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The Nuclear Industry’s Winners and Losers

As Donald Trump plays chicken with North Korea, it's worth remembering that this is also a business. Some profit; others suffer.

Demonstrators protest a French nuclear test in the South Pacific Murura Atoll in French Polynesia in September 1995. (Toru Yamanaka/AFP/Getty Images

Whom do nuclear weapons protect? The answer, we are taught, is obvious. Conventional wisdom insists that atom bombs are the vile but necessary weapon protecting the nation-state and its citizenry from the biggest global threats. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the American physicist responsible for designing the first nuclear weapon, likened his creation to the “turn of the screw,” a product of modern warfare that, paradoxically, “made the prospect of future war unendurable.” The atom bomb is so good and so efficient at killing, a country wouldn’t even dare start a fight with an adversary who possesses one. And so, the logic goes, the fear of unimaginable devastation serves as the ultimate protection for the people.

Today, nuclear weapons are having a renaissance, again confronting news consumers with their duality as harbingers of destruction and champions of national security. In a letter detailing his decision to cancel a much-anticipated meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, U.S. President Trump reminded Jong-un of America’s enduring nuclear might: “You talk about nuclear capabilities, but ours are so massive and powerful that I pray to God they will never have to be used.” This is more than boastful rhetoric; the Trump administration’s Nuclear Posture Review has called for additional investments for nuclear weapons to ensure that the arsenal remains powerful and effective. Presumably, this should be comforting to American ears. Yet it also sounds like a blustering invitation for trouble.

The American government’s renewed focus on nuclear weapons raises, again, the question taken up by protesters of the 1960s and 70s: of exactly who these weapons protect. Pomp and patriotism can obscure a more specific cast of characters—some who immensely benefit while others unjustly suffer from the nuclear weapons enterprise.

Nukes don’t grow on trees—there are, of course, nuclear weapon makers. While it is impossible to ascertain the exact costs of development, maintenance, and upgrades (referred to as “modernization” in nuclear policy circles) since such accounting is not closely recorded, the United States unveiled plans to spend $1.7 trillion in the next 30 years  to improve and sustain its nuclear forces. A share of these funds will go towards government agencies such as the Department of Defense, but also an intricate web of private companies tasked to assist in the production process. The Don’t Bank on the Bomb Report, a recent study that maps out the private sector involved in atomic bomb-making, calls out 20 companies that help maintain the nuclear weapons programs of four countries: France, India, the United Kingdom, and the United States (other countries, such as China and Russia, are not covered since their weapons programs are government owned and controlled). In the United States, contracted companies can make profits of $15 million to $60 million a year.

This venture is dangerous in more ways than one: companies running U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories, including Sandia Corp. (a subsidiary of Lockheed Martin) and Bechtel National among others, were found to have committed egregious safety violations and inadequate training that encouraged workers to circumvent proper procedures. Despite such infractions, the wheels of the military-industrial complex continue to turn. Companies with safety lapses are still considered top contenders to oversee future projects, thus benefiting from the Trump administration’s trillion-dollar decision to revamp the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  

One country’s nuclear force improvements will naturally propel others into motion: Russia this spring announced its own exorbitant nuclear force modernization project as a counter to U.S. nuclear buildup, China recently scaled its nuclear simulations in an effort to develop next-generation nuclear weapons,  while France and the United Kingdom are spearheading plans to renew their nuclear submarines despite cost concerns. In the UK, proponents argue that it is necessary to bolster nuclear capabilities in the face of an “uncertain security environment,” although it is also uncertain how the government will shore up funds for a possible £2.9 billion gap to complete the project—the lionshare of which will go to four private contractors:  AWE Management, BAE Systems, Babcock International, and Rolls Royce (better known for their luxury cars, the company supplies engines for military assets, including the UK’s nuclear submarines).

Left in the wake of this race to nuclear modernity are people harmed and exploited along the way, grievances that date decades back to the inception of the bomb itself. In stark contrast to the romanticized image of military men and scientists tinkering with the bomb in secret laboratories was dirty, unacknowledged work done by uranium miners starting in the early twentieth century—from the pits of the Congo, Australia, and the indigenous lands of Southwest United States—who dug the Earth in horrible conditions in search for the special ingredient. While mining for weapons is no longer the norm (nuclear weapon states have since figured out different means, such as plutonium production, to acquire fissile material for military purposes), the physical and historical trauma was never sufficiently addressed: health problems continue to plague the families of miners and those who live around former mining towns. In the Navajo territory, there are still 500 abandoned uranium mines waiting to be cleaned. These sitting mines continue to contaminate local water supply, harming the next generation Navajo.

Making the bomb is half the effort; it also has to be tested to ensure efficacy. Before computer simulations, countries conducted real-time nuclear tests, oftentimes above ground, displacing front-line communities living in selected test sites. A quick study of nuclear weapons testing overtime reveal a disturbing pattern: from the heart of the Saharan Desert to the rugged terrain in Kazakhstan, tests were primarily conducted in former colonies or territories of nuclear weapon states, where the land and livelihood of people were neglected for a greater national cause. Today, some former test sites are facing health hazards and environmental catastrophe. Recent declassified information divulged that French nuclear testing in Polynesia caused significant radioactive fallout in the region, which was not publicly disclosed for almost four decades. And in the Marshall Islands, where the United States detonated more than a hundred tests in a span of 15 years, rising tides due to climate change are threatening to flood nuclear waste sites and former testing grounds. To date, nuclear weapon states have yet to fully compensate victims and address this growing environmental damage. All the while, they are allocating big budgets for their nuclear arsenals to protect vital national interests. Ironically, as nuclear weapon states pursue upgrades to their arsenal, they also insist that countries like North Korea and Iran abandon plans to develop nuclear weapons. The double-standard traps the world in a situation that increase tension and competition between nuclear haves and have-nots.

As world leaders continue to wield nuclear weapons as part of their geopolitical power plays, we should resist automatically accepting the trope that nuclear weapons are custodians of global security. A more holistic discussion would acknowledge the many players in the nuclear weapons enterprise, some bound to reap enormous benefits, while others fated to lose without recompense. What would a conversation about nuclear weapons look like if we demanded recognition for those harmed by its production process? Or if we closely scrutinized government spending on these bombs when the world already has thousands—14,000 spread among nine countries, to be precise—pointed at one another? While it seems unrealistic to envision a world free of nuclear weapons, the alternative is to tolerate a broken system that favors the military-industrial complex and exploits communities in exchange for a sense of protection. And if we collectively decide that we can live with this system, and that we are comfortable using fear as our ultimate savior, we must ask ourselves what sort of a society we are now “protecting.”