By Donella Meadows
–November 15, 1990–
Two months ago another piece of the Soviet Union became an ecological disaster zone. A nuclear fuel plant exploded, releasing a cloud of toxic beryllium over Ust-Kamenogorsk, a city of 300,000 people near the Chinese border.
In this country we are just beginning to understand that the Soviet Union practices advanced industrial technologies with a primitive level of quality control. It is a land of dripping faucets, uncaulked windows, and poorly tuned vehicles. Inefficient factories spew unabated pollutants into the air. Unprotected gas pipelines run alongside badly maintained railroads, so derailments produce infernos. The Chernobyl area is one of several that have been abandoned because of massive radioactive spills. No one is quite sure where all the toxic wastes go.
And this sloppy ex-superpower still maintains 12,000 nuclear weapons ready to launch, most of them aimed at us. Since glasnost, since the Berlin Wall fell, since the USSR started falling into political chaos, since both our attention and theirs have been distracted, those weapons have never been so dangerous. The probability of a deliberate launch has fallen to near zero. The probability of a horrible accident, on their soil or ours or anywhere in between, has risen manyfold.
That is one reason why we should be doing everything in our power to get those weapons decommissioned. The other reasons have less to do with dread risk and more with immediate payoff. The surest way we can bring about the reduction of Soviet nuclear weapons is to reduce our own. And by doing that we can save money, stop adding to our own ecological disaster areas, and release people, materials, and energy to work on some of our own pressing problems.
Unfortunately, the Cold War is over everywhere but in our government’s budget. Seventy billion of our tax dollars are scheduled next year to operate, repair, update, and increase our capacity to wage nuclear war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets have unilaterally stopped nuclear testing and are eager for negotiations to cut or eliminate nuclear weapons. Our stated reason for having those weapons — to deter a deliberate Soviet attack — has disappeared. Still we are making more of them.
Pentagon plans for the 1990s include (keep in mind that every billion dollars means an average of $4 in taxes from every man, woman, and child of us):
- 75 new B-2 Stealth bombers. We have already spent $27 billion to develop these planes; it will now cost $38 billion to build them, and another $65 billion to keep them in operation. This, in spite of the fact that we already have 97 new B-1B bombers and 189 B-52 bombers equipped with long-range cruise missiles.
- 91 more MX missiles. We already have 102 of these intercontinental missiles in silos. Acquiring the rest of them and setting up a system for deploying them on railroads will cost $10.5 billion.
- 200-500 truck-borne single-warhead Midgetman missiles at a cost of about $30 billion, though we now have ready to fire at all times 4500 other mobile nuclear weapons on ships and planes.
- Seven more Trident submarines, each carrying 192 D-5 missiles ($9.6 billion for the subs, $37 billion for the missiles), though we have nine Tridents operational and another eight under construction.
- About $40 billion for Star Wars, a space-based defense system against intercontinental missile attack, which, even its supporters concede, is not likely to be more than 30 percent effective.
The price we pay for these weapons is more than money. The production and mobilization of nuclear materials is an environmental hazard even when it’s in more careful hands than those of the Soviets — and our own hands have not been careful. At Hanford, Washington, at Savannah River, South Carolina, at Rocky Flats, Colorado, and at other sites our bomb makers have spread around radioactive pollution that will cost an estimated $200 billion to “clean up.” In fact spilled radioactivity can never be cleaned up; it can only be sealed off. We have sacrificed more national territory to bomb-making than to any outside enemy.
We now have about 11,000 nuclear weapons. In an almost unimaginable worst-case scenario, with Soviet generals taking over the USSR and deciding for some reason that the United States is their enemy again, we would not need more than 3000 weapons to deter them thoroughly. That would be enough to level every major Soviet city, missile site, and military base. It’s the number carried on our 17 Trident submarines.
Many would argue that 3000 weapons is still an excessive force. For the moment it’s a good target to get down to by the end of the century. By then we will not only know more about the new world order, we will have shaped it in the direction we want it to go. Our gradual nuclear disarmament will strengthen the case of Soviet reformers, weaken the power of their reactionary generals, and allow them finally, with enormous relief on both their part and ours, to disarm too.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1990