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July 21, 2014

Bulletin #193: “Remember your humanity, and forget the rest”

  1. Highlights from our meetings this month
  2. We need your help
  3. In Memoriam: Helen Viola Long
  4. Brief nuclear weapons update: “Trinity” procurement announced, more

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Dear friends –

  1. Highlights from our meetings this month

July 9 marked the 59th anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto (text; history and original press conference audio).  It is from that manifesto that we took the title of this month’s Study Group meetings in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and (this coming Thursday evening, July 24) in Taos.

Please write or call 505-265-1200 if you think you can join us in Taos on Thursday evening.

A brief summary of part of those presentations, including three general scenarios for New Mexico’s future is posted at our blog Forget the Rest.  We’ve labeled those caricatures “Downward Drift,” the business as usual scenario, “Collapse,” a version of the state with a greater focus on national and homeland security and fossil fuels, and “Renewal,” a greener alternative.  We’ve posted an earlier version of these scenarios, along with a semi-graphical and no doubt cryptic timeline of assumptions and possibilities (just what would fit on one briefing slide, with a focus on nuclear weapons issues) here, which you might find interesting to contemplate.

July’s meetings have included much more information than we have posted about current debates on nuclear weapons and waste issues, as well as regarding our developing energy and economic crisis (yes, you read that right) which we have not had time to dress up and publish more broadly.

The communication problem we face is a time problem, because to persuasively convey the tentative big picture, fuzzy as it is, that we have assembled over many years is hard.  In James Kunstler’s words, “My generation especially, the baby boomers, has engineered a systematic [emphasis added] misunderstanding of reality… [a] hallucinatory globe of falsehood that envelopes us…” (Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation).  We all need to push back hard against those systematic misunderstandings before they coalesce into a solid darkness, devoid of choice.

I am sorry to say that we do not see many of today’s liberal, progressive, and environmental organizations and their associated political, religious, and business alliances leading us toward a renewal scenario.  For example, electing so-and-so from such-and-such political party will usually not help much – if any.  Adding renewable electricity by, say, 2% per year – a not-atypical progressive bargaining position these days – will not address the climate crisis or meet our economic and social needs.

We just will not get to any sort of renewal without more trenchant discussion and more radical action than we see in all but a very few places.  What we see is regression, not progress.  Our greatest enemy, at least among the political classes and our opinion leaders, seems to be complacency, not any powerful entities “out there.”  We are holding these meetings and others which will follow at your request to explore what we can do to awaken that discussion and stimulate that action.

  1. We need your help

First of all, if you live in or near Taos please join us Thursday.  This is not a public event; call 505-265-1200 or write for the time and place.

Second, we very much want to continue the themes we opened in Santa Fe and Albuquerque in other meetings for which we must rely on you to help pull together.  At the moment, we believe in word-of-mouth, personalized outreach in this organization.  We are counting on you – especially you in New Mexico.  If you can host a small meeting, or want to help organize a larger one with us, or otherwise think you might want to help in any way whatsoever, please call or write.

Our plate is very full here.  Doors are open – in Washington, in the news media, in international disarmament circles.  Yet not too many doors are open in New Mexico, oddly enough.  New Mexicans seem largely demoralized and increasingly passive, unable to involve themselves meaningfully in the decisive issues of the day.  The local entertainment and tourism industries have gone into frenzied overdrive.

Political passivity is also the national mood of course, especially on the left side of the American political spectrum.  Government is also quite passive – or if you prefer, paralyzed – just now.

Quiet decisions about programs and budgets are being made nonetheless.  We’ll be in Washington for a week in early September, doing our small but sometimes catalytic bit.  Slowly, fitfully, and cryptically, the U.S. nuclear weapons industry is winding down, for a complex of internal reasons.  Stockpiles and ideologies are static for now, with both political parties and all major actors reluctant to change anything for the moment.

Realistically, unless and until there is a populist revolt that upends the present political order in the U.S., what will happen as regards nuclear disarmament, as well as regards the broader renewal we seek, depends crucially on the intelligent involvement of wealthy people.  Popular opinion has nothing whatsoever to do with political outcomes in the United States, as statistical analysis now shows.

Here at the Study Group our work has been strongly limited by lack of funds.  It proceeds because of the generosity and vision of some of you, and over 25 years we have learned how to make progress with very little money.  That’s possible only because we are quite expert, work long hours, have excellent and supportive internal dynamics in our group, and because history, economics, science, and human values – in a word, truth – are on our side.  At this point, we can pick up the phone and schedule a meeting with an Assistant Secretary of Defense, or cognizant White House staff, or any of several committee staff who write the legislation that governs nuclear weapons, but we cannot recruit a single staff member to work with us, or even a graduate student, because among all the conditions doing so requires, it takes money – real money, which is also to say solid money, not the month-to-month uncertainty that plagues us and many other organizations – and, we know, many of you.

