Connections: Good and Bad News

Opposite sides of a seesaw

You may have been pleasantly surprised, as I was, on Friday when the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. Doing so in effect recognized its 468 member organizations in 101 countries around the world. 

However, no one I know was in the mood for celebration at the time, given that President Trump had just said the United States would “totally destroy” North Korea and Kim Jong-un, its supreme leader, had responded by saying he would “definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”

You might say that peace advocates and the leaders of these two countries are on opposite sides of a seesaw. Does the future depend on who weighs more?

Then, too, like me, perhaps you weren’t paying much attention on July 7 when the United Nations adopted the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. It is to become legally binding when 50 member nations both sign and ratify it. As of this week, only one nation, Guyana, and the Vatican City had ratified as well as signed it. Although 53 nations so far have signed but not ratified it, the nuclear-weapons pack — the United States, the United Kingdom, China, Russia, France, Israel, India, and Pakistan — is not among them.

I wonder if the ambassadors to the U.N. from this country and Great Britain noted any significance in the timing of the treaty, its being adopted on July 7, a date rather close to July 4. The Declaration of Independence went on to change the world; the U.N. treaty prohibiting nuclear weapons is likely to be acknowledged only on the dusty shelves of history. 

Nuclear matters also were on my mind last week when a friend who is a physicist sent me a copy of a historical and technical report on the Chernobyl disaster, which he wrote for the Federation of American Scientists. 

As a preface to the text, he said, “I believe that it is important to get the Chernobyl story right, since, more than any other single event, it has shaped the view of the world on the viability of nuclear energy.” He describes what went wrong and why, and reports that there are 11 nuclear reactors of the Chernobyl type, which he says was flawed in vital ways, active in the Russian Federation today. 

Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island, the world’s three most serious nuclear accidents, are no longer household names here, as Americans turn their attention to the potential for a nuclear weapons catastrophe. There were 61 commercial power plants operating in the states in July and two more under construction. 

And while we seem to have become rather complacent about the possibility of radiation getting into the atmosphere or the water following accidents at reactors, alarm bells have sounded about whether the agreement between Iran and the United States and its allies about Iran’s nuclear future will hold.

Perhaps it’s time to tip our hats to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, and go for a walk.