The April 20 Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is a gift from British Petroleum that keeps on giving: 11 human lives lost, 2,940,000 gallons of oil daily, a 2,500-square-mile oil slick, underwater plumes 10 miles across, softball-size tar balls washing up on beaches of Louisiana, marshes and wildlife wiped out, the regional economy dealt a body blow, and now the oil looping around Florida and up the Atlantic Coast where the driller in chief, Barack Obama, outdoing George W. Bush, recently approved new drilling, but has supposedly now suspended it, which turns out to be an untruth (1). Key to the disaster is the malfunction of several devices and procedures designed to prevent a blowout. Some simply malfunctioned, one perhaps because one of its batteries was dead; others were not properly implemented or not implemented at all. Such fail-safe devices inevitably fail – even when they are put in place.
Days later on May 1 in Boston, my hometown, an enormous metal collar, the latest in technology, connecting parts of a water pipeline blew out and washed away, leaving 2 million with no potable water for days. The collar has yet to be found, and the reason for the failure remains a mystery – at least to the public. Of course aqua disasters are nothing new to Boston, with the Big Dig, another engineering marvel, leaking like a sieve, a malfunction less well known than the ceiling collapse that killed one hapless motorist.
In the interval between those two calamities on April 26 fell the anniversary of the nuclear reactor disaster in 1986 in Chernobyl, now a ghost town, as are neighboring villages in the “zone of alienation.” Here again fail-safe measures failed, and the impact in terms of lives lost and to be lost numbers in the thousands and perhaps much higher. Of course such a “zone of alienation” will be radioactive for a long time to come. That, however, has not deterred the Obama administration from moving forward on nuclear power plants, going again where no Bush dared to go before.
In physics, there is a maxim attributed to Murray Gell-Mann, “Whatever is not forbidden is compulsory,” which demands a stronger statement of Murphy’s Law, “If anything can go wrong, it must.”
These events all came upon us in the weeks leading up to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Conference at the UN on May 3, where the United States wasted the opening trying to demonize Iran, a ploy that was foiled in the eyes of most of the world by the tough and wily Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who called for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East, much to the horror of the United States and Israel.
On May 4, I contemplated all these events while sitting in on a national board meeting of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), U.S. affiliate of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), the recipient in 1985 of the Nobel Peace Prize, so recently besmirched by our hawkish laureate in chief. As we discussed the details of the world’s nuclear arsenals, I was reminded again of the 3,000 nuclear warheads maintained by the U.S. and Russia in silos and on submarines on hair-trigger alert, technically known as “Launch on Warning” (2). Should these weapons of mass destruction ever escape control, the result would make the worst of the dubious projections on global warming resemble a beach party. Hundreds of millions, perhaps billions of humans would die, and the entire species would be put at risk.
But of course we have fail-safe devices on these criminal instruments, don’t we? It should be clear that such devices are not subject to failure only on BP drilling platforms or Boston water mains or Russian nuclear power plants. In fact, such mechanisms of control have nearly failed at least five times since the end of the Cold War. For example on Jan. 25, 1995, the U.S. launch of a weather satellite from Norway to study the northern lights was misinterpreted by Russian radar as the beginning of a nuclear attack on Russia. (Someone forgot to notify the Russians!) The vodka-soaked Boris Yeltsin was given five minutes to press his wobbly finger to the button. For whatever reason, Yeltsin demurred. (Famously, Ronald Reagan was not worried about such matters because he believed that the missiles could be recalled, an ignorance as dangerous as any form of dipsomania.) And then there is the matter of the recent collision of French and British submarines armed with a likely total of more than 100 nuclear warheads on board.
It is certainly a crime of enormous proportions to keep humanity in this state of peril, and IPPNW and PSR call for its termination at once as an urgent first step in denuclearization. Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies the continuation of this hair-trigger nuclear standoff. Whatever can go wrong eventually must go wrong. It is compulsory.
It would be a mistake to believe that the general public is not interested in or frightened by nuclear armageddon. Whenever the U.S. empire wants to go after an inconvenient country, the specter of WMDs, most notably nuclear weapons, is raised. Thus for Iraq in 2003 and thus now for Iran. The possibility of taking these weapons off hair-trigger alert and removing the great bulk of them is a task to which the public is open. It cannot be relegated to a time long after Obama has departed this earth, as he has suggested. The stakes are too high, and we have been lucky for a little too long.
1. According to a front-page story on the New York Times May 24, it now appears that the prevaricator in chief’s promise of drilling suspension was yet another lie, with seven to 17 new drilling permits granted since the blowout and 15 waivers for drilling of the type that produced the BP disaster.
“But for those who cheered President Obama’s commitment, made in Prague a year ago and at the UN in September, that ‘we will reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,’ the Defense Department’s Nuclear Posture Review, released on April 6, was a savage disappointment. The administration did not merely reassert the essential premises of U.S. nuclear strategy but used the publication of the review and the subsequent Nuclear Security Summit in Washington as occasions to intensify the threats against North Korea and Iran. The crucial sentence in the review, insistently repeated by Obama, states that ‘the United States will not use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states that are party to the NPT and in compliance with their nuclear non-proliferation obligations.’ This is great news for the Holy See, Venezuela, and Yemen, which along with 180-plus other nations have signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And no, the president was not threatening to attack Israel, which has nuclear weapons but has not signed the NPT.”