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Los Alamos, Freedom of Speech, and Nuclear Disaster

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As every high school student learns, the first amendment to the U.S. constitution guarantees the right to freedom of speech. That’s why government employees have the right to express their opinions as long as they make clear that their opinions do not represent those of their employer.

Apparently some folks at Los Alamos National Laboratory—one of the two labs that design and help maintain U.S. nuclear weapons—missed that day in class.

Bill_of_Rights

Source: National Archives

Last year, Jim Doyle, then a nuclear security and non-proliferation specialist who had been at the Lab for 17 years, published an article in the journal Survival titled Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons? Doyle included the requisite disclaimer: “The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Los Alamos National Laboratory or the US government.” So far, so good.

But soon Los Alamos officials claimed the article contained classified information. Then they docked Doyle’s pay, took away his security clearance, and ultimately fired him. Not subtle.

The shameful tale of Los Alamos and Jim Doyle is thoroughly detailed in an article by Douglas Birch, an investigative journalist who works at the Center for Public Integrity. Among other things, Birch interviews several experts with security clearances who say that Doyle’s article contains nothing classified.

What’s at Stake Here?

So what does Doyle’s article say that so upset Los Alamos officials? His call for eliminating nuclear weapons is consistent with long-standing official U.S. policy: as a nuclear weapon state signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the United States is obligated to work for nuclear disarmament. His call is also consistent with President Obama’s April 2009 speech in Prague, where he stated that the United States would “seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”

But Doyle’s article is more than a call for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons—it is a critique of nuclear deterrence itself. He writes: “The international community must reject the myths and expose the risks of the ideology of nuclear deterrence if it is to successfully meet the mutual global challenges of the twenty-first century.”

He writes that the price of deterrence outweighs its value, and that the price “is the constant risk that a complex, tightly coupled and largely automated system subject to normal, systemic and human error will, as science tells us, inevitably fail, and fail catastrophically, with unprecedented and unjustified loss of civilian life. Mistakes with conventional weapons can have limited physical impact. Small mistakes are not possible with nuclear weapons.”

Doyle is right. All systems are fallible, and when it comes to nuclear weapons a system failure could be catastrophic. For example, as I have written about previously, the United States keeps almost all its 450 land-based nuclear missiles on high alert ready to be launched within a few minutes. This policy increases the risk of an accidental or unauthorized launch or one in response to a false warning of an incoming attack. These risks outweigh any potential benefits, and President Obama should remove these missiles from hair-trigger alert.

An informed public debate about U.S. nuclear weapons policies is essential. That Los Alamos Lab officials went out of their way to stifle such debate is especially disturbing. Ironically, their actions have now brought Doyle’s article to the attention of a much larger group of people.

Frontpage photo courtesy of Paul Shambroom.

Posted in: Nuclear Weapons Tags: ,

About the author: Lisbeth Gronlund is a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program. She is an expert on technical issues related to U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and new nuclear weapons, space weapons, and ballistic missile defenses. See Lisbeth's full bio.

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  • flamestar

    By the way I was a member of the Union of Concerned of Scientists the first year of it’s existence. It was during those years that I was know in Westport as a Big Commie. The organization was wrong about the cold war but it was right about many other dangers that no one else was talking about. The organization did a lot of good but the West isn’t going to commit suicide and the organizations supporters would be the first ones that would be put up against the wall and shot of the US gave up and turned it self over to our enemies.

    • feralcamero

      Flamestar, what’s your point? That we will always have nuclear weapons on high alert, virtually guaranteeing catastrophe?

      Or are you able to imagine a different scenario that is more compatible with life on Earth?

      The world is currently short on vision that is positive, evidence based, and long term.

      • flamestar

        “How about imagine a different scenario that is more compatible with life on Earth?” How does one answer someone who thinks he invented the idea of peace? Someone who apparently believes that when he tells people about his idea that everyone will forget their own ideas and throw all their guns away. One who believes
        that if he wishes for something hard enough it will happen. I don’t see any point in going over the history of disarmament. I already talked about World One and Two and it had no effect. If you know that war or some unacceptable event is certain to happen do you try to put it off or do you just let it happen? We are all going to die but does it make sense to commit suicide? Disarmament is suicide. Of course if one cannot imagine different future then they may opt suicide.
        The idea of mutual assured destruction is an attempt to avoid a World War until advances in technology will make war pointless.

  • flamestar

    I made comment but the free speech board suppressed it. All systems are fallible bur she has a system. And her system is infallible, I am not going into because my statement will be suppressed. the Union of Concerned Scientists thinks we had a nuclear war because mutually assured destruction didn’t work. There was plenty of debate on the issue. Some people were and are pathetically out of touch. They are the same ones who beleive honor killing is good for women. That letting guilty people free to rape loot and burn dropped the crime rate. They beleive that open immigration of white people into Americans was good for the indians. We kept having world wars until we dropped two atom bombs and no world wars but they don’t get it.

  • flamestar

    Moronic. We were having world wars ever since the English and French first started fighting the first one in the 1750s, The wars gap between peace and war become ever shorter and the destruction of each war increased. World War One stated in 1914, lasted until 1918, and had 10 million casualties. Twenty one years World War Two stated in 1939, lasted until 1945, and had 60 million casualties. The number of casualties increased six times. The best we could have hoped for was twenty years of peace and 360 million causalities. People want to eliminate mutually assured destruction because it is frighting never realizing that it works just because it is frighting. Star Trek had an episode where war was replaced by a computer generated war and it never ended. Unfortunately the Union of Concerned Scientists are made of of scientists and scientists are not at smart as politicians. My primary point is the Union of Concerned Scientists aren’t going to convince any one of anything as long as they produce stupid articles like the one above.

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