The ‘Unfathomable Risks’ of the New US Nuclear Build-up

Reprinted with permission from Greg Mitchell’s newsletter Oppenheimer: From Hiroshima to Hollywood.

Just a quick, vital, scary, news flash, thanks to the new special issue, “The New Nuclear Age,” from venerable Scientific American, dated December 1 but just posted online. The heading at the top of the site warns: “The U.S. is beginning an ambitious, controversial reinvention of its nuclear arsenal. The project comes with incalculable costs and unfathomable risks.”

Rather than summarize the separate articles, I will merely excerpt from their editorial, which hits the hot spots. Note: My award-winning PBS film Atomic Cover-up is now available for watching at their site for free, 27 minutes. And companion book here. You can still subscribe to this newsletter for free.

From the Scientific American editorial.

The U.S. is planning to modernize its unwanted, unneeded and unsafe nuclear triad of land-, sea- and air-based weapons. Perfectly poised to refight the cold war, these overhauled bombs will waste $1.5 trillion and threaten life on Earth for the century to come. We should rethink this miserable folly rather than once again squandering our wealth while driving a new arms race….

Although the Biden administration canceled proposed Trump-era sea-launched missiles, the U.S. nuclear arsenal still bristles with some 3,700 weapons, around 1,700 of them deployed for military use and the rest in storage overseen by the Department of Energy. This quantity is more than enough to threaten the destruction of humanity and Earth’s biosphere—and it is only a fraction of the world’s total, leaving out Russia’s similarly large stockpile and smaller ones in China and other nations. Lowering the numbers and thus the risks of these weapons is a responsibility the U.S. and the Soviet Union first recognized at the end of the 1960s, and this goal should drive military and political decision-making now.

We aimed this Damoclean sword at ourselves during the cold war when we produced 70,000 of the plutonium “pits” that trigger thermonuclear warhead explosions. Weapons tests of these blasts have left every part of Earth’s surface contaminated with plutonium, with hotspots such as the Rocky Flats in Colorado and the Hanford sites in Washington State still requiring tens of billions of dollars for cleanup. Faltering efforts to restart pit production for the nuclear-modernization effort have cost $18 billion to $24 billion, much of it wasted, and, by the admission of weapons officials at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, they don’t even seem to be immediately necessary.

Why are we risking so much when the lessons of the 20th century are so clear? In the words of the 1991 START Treaty that capped the cold war, “nuclear war would have devastating consequences for all humanity … it cannot be won and must never be fought.” Disregarding Russia’s inability to turn its nuclear arsenal to military advantage while being bombarded by Ukrainian drones, our political class has fumbled away hard-won wisdom about the deadly futility of the arms race. We are recapitulating the dangers the world turned away from decades ago.

Who today benefits from disinterring the arms race? Only defense-industry shareholders and military contractors near silos in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska. This, in a nation where we have just doubled child poverty out of a refusal to help lower-income families. Surely it would be cheaper, safer and smarter to build factories or universities or research labs in these places, construct low-cost housing next to new engineering or biomedical campuses there, and watch them boom, in a good way, for the next century at a fraction of the silo-overhaul price tag. The 900 nuclear missiles onboard U.S. submarines will meanwhile deter the feared nuclear first strike the obsolescent land missiles were meant to discourage at the dawn of the cold war.

“A worrisome new arms race is brewing,” United Nations secretary-general António Guterres said in September. “This is madness. We must reverse course.” We agree. The only real way to use nuclear weapons is never. They should exist only in numbers large enough to deter their use by others, which they already abundantly do, with not one warhead more.

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Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including “Hiroshima in America,” and the recent award-winning The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood – and America – Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, and has directed three documentary films since 2021, including two for PBS (plus award-winning “Atomic Cover-up”). He has written widely about the atomic bomb and atomic bombings, and their aftermath, for over forty years. He writes often at Oppenheimer: From Hiroshima to Hollywood.