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Posts Tagged ‘Countdown to Zero’

Disarmament Experts Clarify Film’s Position on Nuclear Power

Friday, August 13th, 2010

Last week we reviewed the excellent new documentary Countdown to Zero, released in late July, just in time for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki anniversaries (Aug. 6 and 9). While we praised Countdown and hope everyone will see it, we had some questions about the film’s stand on the safety or acceptability of nuclear power (see below). We contacted the production company and some of the experts who appear in the film, and two experts, Joseph Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund and Dr. Bruce Blair, president of the World Security Institute and founder of Global Zero, replied in generous detail. We wanted to share their thoughts, and to express here our gratitude for their taking the time to clarify some important concerns about how nuclear power and nonproliferation can coexist.

Some of this gets a little technical—but it’s a technical matter, after all—so you can skim the excerpts if you like. The main point is that the experts took the questions seriously and took time to answer, and their replies show they’ve been thinking quite extensively about these issues.

We wrote last week:

Countdown to Zero is excellent but not perfect. We had questions about some important practical issues that were raised but not dealt with. The film advocates bringing all world nuclear stockpiles down to zero. (Agreed.) But the film also explains that nuclear power plants produce fissile material (as in the case of Iran). So, does the film also advocate elimination of nuclear power? How is the danger posed by production of fissile materials through ordinary operation of nuclear power plants to be managed? Unless we missed something, the film said nothing about what should be done about nuclear power plants. Presumably terrorists or their would-be suppliers could also get their hands on fissile material—or is that somehow not possible? There is still the question of what to do about Iran, or what threat may be posed by Iran or other possibly hostile or unstable nations possessing nuclear power plants, or the fissile material produced by them. Would France, for example, have to shut down its nuclear power plants, the source of most of its electricity?


Nagasaki, Not Forgotten

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Today, Aug. 9, is the 65th anniversary of the atomic (plutonium) bombing of Nagasaki. (Hiroshima was bombed first, with a uranium bomb, on Aug. 6, 1945.) Some 60,000 to 80,000 civilians died, most of them instantly; others, like Sumiteru Taniguchi, pictured below, suffered lingering deaths from radiation burns. Among the casualties may have been American soldiers in a prisoner of war camp (possibly known by the military). Questions of why the U.S. used the atomic bombs when Japan was near defeat—or whether Japan was in fact the primary target; maybe the main audience was the USSR—have been analyzed by better informed and more rigorous intellects and are not likely to be settled here today.

Why did the U.S. have to use the bomb twice? Did we have to use it at all?

The legend, or conventional wisdom, is that if President Harry Truman (below) had not pulled the trigger, American forces would have had to launch a bloody, costly land invasion of Japan. This is possible, though no major U.S. military offensive was slated to begin before November 1, 1945, and the Soviets, our allies against Nazi Germany, had promised to help with a ground war. What was the hurry?

In hindsight, it is difficult to imagine the bomb not being used, after a $2 billion investment and six years’ work, even if Japan were not already seriously weakened and soon to collapse. When President Truman was first briefed about the existence of the atom project on April 24, 1945 (two weeks after FDR died), his first response was to sit down; he had received the generals standing up. He ordered a search for other options, with one committee composed of soldiers and civilians, and the other of scientists. Both panels met twice, on May 31 and June 1, and reached the same conclusion. A committee of scientists including J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi told Truman that they could devise “no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” Meanwhile, Truman’s generals were pressing him to let them move forward with plans for a massive land invasion of the Japanese home islands.

One consideration was that the Soviet Union had promised at the Tehran conference in late 1943 and again at Yalta in February 1945 to join the fight against Japan within three months after the European war ended (May 8). Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had pushed hard for Soviet help against Japan, knowing that the combined pressure of U.S. and Soviet forces would likely compel the Japanese to surrender. (Even among those who knew about the ultra-top-secret Manhattan Project, it was uncertain whether the new weapon would work until it was tested in mid July 1945.) Until the bomb was proven, the only way to crush the Japanese army was to fight it, and General Marshall preferred to let the Russians do a lot of the heavy lifting. There were reservations, however, about Soviet involvement: American officials did not want to have to share defeated Japan with the USSR the way the Allies were already sharing postwar Germany, divvied up into four military occupation zones: American, Soviet, British, and French.


Jim Bohlen, a Greenpeace Founder, Dies

Friday, July 9th, 2010


Navy Veteran, Peace Activist, Born on 4th of July

A quick note of appreciation for the life of James Calvin Bohlen (at left in photo above), a cofounder of the environmental and peace action group Greenpeace, who died Monday in British Columbia. He was 84. We did not know Mr. Bohlen—we confess we weren’t aware of him at all until we read the New York Times obituary—but we wish to take a moment to honor his life and work, his commitment to Stopping the Bomb, to peace, and to courageous action to keep the planet a livable place for all. Now that we know about him, we wish we’d been there with him.

Bohlen was a member of a splinter group of Canadian Sierra Club members called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee who opposed American testing of nuclear weapons at Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands (where he had served in the Navy in World War II as a radio operator). The U.S. had been testing in the Aleutians, at a point midway between Alaska and the USSR, since 1965. (For hair-raising accounts of the tests’ seismic and physical consequences, see here and here.) Among the opponents’ concerns was that the nuclear shock waves, so soon after the horrific Great Alaska Earthquake of 1964, would not only terrorize the already traumatized populace and release radioactive poisons but possibly also trigger new earthquakes (the test site was near a fault line) and tsunamis. In 1969, ten thousand protesters blocked a major U.S.–Canada border crossing, holding signs that read “Don’t Make a Wave. It’s Your Fault if Our Fault Goes.”

Bohlen had complained to his wife, Marie, that the committee was taking too long to make up its mind about how to stop the tests; she said offhandedly why not sail a boat to the test site? When a reporter from the Vancouver Sun happened to phone to check on the committee’s deliberations, Bohlen (perhaps to his own surprise) announced, “We hope to sail a boat to Amchitka to confront the bomb.” When the remark appeared in the paper the following day, the die was cast.

The Don’t Make a Wave Committee rented a halibut fishing boat, named it “Greenpeace,” and in September 1971 sailed toward the Aleutians, but was intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. The public outcry had an effect, however—boosted by a fund-raising concert in 1970 starring James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, and Phil Ochs—and the U.S. stopped testing in 1971.