Letter To The Editor: Oppenheimer’s Dream


I got to watch the new film Oppenheimer last Saturday afternoon in Los Alamos. The experience will stay with me for some time.

The director did a masterful job depicting the WWII war years on our local home front, the race to build the bomb, the anti-Red McCarthy Era, finally leaving us smack dab in the middle of the Cold War, a period that feels very familiar in today’s political climate.

Speaking with other audience members post-viewing, I heard a sense of fatalism expressed about humanity’s ability to confront and control the existential threat to our planet posed by nuclear weapons. Reviewing more recent history can be a good antidote to this and help us envision a collective way forward.

Nuclear weapons production and testing slowed to a stop in the 1980s, and our nuclear weapons arsenal was greatly diminished through arms reduction negotiations with the former Soviet Union and China. The push for mutual disarmament came from a world-wide movement at all levels of society against the nuclear arms race. By 1991, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists – an organization founded in 1945 by Einstein and University of Chicago physicists who were depicted in the film – turned back their Doomsday Clock meant to track the level of nuclear threat to humanity to 17 minutes to midnight, their most optimistic reading since the clock’s creation in 1947. The organization proclaimed the Cold War to be over. Citing the successful Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) among other achievements, they wrote: “The 40-year long East-West nuclear arms race has ended. The world has clearly entered a new post-Cold War era.”

But now, citing increasing global tensions and concerns (unsupported by research) about the continued viability of the remaining 4000+ weapons in our current nuclear arsenal, there is a push by the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to vastly expand weapons-related production of plutonium pits in Los Alamos and to create a new pit production facility in Savannah River. The Bulletin’s 2023 Doomsday statement calls this “a time of unprecedented danger” and today the Doomsday Clock stands at 90 seconds to midnight “the closest to global catastrophe it has ever been.”

There are many reasons to oppose renewed weapons production. It sends exactly the wrong message at this moment and is already sparking a nuclear “modernization” race with Russia and China. Creating this capacity creates the temptation to move beyond the stated purpose of replacement to expanding our weapons arsenal, potentially fueling a new full-blown arms race. Rocky Flats, the former weapons production facility, was closed by an FBI investigation into safety hazards there, and LANL has struggled repeatedly to maintain safety standards with the current low-to-no level of pit production. The price tag for building this new weapons production capacity is so massive, it is currently beyond calculation. Finally, any questions concerning the long-term viability of our current stock of pits should drive new arms reduction talks, not a new weapons legacy for our grandchildren’s grandchildren to inherit. Let’s use this moment to choose to further disarm, not re-arm.

We may not be able to put the nuclear genie back in the bottle, but humanity can decide collectively to reject the use of nuclear weapons, forever. This was Oppenheimer’s dream, less well featured than his nightmares in the film. We have made real progress in the past, and the time has come to renew the movement for a future free of nuclear weapons. The arms race started here, and we can end it here. We can and must say no to renewed nuclear weapons production at Los Alamos.


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