Andrew Lichterman

“Immediately the spirit of exploitation is gone armaments will be felt as a positively unbearable burden. Real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit each other.” Gandhi, Harijan, November 12, 1938, quoted in Louis Fischer, ed., The Essential Gandhi, (Random House: New York, 1962), p.326.

Over the last couple of months I have had several conversations regarding conversion of U.S. nuclear weapons facilities to peaceful uses. Many disarmament advocates who live in communities that have nuclear weapons facilities, seeking to disarm some of the opposition to disarmament, push for conversion of their local plants or laboratories rather than their closure.

I do not believe that the institutions and facilities of the nuclear weapons complex can be converted to uses that are peaceable, ecologically sustainable, and that are part of an economy and society with a fair distribution of wealth and power. I do believe that the economy as a whole must be converted to a different path if humanity is going to survive much longer. I also wouldn’t hold out much hope for developing a plan for conversion that is compatible with a world that is both more peaceful and more fair that would be acceptable to the people in the upper echelons of the nuclear weapons establishment. These are very privileged people, and will not let go of their privileged place easily. There is no plan that is for the good of all that also preserves their privilege. This is a circle that simply cannot be squared.

There are some practical reasons why much of the nuclear weapons complex can not be converted for civilian uses. Many nuclear weapons research and production facilities are not much like World War Two weapons production plants, plants designed for assembly lines with infrastructure using general use industrial inputs (e.g. various kinds of rolled and cast metal) supported by arrays of people with generally applicable industrial skills (large numbers of assembly line workers, machine tool operators and manufacturers of machine tools, etc.) Much of the nuclear weapons complex physical infrastructure is designed for the demands of handling significant quantities of very dangerous materials little used in civilian activities, and hence have high fixed costs that could not be sustained with most forms of civilian enterprise. Many of the experimental facilities also are crafted to the particular demands of weapons research (or, in some cases, highly inflated versions of those demands), and also would not have useful roles in the civilian economy that could come close to justifying either the cost of the facilities or of the cadre of specialized people who conduct experiments, maintain the facilities, and analyze the data. Maintaining such facilities and the institutions around them (which are large enough to constitute significant concentrations of economic and political power) tends to generate demand for their services, which in turn can influence the path of technology development. I don’t see the suite of facilities and research capacities within the nuclear weapons establishment as having a very useful place on the (quite different) technology development path I believe we should be on. And I see the dangers presented by these institutions as economically and politically powerful organizations as outweighing whatever marginal usefulness they may have for technology development along a more ecologically sustainable, fair, and democratic path.

The issues around conversion of the nuclear weapons complex also are distorted, I believe, by the very successful efforts of the nuclear weapons establishment to portray themselves as all-purpose purveyors of Science, the “crown jewels” of the national science and technology establishment. This is compounded by a tendency across the political spectrum, even today, to view the development of science and technology as a politically neutral process. This has tended to suppress critical analysis even of the extent to which the very particular set of institutional capacities the institutions of the nuclear weapons complex possess would really be useful for civilian purposes, much less for an alternative development path that moves away from nuclear energy and in general towards forms of energy, transportation, and production infrastructure that are more decentralized and varied, adapted once more to ecological context rather than to the purposes of immense organizations with globalized supply chains driven by the goal of endless accumulation of wealth.

The main way that people in complex modern societies today extract a privileged wealth stream is through their positions in large, powerful organizations that deploy various combinations of advanced technology, bureaucratic technique, and ideology. The constellation of organizations that constitute the nuclear weapons complex sits close to the apex of global power and privilege, and the upper echelon inhabitants of those organizations are quite determined to hold on to what they have. Nuclear weapons establishments, in fact, are preeminent manifestations of how far those in power will go to preserve it–they will play dice with all humanity, even all life on earth. The nature of the institutions ultimately can not be separated from the purposes and practices that have shaped them since their inception. Born in secrecy and sequestered throughout their existence within the least accountable sector of American government, the nuclear weapons laboratories and the broader nuclear weapons complex have become powerful institutions in their own right. They have done so by using all the tools that the powerful have developed in this society for staving off democracy–control of information and technologies, propaganda, and alliances with other huge organizations in common strategies aimed at extracting a steady and expanding stream of wealth from the rest of the economy. There is no way to provide the upper level denizens of the nuclear weapons establishment–the scientists and engineers, the technocrats, bureaucrats, and propagandists–with some other pursuit that gives them a similarly “rewarding” position in society, unless we can come up with some other set of “missions” that can assure them of an equally comfortable, secure, and largely unaccountable place in the upper few percent of a national and global economy characterized by stark disparities in wealth. And why should we want to do that? (more…)