On October 25, 2023, Dr. Ivana Hughes, NAPF President and Senior Lecturer at Columbia University, joined other Columbia Professors Carol Gluck (History), Heather Radke (School of the Arts and Radiolab), and Michael Gerrard (Law School), to discuss questions of ethics in science, history, storytelling, and energy policy through the lens of the film Oppenheimer.

The Moral Compass

Ivana introduced the profound ethical and moral challenges that surround nuclear weapons, highlighting I.I. Rabi’s pivotal role in Oppenheimer (and in reality!) in opposing them from even before their development. Rabi, a figure sometimes overshadowed in the annals of history, emerged as a steadfast critic of nuclear weapons from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project. During their formative years, Rabi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, as young students students in Europe, developed a deep friendship that would last to the end of Robert’s life. Rabi’s powerful declaration, “I don’t want three hundred years of physics to culminate in the making of a bomb,” encapsulates the moral complexity inherent in nuclear technology. Ivana spoke of three findings that would come long after Rabi called hydrogen bombs “weapons of genocide,” namely disproportionate effects of radiation on women and girls (based on data on survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki), long-term radiological contamination in former nuclear testing stites (Marshall Island), and nuclear winter. 

The Nuclear Winter and the Global Impact

The ominous concept of a nuclear winter, as examined by many experts, casts a shadow over any discussion of nuclear warfare. Scientists have long warned of the catastrophic global consequences of a nuclear conflict, including large fires and the abundant release of soot, which would engulf the atmosphere, causing dramatic drops in global temperatures and drastic reductions in food availability worldwide. This stark potential underscores the immediate need to address the nuclear threat through international agreements such as the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Interpreting the Nuclear Narrative: Contrasting Perspectives on Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Carol Gluck, Professor of History, explained the intricate narratives surrounding the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, shedding light on the disparities in interpretation. In the Japanese narrative, these bombings are not depicted as the conclusive end of the war but as the dawn of an era of peace. In stark contrast, the American narrative often portrays the atomic bombs as causing the end of the war and saving American lives. This disparity underscores the complexity of public attitudes toward nuclear weapons, providing insight into the many historical interpretations of a pivotal event.

Ivana Hughes (NAPF and Columbia) explores the relationship between the development of nuclear weapons and ethics in Oppenheimer.

Carol Gluck (Columbia) contrasts the American and Japanese narratives of the atomic bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Navigating Complex Narratives: Challenges in Storytelling

Heather E. Radke, Adjunct Professor in the School of the Arts and Editor at Radiolab, drew attention to the challenges of portraying stories with unsettling endings. She underscored that depicting images of atrocities may not necessarily induce change or render audiences more receptive to complex issues. Radke highlighted the intricate balance between truth and entertainment when conveying stories of challenging subjects. The task of retaining the audience’s attention while respecting the perspectives of activists and those most affected by issues, such as nuclear weapons, is a challenging one.

Challenges to Nuclear Energy

Michael Gerrard, Professor of Environmental and Energy Law, explored the ethical and environmental aspects of nuclear energy and its role in addressing another existential threat, that of climate change. He drew attention to the world’s existing nuclear plants, many of which are nearing retirement, and the potential adoption of new nuclear technologies. One significant concern raised by Gerrard is the management of nuclear waste, a critical challenge in the ongoing use of nuclear energy. The establishment of suitable storage facilities for this waste poses notable political hurdles. Furthermore, Gerrard cautioned about the security risks associated with outdoor storage of nuclear waste, as it could become a vulnerable target for potential security breaches and environmental damages. His extensive legal experience, including involvement in nuclear waste cases and work with the Republic of the Marshall Islands, underscores the ongoing concerns associated with nuclear energy and waste management.

The Role of the Individual and Public Perception

One of the key questions surrounding nuclear technology is the role of the individual in shaping the narrative. The public’s relationship with nuclear issues has often been characterized by a sense of powerlessness. Nuclear technology has been shrouded in secrecy and government control, making it difficult for individuals to challenge the prevailing narratives. How do we empower the public to understand the magnitude of the nuclear challenge and care about it?

Panel at Columbia Unviersity, organized and moderated by Anelise Chen (Columbia School of Arts) and Lynnette Widder (Columbia School of Professional Studies)

Heather Radke (Columbia and Radiolab) addresses the relationship between truth and entertainment in storytelling.

Michael Gerrard (Columbia) addresses the question of nuclear energy technology.

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