TIME Iran

Iran’s Zarif Says They Have ‘Never Been Closer’ to a Deal

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif expressed optimism that a deal could be reached in talks between Iran and six world powers over the country’s nuclear program, he said in a YouTube video shot from the Palais Coburg where marathon negotiations have been taking place.

“At this eleventh hours, despite differences that remain, we have never been closer to a lasting outcome,” said Zarif in English. “Getting to yes requires the courage to compromise, the self confidence to be flexible, the maturity to be reasonable, the wisdom to set aside illusions and the audacity to break old habits.”

Though Zarif did not name his negotiating partners—the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, China and Russia—his choice of vocabulary was clearly aimed at the United States. With his use of the words “audacity” and later in the four-minute statement, “hope.” The title of President Obama’s second book was The Audacity of Hope.

Iranians are known for their careful and symbolic choice of language. Zarif ended his remarks with a quote from Kay Khosrow, a revered king and character in the Shahnameh, the Persian-speaking world’s national epic written around 1010 A.D. by nobleman Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi Tusi: “Be relentless in striving for the cause of good / Bring the spring, you must / Banish the winter, you should.”

Those lines were cited by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his first address to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2013 and again later tweeted by Rouhani as a reference to turning a page and remaking the dawn of a new era.

This is not the first time Zarif, who spent five years from 2002 in New York as Iran’s United Nations representative, has taken to YouTube to address the West directly in English. In November 2013, he defended Iran’s nuclear program on a similar YouTube video—replete with the same piano muzak opening and closing.

Interestingly, Zarif did not focus his remarks solely on the talks being held by the so-called P5+1, for the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. He also mentioned the importance of building strong relationships to fight violent extremism, a clear reference to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. “Our common threat today is the growing menace of violent extremism and outright barbarism,” Zarif said.

The talks, which include Secretary of State John Kerry, were due to end on June 30, but were extended until July 7 to allow for more negotiations. Zarif’s remarks come as some perceived a hardening of Iran’s position given remarks by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last week demanding the end to bruising economic sanctions by the six world powers before Iran begin to dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.

TIME Israel

The U.S. and Israel Are Divided — and That Won’t Change

President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2014.
Kevin Lamarque—Reuters President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House in Washington on Oct. 1, 2014.

Obama and Netanyahu don't like each other, but Israel and the U.S. will have problems even when they're both out of office

Some accuse President Obama of undermining Israel’s security to protect a peace process that’s going nowhere. Others say Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is poisoning Israel’s relations with his country’s superpower protector and isolating Israel internationally. It’s clear that Obama and Netanyahu don’t trust or like each other. But the widening divide between these countries can’t be reduced to a personality conflict between leaders. Differences in the interests and worldviews of the two governments are becoming more important.

Begin with the “two-state solution.” In Washington, leaders of both parties will continue to prioritize the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security. But Obama isn’t the only U.S. official who publicly supports the idea of an eventual Israeli compromise with Palestinians. Former President George W. Bush described himself in 2008 as the “first American president to call for a Palestinian state.” Support for this aspiration remains part of the Republican Party platform.

Israelis, on the other hand, even those who support a two-state solution in principle, are far more aware of the challenges in creating a viable country that connects Gaza and the West Bank—to say nothing of the political nightmare of trying to evict thousands of Israeli settlers from disputed land. Support for a two-state solution is not dead in either country, but Americans and Israelis do not look at this question with the same eyes. With every surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence, that gap becomes more obvious.

Obama and Netanyahu also hold opposing views on how best to ensure that Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons, but that difference reflects divergent ideas within their governments on the role Iran might play in the future. For the Obama administration, Iran might one day become an agent of change in the Middle East, because it’s a country that holds genuinely contested elections, however flawed, and it’s one in which a sizeable majority isn’t old enough to remember the religious revolution that the country’s leaders say gives them their mandate. For Israel’s government, Iran’s hardliners remain in firm control. Whatever the aspirations of its young people, Israel believes Iran must remain isolated until its elections are fully free and fair and its leaders recognize Israel’s right to exist. Nuclear negotiations have widened this gap.

