Published on Monday, October 13, 2008 by The
Preventing the Other Meltdown
by James Carroll
The word "meltdown" came naturally to the lips last week, referring to the collapse of financial markets. But what about a real meltdown? The word came into popular usage to describe the melting of fuel rods in a nuclear reactor, a result of out-of-control overheating, leading to a dangerous release of radiation. But before that, meltdown defined not the accident of a power plant but the purpose of a nuclear bomb - the liquefaction through intense heat of metal, glass, and everything else caught in an atomic blast. Meltdown is the point.
Last week's financial metaphor was also last week's all but ignored real problem, as America was encouraged to take a large step in the direction of the ultimate meltdown of nuclear war. Over the signatures of Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Secretary of Energy Samuel W. Bodman, the government released the statement "National Security and Nuclear Weapons in the 21st Century." In brief, the two officials argue that the time has come for the development of a new nuclear weapon, the so-called Reliable Replacement Warhead. Because "nuclear weapons remain an essential and enduring element" of American military strategy, the aging arsenal of several thousand deployed nukes (and many more "stored") must be replaced.
Gates and Bodman grant that an eventual reduction of the nuclear force, as well as ongoing nonproliferation efforts, remain desirable goals, and that the RRW will help achieve both, but what they propose runs absolutely in the other direction.
Obviously, the Bush administration will not succeed in getting a new nuclear weapon approved by Congress. What Gates and Bodman are doing here, at the behest of the diehard nuclear establishment, is putting an item at the very top of the next president's agenda.
For 20 years, the
The result is clearly described in the Gates-Bodman document: Nuclear nations today are feeling pressed to renew and expand their arsenals (seeking hedges of their own), and nonnuclear states, especially
Gates-Bodman are correct to want this issue on top of the next administration's agenda, and they are correct in their implicit argument that the time has come for US ambivalence to end. But they are dead wrong in how to end it.
The world was given a rare second chance on the nuclear horror when the unlikely Ronald Reagan joined Mikhail Gorbachev in proposing abolition. That second chance is not quite gone. What has to happen now is clear. In the near term, no new weapons. The nuclear arsenal must quickly be reduced to minimal levels (dozens or hundreds, not thousands). Against Gates-Bodman, who see nuclear weapons as deterring against conventional assaults (nukes as just another weapon), the
"Meltdown" is one word that cropped up as financial markets crashed. Another was "abyss." A financial abyss is horrible to contemplate, but it is still a metaphor. The abyss threatened by nuclear weapons, alas, is real, and the last chance to avoid it is here.
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James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs