Oppenheimer and Today’s Nuclear Dangers

Inside the Arms Control Association
August 2023

At a time of increasing global tensions and growing risk of nuclear war, Christopher Nolan's mesmerizing, expertly-crafted, and sometimes disturbing feature-length film, Oppenheimer, provides a jolting, timely reminder for millions of moviegoers that nuclear weapons are anything but normal because they give the leaders of a few nations to power to destroy us all.

The film biopic, which centers around the life of the director of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, explores many but not all of the key technical, political, and moral issues of the early part of the nuclear age.

Audiences from every generation will walk out of theaters with a lot to think about and, perhaps, with new perspectives and curiosity about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear threat today, and what they can do about it.

One key theme revolves around how America's post-war leaders chose to use The Bomb as a political and diplomatic weapon to try to secure a short-term advantage over their new Soviet enemy, and how they rejected the warnings from Oppenheimer and other scientists about the dangers of a nuclear arms race and calls for international cooperation on controlling the deadly power of the atom.

As I write in a new essay for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists“Oppenheimer,’ the bomb, and arms control, then and now” –the early choices that led to the Cold War-era nuclear arms race, of course, have tremendous relevance for how we must address the existential nuclear threats of today.

Our team here at the Arms Control Association remains at the forefront of civil society efforts to jumpstart the renewal of effective nuclear disarmament diplomacy that is needed if we are to avoid a dangerous three-way arms race between the United States, Russia, and China.

We are continuing to use our toolkit to build support for renewed talks between Washington and Moscow “without conditions” on a new nuclear arms control framework that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said at our June 2 ACA Annual Meeting the Biden administration wants.

As Russia’s war on Ukraine rages on, tensions with China remain high, and pro-nuclear forces argue for more nuclear weapons, success won’t be easy and it is not by any means assured.

We thank you for your interest and support and engagement. Enjoy the film.

Overdue Recognition and Assistance for Trinity Test Downwinders

Not surprisingly, Oppenheimer bypasses some key storylines relating to the bomb's deadly legacy.

A map depicting composite deposition of radioactive material across the contiguous U.S. from the Trinity test in New Mexico and from 93 atmospheric tests in Nevada. (Source: Princeton Program on Science and Global Security)These include the lingering health impacts of the July 16, 1945 Trinity blast, the 215 other U.S. atmospheric nuclear tests conducted on the U.S.-occupied Marshall Islands in the Pacific and later in Nevada, and the massive health and environmental toll of the sprawling nuclear weapons production complex, all of which were spawned by the Manhattan Project.

But the film has helped refocus attention and spurred overdue action on Capitol Hill.

Last week, the Senate approved legislation to extend health care coverage and compensation under a 1990 law to downwinders exposed to radiation during weapons testing to several new regions stretching from Guam to New Mexico and would extend compensation to more former uranium industry workers. The proposed changes to the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) are not yet included in a House-approved defense bill, amid negotiations toward final legislation.

New research shows the government underestimated the health impacts of the first U.S. test detonation in New Mexico and underestimated the amount of radioactive fallout distributed across other parts of the United States from 93 other atmospheric nuclear test explosions.

The bipartisan effort was the result of years of campaigning by grassroots organizations, including the Tularosa Downwinders Consortium. Its co-founder Tina Cordova spoke on an ACA webinar in 2020 on the 75th anniversary of the Trinity atomic detonation. We salute their efforts.

Webinar: "Oppenheimer: Scientists, The Bomb, and the Implications for Today"

This week, the Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction hosted a webinar which brought together a panel of experts to discuss the critical role of the scientific community in highlighting the dangers of nuclear weapons and their human and environmental impacts, as well as nuclear arms racing from the days of the Manhattan Project to the present.

The recording of the webinar is available below and on our Youtube channel.

Pushing for Progress at the NPT Prepcom

This week states parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are meeting for a two-week-long preparatory session for the next Review Conference in 2026. The challenges that blocked agreement on a modest consensus outcome document at last year’s Review Conference remain unchanged, but as our policy intern Jupiter Huang writes in a new essay on our Arms Control Now blog, the session provides an opportunity to build support for action on core treaty objectives, including on disarmament.

ACA organized a joint NGO statement “A Call for Meaningful Disarmament Diplomacy as Required by Article VI of the NPT,” endorsed by more than three dozen experts and delivered Aug. 2 to the NPT PrepCom plenary by Patricia Jaworek, a member of the Young Deep Cuts Commission.

A Chemical Weapons Disarmament Milestone Achieved

Last month, ACA and many others worldwide welcomed the overdue and challenging completion of the destruction of the once enormous U.S. chemical weapons arsenal as required by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which has been a longstanding goal of the Arms Control Association.

“It shows that countries can really ban a weapon of mass destruction,” said Paul F. Walker, vice chairman of the Arms Control Association and coordinator of the Chemical Weapons Convention Coalition told the Associated Press. “If they want to do it, it just takes the political will and it takes a good verification system.”

A front-page story in The New York Times tracks the years-long process to find a more responsible way to destroy these weapons in accordance with the CWC. We are also proud that it was Defense Department Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Threat Reduction and Arms Control Kingston Reif, a senior member of the ACA policy staff from 2014-2021, who presided over the final phase of the destruction process.

Our work to help reinforce the global taboo established by the CWC against chemical weapons possession, production, and use will continue. Chemical weapons were used in Syria and Iraq numerous times in the last decade, questions about Syria’s undeclared chemical weapons capacity linger, and nerve agents have been used in assassination attempts in Malaysia, Russia, and the United Kingdom; and there are serious concerns about the potential use of chemical weapons by Russia in Ukraine.

Remembering Hiroshima and Nagasaki

This week marks the 78th anniversary of the first atomic bombings. As a reminder of the human cost of these events and why we can never allow the use of nuclear weapons again, please read Setsuko Thurlow’s first-hand account, which she shared at our 2015 ACA Annual Meeting: “Setsuko Thurlow Remembers The Hiroshima Bombing.” She was a 13-year-old schoolgirl in 1945.

Cluster Munitions and the War In Ukraine

Last month, ACA, which is an active member of the Campaign to Ban Cluster Munitions, rapidly responded to the Biden administration's highly controversial decision to transfer banned cluster munitions to Ukraine, explaining why the move is “escalatory, counterproductive, and only further increase the dangers to civilians caught in combat zones and those who will, someday, return to their cities, towns, and farms.”

In collaboration with our colleague organizations, we highlighted the case against the decision in private meetings with senior officials and our policy team provided expert commentary via dozens of news reports and interviews, including The New York Times, BBC, The Washington Post, Politico, Fox News, TIME, and others.

Look for news updates on the decision and the impact of the deployment of the weapons in the news section of Arms Control Today.

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