These differences are made possible by the reality that the United States can afford to be less involved in the region’s rivalries than it once was. First, following the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is limited public support in the United States for any military commitment that might require a costly long-term occupation of territory. Bombing ISIS is one thing; invading Iraq all over again is another. Americans are not ready for a war with Iran. Second, the remarkable surge in U.S. domestic energy production of recent years leaves the U.S. less vulnerable to Middle East conflict. By the end of this decade, the United States will produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80 percent of its oil will come from North and South America. By 2020, the US could be the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could become almost entirely energy self-sufficient.

That advantage allows the U.S. President to shift security and trade policy toward a stronger focus on East Asia, the region more important than any other for the strength and resilience of the global economy over the next generation. The men and women hoping to succeed Obama as President can afford to offer familiar reassurances on America’s commitment to Israel’s security, but the shifting international landscape, the challenges and opportunities created by China’s continued rise and new trans-Pacific trade opportunities will occupy a growing percentage of the next administration’s time.

Netanyahu has won another term, though his staying power will remain in question. Obama will be in office for another 22 months. The next leaders of the two countries will surely like each other better than Netanyahu and Obama do, but differences in U.S. and Israeli national interests are not going away.

TIME Opinion

Who Are the Nuclear Scofflaws?

atomic bomb
US Army / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Photos recorded by U.S. Army automatic motion picture camera six miles distant when an atomic bomb was exploded at Alamo-Gordo in 1945

Surprise: The US is on the list. So is Russia. But Iran? Nope

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

Given all the frothing by hawkish U.S. Senators about Iran’s possible development of nuclear weapons, one might think that Iran was violating the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

But it’s not. The NPT, signed by 190 nations and in effect since 1970, is a treaty in which the non-nuclear nations agreed to forgo developing nuclear weapons and the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear weapons. It also granted nations the right to develop peaceful nuclear power. The current negotiations in which Iran is engaged with other nations are merely designed to guarantee that Iran, which signed the NPT, does not cross the line from developing nuclear power to developing nuclear weapons.

Nine nations, however, have flouted the NPT by either developing nuclear weapons since the treaty went into effect or failing to honor the commitment to disarm. These nine scofflaws and their nuclear arsenals are Russia (7,500 nuclear warheads), the United States (7,100 nuclear warheads), France (300 nuclear warheads), China (250 nuclear warheads), Britain (215 nuclear warheads), Pakistan (100-120 nuclear warheads), India (90-110 nuclear warheads), Israel (80 nuclear warheads), and North Korea (10 nuclear warheads).

Nor are the nuclear powers likely to be in compliance with the NPT any time soon. The Indian and Pakistani governments are engaged in a rapid nuclear weapons buildup, while the British government is contemplating the development of a new, more advanced nuclear weapons system. Although, in recent decades, the U.S. and Russian governments did reduce their nuclear arsenals substantially, that process has come to a halt in recent years, as relations have soured between the two nations. Indeed, both countries are currently engaged in a new, extremely dangerous nuclear arms race. The U.S. government has committed itself to spending $1 trillion to “modernize” its nuclear facilities and build new nuclear weapons. For its part, the Russian government is investing heavily in the upgrading of its nuclear warheads and the development of new delivery systems, such as nuclear missiles and nuclear submarines.

What can be done about this flouting of the NPT, some 45 years after it went into operation?

That will almost certainly be a major issue at an NPT Review Conference that will convene at the UN headquarters, in New York City, from April 27 to May 22. These review conferences, held every five years, attract high-level national officials from around the world to discuss the treaty’s implementation. For a very brief time, the review conferences even draw the attention of television and other news commentators before the mass communications media return to their preoccupation with scandals, arrests, and the lives of movie stars.

This spring’s NPT review conference might be particularly lively, given the heightening frustration of the non-nuclear powers at the failure of the nuclear powers to fulfill their NPT commitments. At recent disarmament conferences in Norway, Mexico and Austria, the representatives of a large number of non-nuclear nations, ignoring the opposition of the nuclear powers, focused on the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. One rising demand among restless non-nuclear nations and among nuclear disarmament groups is to develop a nuclear weapons ban treaty, whether or not the nuclear powers are willing to participate in negotiations.

