Atomic Obsession:  Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Jan 06, 2014 at 04:59 PM
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Author: John Mueller

Thank you to the Breakthrough Institute for recommending John Mueller’s “Atomic Obsession” in their Nuclear Energy FAQs.  The book offers an “extremely provocative thesis that stands conventional wisdom about the threat of nuclear weapons on its head.” 

The author’s goal in writing the book was to put his readers to sleep - not by being boring, but by easing our fears of nuclear weapons.

This is in stark contrast to the norm, in which pundits and politicians whip up our fears over nuclear proliferation to keep us up at night; to get us to commit to preposterous pre-emptive violent policies that cause thousands of times more damage and loss of life than a worst case scenario terrorist attempt to use a nuclear device ever could.  The book shines a brilliant light that illuminates just how absurd spending trillions of dollars to counter Iraq’s alleged WMD (“weapons of mass destruction”) was, even if there had been such weapons.  “Apocalypse”, “Annihilation” - these balloons of fear are popped, and you are left with the shriveled rubber that summarizes the true threat posed by nuclear proliferation.

In short, this book is AWESOME in cutting that mushroom cloud down to size.  Behold the great and mighty oz.  Never let another war hawk intimidate you with the spectre of nuclear annihilation. Pull that curtain back, and look at the shriveled little men behind it.  Terrorists? The book explains just how difficult developing and using an IND would be (Improvised Nuclear Device). 

Do you suspect the book is a lie intended to lull us into a false sense of security?  Is this just what the terrorists or industry want us to think?  Read the book. I found it to be empowering. Pro democracy.

Indeed, rather than put you to sleep, the book might make you angry as you start to grasp just how much of the horror, violence and obscene expenditure on war in the past few decades has been based on grossly inflated nuclear fears; how much of our world has been held hostage to the hawks who wield this baseless fear; how much of our own readiness to be frightened of nuclear proliferation has contributed to their success. 

If you’re one of those hawks who makes your money from inflated weapons budgets, or a terrorist who gets mileage from putting the word out that you have some uranium, the book might make you angry because it shines a light on your game and exposes your bluff.

Ultimately, the book might depress you as you realize that, even if true, no matter how compelling the arguments are, most people will continue to live their lives in fear of nuclear power and proliferation, and we will continue to make terrible geopolitical decisions as a result.  But perhaps, just as with the war on drugs, people will start to get a more accurate perspective on the true costs of our fears compared to the actual proliferation threat, and we will finally become a calmer and more sensible people, with affluence and security for all. 

Can this book be all that?  Will it affect your thinking on the subject? Can it help us win the war on war?  Read it at once! Discuss and debate below.  Let’s get to the bottom of it.  Below are some highlights from the book.  But first, here is chart #40 from The Washington Post’s “40 charts that explain the world.”  As you see, global nuclear stockpiles are lower than they’ve been since 1960.  A sizable portion of the massive USSR stockpile (and to Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan’s stocks) was converted to energy that powers US cities via the “Megatons to Megawatts Project”

Overstating Oppenheimer

In Chapter 2, “Overstating the Effects” Mueller revisits the Bhagavad Gita and admires the resiliency of New York City.

Exaggeration of the physical impact of the bomb goes back to the dawn of the atomic age.  A year after the bombings in Japan, A-bomb maker J. Robert Oppenheimer maintained that three or four men with smuggled atomic bomb units could “blow up New York.”  This represents either a massive exaggeration of the capacity of bombs of that era or a staggering underappreciation for the physical size of the city.  Although expanding fires and fallout might increase the effective destructive radius, a groundburst Hiroshima-size device would “blow up” about 1 percent of the city’s area.  Oppenheimer also repeatedly recollected that, upon witnessing the first atomic test, he was reminded of a verse from the Bhagavad Gita, the mystic Hindu scripture that he had beeen fascinated by for years, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”  Obviously, Oppenheimer is entitled to savor any vivid literary allusions that happen to spring into his mind at emotional moments, but, taken literally, the atomic bombs he was so instrumental in fabricating scarcely had the capacity to become the destroyer of worlds.

Destroyer of Worlds?

In the wake of the nuclear arms race, one can think of a scenario in which the US and Russia launch all their weapons at each other and destroy all of each other’s cities.  That would certainly destroy the US and Russia.  But would it destroy the world?  Some perspective.

And defense analyst Brian Jenkins is (presumably knowingly) engaging in rather extravagant hyperbole when he says that America’s “awesome nuclear arsenal” during the cold war could have “destroyed the planet.”  But his auditors are likely to take him literally, and they are likely to do so as well for Cirincione when he asserts that the world’s remaining arsenal of 26,000 nuclear weapons is enough “to destroy the planet several times over.” By contrast, as one physicist points out, “the largest bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere was sixty megatons, and that is one-thousandth the force of an earthquake, one-thousandth the force of a hurricane.”

An earthquake or hurricane of what magnitude? He doesn’t say. But he does get us to wondering where various bombs rank in the continuum of natural disasters.  I would like to see an infographic on the “planet destroying” impact of various weapons and natural disasters.

