I do not understand why there are people who believe that there is really anything that the world can or should do to discourage any particular country from using nuclear energy to supply the power needs of its own people. My personal experience with the technology leads me to believe that anyone who knows much about it would choose it over all other forms of power whenever possible; it is clean, uses tiny amounts of fuel, responses to human controls, and enables independent maneuver without ties to fuel supply lines.
There is certainly a potential to use the dense energy stored inside the nuclei of uranium or plutonium to cause destruction, but that is a use that is highly discouraged by all international observers. It is one that has been avoided by every world leader for more than 60 years, even those who have weapons under their control and are in the midst of armed conflict. For almost four decades, the nations that have nuclear weapons have encouraged all of the rest of the world nations to avoid developing or owning them and nearly all of the world’s countries have agreed that nuclear weapons are more trouble than they are worth.
Some nations, however, have evaluated their geographic position, economic development and political status and have decided that they have a legitimate need or desire to own weapons powerful enough so that single units can destroy a city or military installation. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the US, Russia, China, France and the UK – certainly made that decision first, but India, Pakistan, North Korea, South Africa and Israel have made it as well. South Africa later determined that it would be in its own best interests to dismantle its weapons. Israel has officially insisted on a policy of non confirmation, but it is generally assumed to own several hundred nuclear weapons along with the systems required to deliver them at a range of perhaps several thousand kilometers.
Owning weapons in a dangerous world makes some amount of sense, if only to discourage potential aggressors and to make them decide that it is better to talk than to attack. I have generally found that it is far safer to act confidently and to give the appearance of strength when in questionable environs than to look like a juicy or defenseless target. When it comes to using weapons, however, I have always believed that it carries a tremendous weight of responsibility and an understanding that any action that results in harm to others deserves to be questioned and examined with the possible end result of prison, severe punishment, or even death.
Most of the countries with the engineering and scientific capability to control the release of energy from uranium, thorium or plutonium have determined that it is much more logical to release that energy steadily over time instead of in staccato bursts of great destructive power. Released in a controlled fashion, atomic fission can supply industrial, residential and commercial power needs that would otherwise have to be supplied by burning precious and polluting chemical fuels like oil, coal or natural gas.
I advocate and prefer using fissionable materials for constructive purposes instead of wasting it in idle weapons or destroying it in weapons design and testing programs. I have a very clear understanding just how much time and money it takes to own and maintain weapons and their delivery systems. There are far better uses for that money, especially when nations can recognize the futility of imposing their will through threats or actions involving nuclear explosives.
There are many times in the early morning hours when I quietly think how much more prosperous the world could be if no nations had any nuclear weapons and instead put all of the talent currently used in weapons programs toward producing useful power that could do work and improve people’s living conditions. Since that may be a distant goal, I also consider how much closer we would be to that goal if more nations owned a handful of weapons to deter others from imposing their will through force.
I have been dancing around and talking in general terms, but it is time to state it outright; I do not agree with the people who want to force Iran to give up its nuclear energy program. I understand why an underdog would want to invest the time and money to develop expertise, materials and techniques that allow it the freedom of independent action. Though I grew up in typically comfortable American middle class surroundings, I have visited some very poor areas of the world and also know that my own parents grew up in rather poor circumstances. I also fully understand how it might feel to have powerful people who have taken offense at something you have said or done and who seek to destroy your legitimacy through insinuation or accusations. (Personal experience. Fortunately, I have some friends and supporters of my own.)
It is illogical and hypocritical for American leaders or media celebrities to rail about covert or secret nuclear weapons programs that might be escaping inspection. It is illogical to try to convince a country that they should depend on outside suppliers for a key ingredient in nuclear energy plant operation by threatening them with economic sanctions and gasoline embargoes. (Think about it.)
It is absurd to threaten military action probably consisting of air dropped weapons on a country with more than 70 million inhabitants by pointing to a few dozen civilian deaths during an election protest. It is hypocritical give billions every year to a nation that drops bombs on a population that cannot escape in retaliation for some rockets that destroyed a few homes while refusing to even do business with a country that has not sent its armies to fight outside its own borders except after it was attacked. It is militarily ignorant to believe that a dispersed set of hardened targets in a country larger than Alaska could be readily destroyed. For my leaders, please hear this plea – don’t even try, it will not provide the desired results.