To heighten the pressure for the abolition of nuclear weapons, nuclear disarmament groups are staging a Peace and Planet mobilization, in Manhattan, on the eve of the NPT review conference. Calling for a “Nuclear-Free, Peaceful, Just, and Sustainable World,” the mobilization involves an international conference (comprised of plenaries and workshops) on April 24 and 25, plus a culminating interfaith convocation, rally, march, and festival on April 26. Among the hundreds of endorsing organizations are many devoted to peace (Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Veterans for Peace, and Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom), environmentalism (Earth Action, Friends of the Earth, and 350NYC), religion (Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, Unitarian Universalist UN Office, United Church of Christ, and United Methodist General Board of Church & Society), workers’ rights (New Jersey Industrial Union Council, United Electrical Workers, and Working Families Party), and human welfare (American Friends Service Committee and National Association of Social Workers).

Of course, how much effect the proponents of a nuclear weapons-free world will have on the cynical officials of the nuclear powers remains to be seen. After as many as 45 years of stalling on their own nuclear disarmament, it is hard to imagine that they are finally ready to begin negotiating a treaty effectively banning nuclear weapons―or at least their nuclear weapons.

Meanwhile, let us encourage Iran not to follow the bad example set by the nuclear powers. And let us ask the nuclear-armed nations, now telling Iran that it should forgo the possession of nuclear weapons, when they are going to start practicing what they preach.

Dr. Lawrence Wittner (http://lawrenceswittner.com) is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany. He is the author of “Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement” (Stanford University Press).

TIME Iran

These 5 Facts Explain the State of Iran

Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Brendan Smialowski—Reuters Secretary of State John Kerry, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and others wait for a meeting at the Beau Rivage Palace Hotel on March 27, 2015 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Sanctions, demographics, oil and cyberwarfare

As leaders in the United States and Iran maintain laser focus on the ongoing nuclear negotiations, it’s valuable to take a broader look at Iran’s politics, its economy, and its relations with the United States. Here are five stats that explain everything from Iran’s goals in cyberspace to its views of Western powers.

1. Sanctions and their discontents

Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy. According to the Congressional Research Service, Iran’s economy is 15 to 20% smaller than it would have been without the sanctions that have been enacted since 2010. They leave Iran unable to access nearly four-fifths of the $100 billion in reserves the country holds in international accounts. Iran’s oil output has fallen off a cliff. Four years ago, Iran sold some 2.5 million barrels of oil and condensates a day. Over the last year, the country has averaged just over a million barrels a day. Even as the exports have fallen and the price has plummeted, oil still accounts for 42% of government revenues. Iran’s latest budget will slash spending by 11% after accounting for inflation.

(Bloomberg, The Economist)

2. Cyber-spending spree

But despite the belt-tightening, Tehran has been willing to splurge in one area. Funding for cyber security in the 2015/16 budget is 1200% higher than the $3.4 million allotted in 2013/14. Up until 2010, Iran’s chief focus in cyberspace was managing internal dissidents. But after news of the Stuxnet virus—a U.S.-led cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program—went public in 2010, Iran’s leaders shifted gears. According to one estimate, Iran spent over $1 billion on its cyber capabilities in 2012 alone. That year, it conducted the Shamoon attack, wiping data from about 30,000 machines belonging to Saudi oil company Aramco. In 2013, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard publicly declared that Iran was “the fourth biggest cyber power among the world’s cyber armies.”

(Global Voices, Wired, Strategic Studies Institute, Wall Street Journal)

3. New generation and old leadership

The median age in Iran is 28, and youth unemployment in the country hovers around 25%. Nearly seven out of ten Iranians are under 35 years old, too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979. But the country is controlled by older men, many of whom had an instrumental role in the revolution. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is 75 years old; there have been concerns about his health and Iran’s eventual succession plan. Iran’s Assembly of Experts is an opaque institution with huge symbolic importance: it is tasked with selecting and overseeing Iran’s Supreme Leader. The Assembly’s Chairman passed away in October at the age of 83. His replacement? Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi, who is…83 years old.

(New York Times, CIA World Factbook, BBC)

4. The feeling is mutual

Over 70% of Iranians view the United States unfavorably—and 58% have “very unfavorable” views. On the flip side, more than three-quarters of surveyed Americans have unfavorable views of Iran. But that’s a more modest stance than some other European powers: 80% of French and 85% of Germans have unfavorable views of Iran. According to recent polls, Iran is no longer considered “the United States’ greatest enemy today.” In 2012, 32% of those polled chose Iran, good for first place. In 2015, just 9% selected Iran, placing it fourth behind China, North Korea and Russia, respectively.