Nuclear disarmament is not an expensive proposition.  The successful multi-year campaign, including extensive research and writing, lobbying, organizing, media work, and litigation that spanned nearly a decade, which defeated the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility (CMRR-NF), the highest nuclear weapons construction priority and one that was seen as most essential by the nuclear weapons establishment for most of this period, cost only a few hundred thousand dollars, the typical price these days for a home in Santa Fe or in many other cities.

There are plenty of people in our communities who can write large checks and do so all the time for all sorts of things.  What is needed is for the rest of us to buck up and get more serious about what we are doing.  We need to stop entertaining fantasies about the virtues of signing on-line petitions and meaningless sentimental demonstrations that demonstrate nothing, except political weakness.  What was once seen as a first step toward something more effective has typically become the only step.

So if you have an hour or two, and really want to help further nuclear disarmament and a green renewal in this state, be our agent.  We need what every business, nonprofit, association, and campaign in this country needs: skilled workers and money.  You have connections and networks we don’t.

  1. In Memoriam: Helen Viola Long

We were very sorry to lose our dear friend Helen Long in June.  Helen and her late husband Bob were a steady anchor and contributing voice at Study Group events for many years.  Their exemplary lives were inspirations to us and to others.  They were both active until the very end.  Goodbye, Helen – thank you.

  1. Brief nuclear weapons update: LANL to create “Trinity,” more

On July 10, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) announced it had inked a $174 million (M) contract several years in the making with Cray, Inc. for the “Trinity” supercomputer, to be installed at Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) starting in 2015 (“New supercomputer will test aging nukes,Albuquerque Journal, July 11).

This proposal was briefed to the Los Alamos and Livermore corporate boards two years ago (“Los Alamos National Laboratory Weapons Program, Laboratory Director Update,” LANS/LLNS Mission Committee, June 2012).  (The committee is joint because the two “separate” for-profit weapons physics labs are run by mostly the same people and corporations.)

The policy considerations surrounding repeated parallel procurement of supercomputers at redundant nuclear weapons physics laboratories (sized and funded for a Cold War mission that is no more and never will be again), have become tedious after two decades of such folly.  Billions have been spent, and more billions will be spent (at an increasing annual rate), on the “Advanced Simulation and Computing (ASC) program (see for example p. 183 in NNSA’s FY2015 budget request).  NNSA is requesting $610 M for ASC in FY2015 alone.

The ultimate goal of the ASC program is to integrate all nuclear weapons knowledge in new warhead design tools to achieve "[p]redictive capability for full- [weapon] system nuclear performance in 3D" by 2030 (“NNSA/DOE FY 2014 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” June 2013, Figure 3-11, “Computational Milestones and Objectives”).  It’s a modest goal; this Trinity is to be omniscient only as regards nuclear weapons physics.  Of course LANL/LLNL will own this nuclear omniscience; maintaining and enforcing the monopoly of knowledge that allows the labs to run the government is a central part of their business plan.

The ASC program and Trinity within it have almost nothing to do with maintaining the safety and reliability of current U.S. nuclear weapons.  That goal, to the extent there is substance left in it at all, is accomplished via stockpile surveillance and far simpler and cheaper analysis.

If all goes as planned, Trinity will be a little faster than Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s (LLNL’s) existing “Sequoia,” used for the same purpose but soon to be dismantled.  On the other hand Trinity will not be as fast as LLNL’s planned “Sierra” computer, which will be built two years after Trinity.  After that, LANL expects to replace Trinity with a faster LANL machine in 2020 (see this presentation, slide 6).

If supercomputing were surfing, it’s endless summer at NNSA.  It’s certainly where the boys (and girls) are.

Technical problems have kept ASC supercomputer speeds (but not budgets) from increasing as fast as previously expected (see “NNSA/DOE FY 2015 Stockpile Stewardship and Management Plan,” April 10, 2014, Appendix F).  Historically, LANL’s supercomputing problems (hardware and software problems, both) have been extensive, as knowledgeable insiders have explained to us in past years.  We have no idea whether these technical, cultural, and management problems have been overcome.  LANL’s abundant management problems have not been overcome in other parts of LANL that we do know about.

The idea of using computers to design and certify new warheads has irremediable problems.  This is not the place to discuss these in detail but suffice it to say that such an approach, with no objective full-up nuclear testing record in place that can be examined by competent outside scientists, LANS and LLNS corporate executives, or a cabal of staff scientists, or even a single scientist, could undermine the perceived reliability of deployed nuclear weapons.  That’s because the complexity of the modeling tools – which is all that would be left to decide if a warhead worked or not – precludes knowledgeable access by any non-lab party, Q-cleared or not.  Any latter-day doubt expressed could instigate a political process that undermines “confidence,” requires additional appropriations, and could lead to new warhead development.[1]

Supercomputers use a lot of electricity and dissipate a lot of heat.  “Cielo,” LANL’s existing large supercomputer that is to be dismantled to make room for “Trinity,” draws 3 megawatts (MW) of power.  Trinity will draw 12 MW, about 100 gigawatt-hours per year.  To cool its supercomputers, the supercomputer building in TA-3 houses 84 40-ton cooling units, which move 2.5 million cubic feet of chilled air per minute.  Some 45 million gallons of water are now evaporated annually to remove this heat, an amount expected to rise to 100 million gallons/year by 2020 and presumably more after that, as power requirements continue to rise.

