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Editorial & Opinion

Peter Nightingale: Warped priorities mark the Department of Energy’s FY 2020 budget



In a March 11 press release highlighting its FY 2020 budget, the Department of Energy (DOE) claims that it will fulfill its obligation to clean up the environmental pollution legacy of the Cold War. Nuclear Watch, in its March 25 response, explains what DOE really means:

Cleanup at DOE’s nuclear weapons sites is cut by 9.8% to $6.47 billion. According to a recent Government Accountability Office Report, DOE now estimates that future nation-wide cleanup of Cold War legacy radioactive and toxic wastes will cost at least $377 billion – $109 billion more than last year’s estimate. In that sense, DOE’s cleanup programs are going backwards, while NNSA’s [National Nuclear Security Administration‘s] nuclear weapons research and production programs that made the mess are being expanded.

One of the biggest superfund sites in the United States is in located in Hanford, Washington. This is where Fat Man, the code name of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki, was built. The decommissioned Hanford facility is releasing significant amounts of radioactive material into the air and into the water of the Columbia River.

There is more than radioactivity. American negotiators insisted on excluding military greenhouse gas pollution from the Kyoto Protocol. As Nick Buxton wrote in the run-up to the 2015 UN climate negotiations in Paris:

The history of how the military disappeared from any carbon accounting ledgers goes back to the UN climate talks in 1997 in Kyoto. Under pressure from military generals and foreign policy hawks opposed to any potential restrictions on US military power, the US negotiating team succeeded in securing exemptions for the military from any required reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Even though the US then proceeded not to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, the exemptions for the military stuck for every other signatory nation. Even today, the reporting each country is required to make to the UN on their emissions excludes any fuels purchased and used overseas by the military.

The United States military, as the world’s largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels, is a main contributor to global warming. Nevertheless, the FY 2020 budget cuts programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy by a whopping 86 percent.

Of course, none of this even begins to scratch the surface of the ecological devastation for which the United States military is responsible. Wikipedia lists 143 military superfund sites. This list does not include the pollution due to the high-yield Castle Bravo thermonuclear test that was carried out in 1954, virtually without consideration of the ecological impact on the Marshall Islands. There also were the human radiation experiments that took advantage of vulnerable groups such as institutionalized children, seriously ill and sometimes comatose patients, African-Americans, and prisoners.

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The common thread in much of this is the disrespect for all but straight white males that comes with Christian nationalism and follows in the footsteps of the Doctrine of Discovery of 1493. That certainly covers the uranium mining that has a serious impact on the health of Indigenous Peoples of the Northern Great Plains and the Southwest.

Oglala Sioux Tribe keeps up fight against uranium mine, an integral, enabling part of the United States’ war machine

Gravely immoral as all of the above may be, there is no comparison with the threat to life on earth posed by nuclear weapons. Their development has been growing unchecked across administrations, as shown in a plot made by the Los Alamos Study Group.

From Los Alamos Study Group AEC: Atomic Energy Commission; ERDA: Energy (read Nuclear Weapons) Research and Development Administration; DEO: Department of Energy (read Nuclear Weapons); and NNSA: National Nuclear Security (read Destabilization) Administration.

The dynamics of the growth of the nuclear war industry has been studied and understood for decades. As Richard Rhodes writes in the epilogue of his authoritative Dark Sun: The Making Of The Hydrogen Bomb written in 1996),

“The arms race,” Nincic [a political scientist] summarized, “is imbedded in circumstances proper to the domestic political and economic systems of the superpowers in addition to dynamics inherent in the interaction between the two nations.” Having worked the numbers, Nincic concluded that all the high claptrap of arms strategy was essentially decorative: “Strategic doctrines are designed, in large part, to justify the weaponry that the arms race has imposed on both the United States and the Soviet Union.”

On April 4, 1967, Dr Martin Luther King, exactly a year before he was assassinated, delivered his famous Beyond Vietnam address, and said:

Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. 

These words remain true today. But ecological devastation ranges from the radioactive pollution in Hanford to the threats to life on earth posed by a nuclear holocaust followed nuclear winter and by a climate catastrophe caused by run-away global warming. Given these circumstances, the choice between “nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation” is starker than it was in 1967. Indeed, just a month ago, nuclear-armed India and Pakistan came close to war. This is exactly one of Bill Perry’s nuclear nightmare scenarios.

Today’s Poor People’s Campaign, which builds upon the campaign of the same name of 1967-68, has added a new item to the list of three mortal enemies of morality named by Dr King 52 years ago.

The demands of today’s Poor People’s Campaign are to end poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation.

Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.