(Center for International & Security Studies, Pew Research Center, Vox)

5. Support for a deal?

Negative views of Iran haven’t undermined Americans’ desire to try and cut a deal: 68% of Americans favor diplomacy with Iran. It’s a bipartisan majority: 77% of Democrats and 65% of Republicans are in favor of talks. Iranians have mixed expectations: only 48% think that President Rouhani will be successful in reaching an agreement. But if we do see a final deal, a lot more than Iranian oil could open up. Western businesses would love to break into a country that is more populous than Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Israel, Bahrain, Lebanon and Jordan combined.

(Center for International & Security Studies, CNN survey, CIA World Factbook)

TIME Iran

The Middle East Nuclear Race Is Already Under Way

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, center, and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali Akbar Salehi, center right, talk outside with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear programme in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 19, 2015.
Brian Snyder—AFP/Getty Images Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, and the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, talk with aides after a morning negotiation session with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry over Iran's nuclear program in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 19, 2015

While the U.S. and other world powers work to constrain Iran's nuclear program, five rival nations plan atomic programs

One of the most important reasons why the U.S. is trying to conclude a nuclear deal with Iran is to prevent an Iranian bomb from triggering a nuclear race in the Middle East. Yet even as talks continue now in Switzerland, Tehran’s regional rivals have already begun quietly acting on their own atomic ambitions. Nuclear power may be on the wane almost everywhere else in the world, but it’s all the rage in the place with all that oil.

Egypt’s announcement last month that it was hiring Russia to build a reactor near Alexandria made it only the latest entrant in an emerging atomic derby. Every other major Sunni power in the region has announced similar plans. And though none appear either as ambitious nor as ambiguous as what’s taken place in Iran — which set out to master the entire atomic-fuel cycle, a red flag for a military program — each announcement lays down a marker in a region that, until recently, was notable as the one place on the planet where governments had made little progress on nuclear power.

With the exception of Israel, which has never publicly acknowledged its widely known nuclear arsenal, no Middle Eastern country beyond Iran had a nuclear program — peaceful or otherwise — until the wealthy United Arab Emirates began building a reactor in July 2012 (due for completion in 2017). The list now includes, in addition to Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — the last Iran’s archrival, and which last year revealed plans to build 16 nuclear plants over the next two decades. When the President of South Korea — which has 23 nuclear plants of its own — visited the Kingdom earlier this month, leaders of both countries signed a memo of understanding calling for Seoul to build two of the nuclear plants. The Saudis have made similar arrangements with China, Argentina and France.

“It’s not just because nuclear power is seen as a first step toward a nuclear-weapons option,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. State Department nuclear expert who now runs the nonproliferation and disarmament program at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies. “There is also a prestige factor: keeping up with the neighbors.”

Middle Eastern nations may have legitimate reasons to invest in nuclear energy. Jordan, for instance, has almost no oil in liquid form, and almost less water. Saudi Arabia and the UAE possess huge crude reserves, but lose potential export revenue when they burn oil at home to create electricity — huge amounts of which are sucked up by desalination plants. Turkey, despite impressive hydroelectric potential, must import oil and natural gas.

But all that has been true for decades. What’s changed in recent years is the nuclear capabilities of Iran — a Shi‘ite Muslim country Sunni leaders have come to regard as major threat. Jordan’s King Abdullah II famously warned of a “Shia crescent” of Iran-aligned countries reaching from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. The Saudis have made it clear that they will acquire a nuclear weapon should Iran get one.

“This is not the shortest way to a nuclear weapon, by any means,” says Sharon Squassoni, director of the proliferation-prevention program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. “But if I put myself in their shoes, I’d think it probably makes sense to start down this path to see if we can develop a civilian nuclear [program], and if we pick up some capabilities along the way, that’s all right.”‘

Suspicion rises with every new announcement partly because the Middle East is bucking a global trend. Worldwide, the number of nuclear plants has declined since the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi plant in 2011. Reactions differed by country. Germany forswore nuclear energy altogether after the disaster, while China pressed ahead, planning more than 100 new reactors. But in most places, the environmental risks and high costs have turned countries off nuclear power.

“My beef with nuclear energy is that it’s sort of held up as this very prestigious thing,” Squassoni tells TIME. “We do nuclear deals with our best allies … all this stuff about strategic partnership. And really, it’s this extremely expensive, complicated, slightly dangerous way to boil water. And that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re boiling water to turn those turbines.”

