The more one understands, the more one can see what is happening and the harder it is to accept those things which are either unjust, or present a real and present danger to us all. Ever since the first days of our species we have been faced with our limitations and our inability to deal with our vast capabilities. The development of nuclear energy and weapons is the sublime example of the chronic situation human beings have placed themselves.
I remember so clearly, a visit to our two room school in the mid fifties by a representative of the Atomic Energy Commission of Canada. He spelled out the remarkable promise of harnessing this limitless energy source that would bring cheap electricity, would continue to bring breakthroughs in medical science, power cars, trains, aircraft and make our country one of the most civilised places in the whole world. I am convinced that man truly believed that mankind would somehow take up the challenge of science and move forward, but at the very moment he was talking to us, only several hundred miles away, the frantic weapons development programme of the United States was churning out bigger and better thermonuclear devices that they would in turn, test in the atmosphere and then later in holes, deep beneath the earth's surface.
The irony of that class never leaves my consciousness, because it was the very fact that the same tool that could transform a world, would just as easily destroy it. In order to harness the power of nuclear energy it was necessary to refine the naturally occurring uranium into yet another form of the stuff, then use it in a reactor to create plutonium, which could produce the needed sustained chain reaction with amounts of material as small as a hard ball. This meant that for certain, that form of nuclear energy would never be readily available to be used in the things we use as part of our everyday lives, because what could run a truck, could just as easily vapourise a square mile of city, if that material was turned into a weapon.
So the promise of nuclear utopia never took place and in as little as seven years after that man spoke to our class, we were in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis with the Soviets and Americans about to commit themselves to a global thermonuclear war. In October 1962, my first year in university, two of my friends dropped out of their studies, because they were certain there was no point in going to school with a war about to break out and all of us about to be turned into krispy critters.
As we know, that war did not take place, instead the Soviets and the Americans entered into a race for space and a side show war in south east Asia. In the 90s the Cold War was over and the two major nuclear powers began to decommission some of their nuclear arsenal. But the threat to all of us has only moved back a notch or two from that brink. In fact, the Cold War with its mutually assured destruction, was far safer than today, with weapons and material being distributed around the planet so that the countries with the bomb, has grown exponentially and it is not an "if" situation but a "when" that some terrorist group, or the United States itself, sets off a nuclear weapon, all the while declaring its necessity.
Writers, movie makers and television dramas have clearly pointed out to us all the scenarios that could see the use and abuse of nuclear weapons and/or material and no one in authority has any solution to this clear and present danger. Perhaps I should just refresh your memory as to which countries in the world have working tactical nuclear weapons; United States of America, The Republic of Russia, The Ukraine, Great Britain, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, South Africa. One country on a list like that would be one to many, but these are the places where working weapons are available, but there are dozens of other countries who could put such weapons together in months.
Most fictional accounts today involve some unhappy terrorist laying hands on some former Soviet weapons. The reason this scenario is dramatised is because it is completely plausible, but the real threat, the one that is the most serious, still comes from nation states who might pull the nuclear trigger. Iran has been fingered as such a country and it has even been seriously discussed that the US should use its own nuclear weapons in pre-emptive attacks on Iran.
One way or another the threat of nuclear weapons is still just as real as was in 1962. As individuals, or even in the political arena, there is little if anything that can be done. The forces that shape nation states to take horrific action seems beyond control. Few would argue that the war in Iraq was necessary and a positive thing, yet it has gone on and will go on, for a very long time. The possibility of a terrorist group setting off a device is almost a certainty and there is nothing in our history that we can look back upon to give us some clue as to what we as people and nations should do. The nuclear weapon is unique, having existed only for 62 years and its delivery systems are constantly evolving.
This week decommissioned nuclear equipped cruise missiles were strapped to the wings of a B-52 and flown from North Dakota to the southern part of the United States. The US airforce had to deal with these weapons for the past half a century and consider them very casually.
I regret sounding so much like Chicken Little, for indeed the sky is not falling, well at least not tonight, but it would be equally unjust for those of us, aware of the danger, not to tell you that it exists. Until we can come up with something, I leave you with a part of the prayer carried in the wallets of most people who belong to Alcoholics Anonymous:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardship as a the pathway to peace.