Nukewatch Winter Quarterly 2019-2020
By Beatrice Fihn
Americans like a good comeback story, but the recent revitalization of the nuclear arms race is not one to be cheered. President Trump plans to charge the US taxpayer nearly $100,000-a-minute to expand the nation’s nuclear weapons capabilities.
Other nuclear-armed countries are doing the same.
A new generation of nuclear weapons requires a new generation of workers to develop and maintain these weapons of mass destruction. The National Nuclear Security Administration reported to Congress that 40 percent of its workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years.
The US government and its contractors have turned to the nation’s universities to provide this human capital. A new report documents formal ties between nearly 50 college campuses and the nuclear weapons complex.
The extent to which universities have joined this endeavor is surprising. Supporting weapons of mass destruction does not show up in any university mission statements. In fact, it’s often the opposite: universities like to talk about bringing the benefits of knowledge to a global community.
The dangers posed by nuclear weapons are clear. Yet universities still choose to support them.
Students and faculty now face a choice. They can become the next generation of weapons scientists. Or they can refuse to be complicit in this scheme, denying research partnerships or internships at nuclear weapons labs.
Currently, universities across the country receive millions and in some cases billions of dollars to support nuclear weapons development. Universities directly manage nuclear weapons labs, form institutional agreements with these labs and related production sites, pursue research partnerships with nuclear weapons scientists, and provide targeted workforce development for these facilities.
Many of the universities with more extensive connections to nuclear weapons are household names: the University of California, Texas A&M University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of New Mexico. Others, such as local technical and vocational schools, are less well-known.
Nuclear weapons are weapons of mass destruction, just like chemical and biological weapons. They carry devastating humanitarian and environmental consequences that do not stop at national borders.
Thousands still suffer from the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Thousands more suffer from the effects of nuclear weapons testing in the 20th century, including in the US.
One Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study estimated that radioactive fallout from nuclear tests would kill an additional 11,000 Americans due to an increase in fatal cancers. The United States has paid more than $2.3 billion in compensation to individuals affected by nuclear test fallout. Those most affected by tests around the world have been the already marginalized: indigenous and colonized peoples, women and children.
Some see value in the nuclear weapons complex because it supplies thousands of jobs. These boosters fail to acknowledge the studies that demonstrate how defense spending produces fewer jobs per dollar than investment in other areas, like education, health care or infrastructure. The business of nuclear weapons does not provide jobs; it takes them away.
Our choice today is between a future without nuclear weapons or no future at all. Seventy-nine nations (and counting) have signed the 2017 United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons; American states and cities are voting to urge the US to join them. Universities that support nuclear weapons make the wrong choice and their communities should refuse to be complicit.
Students, faculty, alumni, and community members—who often fund these schools through their tax dollars—can also take concrete action to help their universities join the right side of history.
They can push for transparency around any ties to the nuclear weapons complex, install ethical review processes for basic or dual-purpose research funded by the complex, and prohibit classified research. They can ask University administrations to stop direct management of nuclear weapons production sites and dissolve research contracts solely related to nuclear weapons production.
University communities and administrations together can lobby the federal government to flip its funding priorities, so that nonproliferation and disarmament verification research receive more funding than weapons activities.
A society can—and should—actively debate the extent to which universities are to serve explicitly national interests. But there should be no debate when it comes to supporting weapons of mass destruction. American academia must stop enabling mass murder.
—Beatrice Fihn is the Executive Director of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize-winners, and wrote this piece for Newsweek, Nov. 13, 2019.
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