The expense alone may prevent some Middle Eastern nations from every actually joining the “nuclear club.” Building an atomic plant costs at least $5 billion, Fitzpatrick notes, and Egypt is desperately poor; Jordan relies heavily on remittances and foreign aid. But the Saudis still have money to burn and, according to former White House official Gary Samore, have consistently rebuffed U.S. imprecations to sign a pledge not to divert any nuclear program toward producing a bomb (a pledge the UAE took). Saudi Arabia has signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, but then so has Iran, and in the end a race can be run by as few as two: India and Pakistan, bitter neighbors, neither of which are rich, went nuclear in 1974 and 1998, respectively. They’ve gone to war once since, raising anxiety levels around the world.

So the talks in Switzerland are about more than preventing Iran from getting the bomb. They are also about persuading Iran’s neighbors that the nuclear option is effectively off the table. If the talks end with a final agreement that looks like a win for the Islamic Republic, diplomats say its neighbors will fast track their own plans. “If the accord is not sufficiently solid then regional countries would say it’s not serious enough, so we are also going to get the nuclear weapon,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told Europe 1 Radio on Saturday. “And that would lead to an extremely dangerous nuclear proliferation.”

Read next: Israel Denies Spying on Iran Nuclear Talks With U.S.

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TIME Science

When Mushroom Clouds Were All the Rage

Atomic Bomb Test, Nevada
Interim Archives / Getty Images Capturing an atomic explosion at a test site in the Nevada desert in 1957.

Jan. 27, 1951: The first atomic bomb is detonated at the Nevada Test Site in Nye County, Nev.

The mushroom clouds that appeared over the Nevada desert were a spectacular tourist attraction — at least initially.

After the first nuclear device was detonated at the Nevada Test Site on this day, Jan. 27, in 1951, atomic fever swept across the nation, bringing waves of visitors to Las Vegas, an ideal vantage point from which to see the clouds rising above the test site 65 mi. away. “At week’s end the Atomic Energy Commission cautiously confirmed the fact that the first atomic explosion had taken place in its new 5,000-sq.-mi. testing ground on the remote and barren plateau northwest of Las Vegas known as Frenchman Flat,” TIME reported in the Feb. 5, 1951, issue. “It was the first atomic explosion in the U.S. since the historic test at Alamogordo in 1945.” The 12 years during which the site averaged one explosion every three weeks was a boom time for Vegas, which nicknamed itself “Atomic City” and sponsored “Miss Atom Bomb” beauty contests, adorning winners with mushroom-cloud crowns.

The Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce printed calendars listing detonation times and suggestions for the best viewing locations. According to the PBS history show “American Experience,” many tourists watched the bombs go off from the Sky Room at the Desert Inn hotel and casino, but others picnicked as close to the test site as they could get.

One lucky group of newscasters was allowed to broadcast the explosion of a 31-kiloton bomb — dubbed the “Big Shot” — from the edge of Nevada’s Yucca Lake, 10 mi. from ground zero. One reporter, per PBS, narrated the experience in majestic terms: “A fantastically bright cloud is climbing upward like a huge umbrella… You brace yourself against the shock wave… Then, after what seems like hours, the man-made sunburst fades away.”

Residents of St. George, Utah, therefore, considered themselves exceptionally fortunate: they had a front-row seat for nearly every blast that rocked the desert. According to a TIME, parents in this tiny town, just downwind of the test site, regularly woke their children before dawn and brought them to a hilltop where they could watch the mushroom clouds rise with the sun.

“When a pinkish-red cloud drifted over St. George hours later, the parents were not frightened,” TIME reported. “After all, the Atomic Energy Commission had assured them that ‘there is no danger’ from radioactive fallout. Some parents even held Geiger counters on their children and exclaimed in wonder as the needles jumped.”

By the time that story was published, in 1979, an alarming number of the children who had once watched the bombs burst in St. George had died of leukemia. Others developed thyroid cancer as adults. Awe over the A-bomb’s pyrotechnical power had been replaced by a better-informed fear of its dangers, and the test site had moved its nuclear operations underground.

