The Guardian 17 August, 2005

Nuclear clock still ticking:
visiting US peace activist


Carah Ong is the research and advocacy director for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation in the US and the director of the Washington DC office. The Foundation is a non-profit, non-government organisation which focuses on education and advocacy to advance initiatives to eliminate the nuclear weapons threat to humanity, to empower young people to make a difference and to foster the rule of international law. During a recent visit to Australia, she spoke with Anna Pha of The Guardian and described some of the projects currently being undertaken by the Foundation. She also gave her views on a range of issues related to nuclear weapons and energy that are of concern in the US and worldwide.

Guardian: What brings you to Australia?

Carah Ong: Well, I was very fortunate. I was always wanting to come to Australia, so this is a dream come true for me and itís made all the much more important to have been invited by the Hiroshima Day Committee of Australia and to be here for the 60th anniversary of the US atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The Foundation is putting forward a new course for US nuclear policy. One of our main programs, one of the programs that I run is our Turn the Tide campaign to chart a new course for US nuclear policy. I actually just moved to Washington DC last April so Iíve only been there for a few months. What we are focussing on is legislation in Congress, educating members of Congress on the current situation because I think a lot of people donít actually realise the legislation that is being passed and the even more daunting policies that the US is pursuing.

For example, the United States is spending right now one and a half times what it spent at the height of the Cold War on nuclear weapons when adjusted for inflation. And most members of Congress donít realise this. There are also a number of members of Congress who are actually putting forward really great legislation which are steps towards the ultimate goal that we envision which is a nuclear weapons-free world. So weíre actually monitoring the legislation and educating Congress and telling grassroots groups across the country in the United States about this legislation and urging them to contact their members of Congress to support or oppose particular legislation.

G: Can you give us some examples of the type of legislation?

CO: Sure, a positive example ó letís start with the positive one ó on July 20 Representative Lynn Woolsey who is a Democrat from California introduced legislation, it was called the Woolsey Resolution on Nuclear Disarmament. Iím actually one of the organisers for Hiroshima and Nagasaki days in the United States. We created an action postcard on this legislation that people can send in to their members of Congress urging them to support this piece of legislation because itís really a great piece of legislation that calls for the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. Thatís the positive one.

The administration is pursuing new nuclear weapons. It would really like to develop mini-nukes. Fortunately that money was zeroed out last year by representative David Hobson who is a Republican from Ohio, so that was a positive that he actually zeroed that money out.

But quite a bit of money was re-oriented from the worldís best nuclear earth penetrator to something called the reliable replacement warhead. This program is actually quite dangerous because it really signals that the United States is looking to maintain its nuclear arsenal indefinitely. The program received the money last year and itís also got an increase of funding this year to produce the reliable replacement warhead. The administration had asked for funds for the robust nuclear earth penetrator ó itís also called the bunker-buster ó that money was eliminated last year and moved over to the reliable replacement warhead program.

G: What does that program entail?

CO: Well itís actually very unclear what the reliable replacement warhead is. Theyíre not really telling us what it is. I donít think theyíd allow the National Laboratory officials or the scientists know, themselves. But it was a way to get some funding for the time being. Basically, they want to modify existing warheads.

As Lynton Brooks, the head of National Nuclear Security Administration said recently: if you had grandfatherís axe and you replace the head and you replace the handle, you still have your grandfatherís axe.

This was his answer to the reliable replacement warhead issue, whether or not it was a new nuclear weapon. So, heís essentially saying "look weíre going to make all these modifications and I donít want to come out and say that itís exactly a new nuclear weapon because itís really unclear that it is at this point." But it is a very dangerous program and itís received quite a bit of funding from Congress.

Congress this year actually put some stipulations on that funding saying that it couldnít be a new warhead but, of course, once the labs get that money itís very difficult to look over the scientistís shoulder and make sure theyíre not developing something thatís new.

G: And the missile defence system?

CO: Well missile defence is an absolute debacle. More than US$120 billion have been spent on missile defence to date. And the United States is looking to spend at least another US$50 billion over the next five years on missile defence. Of course, the United States abrogated the anti-ballistic missile treaty in 2002 so that it could pursue missile defence and now itís devoting quite a bit of funding to it.

In fact last year they emplaced six interceptors at Fort Greely, Alaska, and at Vandenburg air force base in California, which is very near where Iím from. Iím from Santa Barbara, California so itís just in my backyard there. Missile defence is one the things that I started organising on when I first started in this field. But missile defence is extremely expensive and ó whatís actually very disturbing about it ó scientists and experts have come out and said that this is something that is not going to work but yet weíre still pursuing it. The last two tests of the system have been dramatic failures but itís also a system that incorporates the international community quite well.

The US has been quite successfully able to sell this program, for example to Japan, and asked Japan to invest money into it. And also Germany, Iceland and Greenland ó thereís a broad range and itís come to Australia. Australia is actually a very key component of the missile defence system with Pine Gap here. It actually contributes quite a bit to US missile defences. Itís just a huge waste of money with no chance of success.

G: Not so long ago the peace movement was talking in terms of the threat of nuclear war being at "five minutes to midnight". That mobilised a very large peace movement. How do you see that situation now?

CO: Well, Iím pretty sure the original atomic scientists were the ones that came up with the idea of the atomic clock and I think weíre actually still at five to midnight. It might, perhaps, be even a bit closer, quite honestly. Itís actually a situation in the United States where the peace movement has largely subsided and the nuclear issue has really fallen off the radar screen of most people or the public conscience, if you will.

