Tag: nuclear weapon

Senator John F. Kennedy re atmospheric nuclear tests, April 2, 1960


We have been talking about change and challenge, about leadership and vision. No change in the world about us presents a greater challenge – no problem calls for greater leadership and vision – than the radioactive pollution of our atmosphere by the testing of nuclear weapons.

It is not a simple problem with simple answers. The experts disagree – the evidence is in conflict – the obstacles to an international solution are large and many. But the issue of nuclear tests and their effects is one which should be discussed in the coming months – not as a purely partisan matter, but as one of the great issues on the American scene.

I was glad, therefore, that this issue was raised last Sunday in a constructive and thoughtful way by the Governor of New York. His statement contributed to the dialogue on this basic issue – it represented the position of a leading figure in the Republican Party – and it neither hedged nor equivocated. So I commend Governor Rockefeller for his comments, and hope they will be considered and debated by interested citizens everywhere.

But I must also express my own emphatic disagreement with his statement, which called for this country to resume nuclear test explosions. Such a proposal, it seems to me, is unwise when it is suggested just prior to the reopening of negotiations with the British and Russians at Geneva on this very question. It is damaging to the American image abroad at a time when the Russians have unilaterally suspended their testing. And, while Mr. Rockefeller did suggest that the testing take place underground to prevent fall-out, he discounted the harmful effects of fall-out – which I am unwilling to do.

It is true that the amount of radiation created by bomb tests so far offers no serious threat to the well-being or existence of mankind as a whole. But it is also true that there is no amount of radiation so small that it has no ill effects at all on anybody. There is actually no such thing as a minimum permissible dose. Perhaps we are talking about only a very small number of individual tragedies – the number of atomic age children with cancer, the new victims of leukemia, the damage to skin tissues here and reproductive systems there – perhaps these are too small to measure with statistics. But they nevertheless loom very large indeed in human and moral terms.

Radiation, in its simplest terms – figuratively, literally and chemically – is poison. Nuclear explosions in the atmosphere are slowly but progressively poisoning our air, our earth, our water and our food. And it falls, let us remember, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, on all peoples of all lands, regardless of their political ideology, their way of life, their religion or the color of their skin. Beneath this bombardment of radiation which man has created, all men are indeed equal.

Perhaps the ill effects and the dangers of fall-out from bomb tests can be regarded today, in statistical terms, as minimal. But let us remember that there is still much that we do not know – and that too often in the past we have minimized the perils and shrugged aside these dangers, only to find that our estimates were faulty and that new knowledge inevitably increased our appreciation of these dangers. Let us remember also that our resumption of tests would bring Russian resumption of tests – it would make negotiations even more strained- it would spur other nations seeking entry into the “atomic club”, with their own tests polluting the atmosphere – and, in short, it could precede the kind of long, feverish testing period which all scientists agree would threaten the very existence of man himself.

The arguments advanced in favor of a test resumption are not unreasonable. The emphasis is on the weapons development – the necessity to move ahead “in the advanced techniques of the use of nuclear material.” This reason is not to be dismissed lightly. Because this country cannot hope to match the Soviets in raw numbers of ground forces, we rely on technical military superiority. We need to develop small nuclear weapons and so-called “clean” nuclear weapons, in order to deter their use or other forms of limited aggression by the enemy. This is not, I might add, justification for cutting back our ground forces and our ability to wage conventional warfare – but it is nevertheless important.

But let us remember that our present test suspension – while unilateral – is implicitly conditional on a Russian test suspension. If we are not developing new weapons in the absence of tests, neither are they. If we will make progress militarily through the resumption of tests, so, in all probability, will they. And the facts of the matter are that, generally speaking, we are ahead of the Russians in the development of atomic warheads but behind in the development of delivery systems. Until this lag can be overcome, there is a lesser value for us in testing and developing further “techniques in the use of nuclear material.” In short, for both sides to resume atomic tests today might well turn out to be more of a disadvantage to the west militarily than a help.

I would suggest, therefore, the following alternative position:

1. First, that the United States announce that it will continue its unilateral suspension of nuclear tests as long as the Russians continue theirs, and as long as serious negotiations for a permanent ban with enforceable inspection are proceeding in good faith. Our present extension of the ban expires on December 31st.

2. Secondly, the United States must redouble its efforts to achieve a comprehensive and effective test suspension agreement – and develop a single, clear-cut, well defined and realistic policy for an inspection system and for the other conditions such an agreement must meet. We do not have such a policy today.

3. Third, should it be necessary for our tests to resume, they should be confined to underground and outer-space explosions, and testing of only certain small weapons in the upper atmosphere in order to prevent a further increase in the fall-out menace – and in the hope, moreover, that the Russians and others will be forced by world opinion to follow our example.

4. Fourth and finally, we must step up our studies of the impact of radioactive fall-out and how to control it, through the Public Health Service here at home and a special United Nations monitoring commission abroad. Let us not discover the precise point of danger after we have passed it. Let us not again reject these warnings of peril as “catastrophic nonsense” (to quote Mr. Nixon), as they were rejected in 1956 when put forward by a great Democratic standard-bearer, Adlai E. Stevenson.

