way) or Cane Valley, Arizona (the site of a uranium reprocessing plant) to be immediately disabused of that nuclear power industry propaganda.
These aren't slogans to shout from the ramparts. They're building blocks for a new anti-nuclear movement. We can't wait for the president or the leaders gathering at the next nuclear summit. They will have to be moved further in the right direction — by us.
Frida Berrigan serves on the Board of the War Resisters League and is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus.