An explosive movie offers opportunity to share more of the nuclear story
Secret city Los Alamos and the lead-up to detonating the atomic bomb take center stage starting Friday with the opening of Oppenheimer, a potential summer blockbuster directed by award-winning director Christopher Nolan.
The three-hour movie focuses on J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist charged with beating the Nazis to create a weapon able to destroy humankind. Toward that end, he brought the Manhattan Project to isolated Northern New Mexico, choosing a place he had loved on summer vacations as a child. That he succeeded came at great cost — to himself and humanity, creating a legacy the world still can’t quite grasp.
Whether the movie becomes a big hit — it’s long, and faces stiff competition against Barbie — the issues debated in the film deserve broad and frequent discussion.
What does it mean to be the only nation in the world that has unleashed nuclear weapons, as the United States did twice against Japan in the waning days of World War II? How can our nation and others with these deadly bombs ensure they are never used again? Is the U.S. correct to speed up construction of plutonium pits, perhaps launching another arms race?
Already, with the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, the nuclear clock is on high alert once more. The danger of nuclear war is higher than at any time since the Cold War, according to nonproliferation experts.
The danger of the weapons, of course, comes not just when they explode.
We in New Mexico, living in the shadow of Los Alamos, know the pride of being home to one of the world’s leading scientific laboratories. But there has been a cost. There are toxins in the water, contaminated soil, radioactive waste barrels too volatile to move easily and the necessity of shipping nuclear and hazardous waste to storage sites.
Around Los Alamos, the fallout from this wartime effort was felt immediately, as local residents were pushed aside so the lab could be built, its existence shrouded in secrecy. Groups such as Tewa Women United and Tularosa Basin Downwinders Consortium are hoping moviegoers will take time to learn the other side of the nuclear story, including the damage to land and water and continuing effects of what they call nuclear colonization.
The nonprofit group’s website has information at tinyurl.com/2p9rcn4s, where interested people can find a list of resources to help people reflect upon the nuclear impact right here at home. One link is to the downwinders consortium, the group seeking justice for the “unknowing, unwilling, and innocent victims of the July 16, 1945, Trinity Test in South Central New Mexico.” Their story needs to be part of the national nuclear conversation. After 78 years, downwinders harmed by the blast still wait for financial assistance from their government.
Last Sunday, religious leaders and anti-nuclear activists gathered in Santa Fe to advocate for the end to all nuclear weapons. Santa Fe Archbishop John C. Wester is traveling to Japan with his counterpart from Seattle later this month on what they are calling a “Pilgrimage of Peace,” a tour designed to coincide with key dates in the history of the Atomic Age.
This movie, then, is both big Hollywood entertainment and an opportunity to learn more deeply about the country’s nuclear history. World War II was a battle against a great evil and leaders at the time decided that winning — the end game — justified the means. It’s all about perspective. It’s vital to remember the bomb’s use may have saved tens of thousands of American soldiers’ lives, if not hundreds of thousands. They almost certainly would’ve been lost if the U.S. had been forced to invade Japan’s home islands.
Nearly 80 years later, the calculus is different. The end goal should be never again using the weapons of mass destruction. Oppenheimer is just a movie, but it also can be a reminder of the horror waiting for us should humanity ever let down its guard.