Supercomputing uses a significant fraction of LANL’s available electrical supply.  Los Alamos County owns 7% (36 MW) of Unit 4 of the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station and is also entitled to 10 MW from the sub-bituminous coal-fired Laramie River Station in Wyoming.  The County also has 27 MW (capacity, not always generating) of hydropower and 1 MW (capacity) of local photovoltaic solar, and makes other power purchases as well.

LANL may seek to construct a small modular nuclear reactor (SMR) on site (LANL Director Charlie McMillan, conversation with Vic Reis, Greg Mello, and Steve Younger, February 13, 2014), which presumably would be equipped with a turbine.

For those of us in the nuclear policy business all this is rather prosaic and expected.  We’ve seen this movie.  Fill in the blanks: corporate nuclear weapons lab wants expensive project, which is unnecessary and/or dangerous but the lab claims the U.S. stockpile will not work or will be unsafe without it.

What is more interesting is the name.  For Christians, naming a supercomputer for the triune God in whose names Christians are baptized is blasphemy.  What’s more, the purpose of this new Trinity is to threaten mass destruction and death, but not just death.  With nuclear winter, destruction of the ozone layer and blindness, fallout, meltdown of nuclear power stations and spent fuel fires, extinction, “the death beyond death” in Jonathan Schell’s phrase, is a very real possibility.  The inversion from Christian belief is complete: eternal death with no promise of renewal, as opposed to eternal life.

Oppenheimer’s lament, mistranslated from the Bhagavad-Gita (“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds;” the original says “time,” not “death”) has become a kind of touchstone for Los Alamos’s mission and identity.  “Trinity” the supercomputer has replaced “Trinity” the nuclear test which has replaced “Trinity” the meditation by John Donne for which the test was named.

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp'd town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,
But am betroth'd unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

Oppenheimer knew very well that he was “usurp’d” and “to another due.”  He knew very well that “Reason,” for him, was “captiv’d” and had proven “weak or untrue.”  No such introspection emerges from today’s corporate mouthpieces.  And in the corporation, and this is critical, there is no one who effectively objects – that is, no one is man or woman enough to speak out enough for that objection to register in the outside world.  The lab is indeed “usurp’d,” entire.  It has “gone over to another order” (Plotinus, as quoted by James Hillman).

That order is the realm of the brute, the Unmensch: “a person who behaves in such an undignified way that he cannot be considered a decent human being (Yiddish).  [I]t implies that the person concerned has not even the basic characteristics which define a decent human being, e.g. caring for others, empathy, sympathy, compassion.”  We may notice that none of these desirable human qualities are compatible with doctrines of nuclear deterrence.

There is more.  It was not necessary to name that supercomputer “Trinity” any more than it was necessary to name its predecessor “Sky” or “Heaven” (Cielo).  There seems to be a dynamic, aggressive quality at work here.  One of our German-speaking members calls this style the “anti-Mensch.”  It is part of the systematic, organized disenchantment of the world (see Morris Berman), that has been a feature of mechanistic science for centuries, since Bacon and Descartes.  At Los Alamos, perhaps not even in 1945 but in the dark years after the war, the project of dismantling old “superstitions” was transformed by the steady application of brutish thought and labor into a suicide vest for civilization and humanity.   Oppenheimer’s doubts and griefs were banished from the scene by the more brutish men who “usurp’d” him.  The Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia of today are their creation.

The great Lewis Mumford analyzed the roots of our dehumanization in dozens of works.  In his 1954 essay, “The Uprising of Caliban,” Mumford personified the brutish forces in our society – including and especially coming from the nuclear weapons laboratories – in Shakespeare’s figure of Caliban.  “… [T]he problem of our time,” wrote Mumford, “the problem that holds a key to every other issue, is to bring Caliban back once more under the control of Prospero.”

Caliban cannot remember his humanity.  That is what he has forgotten – and what we must now remember.

(Some of you may be interested in Mumford’s insightful essay, “Social Consequences of Atomic Energy,” which we have scanned and posted at the link provided.)

Greg and Trish, for the Study Group

[1] Perceived reliability – that is, reliability as perceived by manipulators, often lab contractors, and those they manipulate in government – is one element of “confidence.” “Confidence,” a word normally used to describe a subjective psychological state, has been a talisman in policy circles for about two decades.  “Confidence” evokes a host of meanings, from warhead reliability to generalized personal and institutional potency and longevity, and on from there to the strength of belief in the value of nuclear weapons themselves.  In practice all these meanings blur together in ways that prevent any clear definition, let alone any rational measurement, of “confidence.”  The resulting intellectual vacuum could not remain entirely unfilled and has been addressed to a limited extent via “quantification of margins and uncertainties,” QMU.


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