Of all the famous passages from Richard Rhodes’ Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, one in particular stands out.
British physicist James Chadwick won the 1935 Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the neutron, an achievement that made development of the atomic bomb possible. It was six years later, when Chadwick learned it was possible to separate the isotope uranium-235 and enrich uranium in large quantities, that his life became haunted by the bomb.
“I realized then that a nuclear bomb was not only possible'it was inevitable,” he said during a 1969 interview. “I had many sleepless nights. But I did realize how very, very serious it could be. And I had then to start taking sleeping pills. It was the only remedy. I’ve never stopped since then. It’s been 28 years, and I don’t think I’ve missed a single night in all those 28 years.”
We in Utah can relate. When the Atomic Energy Commission began testing of nuclear weapons at a site north of Las Vegas in early 1951, we were assured in government press releases that everything was on the up and up. The Red Scare of communism was in full effect, and only traitors to their country would dare say the tests shouldn’t go on.
After all those bombs, too many unexplained cases of cancer and leukemia, however, the patriotic people of Utah learned that the AEC knew full well the potential dangers. They just thought it a whole lot better that we catch the fallout brought by northeast winds instead of more populous southern California. Given the fortune our government has since doled out to those who suffered from the fallout, perhaps that was the less expensive option. It still cost plenty, however. The latest Radiation Exposure Compensation Act claims-table states that more than 17,000 claims have been approved at a cost of $1.14 billion. That’s the price of liberty, some say.
More than a few readers have asked, some loudly, why this paper hasn’t covered the proposed Divine Strake test of a 700-ton ammonium nitrate-and-fuel explosion in the Nevada Test Site. Well, seeing that nuclear weapons are the world’s foremost threat to life, I’d rather ask why more of us aren’t concerned about nuclear nonproliferation generally.
There are legitimate concerns about the Divine Strake test, most of which are currently and thoroughly covered in the daily press. Unless we count the presence of Neptunium-237, a byproduct of past nuclear explosions, in Nevada dust that the bomb’s sure to kick up, there’s nothing nuclear about Divine Strake. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, has asked why we need such a test when Congress has already nixed money for development of nuclear “bunker-busters,” the type of weapon Divine Strake’s meant to help perfect. A callous rube might ask why the government couldn’t carry out its tests in the mountains of Afghanistan.
We can either cry in rage or laugh in hysteria at the National Nuclear Security Administration’s last-minute change of venue for its “planned information sessions” from EnergySolutions Arena to the Grand America Hotel. The NNSA no doubt realized the depth of its public relations snafu too late, but we take our dark ironies where we can. And any moron could see that the NNSA’s 23 “information stations” at the hotel ballroom constituted a deliberate attempt to dilute the critics. Bureaucrats can get pretty crafty sometimes.
There’s a school of thought that this test is wrong no matter what, since it will result in the resumption of nuclear testing and therefore heightened risk of nuclear war. In someone as old as I, this evokes misty-eyed memories of the early 1980s’ “nuclear-freeze” movement.
I’m against Divine Strake. I don’t think it’s worth the risk. But that’s easy. When you live in a state where 71 percent of the population voted for President Bush in 2004, it’s also hard to care. People get the democracy'and by consequence, the wars and the bomb tests'they deserve. If the Iraqi people must suffer our president’s policies, my refusal to eat some nuclear dust seems a bit righteous. In case you haven’t noticed, the Deseret Morning News’ editorial board doesn’t want this bomb, either.
Far more alarming are our miniscule efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons during a time of war and terrorism. If we want to see the number of nuclear weapons in this world held to an absolute minimum'and who doesn’t?' we must confront the fact that our nation’s current policies and practices don’t help.
It’s beyond ken that President Bush castigates Iran and North Korea for developing nuclear weapons even as he signs a nuclear-cooperation agreement with India, a nation that will not sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty designed to control the distribution and manufacture of nuclear warhead fuel and weapons-grade fissile material. In a bizarre bid to balance China’s power in the region, Bush has violated the Atomic Energy Act and, at the same time, humiliated Pakistan, an important ally in the “war on terror.” While we’ve funded the NNSA’s Materials Protection, Control and Accounting department, which monitors the security of fissile materials worldwide and especially in the former Soviet Union, there’s no doubt we could give it more fiscal attention. Our funding for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s Safeguards division, which tracks down international nuclear weapons builders, is pathetic. In 2002, when the agency said it needed $12 million to respond to emergency situations, we gave it $1 million.
All of this is expensive but well worth it. As Chadwick discovered in time, sleeping pills don’t come cheap.