Nuclear Weapons: Is Civilization Going “Critical?”

While traveling through New England just two months ago, Linda and I made it a point to drop into any bookshop that looked interesting – our usual mode of operation. In the back room of a rustic little shop in Lenox, Massachusetts, I found a small, unassuming little volume titled simply, “Hiroshima.” Because of my interest in the science and history of nuclear weapons, I recognized the title as a possibly important one. It was published by John Hersey in 1946, the year after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is a bookplate on the inside cover, and the book’s fine condition suggests it had been cared for over the years. Hersey’s piece, an expose of the horrors of nuclear weaponry, was first published in the “New Yorker” magazine. My little book is an obvious first book edition.

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Today’s “Wall Street Journal” Bookshelf (Aug. 6, 2014) under its byline, “A Decision and It’s Fallout,” reviews a new book by Paul Ham titled, “Hiroshima Nagasaki.” The book review mentions Hersey’s book as the best representative of the first wave of moral revulsion over the decision to use atomic bombs on Japan. Indeed, Hersey’s accounts of specific bombing victims and the general aftermath in Hiroshima paint a stark and gloomy picture.

With the specter of nuclear weapons ever-lurking in the shadows, the warfare currently raging on several world stages along with these specific recent reminders of Hiroshima prompted me to write this blog-post.

I cannot think of a more important question for us, the denizens of this planet, to ask ourselves than the one posed in the title of this post: “Is Civilization Going Critical?”

What does that mean? In nuclear weapons parlance, “going critical” refers to the condition whereby enough radioactive material is effectively combined to enable a nuclear “chain reaction.” A chain reaction occurs during the “fission” process whereby atoms are split apart releasing both energy and enough free neutrons which act as new “bullets” to split yet other neighboring atoms in a rapidly cascading scenario.

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When the state of criticality is met, runaway fission occurs, accompanied by a tremendous, almost instantaneous release of nuclear energy in accordance with Einstein’s most famous prediction that e = mc2. A nuclear chain reaction can be controlled and sustained in a lab environment without catastrophic results as demonstrated by Enrico Fermi and his team of physicists. They were an advanced “arm” of the Manhattan Project, the government’s crash program in World War Two to build the first atomic bomb. Fermi and his team demonstrated the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction on Dec.2, 1942 while working under the old football bleachers at the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field. In contrast with Fermi’s ability to moderate his chain reaction, in a nuclear weapon once criticality is reached in the bomb’s radioactive core, the reaction is unstoppable and virtually instantaneous.

There is no going back. It is that statement which frightens me about the state of world affairs, today. Are we, the societies which comprise our earthly civilization, approaching a point of criticality in our global relationships, and, given our powers of mutual mass destruction, risking a point of no return? Is a flash-point possible which triggers a chain reaction of events from which there is no turning back? I fear that is so.

Here are several questions which deserve serious consideration:

-When any country announces that it will do whatever it needs to do to protect its people, that is precisely what its citizens expect. But how far does that policy extend, and at what point are a country’s citizens deemed to be in mortal danger to the point where all options should be on the table?

-What would happen to any state or region of the globe deemed “responsible” if even a crude nuclear device were detonated in or over the financial center of New York City? While at this time, only Russia and China have nuclear arsenals large enough to truly destroy the United States in a physical sense, the damage inflicted by a single, small nuclear strike on New York City to this country’s economy and our way of life, would constitute a “virtual destruction” of the country as we know it. The retaliatory price to be paid would, almost certainly, be massive for the actual or perhaps even for a “perceived” perpetrator. And then what follows?

-What about an unintentional or unwarranted nuclear first-strike? Never say “impossible” – extremely unlikely, yes, but once nuclear-tipped missiles are launched, they cannot be called back – a necessary “precaution,” if you will. One thing is certain: The brilliance of the scientific/engineering community in decoding the laws of physics and fabricating such powerful weapons will never be matched by a similar competence and capability of the bureaucrats who control them. Perhaps you have heard the news of our recent missile silo problems in that regard.

-And finally: At what point will the common framework of “humanity” supersede the more secondary distinctions which so prevail today – nationality, race/ethnicity, religion, tribal allegiances, etc.?

Are Humans Capable of Managing
the Technologies They Create?

Increasingly, the evidence says no. Look at the recent reports of massive cyber-theft. Do you recall the live smallpox virus recently found in a cardboard box at some abandoned health facility? By long-standing international agreement, there are only two designated sites on the planet which are authorized to possess live smallpox… under lock-and-key: Russia and here, in the United States. These two examples illustrate the overriding fact that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link – a truism that will always haunt our efforts to manage technology. There will always be weak links and vulnerabilities! On a more benign level, many of today’s roads cannot handle the ridiculous commute traffic we have created, a legacy of that truly wonderful engineering triumph, the automobile. Say, wasn’t the automobile supposed to free us from our shackles?

Back to the Real Question

The real question is, of course: What policies will govern the possible use or non-use of acquired nuclear weapons? Implicit in any such discussion is the whole concept of “civilian casualties” in warfare, a topic so often pertinent to the conflicts we hear reported every day. There seem to be no satisfactory answers to that issue and to the even larger questions – and that is very troubling.  As the “Wall Street Journal” book review reported, “Dutch” Van Kirk, the last surviving crew member of the B-29, “Enola Gay,” which bombed Hiroshima, died last month. His view of modern warfare discounted any application of moral logic: “It’s really hard to talk about morality and war in the same sentence.” As General William T. Sherman so aptly stated and demonstrated in Georgia during the U.S. Civil War, “War is hell,” and there is no other way around it. The world had better think long and hard about that reality, for the potential stakes today are immense, and there is no room or time for second-thoughts.

A Postscript:

Two years ago, Linda and I toured Hyde Park on the Hudson in upper New York. We found it fascinating, and the more we learn about Franklin Roosevelt, the man and the politician, the more we want to know. As our little tour group assembled in front of the venerable old mansion which was Roosevelt’s family home for generations, our middle-aged tour guide with a back-east accent said something unusual, something which certainly struck a chord with me.

NY 2012_150_AlanPS“See that door over there at the right-corner of the house?” he asked. He went on to explain that is where Franklin Roosevelt and long-time friend and White House advisor, Harry Hopkins, made the most important decision of Roosevelt’s long career. In that little corner office, they set in motion the Manhattan Project, the full-out, no-expense-spared effort to develop the atomic bomb – before Germany could do it. The nuclear race was on. “A most unusual opening remark for a tour guide,” was my first reaction. My long interest in the Manhattan Project and all that it signifies, however, made me nod in agreement. Our guide had obviously studied his history and had similar viewpoints on that particular matter – very interesting!

For readers who would like to know more about the Manhattan Project and the ramifications which stem from its success, I whole-heartedly recommend the documentary film by Jon Else, “The Day After Trinity.” It is the best of the many and varied fine documentaries I have in my video library. It is a film which everyone should watch, and one which no one who does watch will forget. It is not a film about bombs, or science, or merely history – it is first and foremost a human story, centered on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the brilliant principal architect of the bomb. The story, as related by many of the key players on the project, delivers a message for all humanity. Oppenheimer’s eyes on the DVD cover convey a message about the truth he had quickly recognized: The nuclear genie is loose, and it is already too late to control it.

IMG_1376PSDespite my enthusiastic testimonial for this film, I have no connection whatsoever with its sales or marketing. My mission here, as always, is to pass along something that I deem special to the readers of my blog.

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