These four policy positions are no magic solution – nor can they be achieved overnight without effort. But the new and terrible dangers which man has created can only be controlled by man. And if we can master this danger and meet this challenge, we will have earned the deep and lasting gratitude, not only of all men, but of all yet to be born – even to the farthest generation.

on ‘Nonviolence and Nuclear Power’

Introduction to London Nonviolence Discussion Group meeting on “Nonviolence and Nuclear Power” that took place at Housmans, London on 9/6/15

In spite of the title I’ve been given I will talk about violence and nuclear power, since I think I am clearer about what violence is. I will leave the question of non-violence in relation to nuclear power to be dealt with in discussion.

At the top end of violence lies “premeditated murder”. An example might be my buying a gun with the aim of killing a particular person with it and carrying out that intention.

Since the decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made in advance with the knowledge that many people would die as a result of the bombing, that would seem to serve as an example of premediated mass murder. That it was carried out during a war and that the aim was not to kill anybody in particular does not to my mind make it any less mass murder.

When we come to nuclear power, I also think a case for premeditated murder at least with the knowledge we have now. Earlier on in the nuclear age it could be that said the detrimental health effects to those in the vicinity of nuclear power stations were not known or suspected. However in recent times, to take one example, study after study has shown that the incidence of childhood leukaemia among children living within a certain distance from nuclear power stations is much greater (to the extent of 37% within 50kms of almost all NPPs in the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland according to a summation of studies into the incidence made by Ian Fairlie and published in 2014) than among the general population in the area lying outside that. In these circumstances it is extremely probable that the presence of the nuclear power stations causes this increase But this means that those continuing to operate nuclear power stations in the knowledge that this is the case are doing so with the knowledge that this operation will result in injury and presumably premature deaths of a certain proportion of children in the vicinity, so how is this any less the premeditated causing of injury and death to those children affected than in the deliberate shooting case? Or, in the latter case, making those responsible guilty of premeditated murder?

It is not sufficient defence against these charges for those responsible for the operation of the power stations continuing to say they disbelieve the statistics or think some other factor than the operation of the power stations caused the increase in cases. Unless and until it can be shown that there is some other explanation for the increased cases of leukaemia, then on the precautionary principle this evidence should lead to the closure of the power stations.

An analogy would be with the case of smoking. For a long time there seemed to be some evidence that smoking was harmful to health but this was disputed. The precautionary principle would dictate that people should give up smoking in case the evidence was correct, until it was disproved.

One sort of argument that might be thought to justify continuing to run nuclear power stations even though they produced this toll of injuries and death would be that the good that they produced for society outweighed the harm they produced.

This may not seem a very strong sort of argument when there seem alternative ways to that of nuclear power of producing the heat and light, manufacture and transport of goods which are so necessary for the survival and wellbeing of individuals and societies.

However, if we take another analogy – that of coal-mining – perhaps the kind of justification involved becomes clearer. For a long time before the nuclear age, we relied on coal to produce energy for the above purposes. Coal was produced by coal mining which caused death and injury to many thousands of miners. However these deaths and injuries were not generally seen as sufficient reason for stopping coal mining; so it must have been thought that the good produced by coal was thought to outweigh the harm to miners coal mining involved. (It might have helped it’s true that those affected, miners, were generally seen as a separate and indeed inferior kind of human being.)

A similar defence is sometimes put forward for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – that the bombings ended the war and thus saved thousands of lives. This is often put in racist terms, that the bombings saved thousands of Allied lives with the implication that the ultimately hundreds of thousands of Japanese lives caused by the bombings didn’t count and nor did any Japanese lives saved by the bombing. In any case there’s something dubious in justifying actual enormous death and destruction now on the possible good that might be achieved in the future.

How else my nuclear power stations be seen as violent? I will make some suggestions.

  • In general countries interested in having nuclear weapons have seen building nuclear power stations as a way to acquiring them. Fuel for nuclear power stations needs enrichment of their radioactive isotope concentration, which is done by means of centrifuges. All that has to be done to produce material for atom bombs is to enrich the uranium much more by the same process. Also the uranium fuel rods in operation in the power station become a mixture of uranium and plutonium oxides and this plutonium, which does not occur naturally, is required in thermonuclear devices. So nuclear power at least gives the means of producing atom bombs fairly easily and also make possible the production of thermonuclear bombs.

Are nuclear bombs violent in themselves, however, if they are not used?   I would say so, because the whole point of having them is surely to threaten that they would be used in certain circumstances and surely to threaten mass murder is itself a violent act whether or not this threat is ever carried out.

  • NPSs bequeath waste which will remain highly radioactive for many tens of thousands of years to future generations and will thus threaten them with injury and death through the escape of radiation.
  • The mining of the uranium ore required to fuel nuclear power stations involve the despoiling of the habitat of indigenous inhabitants and animals and death and injury to miners.
  • In spite of nuclear power stations not producing much CO2 in operation the whole operation of producing nuclear power requires many processes that produce a great deal of CO2 (from mining, refining, transport, fuel enrichment, building of power stations, their dismantling, building and maintenance of storage facilities for nuclear waste) and thus add to global warming with the threat it poses for human and animal life on this planet. (That many of these CO2-producing processes take place in foreign countries or even in future eras at most partly shifts the threat abroad or to the future.)

So the question I will leave with you to answer is how we get rid of nuclear power stations non-violently?

David Polden, June 2015