Oppenheimer Hits Close to Home

A nuclear submarine viewed from Mamacoke Island, photographed by the author in 1990


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To the Editor:

The moral conflict explored in the film, Oppenheimer, hits very close to home. In case you are either too young to care or so old that you’ve forgotten, you may be unaware that southeastern Connecticut is homeport to a nuclear submarine base and to a shipyard that builds those nuke subs. So for the past half century, we who call Connecticut home have lived with a harsh Cold War reality that if nuclear-warhead missiles were ever launched against the U.S., one would likely target an unquiet corner of Connecticut.

Fearful that our military would seek reprisal by launching our arsenal of nuclear weapons, none of our nuclear-armed adversaries as yet has dared to attack us. That strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction seems to have sufficed in preventing any nuclear war between two nuclear powers. At least, until now.

Until now, because on another side of the globe, Russia now has a megalomaniacal president who this past March suspended Russia’s participation in its nuclear arms treaty with the United States. Until now, because the U.S. recently had an egomaniacal president who flaunted his ignorance that the U.S. is signatory to international treaties that ban first strikes. Until now, because on the other side of the globe, North Korea now has an egomaniacal and megalomaniacal dictator who in the last 18 months has menacingly test-fired 100 ballistic missiles, each capable of carrying his military’s nuclear warheads to our ally nations Japan and South Korea. Until now, because at any moment, the planet Earth could be destroyed by the maniacal push of a single malevolent finger on any of the “nuclear buttons” coveted by nine nations, none with nine lives.

Most contemporary nuclear bombs are 1600 times more destructive than the single uranium bomb exploded over Hiroshima in 1945. The number of nuclear weapons in the world today is estimated to be 12,500. The U.S. and Russia account for 90-percent of them. As though 12,500 were not enough, China, North Korea, the U.K., and longtime rivals in religious zealotry Pakistan and India all are presently expanding their nuclear war troves. As admonished in the slogan once widely displayed on bumper stickers, Just One Nuclear Bomb Can Ruin Your Whole Day. The bumper stickers have disappeared. The nuclear bombs have not. Several of these ticking time bombs are potentially deployed in each submarine stationed right here in Connecticut.

Naval Submarine Base New London

Despite its New London moniker, Connecticut’s submarine base is really located across New London’s shore in Groton. The base hosts a fleet of nuclear-powered and potentially nuclear-armed behemoths, which at its peak had numbered 25 aquatic Armageddons. The Navy now casts a post-9/11 shroud of secrecy over exactly how many of its attack subs call Groton its homeport. For 26 years, I lived directly across the river from that sub base. From Mamacoke Island (really a peninsula) a short walk from my home in the Connecticut College Arboretum, I routinely could view at least four subs either moored or raised in dry dock. The rest of the fleet was furtively patrolling the high seas. On Google Maps, the satellite aerial view presently posted online attests to eight submarines in port. All of Rhode Island and Eastern Connecticut dwells within 60 vulnerable miles, as the vulture flies, of those eight subs’ nuclear reactors and potentially thermonuclear warheads.

Robert Oppenheimer expressed postmortem regrets for his leadership of the Manhattan Project in creating the world’s first atomic bombs. Regrets too late for Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Admiral Hyman Rickover is credited with overseeing the initial design and construction of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-armed submarines. Upon his retirement, Rickover expressed fears that humankind was going to destroy itself and the world with its nuclear arms. He also confessed that, same as Oppenheimer, he was not proud of his role in the Navy’s nuclear buildup and that he wished he could sink all the subs for whose very existence he had been responsible. Regrets too late for Rhode Island and Connecticut.

General Dynamics Electric Boat

Just four miles south of the sub base, Electric Boat builds those deadly subs. EB is a division of General Dynamics Corporation, the nation’s fourth-largest defense contractor, and the Navy’s largest. Before post-Cold War military cutbacks, our country’s highest per capita defense dollars had been awarded to New London County.

Now engaged in replacing its aging Trident submarines, the Navy is enlarging its fleet in its latest arms race against Russia’s and China’s own armadas of powerful nuclear subs. Thus, by 2030, the workforce at EB’s Groton shipyard is expected to swell back to half of its former peak of 27,000 workers. Congress, and especially its warmongering Connecticut delegation, has trumpeted all this spending on Columbia-class submarine war machines, each destined to carry 16 ballistic missiles. Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District’s U.S. representative, tone-deaf Joe Courtney, called this “music to Connecticut’s ears.” Set to the funereal beat of war drums, the death march music to nuclear annihilation plays on.

Millstone Nuclear Power Station

Nuclear holocaust lurks on Connecticut’s horizon from yet another source. Every nuclear power plant is at risk of nuclear meltdown by an accidental mishap. Think Chernobyl in Ukraine. Or at risk of meltdown by being targeted with a non-nuclear explosive stockpiled for conventional warfare. Think Zaporizhzhya in Ukraine. Or at risk of meltdown from some kamikaze pilot crashing his aircraft into the power plant’s nuclear reactor. Think the 9/11 attacks in the U.S.

Southeastern Connecticut’s own local nuke plant is named Millstone, a deserving moniker burdening the collective necks of all of Connecticut’s and Rhode Island’s resident. A Millstone meltdown constantly looms due to persistent safety violations, for which Millstone had been whistle-blown onto the cover of Time magazine. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, long sleeping on the job of monitoring the nation’s 53 active but aging nuclear power plants, has cited Millstone as the potentially most catastrophic. And citizen watchdog groups cite it as among the nation’s most carcinogenic.

As one of only three nuclear plants active in New England, Millstone is limping toward its demise. One of its unholy trinity of reactors has already been decommissioned, and its other two are scheduled for imminent shutdown. Even when decommissioned, reactors remain radioactive for centuries. In addition, hundreds of tons of nuclear waste pellets are stored on-site, where they will likely remain. Also stored are its highly radioactive spent uranium fuel rods, all except for two unlucky 13-foot-long rods that somehow went missing. While Millstone’s doomsday clock ticktocks to its final midnight twelve o’clock, cleaner and safer renewable energy sources collectively relegate into obsolescence nuclear plants such as Millstone’s dying dinosaur. Dead center between the nuclear power plant and the nuke sub base, New London is aptly nicknamed “ground zero.” Viewed from New London, sunsets look like meltdowns over Millstone.

Gone with the Wind

The film, Oppenheimer, serves to remind us that in the event of an attack by a single nuclear bomb on Millstone or on “The Submarine Capitol of the World” that Groton boasts of itself, all of Rhode Island, Long Island, and Eastern Connecticut would instantly be incinerated and vaporized. We would be lucky not to survive the bombing if survival meant only to suffer from radiation sickness, to feel our skin peel off our bodies, and to see our eyes fall out of their sockets. Because soon after the explosion of just one hydrogen bomb, the spread of radiation would further decimate all plant and animal life throughout the radioactive rubble of Massachusetts, New York City, and the remainder of Connecticut. Which of us would eventually die from disease and starvation would depend upon which way the wind blows.

In case you’re morbidly curious enough to want to learn more about the worsening stages of death and devastation that would curse the living after the detonation of just one bomb, consult just one page, page 24, of Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth, a bestselling book of nonfiction whose portrayal of nuclear holocaust remains just as horrifying and just as relevant today as when it was published to wide critical acclaim in 1982. This book will prove equally relevant to future generations of readers … if there are any future generations.  

Braunstein is the author of six nonfiction books, including most recently, Mindful Marijuana Smoking: Health Tips for Cannabis Smokers. He can be contacted here

This letter has been clarified and updated