By Robert C. Koehler
“The stark truth is that one single failure of nuclear deterrence could end human history.”
These words, from a recent essay by Dr. Helen Caldicott, are, you might say, my devotional text for the day. I sit with them reluctantly, of course. They trouble the soul more than anything else I can imagine. But it occurs to me that, six and a half decades into the nuclear era, our premature “peace” with these weapons — our cultural forgetting, our denial — betokens a psychic helplessness that is enormously dark and dangerous in its own right. At some level we know that our shadow is growing. We watch it happen as spectators.
Does any force seem more impervious to the collective will than that which drives the nuclear weapons industry? Will it take, as Caldicott asks, a horrific accident, an insane act of aggression, to shatter the conspiracy? And by then, will it be too late?
The industry continues to thrive and grow, having far outlived its original premise of “mutually assured destruction”; the Cold War is over, but the money we poured into it didn’t become available for non-military spending. Ultimate aggression continues to stalk the planet. We’re in as much danger as we’ve ever been.
And the cost to us over these nuclear decades has not been merely financial — lost money for schools, infrastructure, health care. The nuclear weapons industry has also been paid for in thousands of American lives, though this fact still remains known primarily within the circle of survivors. But legislation introduced into Congress this month to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has put the suffering born by so many Americans — who lived downwind of the nuclear tests, worked in the industry or mined the uranium — back into the news.
The original RECA legislation, passed in 1990, compensated a handful of downwinders in 22 rural counties in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. The new bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico on April 19 to address the “gruesome legacy” of Cold War era weapons development, expands coverage to the entire states of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Montana and Colorado, as well as those harmed by the original Trinity blast in 1945, in Alamogordo, N.M., and by the nuclear tests conducted upwind of Guam in the Pacific. It also triples compensation for those who became ill from the fallout to $150,000.
“Many families in the downwind states have stories like mine,” Tona Henderson wrote recently in the Idaho Statesman. “Some of these stories are so sad because entire families have died of cancer. . . .
“Both sides of my family have been in the Treasure Valley since the 1870s. They lived very long lives — until they started dying of cancer after the testing started.
“Since the 1950s, I have had 26 family members get cancer; 13 of those have died. One was my cousin, who died of Ewing’s sarcoma at the age of 15.”
As I sit with the terrible potential of the nuclear era, the possibility of accident or aggressive use of the double-edged sword, I sit also with its neglected, little known realities. Until the first RECA legislation was passed, nuclear tests were still officially safe, just as they remain, officially, necessary for our defense. As far as I’m concerned, such military-industrial propaganda is as toxic as the fallout. Maybe it’s part of the fallout: the corrosion of truth and common sense, the rape of compassion.
Humanity’s task is to evolve spiritually. Weapons technology, which we continue to fund at staggering levels, requires us not to develop in such a way, not to grow in loving connection to one another. This stagnation is the spiritual equivalent, perhaps, of cancer.
One of the provisions of Udall’s bill would, according to the senator’s press release, “authorize $3 million for five years for epidemiological research on the impacts of uranium development on communities and families of uranium workers.”
I can’t help but notice the insignificance of the dollar amount being sought for this research — or rather, I can’t help but compare it to other sums of money, diverted, without serious comment or thought, elsewhere. For instance, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico has already embarked on an expansion of its plutonium facilities for the construction of warhead cores, or pits. The projected cost of this project over a dozen years, according to Greg Mello of the watchdog Los Alamos Study Group, is at least $5.5 billion.
“The facilities to be built are ‘modern,’ but their primary purpose is outmoded,” Mello writes.
Their primary purpose is to keep America not so much “safe” as powerful, and to perpetuate an agenda that is only about power and geopolitical interests, which is retrospect always seem small and limited. Their primary purpose, damn the cost, is to keep fear alive.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his Web site at commonwonders.com.)
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