The Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas is a relatively small facility, but it houses an expansive and enthralling exhibit detailing the history of nuclear weapons testing in the United States. Beginning with the outbreak of World War II and the monumental undertaking of the Manhattan project, the main exhibit takes visitors through astounding video presentations and image displays interposed with insightful histories and first-hand accounts. To experience the exhibit is to understand both the revolutionary effect of nuclear technology and the legacy of its catastrophic potential.
This week's event at the museum, "Two Decades without Nuclear Weapons Testing," was an exploration of this legacy as it is embodied by test sites in both Nevada and Kazakhstan. It seems appropriate that discussion of such an issue so inherently international in nature and so universal in its effect be undertaken by a joint effort between America and Kazakhstan -- the former being the most advanced nuclear weapons state, and the latter being one of the very few to have surrendered a nuclear arsenal.
Opening remarks and introductions of the panelists, speakers, and community members in attendance came from the Director of the Atomic Testing Museum, Allan Palmer. Next, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley shared remarks with the gathering about their personal experiences with the legacy of nuclear testing and the importance of the relationship between Kazakhstan and Las Vegas. Ambassador Olzhas Suleimenov was unable to be present at the event, but sent a video address in which he reinforced Berkley’s words. Ambassador Erlan Idrissov was next to speak and provided an account of the closing of the Semipalatinsk facility and the political importance of the Kazakh move away from nuclear arms. The final speaker of the evening was Global Green's our own Paul Walker, who discussed the history of nuclear testing, relevant treaty law, the implications for the future, and how the NGO community is involved in the disarmament and nonproliferation movement.
During the event, Ambassador Idrissov stood to present medals to the participants for their continuing work in the field of nuclear disarmament. Each member of the panel received medals, as well as Mayor Goodman and Congresswoman Berkley. It was a genuine display of appreciation for work that is truly important to Kazakhstan.
In contrast to the display of international trust and partnership, it was interesting to see an audience represented by those with opposing views; there was a group of Nevada residents who had been involved in the movement to oppose nuclear testing for decades, and others who once worked on the testing site, many of whom believe steadfastly in the mission for which they were involved and the importance of their role in the Cold War. There were occasional cheers and spurts of applause from the most impassioned of the activists, and less noticeably, there were disapproving murmurs from a few in the audience who were unimpressed by talk of universal disarmament and the partisan barriers to treaty ratification in Washington. In many parts of the country nuclear testing and nuclear disarmament have fallen by the wayside, replaced by other public concerns. However, for some residents of Las Vegas, the memory of the danger is ever-present and defines their understanding of political society.
When the event was nearing its end and the panelists began to receive questions from the audience, it appeared that tensions among the audience members were heightened. As the discussion became more politicized with talk of Congress, it was clear that the panelists were largely behind the belief that nuclear technology poses a grave and immediate threat and it is unreasonable for ideologues in Congress to oppose CTBT ratification. But the political calculus of disarmament clearly computes differently for many in Nevada, in Karaganda, and within the beltway.
For future events, chance for debate and further discussion of opposing views would be beneficial. In our promotion of the CTBT we stand to gain little by drowning out our opposition and stifling what needs to be a dynamic debate over national priorities. In truth, it is likely that we will not know the magnitude of our nuclear legacy for many years to come, but through continuing efforts such as this, it is ever more likely that someday we will be united in facing it.