Operation Dismantle, 30 years on: it’s actually working

On November 20 1983, along with millions of other North Americans, I watched The Day After, a horrifying television film about a nuclear war between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The CBC carried it in Canada. After it finished, CBC broadcast a live discussion which included Jim Stark of Operation Dismantle, a group dedicated to nuclear disarmament, as well as Barbara Amiel and Patrick Watson. When I found out that Operation Dismantle had an office in Ottawa, I went and volunteered.

I remember Jim Stark as a very impressive individual, full of energy and good humour. He believed in his cause, and worked relentlessly to instill that belief in us volunteers. He would say “we’re going to do this, we’re going to make this happen.” We needed the pep talks: this was during the Age of Reagan, when the U.S. had matched its tough anti-Soviet rhetoric with an increase in arms spending and was leaning on Canada to allow cruise missile testing in this country. Everybody was afraid The Day After would come true.

Canada acquiesced to the missile tests, of course. Jim Stark told reporters that it was because Ronald Reagan played hardball and had threatened then–Prime Minister Trudeau with tariffs on softwood lumber. Trudeau said no, that wasn’t the reason, and that we had allowed the tests because we’re just being a good NATO ally. But everyone knew that Trudeau, the consummate anti-military elitist, had had to swallow his pride and knuckle under to the holder of the great nuclear umbrella. 

It was fun working for Dismantle, and Stark was an inspiring guy, but because of those kinds of political and economic realities the whole cause of nuclear disarmament sometimes looked—and felt—hopeless. And, perhaps more than most Canadians, I understood first hand the implication of an American threat to slap tariffs against Canadian softwood: in the first few years after dropping out of high school, I had worked in the sawmills of British Columbia and knew how important they were and still are to the BC economy. Trudeau really didn’t have a choice.

So in spite of Stark’s optimism, the situation looked dire. Who could have predicted, then, that within a short decade, Stark’s prediction of a wholesale dismantling of nuclear weapons would actually begin to come true. I refer of course to Megatons to Megawatts, the U.S.-Russia agreement of 1993, under which 15,000 Russian warheads have indeed been dismantled and turned into electricity (see article). That is good news for us in North America. Those weapons were pointed at us.

Megatons to Megawatts covered only Russian weapons made from enriched uranium. Soon, American power reactors will be making electricity with plutonium, the other nuclear explosive. The U.S. and Russia have each agreed to destroy 34 metric tons of military plutonium this way. That is enough to make another 8,500 nuclear bombs.

Jim Stark, wherever you are, I hope you feel a bit of vindication. You were right: it was possible.

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Peter Brown
12 years ago

I too worked closedly with Jim Stark at Operation Dismantle for six years or so — in fact, I’m credited with cofounding it with him in 1977 (check the Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Dismantle). We had a falling out at the end of my time there, but I imagine we would still agree on one thing — turning nuclear weapons into nuclear power is no improvement, as the waste products from nuclear energy are just as capable of obliterating human life on earth as nuclear weapons are. According to Dr Helen Caldicott, the consequences of the Chernobyl accident have been responsible for millions of cancer deaths, with more still to come. Now we have an even bigger radiation release at Fukishima. By the way, Japan, which is essentially one big earthquake zone, has 52 other nuclear reactors along with Fukishima.

Further, the US, Russia, China and several others still maintain stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Personally, I think Operation Dismantle and other likeminded NGOs had zero effect on the nuclear arms race. All that has happened is that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the cold war has given us the comforting illusion that the nuclear threat is over. It’s not.

Steve Aplin
12 years ago
Reply to  Peter Brown

Peter, many thanks for your comment. With respect, I strongly disagree about Dismantle’s and other like-minded NGOs’ effect on the arms race. Megatons to Megawatts was the direct result of pressure from groups like Dismantle — it could not have happened if there had not been significant numbers of Russian warheads available for dismantling in the first place. That was made possible by public pressure, during the Reagan years, on the US and USSR to reduce strategic arms. That pressure was spearheaded by groups like Dismantle. The dismantled warheads were available only because of those missile force reductions. On this basis, I will extend my congratulations to you, as a co-founder of Dismantle, for this achievement.

As for whether turning downblended weapons uranium into grid electricity represents an improvement over its use as a weapons explosive, of course it is an improvement. How else do you want America to generate those 350 billion kWh each year? With coal or gas? Do you really believe Caldicott’s pap about the alleged dangers of used fuel? She is a paid professional purveyor of factoid-based nonsense. If she really believed her own linear-no-threshold hypothesis on the biological effects of ionizing radiation, she would never even get on an airplane for one of her regular (kerosene-powered) trans-Pacific flights to North America. Ionizing radiation exposure is higher at the altitudes her airplanes fly at, and according to her no level is safe.

Come to think of it, doesn’t her heavy patronage of the airline industry make her directly complicit in the irradiation of airplane crews?

Debra Rohac
6 years ago

2017 and now there is Trump – time to once again don the mantle and fight against nuclear armament.

6 years ago
Reply to  Debra Rohac

I’ve been fighting all along — I supported the MFFF at Savannah River which would have turned 30 metric tons of weapons-grade Pu-239 into commercial reactor fuel, thereby destroying it.

Unfortunately, the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize recipient refused to lift even a finger to fund this facility. His refusal de facto broke the agreement with the Russians, which didn’t stop him in the latter years of his presidency from griping about Russian non-cooperation on disarmament.

And I have been mightily disappointed with self-styled disarmament (read: anti-nuke) lobby’s support of his refusal to fund MFFF. How utterly useless can that lobby be.

Dick Piper
6 years ago

Great site just discovered. Its 2017/9/22 and as a former ODismanter who got the Quebec Nat. Assembly to approve Stark’s utopic, impossible idea, I’m really excited about the new UN Nuclear Arms Ban which will be in force in 90 days. Finally the third of the WMD is banned by the UNGAssembly. Remember “Ban the Bomb”. Its here. Its the essential first step. I want to find its story.