The Road From Fukushima to Nuclear Abolition

"By far the most dangerous foe we have to fight is apathy -- indifference from whatever cause, not from a lack of knowledge, but from carelessness, from absorption in other pursuits, from a contempt bred of self satisfaction" ~ William Osler

To Tad Daley, there is no bigger threat to the planet than that of the nuclear apparatus. It is not, to him, just the threat of a nuclear meltdown, as we saw in Japan recently, but also of nuclear weapons.

"We saw 5 times in the past fifty years the possible extinction of our civilization," says Daley, the Writing Fellow with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, the 1985 Nobel Peace Laureate organization. And he knows this for a fact, having lived through the threats of the Cold War and studied the potential impacts of nuclear fallout for his recently published book, APOCALYPSE NEVER. The book, he says, is different from other books on the topic not only because it the case for global nuclear disarmament but details how to do it, too. For Daley, this book is not merely an intellectual endeavor but a book that serves as a call to arms. He and I spoke about the book early this year.

James Michael Russell: What got you interested in nuclear issues?

Tad Daley: Without a doubt, what influenced me the most was how the nuclear arms race influenced issues of war and peace-- something that, despite the rapid complacency infecting our society on this issue, is still a threat. This is to me a spiritual issue as well, because humanity is constantly on the line. Most people have no clue! Back then, we wouldn't have thought this issue would still be around. I mean, just imagine had you told somebody in 1989 that there would be thousands of nuclear weapons still in existence today, much less that nuclear weapons would still be a threat today, or that we would have the security apparatus that we have. They would have said, "Are you out of your mind?"

When I looked at it, even though the Cold War was over, the weapons were still there. And it was not just that the numbers of nuclear weapons still stood in the tens of thousands; it was that the essential doctrine of mutually assured destruction remained unchanged; that each side maintained arsenals on hair-trigger alert, poised to be launched in a matter of minutes and literally capable of destroying the world in less than an hour. How could geopolitical realities so fundamentally and abruptly change, yet humanity's nuclear predicament remain beyond our ability to transform?

JMR: Yet why do you think the threat of nuclear weapons seems of little consequence to so many people, especially young people?

TD: Your average 20-25 year old doesn't remember the Cold War, though the average 25 might vaguely be aware of the time period. But when it comes to thinking about it, he or she may shy away from thinking of something so cataclysmic. But if he or she does think of it, I'm pretty sure he or she will think, "if 65 years have gone by and nothing has happened, then what's the point in worrying?"

But we're heading to disaster and utterly oblivious to it. I'm confident that future generations, who will be just in as danger as we are, may look back and see this complacency and wonder why we were avoiding this extinction. It hasn't happened yet, but it could happen tomorrow morning.

JMR: Why abolition in particular?

TD: I was recently confronted by a skeptical nuclear scientist at a lecture at Stanford University who asked me this question; he instead proposed, "why abolish all 23,000? Why not just leave us with 300?" I told him that I'm interested in, as an author and activist, in building a movement; given that most movements are about a big and simple and powerful and morally coherent idea, I can't fathom the idea of people of marching in the streets for the abolition of all but 300 nuclear weapons.

But it seems that the moral clarity of saying that the nuclear apparatus is infinitely dangerous, and that we don't need these weapons on our planet, can possibly galvanize millions of people throughout the world and compel them to make this vision happen.

JMR: This is really a moral issue to you, too, isn't it?

TD: I consider myself to be a citizen of the world and whole of the human community. And by that, I don't just mean all of those alive on planet earth today but also with the humans who once lived and will live. And this quest to maintain peace on earth without the possibility of bringing extinction is a moral obligation. We may be alone in the entire universe yet we do not acknowledge this yet we have come so close to extinction so many times. I think the folly of the human race in toying with creation in that way is of infinite consequence. Look at it this way: our ancestors toiled for generations to create the world we only temporarily inhabit, but with these weapons and this apparatus, we threaten it.

JMR: In light of Fukushima, what do you want people to take away from your book?

TD: In the book, I quote one of the great sages of Cold War history, George F. Kennan, who said, "huge stockpiles of poisonous nuclear wastes ... (are) to be dumped upon our descendants, who will curse us for saddling them with so dangerous and almost insoluble a problem."

The Fukushima nuclear disaster has, again, alerted the world to the virtually infinite perils of nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, and nuclear infrastructure. But I'm starting to worry about what I might call "the ironic scenario," one where the health consequences appear far less severe than feared, and nuclear proponents trumpet the episode as confirmation that we can maintain nuclear weapons and reactors and labs indefinitely, "with little risk." After all, so far world leaders, including President Obama, have insisted that even after Fukushima nuclear energy must remain a central component of any "green future."

My book, I'm pleased to say, confronts that possibility directly. I am no proponent of nuclear energy. But in my chapter on "the architecture of a nuclear weapon-free world," I directly address how we might verify and enforce and ensure a ban on nuclear armaments, even if nuclear energy persists. We must acknowledge the far from unlikely eventuality that our side may not prevail on the question of nuclear energy, at least for many years to come -- and still ought to work to figure out how, in that world, we still might bring about the elimination and prohibition of nuclear weapons.

Because if we wait for the world to abolish nuclear energy before we abolish nuclear weapons, we may not have to worry about the impact of lethal nuclear waste on future generations. Because there may be no future generations to worry about.

Want to ask Daley a question about his book or his work? Join him On Sunday May 8th, from 5-7 PM EDT at FireDogLake, where he'll be doing an online "book salon" on the popular progressive website.