The Senate's Nuclear Irresponsibility

by Jonathan Wallace

I'm used to announcements that our drinking water is tainted by lead, PCB's or insecticide, but we had a real eye-opener recently on the East End of Long Island when tests determined that the Peconic River (a meandering bucolic stream perfect for lazy canoeing) was polluted by plutonium. The Brookhaven National Laboratory with its nuclear reactors is right next door, and a natural suspect; the lab's director, after first denying there was plutonium in the river, said that undoubtedly atmospheric nuclear testing was responsible, not his lab.

I don't want him to have that excuse.

Plutonium doesn't fool around. Even President Reagan would have been unable to come up with a Readers' Digest clipping saying it improves digestion or is good for your teeth. I doubt there's anyone on any side of the political issues around nuclear power or atomic testing who would disagree with the proposition that plutonium is bad for children and other living things.

The Senate, in tanking the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty last week, has just made a clear statement that it doesn't give a good goddamn. Any way you parse it, rejection of the treaty was a consummate act of nuclear responsibility.

For forty years the U.S. has taken a leadership role in limiting nuclear proliferation. By rejecting the CTBT, we have informed the world that we are abdicating that role. Our answer to the question, "Do you mind if I test?" has just become "I don't mind if you burn."

But we have to mind, because if you burn, I get poisoned by the smoke. We all share a single small planet; studies after Chernobyl showed that the radiation it exuded went everywhere. Borders are unknown to airborne radiation; no fences or filters will keep it out. People living in countries remote from the Soviet Union have certainly contracted cancer and died because of Chernobyl.

The Senate's motivation, like that of many political acts, is hard to determine. One theory calls it a final act of revenge on President Clinton (who arrogantly mishandled the Republicans in trying to get the treaty through.) One commentator compared the Republican party to Wile E. Coyote running off the cliff in pursuit of the Roadrunner.

The explanation offered by the Republicans themselves was that the treaty was flawed and that it is not always possible to verify testing. This begs the question of why it isn't better to have a flawed treaty than none at all; some countries will respect it, and the technology will improve over time to detect the ones who attempt to flout it. The nuclear blasts most likely not to ring alarm bells would be small ones; no-one is going to be able to secretly replicate the arsenal we already have.

If the Senators sincerely believed the treaty was flawed, they could have exercised leadership by sending the President back to the bargaining table to obtain some improvements to it. This is the "advise and consent" role defined by the Constitution for the Senate; it seems that for the CTBT, the "advice" part of the role was completely lacking.

I think the real motive is that the Republicans continue, post-collapse of the Soviet empire, to be captives of the military-industrial complex and its binary thinking. We have to continue to have, and to test, the biggest weapons available; sooner or later someone will show up whom we will need to use them on. Weird rhetoric these last few years about "rogue nuclear states" and even marauding asteroids are justifications, overt and disguised, to continue to make and test big bombs.

Any businessman knows that an authority-responsibility split is a bad thing. It is typically manifested in the common spectacle of a hapless middle manager, responsible for a task but lacking any authority to accomplish it. The Senate is an example of the other face of the problem: complete authority without any responsibility to anyone. The Senators know, as they and other politicians have frequently commented, that the public memory is short, that nuclear testing is not a pocket-book issue and that when election time comes no-one will even remember who voted for or against the treaty.