Los Alamos, Freedom of Speech, and Nuclear Disaster

August 4, 2014 | 11:02 am
Lisbeth Gronlund
Former contributor

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.


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.