A critique of the PBS miniseries on nuclear weapons.
By Dr. Kathleen Sullivan
On April 15, PBS aired a nationwide two-hour program on nuclear weapons as part of its four-episode series entitled Avoiding Armageddon. Although we applaud nuclear awareness-raising, in a spirit of critical inquiry, the April 15 episode of Avoiding Armageddon falls short. Below are some of the errors and omissions that we found. Each point begins with a paraphrased statement from the program followed by websites for more information, and classroom ideas for fostering student inquiry.
** Since the end of the cold war, nuclear weapons and nuclear materials have decreased **
Avoiding Armageddon states early on that the number of nuclear weapons in the world has decreased from 60,000 to 30,000. While this statement is correct, the claim that nuclear materials have decreased as well is false. Because these materials are manufactured daily in nuclear power reactors all over the world (and will continue to be produced as long as nuclear power is still considered a viable energy source) and because these materials can be used to make nuclear weapons (as was the case with India, for example), the quantity of nuclear materials is ever on the rise. Furthermore, many nuclear weapons materials have half-lives that defy human comprehension. The program fails to emphasize this point.
See the Nuclear Guardianship Project for information about the long-term management of radioactive materials: http://www.joannamacy.net/html/nuclear.html. I
Invite students to write a "letter from the future." Ask each student to imagine that they are a person living seven generations from now. This future person will write a letter to the student telling what they know about nuclear power, nuclear waste, or nuclear weapons. This simple exercise helps students consider how people living in the far future will still be affected by the nuclear materials we are creating today.
** Iraq expelled weapons inspectors in 1998 **
Iraq did not expel weapons inspectors. Late in 1998 the UN's chief weapons inspector, Richard Butler, charged that Iraq was interfering with the team's work. The U.S. then threatened Iraq with force, and the inspectors voluntarily left the country. US planes bombed Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. Following this attack, Iraq refused to readmit the inspectors. It had claimed for some time that the UN team included American spies. This charge proved correct: US officials admitted in January 1999 that American spies had worked within the UN team. They gave the inspectors information and technology to help them and got from them intelligence about Iraqi weapons programs and their location.
See FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) for a collection of readers' picks of the disparate accounts told by the same media outlets reporting in 1998 and 2002. Ideal source material for document-based inquiry and critical thinking about the media can be found at:
http://www.fair.org/extra/0210/inspectors.html. For lesson plans on the Iraq crisis and the media see the activity on the war and the media on this website (file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/LAURA1/Desktop/teachable%20moment/general/media.html).
** The first atomic bomb, tested at Alamogordo, New Mexico, was called Fat Man **
The first atomic bomb tested at Alamogordo on July 16th 1945, under the code name Trinity, was called The Gadget. Fat Man was the name given to the plutonium weapon used on the city of Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.
For archival photographs and the story of the Trinity Test see http://nuketesting.enviroweb.org/
** North Korean children should never starve while a massive army is fed **
This valid opinion, expressed by George W. Bush, presents critical thinking opportunities for students. Ask them to substitute "North Korean children" with "American children" and analyze US defense spending and funding priorities.
See http://www.cdi.org/budget/2004/ and http://www.clw.org/milspend/ushighestbudget.html. For an excellent student reading on military spending, go to http://cepr.net/columns/weisbrot/MLK.htm for "King's Legacy: Americans Must Choose Between War and Social Progress."
** The Cuban Missile Crisis **
Avoiding Armageddon presents an incomplete picture of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It fails to mention that for the Soviet Union, the presence of US missiles in nearby Turkey presented a parallel threat.
For lessons that flesh out the Cuban Missile Crisis, see the activity on our website at http://www.esrmetro.org/twocrises.html.
** Israel's nuclear arsenal **
The program mentions France's role in assisting the Israeli nuclear weapons program, but not US involvement.
For a description of the US/Israeli nuclear relationship see The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/1995/jf95/jf95Cohen.html
** The Moscow Treaty brokered by Presidents Bush and Putin is aimed at reducing the nuclear stockpile **
This agreement is essentially a nuclear weapons storage scheme: Rather than permanently dismantling weapons (which is what "disarmament" requires), it allows both sides to simply stow them away for possible future use. Furthermore, the agreement contains no timetable for reducing US and Russian arsenals, and it allows either party to withdraw from the treaty in the interest of "national security."
See this critique from the Union of Concerned Scientists at
Issues that are not addressed at all, or in any detail, include:
The Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT)
Avoiding Armageddon makes no mention of the 13 steps unanimously agreed to by the world's nuclear weapon states during the 2000 NPT Review Conference. The nations committed themselves to the "unequivocal undertaking" of working towards nuclear disarmament "at an early date." They agreed to strengthen the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which the Bush Administration has abrogated. The states also pledged to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which the Bush Administration has publicly refused to do.
For a full reading of the 13 steps, the NPT and CTBT text, and an educational toolkit on disarmament, see http://www.reachingcriticalwill.org/
The International Court of Justice Ruling
In 1996, the ICJ ruled that the threat or use of nuclear weapons is generally illegal, and that nuclear weapon states have an obligation to conclude negotiations on their elimination.
For an analysis of the opinion, see Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy: http://www.lcnp.org/wcourt/index.htm.
The Nuclear Posture Review
The Nuclear Posture Review provides the most recent statement of the Bush Administration's nuclear doctrine. Under this policy, the US could use nuclear weapons in a first strike against another nation, not just in response to an attack (similar to the U.S.'s new policy of preemptive war). It asserts the US's right to target non-nuclear nations and to abrogate international treaties in the name of "nation security."
For excerpts from the Pentagon report, see
For an interview critical of the Nuclear Posture Review:
"Low yield" or "tactical" nuclear weapons
Avoiding Armageddon fails to mention the US's current plans to build so-called "robust nuclear earth penetrators." In May, the House of Representatives is expected to consider the Pentagon's request for funds to begin developing such "bunker buster" nuclear weapons. This move would put the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in jeopardy.
For an overview of "low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons" see
Time and future generations
Nuclear weapons are not at all like conventional bombs. A much disregarded effect is the long-lived radiation, which results from a nuclear explosion. A nuclear blast releases radioactive elements that hang around for millennia upon millennia, putting future generations at risk of developing cancer and genetic defects. To take just one example, plutonium is a known carcinogen and alpha emitter, which can cause cancer, leukemia, and mutagenic effects for up to 250,000 years after the initial explosion (plutonium's half life is 24,000 years). The phrase "low-yield" bears no relation to the destructive power of any size nuclear bomb. Due to long-lived radioactive poisoning, nuclear weapons are unusable in military strategies, and ultimately, they threaten the continuation of life. These are not "weapons," they are instruments of genocide.
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility.
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