Back on the Brink

Nuclear watchdogs assembling in Santa Fe say it's time to stopignoring ongoing threat

Perhaps the greatest threat posed to our future generations is the one we seem to be letting drift quietly into obscurity: that 15,000 nuclear weapons exist now, any one of them capable of wiping out a city in seconds.

Of course, Santa Fe, poised as it is between Los Alamos and Sandia National Laboratories and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, rarely forgets that weapons abound. So, to this landscape where we're still cleaning up from a form of warfare most have consigned to the history books, Creative Santa Fe, the Nuclear Threat Initiative and N Square have called thought leaders and diplomats to explore, study and discuss the topic. Just a few of the events in the Santa Fe Nuclear Weapons Summit will be open to the public, but among those is a dialogue on Sunday, Dec. 4, between former US Secretary of Defense William J Perry and journalist Eric Schlosser. Both have written on the flawed logic, policy and perception surrounding our nuclear arsenal, and share the sentiment that this threat is far from over.

"Today, the danger of some sort of nuclear catastrophe is greater than it was during the Cold War and most people are blissfully unaware of this danger," Perry, who served as defense secretary from 1994 to 1997, states in his memoir, My Journey at the Nuclear Brink.

To Creative Santa Fe, inviting a cohort of about 50 people who will tour New Mexico's facilities to discuss nuclear weapons in the context of where they were born was easy bait, and the first in a series they hope will entice a younger generation to Santa Fe and leverage the CEOs, diplomats and PhDs who have retired here.

"We have a history of being at the forefront of innovation, of art, of culture, of science and technology—we've been doing it for hundreds of years. We've always attracted the innovators and disruptors," says Cyndi Conn, executive director of Creative Santa Fe. "Why not bring that legacy to the world as a place to solve problems?"

Schlosser was reporting on the future of warfare in space when former missile launch officers began telling him stories of near-misses, accidents and mistakes with nuclear weapons. Six years of research later, he released the book Command and Control, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history. A documentary of the same name is produced by Schlosser and directed by Robert Kenner, and will be screened as part of the summit.

"One of the main themes of my book, and it applies beyond nuclear weapons, is that human beings are much better at creating complex technology systems than we are at controlling them or knowing what to do when they go wrong," Schlosser tells SFR. He points to the WIPP, built to securely store transuranic waste for tens of thousands of years, and host of an explosion within its first 15 years in operation.

"There's a whole list of things that we can do to reduce the threat, but the first step is to even know that it exists, and to understand the nature of it. So I've tried to do that with my work," Schlosser says.

Nuclear war on US soil may be less likely now than it was decades ago, he says, but in its place we find an increased risk of a city somewhere else in the world vanishing in a mushroom cloud.

"One of the dangers right now is that a lot of these things are aging—not just the weapons, but the weapons systems themselves, and as they age, they become more problematic. So you either have to modernize them or get rid of them, but keeping increasingly obsolete technology on alert and ready to be used at a moment's notice is probably the worst of those options," he says.

Activism played a role in de-escalating the conflicts in the early 1980s that kept nuclear warfare hovering on horizon; it could play that role again. With that in mind, and with a new set of fingers on the United States' proverbial nuclear "red button" beginning next year, it's time for a renewed public debate on nuclear weapons, why we have them, and how safely they're being managed. But for Schlosser, the end result of those conversations is already clear: "There are just certain things that we shouldn't do," he says. "If it's harmful for 30,000 years, maybe we shouldn't make it."

Command and Control screening and Q&A with Eric Schlosser
3:30 pm Saturday Dec. 3. $8-$10.
Center for Contemporary Arts,
1050 Old Pecos Trail

At the Nuclear Brink: A Conversation with William J Perry and Eric Schlosser
5 pm Sunday Dec. 4. $15.
Lensic Performing Arts Center,
211 W San Francisco St.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.