Read the original report on the first atomic explosion, from the Feb. 5, 1951, issue of TIME, here in the TIME Vault: “A Kinda Flash”

TIME Environment

How the Atomic Age Left Us a Half-Century of Radioactive Waste

Plutonium Plant
Evans / ;Getty Images The American Atomic Energy Commision's plutonium production plant at Hanford, Washington, circa 1955

Dealing with nuclear waste at a plant in Washington State has proved an intractable problem. Why?

In 1951, atomic optimism was booming—even when it came to radioactive waste. In fact, entrepreneurs believed that the waste might pay off in the same way that coal tar and other industrial by-products had proved useful for the plastics and chemical industries. TIME reported that Stanford Research Institutes estimated they could sell crude radioactive waste from the Hanford plutonium plant in eastern Washington State at prices ranging from ten cents to a dollar a curie (a measure of radioactive decay). Every kilogram of plutonium the plant produced spilled out hundreds of thousands of gallons of radioactive waste. If the entrepreneurs were right, Hanford was a gold mine.

They were wrong. Instead, the former Hanford plutonium plant became the largest nuclear clean-up site in the western hemisphere. It costs taxpayers a billion dollars a year.

On the other hand, maybe they were right—just not the way they intended. Corporate contractors hired to clean up Hanford have made hundreds of millions of dollars in fees and surcharges, and, since little has been accomplished, the tab promises to mount for decades. Since 1991, the US Department of Energy has missed every target for remediation of Hanford’s deadly nuclear waste. Highly radioactive fluids are seeping toward the Columbia River watershed, while in the past two years 54 clean-up workers have fallen ill from mysterious toxic vapors. Last fall, seeking to finally get some action, Washington State sued the DOE to speed up the timeline and make the project safer—but, on Dec. 5, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice rejected the request. The express schedule was too expensive, they said, despite the fact that the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration is planning to spend a trillion dollars in 30 years to create a new generation of more accurate, deadly weapons. In fact, the DOE spends more money now in real dollars on nuclear weapons than it did at the height of the Cold War.

Unfortunately, the Justice ruling—to scrimp on radioactive waste management while the DOE spends lavishly on bombs—makes for business as usual in the history of Hanford.

It’s never been a matter of knowing the danger. In 1944, Hanford designers understood that the radioactive by-products issuing from plutonium production were deadly. Executives from DuPont, which built the Hanford plant for the Manhattan Project, called plutonium and its by-products “super poisonous” and worried about how to keep workers and surrounding populations safe.

At the same time, DuPont engineers were rushing to make plutonium for the first Trinity test in Nevada in 1945, and they did not pause to invent new solutions to store radioactive waste. Plant managers simply disposed of the high-tech, radioactive waste the way that humans had for millennia. They buried it. Millions of gallons of radioactive effluent went into trenches, ponds, holes drilled in the ground and the Columbia River. The most dangerous waste was conducted into underground single-walled tanks meant to last ten years. Knowing the tanks would corrode, as the high-level waste ate through metal, Hanford designers planned to come up with a permanent solution in the future. They were confident in their abilities. Had they not accomplished the impossible—building from scratch in less than three years a nuclear bomb?

But, as the years passed, no new answer surfaced to safely store nuclear waste. The Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of bomb production, left radioactive garbage to its private corporate contractors. For two decades, the AEC had no office to oversee waste management, nor any regulation. AEC officials didn’t know how much radioactive waste there was or where it was located. They also didn’t pay much fiscal attention to the problem. The AEC allocated to General Electric, which took over from DuPont in 1946, $200,000 a year for waste management, small change in nuclear-weapons accounting. In the same decade, the AEC handed over $1.5 million annually to subsidize the local school district in Richland, Wash., where plant workers lived.

Meanwhile, the temporary underground tanks remained long past their expiration date. In the early 1960s, the first tank sprang a leak. Dozens followed suit leaching into the ground a million gallons of high-level waste. From 1968 to 1986, Hanford managers built 28 new, double-walled tanks, designed to last from 20 to 50 years. What was the major design innovation after two decades of experience? An extra tank wall.

The explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in 1986 tore the plutonium curtain of secrecy surrounding Hanford. The newly renamed Department of Energy was forced to release thousands of documents describing how plant managers had issued into the western interior millions of curies of radioactive waste as part of the daily operating order. In the early 1990s, TIME recounted stories of people living downwind who had thyroid disease and cancer, caused, they believed, by the plant’s emissions. In 1991, the DOE resolved to clean up the Hanford site.

