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Filmed on Tuesday September 21, 02010

Richard Rhodes

Twilight of the Bombs

Along with his tretralogy on nuclear weapons (The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun, Arsenals of Folly, and The Twilight of the Bombs), Richard Rhodes is author of John James Audubon, Deadly Feasts (on mad cow disease), and a Donner Party novel, The Ungodly.

Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Dark Sun, and Arsenals of Folly completes his tetralogy on nuclear weapons with his new book, The Twilight of the Bombs: Recent Challenges, New Dangers, and the Prospects for a World Without Nuclear Weapons.

A single weapon profoundly shaped world history for most of a century. Its disappearance can have equally profound effects

Bomb Ban

The evening began with a short version of Isao Ishimoto's animation of all the world's atomic explosions in the period 1945 to 1998. The total is shocking to most people---2,053. Rhodes commented that seeing the bomb tests on a world map over time shows how much they were a strange form of communication between nations. He also noted how the number of tests dropped from decades of intensity to near zero after 1993. In this century only North Korea has tested bombs, and those could be the last explosions.

Most Americans, he's found, think that we don't have nuclear weapons any more, and that may reflect a realistic perception that we no longer need them. But our government keeps looking for reasons to keep them, and maintaining the current much reduced arsenal still costs $50 billion a year.

How much did the Cold War cost everyone from 1948 to 1991, and how much of that was for nuclear weapons? The total cost has been estimated at $18.5 trillion, with $7.8 trillion for nuclear. At the peak the Soviet Union had 95,000 weapons and the US had 20 to 40,000. America's current seriously degraded infrastructure would cost about $2.2 trillion to fix---all the gas lines and water lines and schools and bridges. We spent that money on bombs we never intended to use---all of the Cold War players, major and minor, told Rhodes that everyone knew that the bombs must not and could not be used. Much of the nuclear expansion was for domestic consumption: one must appear "ahead," even though numbers past a couple dozen warheads were functionally meaningless.

Rhodes noted that people fear the blast and radiation effects of atomic bombs, but it's really the fires that are most destructive. The fireball ignites everything far beyond the blast effects. As a result, nuclear winter remains a threat. Former researchers of nuclear winter used sophisticated new climate models to assess what would happen if, say, there was an exchange of 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs (1.5 kilotons) between India and Pakistan. The smoke clouds would disrupt the weather long enough to collapse some agriculture, leading to starvation of as many as a billion people.

Serious efforts are underway to get the world's nuclear weapons down toward zero. All weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) is being tallied and secured. Sophisticated, unrestrained inspection systems are gaining ever more access. In some cases, arsenals are being "virtualized"---nuclear capability substitutes for weapons stockpiles. India and Pakistan, for instance, have disassembled their nuclear weapons into widely separated parts that would take considerable time and deliberation to reassemble.

In the course of his research, Rhodes shifted from opposition to nuclear power for electricity to becoming a strong proponent. Among its benefits is offering a way for the thousands of warheads to be converted into something useful when diluted into large quantities of reactor fuel. Also the international fuel banking proposed for bringing proliferation-free nuclear power to developing nations can help enable more thorough inspections of all fissile material.

At dinner Rhodes reflected that nuclear weapons may come to be seen as a strange fetishistic behavior by nations at a certain period in history. They were insanely expensive and thoroughly useless. Their only function was to keep a bizarre form of score.

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