by Jerry Ross and Jonathan Alan King
On the 75th anniversary of the first nuclear test explosion in the New Mexico desert, leading scientists from across the country joined Senator Edward J. Markey at a virtual press conference to express their strong opposition to the Trump Administration’s threats to resume the US nuclear testing program. The scientists endorsed the PLANET Act, S.3886, legislation introduced by Sen. Markey and 13 other senators, that would prohibit the use of federal funds for nuclear weapons testing.
The July 16th press conference, organized by Massachusetts Peace Action, announced the publication of an Open Letter in the July 17th issue of Science magazine warning that a resumption of testing would pose major public health hazards, fuel a new nuclear arms race, and possibly lead to accidental or intentional nuclear war. Seventy scientists and other experts, including several Nobel laureates, signed the letter.
“Last month, the Trump Administration made the terrifying announcement that it won’t carry out a nuclear test at this time,” said Boston University Prof. Sheldon Glashow, 1979 Nobel Prize for Physics. “To do so would be an act of madness. Rather…we must strive to reduce and at last eliminate the world’s vast accumulation of these infernal and unnecessary nuclear warheads.”
Over several decades, the United States conducted 1,030 nuclear weapons test explosions, more than the combined total of tests by all other countries. The US government stopped its atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons in 1962, shortly before signing the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. It halted underground nuclear tests in 1992 and signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996. (A Republican-controlled Senate blocked ratification of that treaty, but the US and 183 other countries have adhered to its provisions anyway.)
But the Trump Administration is now engaging in serious discussions about resuming nuclear testing. Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican Trump supporter from Arkansas, has inserted an amendment into the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allocates “no less than $10 million” for resumption of nuclear weapons testing “if necessary.” The NDAA is currently under debate in Congress.
Sen. Markey, the leading proponent of nuclear arms control and disarmament in the US Senate, said, “Trump’s advisors think that threatening to restart testing…will somehow lead China and Russia to the negotiating table. In reality, it will open the floodgates to parallel tests by those countries and by others, fueling a 21st century nuclear arms race.”
The senator highlighted the environmental and public health dangers new testing would pose. “A return to US nuclear testing would…expose a whole new generation of Americans to the horrors of radiation sickness,” Markey said. Prior to the 1963 atmospheric test ban, nuclear tests were carried out aboveground, releasing radioactive isotopes that were carried into the atmosphere and slowly returned to the ground. The campaign in the US to stop the testing was led by chemist Linus Pauling, his wife Ava Helen, and thousands of scientists. The effort revealed that radioactive strontium-90 from fallout was accumulating in milk, bones, and even baby teeth. This campaign, which mobilized mothers across the nation, together with President John Kennedy’s effort to pull back from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, led the US Senate to ratify the atmospheric test ban treaty in 1963.
Tufts Prof. Sheldon Krimsky, a leading public health expert, noted that continued research has shown even underground nuclear testing results in significant leakage of radioactivity into both underground water systems and into the air.
The wide-ranging comments by scientists at the press conference were sobering and insightful. Nobel Laureate in Physics Jerome Friedman noted that Trump’s resumption of testing would give other nuclear powers the excuse to begin testing again, expand their arsenals, and disregard the few remaining nuclear treaties. Rutgers climate scientist Alan Robock described the “nuclear winter” that a nuclear exchange would bring about, when smoke from fires would be lofted into the atmosphere, blocking the sunlight and causing global famine and death. Others linked the issue to the Covid-19 pandemic. Max Tegmark, MIT physics professor, said the pandemic has shown that very low-probability but enormously destructive events can and do occur, and reminded the press that the world has had several close calls with accidental nuclear catastrophe.
Catherine Royer, a biologist at Rensselaer Polytech and president of the Biophysical Society, noted that nuclear testing would devour funds needed for legitimate scientific research, such as prevention and cure of pandemics like Covid-19. Bill Hartung, of the Center for International Policy, pointed out that major corporations have an interest in the resumption of testing, which would lead to the development and manufacture of new, highly profitable weapons systems.
Harvard Prof. of Aesthetics Elaine Scarry, author of Thermonuclear Monarchy, wrapped up the presentations with a succinct summary of the moral implications of the US President’s ability to unilaterally incinerate millions: “The current nuclear architecture in the United States arranges for a solitary person – the president – to launch a nuclear weapon without authorization from Congress or the population or any advisors. Similar arrangements exist in the other nuclear states. Given the extraordinary danger of nuclear catastrophe, any step that further enables nuclear warfare – such as the resumption of testing – should be morally unthinkable.”
A video recording of the full press conference can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_j_OfoxS8g&feature=youtu.be
— Jerry Ross is a member of Mass. Peace Action’s Nuclear Disarmament Working Group. Jonathan Alan King, a professor of molecular biology at MIT and co-chair of the Mass. Peace Action Board of Directors, was the lead organizer, with Profs Elaine Scarry and Max Tegmark, of the scientists’ letter and the press conference.
Open Letter to the Scientific Community
The text of the Open Letter submitted by the scientists to Science Magazine, can be found at: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6501/262.2 [With a weekly readership of over 400,000, Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world.] The 70 signatories to the letter are listed below.