Everlasting Radiation

“Earthquakes and hurricanes pass through, but nuclear fallout is forever,” you say.  Radioactive fallout is the dust that gives nuclear weapons their supernatural menace. Is this threat overstated as well?

Nuclear radiation can make extensive areas technically uninhabitable but, as discussed in the previous chapter, in many cases this is because tolerance standards for radiation have been set at levels that are extremely conservative.

The fear of radiation is greater than the actual threat.  This doesn’t eliminate the threat or the dangers.  But it helps put it in perspective. 

Debates over radiation dose limits aside, while radiation fallout may be bad for your health, it’s not apocalyptically bad. The health impacts are probably not worse than the fallout from a conventional bombing attack.  Consider the terrible health effects on the 9-11 rescue workers in the wake of the chemicals and smoke they inhaled. It might not have been radioactive, but smoke and chemical inhalation can (and did) cause cancer as well as other long term health damage.  Nuclear explosives do what bombs do - wreck things and kill and cause lingering trauma, just as a lot of conventional bombs would do.  But they cannot annihilate the world, or even your city, and their impact is not eternal. Cities, people, and nature, bounce back. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are back online, radiation notwithstanding. The area around Chernobyl, after the accident and all that major fallout, has now become a teeming wildlife sanctuary.  Just ask the radioactive wolves

Nuclear weapons are not capable of apocalypse. Not even close. They are like conventional weapons, with a bigger payload.

Conventional weapons are not the lesser evil.

This is not an attempt to make nuclear weapons seem less evil than they are, but rather to show how evil conventional weapons are.  And how particularly evil it is to use the threat of nuclear weapons to inflict pre-emptive conventional strikes.  There is a three part case to be made here - the first that conventional weapons are about as destructive as nuclear, the second that nuclear weapons are strategically pointless to use if you are a country, the third that they are too technically difficult to pull off if you are a terrorist.  Let’s look at the first part.

Weapons are weapons.  They have a measurable and comparable impact.  Nuclear weapons are destructive, but they are on par with conventional weapons. It’s depressing, but compare the firebombing of Tokyo to the dropping of the atomic bomb.

An examination of the destruction wreaked by the atomic bombs that were exploded by airburst over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the last days of World War II is particularly useful for present purposes.  These are, of course, the only cases in which nuclear explosions have taken place on populated targets, and there is a considerable amount of information about both the short-term and long-term effects of the bombings.  In addition, in many respects these are the kinds of weapons of greatest concern today.  Although plenty of thermonuclear weapons still exist, particularly in the arsenals of the United States and Russia, any nuclear bombs fabricated by terrorists or set off by newly emerging nuclear states like Pakistan or North Korea are likely to have yields similar to, or perhaps quite a bit lower than, those exploded over Japan in 1945. 

About 67,000 people were killed in the two cities on the first day, and another 36,000 died over the next four months.  Many casualties were due to fires in these tinderbox cities filled with wooden houses, and they were high both because of the especially flammable nature of the building construction and because an unusually large number of people happened to be outside, were lightly clothed on those August mornings, and took no shelter.  Only superficial wounds were received by those two and a half miles away even when fully exposed, and 400 people at Nagasaki who managed to be inside cavelike bomb shelters were uninjured even though they were close to ground zero.  The physical damage inflicted in the bombings was also, of course, extensive, in part because of the exceptional vulnerability of most of the buildings with their thick tile roofs on light, flammable wooden frames.  However, many modern buildings of steel and concrete survived the attack, even when they were close to the blast center; no nonwooden bridges were destroyed; and railroad tracks, streets, and underground water lines were largely undamaged.  Electrical service was restored within one day, railroad and trolley service within two, telephone service within seven, and the debris was largely cleared up within two weeks. 

...the official estimate was that it would have taken 210 bomber sorties to inflict the same damage on Hiroshima and 120 for Nagasaki, something that would have been quite feasible at the time.

If you have the stomach for it, here is a more detailed look at the firebombing of Tokyo. This article points out how, even after the nuclear bombs had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and even AFTER the Japanese had surrendered, the US continued to fly more firebombing raids, murdering additional thousands of terrified, surrendered people. I can’t fathom why they would continue the bombing.  But it does point out the very real and easily deployed destruction that comes from conventional weapons. 

Think about this. The massive and easily deployed destruction afforded by conventional weapons.  We went to war with Iraq over the whiff of a threat that they were in possession of “weapons of mass destruction”  (“WMD"s).  Not even a fully assembled nuclear weapon, but a vague capability.  And to counter that whiff of nuclear capability, we inflicted mass destruction with conventional bombs.  We ripped apart cities and neighborhoods.  Hundreds of thousands of people died and were maimed.  And we spent a trillion dollars. 

Because someone said “boo.” 