I have been struggling with this particular commentary for several days and nights. It does not come easy to a man who has spent much of the past 32 years wearing the uniform of his country to point to some weaknesses in logic and action by that country in a public forum. There are so many things that are wonderful about being an American citizen given the privilege of serving that it seems to be an almost ungrateful action. I hope that most will take the suggestions and criticisms for what they are – an honest outpouring and a warning of genuinely envisioned rocks and shoals.
For almost as long as I have served, American leaders, journalists, and even some of my fellow members of the military have viewed Iran as a boogyman. I clearly remember sitting in the stands at Navy Marine Corps Stadium at a football game during the fall of my junior year when hostages had been taken at the American embassy in Iran. The memorable phrase that I heard during a conversation with one of my fellow students was a desire to turn the whole country into a “glass parking lot”. I heard the same general phrase several times during the next year as the crisis dragged on through the next fall election season and into the early part of the winter when some of my classmates lead a group of midshipmen in the inaugural parade on January 20, 1981, the day the hostages were released.
Friends of mine spent time escorting tankers in the Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war that dragged on for 8 years; my country actively supported Iraq during that conflict. There were several major encounters during that period; a US cruiser named Vincennes even accidentally shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft with several hundred passengers on board. That kind of accident is possible when you have a large number of people operating on a hair trigger on a sophisticated weapons platform in a place where they feel threatened.
As a result of numerous
events and decisions, Iran has been demonized. Certainly, there is evidence that it supports a number of groups who actively struggle against countries that we consider to be our friends and allies, and certainly there is evidence that those groups use tactics that have been weapons of war wielded by weak actors for hundreds of years. Some call them terrorist tactics – and they are – but some who have studied revolutions like the one that took place in my own country starting in 1776 recognize them also as guerilla warfare or acts of freedom fighters. Same actions; different names depending on who takes them.
Iran has also had several leaders who have been firmly established – at least in the eyes of people influenced by major media or by political posturing – as demons. The latest in the series is the current leader, President Ahmadinejad, who is constantly being described as a man who denies the Holocaust and as one who wants to deny Israel the right to exist. I have just caught up with the rest of the world and taken the time to watch Katie Couric’s half hour interview with Ahmadinejad; she spent at least ten minutes of the interview pressing on the point of his denial.
Unfortunately, I am not sure that she or most of the people viewing the interview will acknowledge that his statements were not a denial. Ahmadinejad is a verbose speaker who makes allusions and indirect references. For TV viewers or commentators it is much more difficult to quote him than it is to quote Dick Cheney, who essentially had the same response when confronted with a pressing journalist asking him to confess to something that the journalist thought was more important than he did. Cheney indicated his dismissal of the importance of the issue at question with a single word – “So?”.
In the Couric interview, Ahmadinejad acknowledged that the Holocaust happened in Europe during World War II, but he wanted Couric to recognize that the history there should matter little when thinking about the legitimacy of the actions or even existence of Israel on a patch of land in the Middle East. Taken out of the context of modern international politics, it is a legitimate question that would be difficult to explain to a curious elementary school student – just imagine how to respond to an 8 year old asking “why did the Jews move so far away from home after so many were killed by Hitler and the Germans? Was the place they moved to empty or really pretty?”
Please understand that I am no fan of politicians who arrest their opposition or of places where the police use force to quell protests, but it is hard not to see that those same accusations can be applied to a country that uses sound cannons and tear gas on people demonstrating at a gathering the leaders of the worlds richest nations because they are upset about the world’s current economic conditions. It is also hard not to notice that I live in a freedom-loving nation whose leaders often talk about the rule of law, but that nation also operates a number of prisons around the world that contain people who have never been charged with a crime or even shown the evidence justifying their continued incarceration.
It is time for America to recognize that we do not own the world, that others want the ability to live in the same kind of comfort that we enjoy, and that nuclear energy is a vital ingredient in the future prosperity of a world with a growing population and a declining inventory of coal, oil and gas. We should understand why even small countries value their independence and recognize that independence includes the ability to make decisions and build industries. We enrich uranium all the time and are even in the process of building several new enrichment facilities; we should stop trying to convince the world there is something sinister about the endeavor when it is undertaken by someone we do not like.