The US Must Not Break the Nuclear Weapons Test Moratorium
(Affiliation for identification only)
Tamar Barkay (Professor of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Dorothy Beckett (Prof. of Biochemistry, University of Maryland, College Park, MD).
Patrick Brown (MIT Energy Initiative, Cambridge, MA).
Jean Bele (Professor of Nuclear Physics, MIT, Cambridge, MA).
Lea Bele (Boston University, Boston, MA).
María G Dominguez Bello (Dept. of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Robert Boikess (Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
John Brennan (Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Edward W. Castner, Jr. (Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Martin Chalfie (Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2008, University Professor, Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia University NY) .
Noam Chomsky (Institute Professor Emeritus MIT; Professor of Linguistics, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ).
Joseph Cirincione (Past President, Ploughshares Fund, Washington, DC).
Ben Cohen (Co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream).
Sean Decatur (President, Kenyon College, Gambier, OH).
Gerard Charles Dismukes (Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ).
Jonathan Mboyo Esole (Asst. Professor of Mathematics, Northeastern Univ., Boston, MA).
Melissa Franklin (Mallinckdrodt Professor of Physics, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA).
Sheldon Lee Glashow (Nobel Prize in Physics 1979, Metcalf Prof. of Mathematics and Physics, Boston University, Boston, MA).
David P. Goldenberg (Professor of Biology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT).
Gary Goldstein (Professor of Physics, Tufts University, Medford, MA).
Urszula Golebiewska (Assoc. Prof. of Biology, Queensborough Community College, CUNY).
Jerry Greenfield (Co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream).
Max Haggblom (Distinguished Professor of Environmental and Applied Microbiology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ).
David Haig (George Putnam Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Bertrand I Halperin (Hollis Professor of Mathematics, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Ira Helfand, MD (Member International Steering Group, ICAN, the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize).
Gregory Herzog (Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Daniel Holz (Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics, and Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL).
Michael Hynes (Dept of Nuclear Engineering, MIT, Cambridge, MA).
Peter C. Kahn (Professor of Biochemistry, Department of Biochemistry & Microbiology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ).
Jonathan King (Professor of Molecular Biology, MIT, Cambridge, MA).
Sheldon Krimsky (Lenore Stern Professor of Humanities & Social Sciences; Adjunct Professor Public Health & Community Medicine, Tufts University, Medford, MA).
Zia Mian (Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ).
Stuart A. Newman (Professor of Cell Biology & Anatomy, New York Medical College, Valhalla, NY).
Karen Oates (Dean of Arts and Sciences, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA).
Peter Pesic (Director of the Science Institute, St. Johns College, Santa Fe, NM).
Donald Pfister (Asa Gray Professor of Systematic Botany, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Prasannan Parthasarathi (Professor of History, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA).
Jana Pika (Director of Innovation, Firmenich Inc, Princeton, NJ).
William Phillips (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1997, College Park, MD).
George Pieczenik (Professor of Biochemistry and Microbiology, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Steven Pinker (Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Stewart Prager (Professor of Astrophysical Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ).
Lisa Randall (Frank. B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Padmini Rangamani (Dept. of Bioengineering, Univ. of California, San Diego, CA).
Robert P. Redwine (Professor of Physics, MIT, Cambridge, MA).
Jacques Y. Roberge (Director, Molecular Design and Synthesis, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Mary F. Roberts (Professor of Chemistry, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA).
Sir Richard J. Roberts Ph.D. F.R.S. (1993 Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, Chief Scientific Officer, New England Biolabs, Ipswich, MA).
Alan Robock, (Distinguished Professor of Climate Science, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Heinz D. Roth (Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Catherine Ann Royer (Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY).
Suzanne Scarlata (Whitcomb Chair of Biochemistry, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Worcester, MA).
Elaine Scarry (Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the Theory of Value, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA).
Daniel L. Schacter (Professor of Psychology, Harvard Univ., Cambridge, MA).
Troy Shinbrot (Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Susan Solomon (Martin Professor of Environmental Studies, MIT, Cambridge, MA).
Andrew Strominger (Gwill E. York Professor of Physics, Harvard University, Cambridge MA).
Eric J. Sundberg, (Professor and Chair of Biochemistry, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA).
Robert Socolow (Professor emeritus, Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Princeton Univ., Princeton, NJ).
George F. Smoot III, 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics, Helmut and Anna Pao Sohmen Professor at Large, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Kowloon, Hong Kong
Mriganka Sur (Professor of Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA).
John W. Taylor (Assoc. Prof. of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
John F. Tierney (Executive Director, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and of Council for a Livable World, Washington, D.C).
Cornelia van der Ziel MD (Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility).
Michael VanElzakker (Research Fellow, Neurotherapeutics Division, Massachusetts General Hospital & Harvard Medical School, Charlestown, MA).
Frank N. von Hippel (Professor of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ).
Kate Waldie (Asst. Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Lawrence Williams (Professor of Chemistry, Rutgers Univ., New Brunswick, NJ).
Henry H. Wortis, MD, Professor of Immunology, Tufts Univ. School of Medicine, Boston, MA).