Oppenheimer, FAS, and Today’s Nuclear Weapons Risks

They won’t fear it unless they understand it. And they won’t understand it until we use it

Cillian Murphy, depicting J. Robert Oppenheimer, in Oppenheimer, opening in theaters tomorrow.

The anticipated summer blockbuster is already abuzz with its portrayal of history, politics, ethics, and science; for good measure, it’s said to have “earned that R rating” for the undisclosed  “complicated” sexual appetites of the main characters, too. 

What may truly stun audiences, though, is the realization of what has and hasn’t changed when it comes to nuclear weapons risks – especially now.

Oppenheimer and FAS

Audiences will be interested to learn of Oppenheimer’s connection to the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). His work actually created FAS in 1945. Initially called the Federation of Atomic Scientists, a group of scientists directly involved with the Manhattan Project formed FAS in response to the urgent need to combat nuclear arms racing by promoting public engagement, reducing nuclear risks, and establishing an international system for nuclear control and cooperation. This is a mission we continue today. 

FAS has come to Oppenheimer’s defense not once, but twice. First, in 1954, by joining forces with Albert Einstein and scientists from Princeton to defend Oppenheimer’s loyalty and patriotic devotion to the United States when the government revoked his security clearance, stripping him of his stature and ability to serve in high levels of the government. Second, in 2022, FAS submitted a formal letter of support when the government retroactively and posthumously restored Oppenheimer’s reputation.       

FAS continues to be a leader in promoting nuclear arms control, nonproliferation, and disarmament through our Nuclear Information Project. By providing the most accurate information about nuclear weapons and trends to policymakers, activists, academics, journalists, and the public, we strive to create the conditions for a more just, equitable, and peaceful world. We also recognize the importance of training and empowering the next generation of nuclear arms controllers and policy experts. To that end, FAS is currently fostering new perspectives via our New Voices in Nuclear Weapons fellowship. Still, more work is needed.

I spoke with Eliana Johns, Research Associate with the Nuclear Information Project at FAS, about how Oppenheimer’s story connects with contemporary issues and current risks, and how FAS continues to advocate for a safer world.

Katie: What would you say to someone who sees Oppenheimer and comes away from it with a new sense of awe, and perhaps dread, about nuclear capabilities? Audiences may be profoundly upset to realize nuclear weapons are still a threat. What are some misconceptions people may have about threat levels today?

I think Oppenheimer will definitely be a lot for everyone to process. The film may even be the first moment that people (especially from my generation) realize the destructive capability of nuclear weapons and that the threat of nuclear use is still very real today. There are plenty of misconceptions about the technical aspects, the purpose, and the costs associated with nuclear weapons programs. For instance, we all know about the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, but some may not know that modern nuclear warheads and delivery systems are exponentially more powerful and accurate. However, I think the biggest misconception is that nuclear weapons don’t cause any harm unless used in war. 

I think the biggest misconception is that nuclear weapons don’t cause any harm unless used in war.

Katie: What are some issues the film will likely misunderstand, gloss over, or even avoid?

Unfortunately, the film will likely leave out a huge part of the story of the Manhattan Project: impacted communities. From predominantly Navajo uranium miners in Colorado and Congolese miners in the Belgian Congo to downwinders and victims of nuclear testing in the southwestern United States, Kazakhstan, the Marshall Islands, and Algeria to the Hibakusha in Japan – nuclear weapons have already taken a toll on countless communities around the world. Not only is the threat of further nuclear weapons use very real today, but many other consequences have already resulted from their invention, testing, and use. 

Additionally, nuclear weapons programs are expensive, which means that countries like the United States end up spending billions of dollars each year on maintaining and modernizing their nuclear arsenals, while countries like North Korea resort to hacking, laundering, exploitation, and other illegal activities to fund their nuclear weapons and missile programs. The cumulative costs are tremendous and put a huge burden on the public.

Although it can be hard and confusing, having conversations about nuclear weapons is important because we cannot ignore the problem. We should feel some level of dread and anger because nuclear weapons are dangerous and have already had significant and terrible impacts on many people’s lives. In a time when nuclear weapons are being referenced more and more in the news, social media, and politics, I hope seeing Oppenheimer will inspire people to become more informed and engaged on these issues. 

Katie: What is being done today to mitigate nuclear risks, and what is the role of FAS in this work?

Eliana: There are a variety of ways that people work to mitigate the risk of nuclear weapons use and seek justice for those impacted by nuclear testing and uranium mining. From academics to government officials, people are working toward arms control and non-proliferation goals to prevent the increase and spread of nuclear weapons. Also, several organizations (such as the Tularosa Basin Downwinder Consortium) advocate for downwinder communities, seek financial and environmental reconciliation, and tell their stories.

A crucial aspect of this work is transparency. When governments are opaque about how many weapons they have and the situations in which they might use them, this causes arms racing and worst-case thinking between nations that are in blind competition with one another. And when governments are not transparent with their citizens about nuclear-related accidents, exposure, or spending on weapons systems, people suffer the consequences. 

Because of this key element of transparency, our work at FAS is extremely important. FAS’ Nuclear Information Project develops estimates of global nuclear weapons stockpiles in order to inform conversations around arms control and risk reduction in both the public and private sectors. Our goal is to engage the public and policymakers in educated discussions about topics such as nuclear weapons spending, non-proliferation, and the intersectionality between nuclear weapons and other security threats like climate change. This work continues the long-lasting legacy of promoting transparency and accountability in the nuclear weapons space, which is vital for progress in reducing the risks of nuclear weapons.

FAS also recently started a summer program for aspiring nuclear weapons experts called the New Voices on Nuclear Weapons Fellowship. This program is designed to address the high barriers to entry into the nuclear field by providing young nuclear scholars with support, mentorship, and opportunity for publication. Programs such as this help bring up the next generation of experts who carry with them a diverse range of experiences and perspectives that inform creative ideas for the future of arms control and non-proliferation. 

Katie: What should the general public do to learn more, stay informed, and join the effort to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons? 

Eliana: FAS is a great place to stay updated on what is happening in the world with regard to nuclear weapons. The Nuclear Information Project team publishes detailed accounts of the current status of nuclear weapons arsenals as well as shorter, factual articles that explain important events or discoveries. 

Many other organizations in the nuclear policy field are also working to inform and engage people on these issues and offer a variety of resources that can be easily shared with friends, coworkers, and family members; many also provide information on how to engage with your representatives. For example, The Friends Committee on National Legislation helps you contact your members of Congress about issues like extending the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), which provides monetary benefits to onsite participants of nuclear testing and downwinders but is set to expire in 2024. 

After watching Oppenheimer (in IMAX 70mm, of course), I hope folks will be inspired to learn more about the nuclear field and use these resources to take part in the effort to stigmatize nuclear weapons and seek justice for impacted communities.

Katie: Well said! Thank you for your time, Eliana.