Strategic Pointlessness of Nuclear Weapons

If you are a major nuclear power, nuclear weapons are useless.  Your sworn enemy will counter your attack and you’ll have mutual assured destruction.  You will both spend a ton of money trying to keep your attack credible.  Both of you are losing out on developing your economies.  And you both look pathetic. 

If you are a rogue nation - having a nuclear weapon is even more useless because using it would turn the world against you and result in swift, nation destroying retaliation.  You might try to use it as some sort of extortion device. This will backfire. You will end up with sanctions, setting your economy back decades. Or you will have other countries feeling justified in invading you.  Pity the country with leadership foolish enough to pursue nuclear weapons. 

If you’re a terrorist, as Mueller points out in the second half of the book, it is too difficult to develop and deploy an atomic weapon. Difficult and expensive. Even if you manage to raise the kind of funds and network and expertise required to develop a working device, and even if you are able to sneak this unwieldy thing into a city and park it somewhere - it won’t blow up the whole city.  You might take out a few blocks.  But we’re all sick of living in fear of you terrorists, and we’ll reclaim the city and deal with the aftermath. We can clean up the debris, put in some shielding around the detonation zone - it’s manageable.  You don’t scare us.

Incentive to Exaggerate

Having nuclear capability is a waste of time.  Exaggerating your nuclear capability, on the other hand, has great value, given that most people don’t yet realize how empty the threat is.

“Nuclear weapons”, “Dirty bombs,” WMD’s (“weapons of mass destruction”) fill people with such extreme fear, that you can pass all kinds of defense bills and patriot acts and the like, on the news that some rogue nation or terrorist group is pursuing them.  You can justify invasions of a foreign country and run up a trillion dollar debt.  You can unleash conventional weapons with impunity and release drones to hunt down anyone. The mystique of nuclear weapons gives blanket permission for such acts. 

Incentives for exaggeration have been there from the beginning, as Mueller points out:

In the wake of World War II, both the Japanese and the Americans had an incentive to inflate the importance of the destructiveness of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  For the Japanese, notes one historian, “the bomb offered a convenient explanation to soothe wounded Japanese pride: the defeat of Japan was not the result of leadership mistakes or lack of valor; it was the result of an unexpected advance in science by Japan’s enemy.” And the Americans, as the bomb’s sole possessor, may have felt it would enhance their prestige and influence in the region.

Pull back the curtain

The Mushroom Cloud Wizard of WMD’s time has come.  Let’s pull back the curtain and take a good, critical look at the shriveled, petty, money-sucking, overcompensating jerks behind it. Read “Atomic Obsession” and let’s dissect the actual threat of the weapons, and the opportunity cost we’ve been paying all these years by being excessively afraid.  Is this paradigm shift justified? Discuss below.

And then let’s get a good nights rest and start working on the real problems of security.  Energy, poverty, health, a nurturing environment for the pursuit of arts and sciences.  Security and happy families.  Puppies.  Kittens.  Joy.


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 Atomic Obsession:  Nuclear Alarmism from Hiroshima to Al-Qaeda

Take action!

Ban Nuclear Weapons

20K+ actual weapons operated by nations is 20K+ too many.  Join ICAN to ban. 

But don’t let the fear of those weapons, or the hyper inflated fear of improvised nuclear weapons get you down. Keep the dangers in perspective. More food for thought:

Read Other Reviews

Review by Gerard DeGroot, “Dismissing Doomsday” 

Resist the temptation to exaggerate the danger of nuclear proliferation to procure funding for your energy research

Many people who seek funds and promote policies for the development of alternative energy technology argue that their work is necessary in order to replace nuclear power.  The argument is then made that nuclear power increases the problem of nuclear proliferation, and proliferation as we all know, is evil and we must all be very afraid of it.

This argument may gain a small amount of funding in the short term, but overall, it is a counter-productive approach to the energy problem. Atomic Obsession highlights the paradox.

When you overstate the danger of proliferation, you reinforce the mystique of nuclear weaponry.  The paradoxical result is that you are adding to the rationalizations that lead to people feeling insecure and fearful.  Your opportunistic argument feeds a nation’s propensity to adopt policies to retain nuclear dominance and engage in pre-emptive wars.  You are adding to the rationalizations that keep us spending insane amounts on weapons and anti-terrorism measures. 

All of this spending comes at the expense of energy research and innovation. 

Furthermore, the fear of proliferation makes nuclear power seem dangerous, but nuclear power is one of the safest, greenest energy sources we could use.  Not using nuclear power is resulting in millions of excess deaths on our planet, and keeping us from an abundant future. 

We could be living in a world of abundance, where we all feel safe, where we don’t overspend on weapons.  In such a world, we would enjoy the luxury of exploring all kinds of energy innovations, renewables, fusion, space travel, the arts.  A million grand ideas!  We would have the surplus wealth that comes from not throwing it away on weapons, fear and zero sum policies.

Instead, we live in a fearful world caught in a negative feedback loop, where people try to sell their pet energy project on fear of nuclear power and proliferation, and where this process just leads to a disproportionate flow of capital to weapons.

What do you think?



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