Nuclear disarmament advocate to speak at MU

Thursday, March 5, 2009 | 9:52 p.m. CST; updated 10:18 a.m. CST, Friday, March 6, 2009

COLUMBIA—New efforts towards nuclear disarmament cannot come at a better time, according to Jonathan Schell, a leading disarmament advocate.

Schell, who writes for The Nation and holds a visiting lecturer position at Yale University on nuclear disarmament, is scheduled to speak at 7:30 p.m. on March 10 in Fisher Auditorium. His lecture will speak on the age we live in and his book, "The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger."

The lecture, which is co-sponsored by the MU Peace Studies Program and the Center on Religion and the Professions, is free and open to the public.

Taking a cue from the economic crisis, political leaders can avert a nuclear disaster if they wake up in time, Schell said.

"Acquisition of nuclear technology by a terrorist group can change the face of the earth more drastically than the financial crisis," he said in a phone interview from New York on Wednesday.

While it is true that scientific knowledge cannot remain confined, the world is steadily being divided into two camps when it comes to nuclear know-how: those countries that have the bomb and those that can make it.

More than 50 countries, including Sweden, Japan, Germany and South Africa, possess the capability to make a bomb but are tied by treaties against actually doing it. But as Schell notes in his book, "Seventh Decade", policies of deterrence followed by countries that have the bomb, such as the United States and Russia, amounts to "nuclear apartheid" and is dangerous.

After taking office, President Barack Obama has touched upon the issue of nuclear disarmament such as reducing the nuclear arsenal, taking nuclear weapons off high-alert and passing the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

"These are moderate commitments but realistic," Schell said. "Yet, it is still not clear whether he will take [disarmament] seriously."

The military industrial complex, including the national laboratories in Berkeley, Los Alamos and Sandia, can prove to be strong forces against disarmament. But with a new enthusiasm, even among former hawks, Schell said, it is a good time to push for disarmament.

Last year, a group of former hawks, including Henry Kissinger, secretary of state from 1973 to 1977,  wrote an article published in the Wall Street Journal which admitted that deterrence as a cause for owning nuclear weapons has failed and is increasingly disastrous. In February of this year, a British and a French submarine loaded with nuclear material collided in the Atlantic. Considered an accident, it showed how close the world could be to a nuclear disaster.

Disarmament and non-proliferation issues have mostly dropped off the public and academic agenda. "A way to put it back on is to teach it: the idea of abolishing nuclear weapons, and how to work for it today," Schell said.

At MU, a seemingly unlikely department teaches non-proliferation. Mark Prelas, director of research at the Nuclear Science and Engineering Institute at MU teaches a class on the topic.

History has shown that any technology can be misused, including biological and chemical technologies, Prelas said. "The key is to prevent misuse of nuclear technology, such as in wars, which leads to proliferation."

Bill Wickersham, a founder of Missouri University Nuclear Disarmament and Education Team and an adjunct professor of Peace Studies at MU, and the disarmament team have been trying to spread awareness on the issue oncampus and in Columbia.

Schell's lecture will be an opportunity to reach out to students and the community, be it fraternities, sororities or churches, asking them to arrange a viewing of a DVD available from the MU disarmament team, with their social groups, said Wickersham.

But Wickersham also feels that getting public to think about nuclear disarmament is difficult because there is no photographic memory of the nuclear arms or their fall-out.

"In regard to the bomb, old people have amnesia and young people are ignorant," Wickersham said.

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