Nuclear Connections IT IS IN THE NATURE of machines to break down. From autos to airplanes, computers to coin changers, nothing has been invented that does not fail. And as civilization has become more and more dependent on machines, two things have happened: We have become so accustomed to advancing technology that we welcome new machines into our world with little thought, and we have begun to witness ever more dangerous, and sometimes spectacular, malfunctions. Over the years, technological breakdowns have caused fear and fascination, sometimes to be remembered, sometimes not. The accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979 created great alarm. The rude reentry into the earth’s atmosphere later that year of the 77-ton Skylab space station gave us the fleeting feeling that Skylab debris might soon come raining down on our very heads; then it landed in the Indian ocean. An explosion at a Titan II land-based missile silo in Arkansas killed a worker, blew off a 740-ton door and threw a nuclear warhead 600 feet; it made headlines for a day in 1980 and is all but forgotten by now. But events of the past months have surely been extraordinary in the annals of technological history. The Challenger spacecraft exploded January 28, having travelled 74 seconds beyond its Florida launching pad; a Titan rocket with a secret military payload exploded 700 feet above the Vandenberg Air Force base in California on April 18; the Soviets announced on April 28 that a serious accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant took place; and on May 3 we seemed to have come full circle as a Delta rocket exploded in a puff of white smoke above the Florida launch site and spiraled into the sea, eerily reminiscent of the demise of the Challenger. What is the meaning of these mishaps? Are they nothing but a series of coincidences that have come together in an unusual string of bad luck? Perhaps so. Perhaps the Titan and the Delta will like Skylab fade from our collective memory. Perhaps Challenger and Chernobyl will come to be perceived as freak accidents, while the space program and the nuclear power industry stumble forward. But for now, this unusual confluence of calamities demands that we take pause. For one thing, the accidents in America came as a shock in an age when the government has come to seem so expert at managing the news. The President planned to make a spectacle of the civilian space shuttle for his State of the Union message but was upstaged by disaster. He planned to star in the role of Leading Statesman at an international summit but was knocked off the front pages by the news from Chernobyl. And in the Soviet Union, a government that is disinclined to report on its own shortcomings found itself unable to smother a very large story suddenly tell-tale radiation was emigrating from the country without regard for the usual restrictions. We are reminded that governments are deeply involved now with technologies that can lurch out of control, and to the extent that these technologies are nuclear, we are entrusting governments with the very survival of life on the planet. And the nuclear threat casts a long shadow. Consider that the space shuttle Challenger could well have exploded with 46 pounds of plutonium on board, dispersing the most luck, the plutonium cargo had been planned for a space shuttle in May instead of January. Consider that even after the explosion of three rockets in four months government officials speak of launching nuclear reactors into space because the proposed Star Wars missile defense will need a source of power. The Washington Post reported in April that, even if Star Wars never materializes, “Air Force officials say they need nuclear power for their next generation of space-based weapons, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration says that nuclear reactors could power space stations, lunar bases, interplanetary explorers and satellite traffic . control.” Undoubtedly government planners will prefer to keep mum about such grand schemes while rocket explosions and power plant meltdowns are on the mind of the public. But the research and planning will continue as if it has a life of its own. Our political leaders have only one answer to the public’s qualms: perfect the technology, make failsafe machines. And it is in this light that we must make a further nuclear connection. There was something else going on as equipment was selfdestructing over American launch pads and in the Soviet Ukraine. Nuclear weaponry was being tested by the United States government miles beneath the Nevada desert. In the space of a month the U.S. set off three mighty explosions: on March 22 a warhead for the Midgetman intercontinental missile was tested; on April 10 the effects of radiation on MX missile warheads was tested; and on April 22 it was an unidentified weapon produced by the Lawrence Livermore laboratory in California. That explosion was reported to be twelve times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and an earthquake monitoring center in Colorado registered it at 5.3 on the Richter scale. The nuclear tests were a sign that nothing has changed; technology marches ahead with a vengeance. The Reagan administration answered Moscow’s repeated invitations to join in a testing moratorium as an alcoholic would answer an old drinking chum gone on the wagon: Why look so glum? Come on over here and celebrate a few more blasts. Both houses of Congress have passed a resolution calling for a comprehensive test ban. A poll taken just after the Soviets announced their moratorium last August showed the public favored a halt to nuclear testing by a margin of 57 percent to 30 percent. But none of this matters in the least to the Administration, which floated the absurd rationale in April that if the United States stopped testing, other nations would lose confidence in the reliability of our weapons and would be forced to develop their own. Thus, a comprehensive test ban would result in the proliferation of nuclear weapons. But another reason for the testing program came out, too. Officials of the Los Alamos National Laboratory told The New York Times April 21 that a new generation of complex weapons would require more testing than ever before. Many of these weapons are being planned as part of President Reagan’s proposed anti-missile defense plan. According to the Arms Control Association in Washington, -the Administration is strongly committed to nuclear testing to develop both new missile warheads and the X-ray laser, the nuclear component of the Star Wars defense. Government documents submitted to Congress said the underground test in Nevada on April 10 involved “X-ray lethality experiments.” S O THE QUESTION BECOMES, how do we stop the social machine that is driving us toward an impossible quest to perfect our nuclear lethality? This is a machine that is not inhibited by one explosion, or two or three. Neither 4 MAY 16, 1986
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