I think that after the end of the Cold War, in many peopleís minds, nuclear weapons went away. Thereís been a resurgence particularly in the media, I think very fortunately, because President Bush has really brought the issue back to the forefront of international attention talking about "nuclear terrorism", talking about the situation in Iran and in North Korea; basically, pointing the finger at everyone else except for the nuclear weapons states and particularly its own self, the United States.

I think weíre in a situation now where the talk is centred around non-proliferation and counter-proliferation meaning that the exclusive nuclear club doesnít want anyone else to get nuclear weapons but itís perfectly fine if they keep them. Really, the situation is that we have 30,000 nuclear weapons in the global arsenal and 4,000 of those are on hair-trigger alert waiting to be fired at a momentís notice. The United States and Russia each maintain about 2000 each nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert.

This is really quite a dangerous situation because theyíre susceptible to human miscalculation, of course, and they could very easily be launched. But you donít hear about that in the news media. You donít hear about the fact that the United States has about 10,350 deployed nuclear weapons, 5000 of which are operational and 5000 of which could be operational very quickly. We donít really hear much about the fact that the United States has 480 nuclear weapons at eight bases in six NATO countries in Europe and Turkey. We donít hear about Russia, China, France and the United Kingdom ó the fact that theyíre modernising their nuclear arsenals just as the US is modernising its arsenal and deploying missile defences.

We donít hear much news about India and Pakistan and the fact that theyíre not members of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and we hear absolutely nothing about Israelís nuclear arsenal. Israel is the fifth nuclear power in the world and we donít hear anything about it. Thereís no debate whatsoever. But we hear quite a bit about North Korea which could have eight nuclear weapons. We hear quite a bit about Iran which may be pursuing a nuclear program. Clearly they want nuclear energy and theyíre moving towards enrichment but itís not at all clear that they want to obtain nuclear weapons. Clearly they want to maintain that option and thatís why theyíre pursuing enrichment.

But all the international tensions are focussed on this and nuclear terrorism. After 9/11 thereís this idea that terrorists could get their hands on nuclear weapons and, while that is indeed the case, itís not really the greatest threat facing us.

G: Talking about nuclear energy, what is the Foundationís approach to issue?

CO: We believe there is an inherent link between nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. If a country has a nuclear power plant theyíre capable of making a nuclear weapon. There are 44 countries that are capable of this. This is very clear with the current situation with Iran, they say theyíre pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes but, of course, everybody is worried about it because they know that if you have nuclear technology for peaceful purposes you can convert that into a nuclear weapons program. In fact thatís how India and Pakistan developed their nuclear capabilities as did North Korea. They had technology for peaceful purposes that they converted to a nuclear weapons program.

The other side of that coin is that nuclear energy has recently been touted as the solution to global warming and to climate change. Itís the new clean, green energy source. Of course in the United States President Bush has touted this and here in Australia there is also a push to open up new reactors and all over Europe, also, there is a push for new nuclear reactors.

But the thing is that nuclear energy is not clean. First of all, the processing of mining and milling uranium creates more carbon dioxide than the processing of coal or other fossil fuels. So, itís not that green if you have to mine uranium for use in reactors. Secondly you have huge capital investments involved in building reactors and the construction of these plants will release carbon dioxide. And then with the end product you have nuclear waste which no-one knows what to do with. We have hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes of nuclear waste around the world and thereís no safe way of disposing of it. So, our stance is that we should halt nuclear energy until there is a scientifically credible solution to the nuclear waste problem and until more research can be done regarding whether or not itís clean.

G: I believe youíve got a big campaign going on over there in the US over plans for a new storage facility.

CO: Right, Yacca Mountain was the site named by the Bush administration that would have our national nuclear waste repository. Of course, Yacca Mountain is on sacred Western Shoshone land in Nevada. This site is actually not scientifically credible. There are recent reports where scientists have come out and said that the documents were fudged, that theyíre trying to make it the site and so there are a number of law suits in place now trying to stop the Yacca mountain site.

In the meantime, theyíre pursuing another nuclear waste repository; once again on sacred Indigenous land in Goshute Valley in Utah. This is also quite a problem and theyíre moving forward with this site, as well, or trying to at least because the representatives in the state of Utah are trying to stop it. But again, the fact that it is on sacred indigenous land really goes to show the racism inherent in the nuclear issue. I mean, of course we wouldnít put a nuclear waste repository on the land of wealthy white men. Of course, it has to go on sacred indigenous land. It really devalues their culture.

G: Obviously the 60th anniversary of Hiroshima is an important one, but do you think there is a particular significance to it at this point?

CO: Besides being the 60th anniversary ó the number 60 holds particular significance in Japan, itís the first year that longevity is celebrated ó there are all the things weíve been saying with our Hiroshima and Nagasaki days in the United States: what greater gift could we give to the people of Japan than to eliminate nuclear weapons this year.

Unfortunately, I donít think that thatís going to be the case but I think that this year offers us the opportunity to really once again try to move people around the world, and really try to unite people in saying there cannot be another Hiroshima and there cannot be another Nagasaki. And thereís a time to end the nuclear legacy and a time to clean it up and the redress the grievances that have occurred all around the world. Itís not limited to Hiroshima and Nagasaki; it began there but it extends much further and there are "down-winders" everywhere in the United States and Australia.

There are nuclear war groups everywhere whose grievances need to be addressed. People everywhere need to recognise the devastation that has been caused by nuclear weapons globally and that it is something that hasnít gone away. Itís still very much part of our lives and we canít continue to be complacent and learn to live with it. Itís time to end it.

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