By Donella Meadows
–November 3, 1988–
The worst trick of the human mind is its habit of discounting whatever it has not directly experienced.
Most of us don’t live in Fernald, Ohio, or Golden, Colorado, or Rapid City, South Dakota, or any of the several dozen places in the United States where nuclear bombs are manufactured, stored, or sited in bunkers, ready to fire. Nuclear weapons have cost us over $2 trillion since 1945. They hold us and our whole civilization in hostage. But they aren’t quite real to us. We have never seen them. They are only ideas, dead concepts, not live actualities.
The second worst trick of the human mind is its habit of discounting whatever is too familiar.
The people who do live near the reactors and fabricating plants of Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Ashtabula, Ohio, and Hanford, Washington see them too often. To them and to the 90,000 people who work in the industry, the weapons are just concepts too.
Paul Wagner, the public relations manager at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant near Amarillo, Texas, was once asked how he feels when he sees the warheads come down the assembly line.
“Just like pickin’ up a box of Silly Putty in a dime store. There’s nothing to it…. I’ve done a helluva lot more dangerous things in my life than screwing around with nuclear weapons. I was a deep-sea diver. And I was an explosives demolition man in World War II…. After that, this work at Pantex doesn’t bother me a bit. And I’m fairly characteristic of people who have been in the business as long as the people around here have been.”
Familiarity breeds contempt in the workers. Lack of familiarity breeds apathy in everyone else. It’s no wonder that the nation turns out nuclear bombs casually, mindlessly. It’s also no wonder that the weapons plants have a record of radiation safety that is simply horrendous. The facts are just now coming to light — cancers and thyroid disease downwind from Hanford, grossly polluted water downstream from Savannah River, deliberate radiation releases from Fernald and Rocky Flats, extraordinary illnesses in plant workers.
These revelations of negligence by a government that is supposedly running these installations for our protection are waking up the people who work at or live near the plants. They are paying attention as never before. Their bodies, their children, are on the line.
Their anger is an opportunity for the rest of us to wake up too. We are the financers and proprietors of the world’s largest weapons-making complex. We have trusted the managers we put in charge, but, being human, they have created an atmosphere of denial of what they are really doing. To protect their own sanity, they have constructed a system that is insane.
Dr. Rosalie Bertell, an expert on radiation and human health, describes a revealing incident:
“My question (to a panel of weapons experts) was quite simple: How many people die every year for this program? If you count everybody from the uranium miners and millers and transport people to the ones that run the reactors, separate the plutonium, make the bombs and test them, and the people downwind, and the people that put up with the radioactive waste at every part of the cycle — how many deaths per year are required to build this number of nuclear weapons?
“There was great silence on the stage…. Finally Paul Warnke came over very quietly to the microphone and he said, ‘That’s not our department.’
“Up until then I had known intellectually that the military never counted the costs in dollars and cents, but that afternoon it finally hit me that when it comes to building nuclear bombs, the military doesn’t count the cost in human lives. And from that time on I started to look for the people in every part of the nuclear weapons cycle, the hidden people, for whom World War III has already started.”
The most chilling demonstration of denial comes from two young silo operators in South Dakota, whose job it is to launch the final product of the bomb industry. They demonstrate enthusiastically the drill they have gone through a thousand times, the code-reading and key-turning that will culminate in a triumphant Missile Away. Their minds have retreated almost entirely from the consequences of what they are prepared to do. They are jaunty and self-confident, until they are asked what happens after the launch. They seem not to have thought of that before:
“Well, um — then we have other, uh, procedures to go through. For example, … we would have to, well, harden ourselves, more or less. We’d put the arms up, we’d strap in, and basically we would be monitoring any sorties that are left on the ground, and we would react to any further messages. We’d remain on alert until, well, um, basically until we’re told not to be…. It’s really hard to say how long…. But hopefully, it would be long enough for the termination of any nuclear activity when we could make our way topside.”
(The quotations in this column are from At Work in the Fields of the Bomb by Robert Del Tredici, published by Harper & Row.)
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988