On a friend’s recommendation, I just listened to an episode of Fresh Air about nuclear contamination in Rocky Flats. In it Kristen Iversen talks about her new book: Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. That same friend also recommended Yellow Dirt: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed. Both of these books are part of a post-Cold War process of recovering information about the real-time social, environmental, and economic costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal. These narrative accounts compliment scholarly works such as Joe Masco’s Nuclear Borderlands and Stephen Schwartz’s Atomic Audit.
All of these texts contain the seeds of change. They provide us with the kind of tools that are necessary to any movement to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Rather than focusing our attention on the fear of what could happen in an unimaginable future, they focus our attention on what we can know now. They ask us to grapple with an immanent threat, the effects of which can be measured, discussed, and weighed against other alternatives.
As Iverson illustrates through the story of Rocky Flats, for much of the Cold War, the process through which the US produced and maintained its nuclear arsenal took place behind a shield of secrecy. A focus on the potential for catastrophic future costs associated with a nuclear war pre-empted or obscured discussion about the current costs of nuclear weapons. The rationale for the maintenance of the US nuclear arsenal was that the production of nuclear weapons would discourage military aggression through the threat of unacceptable costs in return. Therefore, it was the presence of the weapons that was keeping the peace. Maintaining the peace of the Cold War was the pre-eminent goal of US national security policy, hence environmental contamination and its health effects were considered a minor cost to pay in comparison. The desire to prevent a nuclear war, and the role of the US nuclear arsenal in deterring Soviet aggression, meant that the development and production of nuclear weapons proceeded as if the process were costless.
Arguments for nuclear abolition based on the real-time costs of maintaining a nuclear arsenal lead to very different kinds of policy outcomes than arguments based on the fear of an apocalyptic future. Real-time cost-based arguments focus attention on what nuclear weapon states are doing to destroy their own landscapes and peoples (and sometimes the people of neighboring countries or close allies). In other words, cost arguments ask nuclear weapon states to look at the threat they pose to themselves by choosing to develop nuclear weapons. These arguments highlight the aspects of nuclear weapons that are dirty, poisonous, and difficult to contain.
Real-time cost arguments lead to restrictions on what states may or may not do with nuclear materials. The most prominent example of a movement based on cost arguments is the movement to ban nuclear testing that played an important part in creating pressure on the US and USSR to agree to the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and informs the current debate about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In contrast, arguments for nuclear abolition based on the fear of an apocalyptic nuclear attack focus attention on what nuclear weapons can do in the context of an imagined future. Unlike real-time cost arguments, which provide states with concrete reasons to give up nuclear weapons for their own good, apocalyptic fear-based arguments focus attention on why nuclear weapons are dangerous to humankind at large.
The problem with this approach to arguments against the production of nuclear weapons is that on some level they feed back into the justification for the production of nuclear weapons. The apocalyptic potential contained in the thousands of nuclear warheads dispersed around the globe is either truly terrifying or entirely reassuring depending on your perspective.
The idea that nuclear weapons are dangerous does not necessarily mean that they should be eliminated. These same arguments about nuclear apocalypse provide advocates of nuclear deterrence with their justification for why maintaining a nuclear arsenal is essential to US national security. In the hands of an irrational adversary, nuclear weapons are dangerous, but turned to rational purposes by responsible states, nuclear weapons are the ultimate source of stability and power.
Apocalypse-based arguments direct attention to the threat posed by nuclear weapons in the hands of others. The act of giving up nuclear weapons may serve the long-term good of humanity, but is against any individual state’s short-term good (narrowly-construed). Policies generated by these arguments restrict access to nuclear materials, while legitimating the possession of nuclear weapons by a chosen few. These are the arguments that are being used by Global Zero and the Nuclear Security Project, and which are behind the Obama administration’s commitment to a ‘world free of nuclear weapons.’
Arguments that ask us to consider the real-time costs a nuclear arsenal provide a new basis on which to argue against the kind of Cold War-era arms race in which the US and the USSR engaged. Creating a sense of urgency about the costs that are being incurred now, rather than emphasizing the possibility of apocalyptic costs that may or may not be incurred at some point in the future, creates the best possible argument for why what serves the long-term good of all also serves the short-term good of individual states as well.