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Remarks on Ward Wilson’s “Five myths about nuclear weapons”

The following are the remarks of Ray Acheson, Director of Reaching Critical Will, delivered as a discussant at a book launch and discussion with Ward Wilson, author of Five myths about nuclear weapons. The event was hosted by the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) at UN Headquarters. For a summary of the event and a link to Ward Wilson's presentation, please see the UNODA website.

20 February 2013

5-mythsThank you to UNODA for inviting me to be a discussant on this panel. And thank you to Ward for this new book.

The basic myths that Ward addresses in this book are those that still capture the popular imagination. When talking to anyone not actively involved in the debate about nuclear weapons, if they are skeptical about getting rid of them it is because of at least one of these myths. Thus the style of the book, its accessibility and straightforward language and structure, will be extremely beneficial for any public discussion on nuclear weapons.

By interrogating five myths, Ward provides a compelling case that nuclear weapons are useless. This begs a larger question: if nuclear weapons are useless why do they still exist? Why are these myths maintained—who benefits from them? Nuclear weapons must be useful for someone or something or else they wouldn’t still exist, they would have gone the way of the penny farthing.

When considering the continued existence of nuclear weapons, we have to consider who is materially invested in these weapons—they are the ones who benefit from the perpetuation of the myths about nuclear weapons. Thus we need to look to the military-industrial complex, in particular the corporations that run the nuclear weapons laboratories and the politicians with these labs and corporations in their districts.

This brings me to a myth that wasn’t included in Ward’s book but that is very important, especially in the US context, and that’s the myth of jobs.

Corporations and politicians in the United States fight to keep the nuclear weapons budget very high, arguing that it is good for economic growth and in particular for jobs in their states. We saw this with the fight over ratifying New START in the US Senate, when the Obama administration had to commit to spend $180 billion over the next twenty years on modernizing nuclear weapons, delivery systems, and related facilities in order to get consent for ratification; and we’re seeing it again now in the fiscal cliff discussions where politicians with nuclear labs in their states are working to ensure that funding for the nuclear enterprise doesn’t diminish.

But economic benefit is another myth about nuclear weapons. There are several problems with the “jobs” argument. First of all, as the Los Alamos Study Group has shown, nuclear spending is an extremely inefficient method of job creation. Government documents show that multi-billion dollar modernization programmes result in very few temporary working class jobs. Money spent on the high-cost skilled labour needed to maintained global stockpiles is akin to perpetual workfare for top-tier professionals and specialists; individuals from jobs categories that have lower unemployment rates and higher paychecks anyway. Thus military spending creates very few jobs for those most in need of work.

Second of all, nuclear spending does not benefit communities or populations. Let’s take the case of New Mexico, which is home to two nuclear weapon labs (Los Alamos and Sandia) as well as the National Nuclear Security Administration’s National Service Center in Albuquerque, a nuclear waste disposal site, and four military bases. 

New Mexico's economic status is distorted by military spending. The median income for the state is significantly skewed by the incorporation of figures from Los Alamos, the town where the key nuclear weapons lab resides. In a recent report, Los Alamos was found to have the highest concentration of millionaires in the United States. There are 885 millionaire households among the population of Los Alamos of around 18,000, giving the town an 11.7 per cent concentration of millionaire households. Yet outside of Los Alamos the state suffers from poverty. New Mexico has among the worst poverty rates in the United States (18.6 percent in 2010).

In fact, as spending at the Los Alamos lab has increased, New Mexico’s per capita income rate has declined relative to other states and its income disparity has grown. As lab spending has increased, health and education rankings have decreased and violent crime rate and drug overdose rates have increased. Maintaining jobs at the Los Alamos lab requires a high military budget, which takes money from other federal programmes and incurs massive government debt, thus constraining the investments New Mexico can make in education, health, and infrastructure.

So why does the myth of jobs and economic growth persist? Because money controls the message.

In terms of New Mexico, campaign contributions flow from the nuclear weapons labs to the state’s congressional delegation, in quantities as great, or greater, as from any other source. In addition, among colleges and universities, the University of New Mexico is one the largest recipients of Pentagon money in the country. Thus former President Eisenhower’s farewell warning about “the acquisition of unwarranted influence … by the military industrial complex” reigns true today.

Nuclear weapons are an addiction that needs to be overcome. Ward’s book is helpful for initiating discussion about a process of overcoming the addiction. He makes a compelling case for undermining many of the myths around nuclear weapons—compelling enough that he could have stronger prescriptions for action at the end.

In particular, the book suggests that pursuing disarmament in the near-term could be destabilizing, which is puzzling in a book that convincingly argues that the nuclear weapons enterprise has been largely sustained on the basis of myth. In this connection, Ward’s arguments actually support a far stronger conclusion, which should hopefully be apparent to any careful reader. If we accept the claim that nuclear deterrence is a myth, we must accept that the same is true for the roles of nuclear weapons in maintaining so-called strategic stability. In light of this, a reasonable person could only conclude that nuclear abolition is both viable and realistic.