The agency hired the same military contractors that had managed the site while it was being polluted. Their main task involved building a state-of-the-art waste-treatment plant to turn high-level waste into glass blocks for millennia of safe storage in salt caverns. But by 1999, eight years and several billion dollars later, the DOE had to admit that its contractors had accomplished little. Multiple times, the DOE set new deadlines or hired new contractors, but the goalposts were always moved. In 2015, after decades of effort, the waste treatment plant is still in the planning stages. High-level waste remains in tanks, some of which continue to leak.

What makes dealing with nuclear waste at Hanford so intractable? The Savannah River Plant in Georgia also made plutonium and has successfully built a treatment plant. So too have the Russians and French. Despite the Department of Justice’s ruling, money is not the main problem. The current contractor, Bechtel Corp, has spent billions of dollars, yet has made little progress. Speaking this week, representatives of the Washington State Department of Ecology said that they would argue their case in federal court in February, hoping to get the DOE to commit to their timeline to get the waste treatment plant up and running. Decades after the story began, it continues.

So perhaps it’s a matter of history. Since the ’40s, Hanford contractors had enjoyed a free hand to produce plutonium and pollute with little AEC/DOE oversight. And for six decades reports of radioactive discharges were denied. It is hard to fix a problem one cannot see—and that’s been, by any measure, an expensive lesson.

Kate Brown lives in Washington, DC and is Professor of History at UMBC. She is the author of several award-winning books, including Plutopia: Nuclear Families in Atomic Cities and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (Oxford 2013). Brown’s most recent book Dispatches from Dystopia: History of Places Not Yet Forgotten will appear in April 2015 with the University of Chicago Press.

Read a 1986 report on the safety of the American nuclear industry, here in the TIME Vault: Bracing for the Fallout

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TIME Environment

The Nuclear Disaster You Never Heard of

Palomares
Gamma-Keystone / Getty Images The Jan. 17, 1966 catastrophe at Palomares was caused by an accident during the in-flight supplying of a US Air Force B-52 nuclear bomber by a KC-135 of the US Air Force above southern Spain

How the United States whitewashed (literally) a nuclear accident in Spain that still hasn’t been cleaned up

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

This month, with little fanfare, Palomares begins its 50th year as “the most radioactive town in Europe.” If you’ve heard of Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island but are unfamiliar with Palomares, you might wonder why. All appear in Time’s top-ten list of the world’s “worst nuclear disasters.” Palomares moreover has been called the worst nuclear weapons accident in history. So why do so few people outside Spain know about it?

The cover-up and whitewash were figurative, also literal. Though four nuclear bombs were rained on Spain, many vaguely recall a lone “lost” bomb, fished out of the Mediterranean intact.

So what exactly happened? On 17 January 1966, a US Air Force B-52 collided with its refueling plane, killing seven airmen and dropping four hydrogen bombs. Conventional explosives in two detonated on impact with the earth, blowing them to bits and scattering radioactive plutonium—a mutagen and carcinogen—over the farming town of Palomares, population 2000.

English-language journalists, though late on the scene, rushed their books into print, replicating oversights of the rushed cleanup operation and circulating the myth of a single lost bomb. Pioneering female foreign correspondent Flora Lewis screamed One of Our H-Bombs is Missing, borrowing a title from 50s Red Scare pulp fiction. Likewise demonstrating their national allegiances, British reporter Christopher Morris lamented The Day They Lost the H-Bomb and American science writer Barbara Moran, four decades later, decried The Day We Lost the H-Bomb.

Only New York Times correspondent Tad Szulc pluralized the threat with The Bombs of Palomares. He further measured the relative importance of events. “Although the long spectacular search” for the harmless fourth bomb—at the bottom of the Med for eighty days—“was to overshadow the village’s radioactivity problem in [U.S.] public opinion, the contamination was in reality the most significant” calamity. Even so, Szulc’s book, like all the others, gave inordinate attention to the “heroic” sea search and its mesmerizing high-tech submersibles. From Pinewood to Hollywood, Finders Keepers to Men of Honor, moviemakers followed suit, literalizing a single lost bomb, duly found by singer Cliff Richard or actor Cuba Gooding, Jr. (A notable exception: Michael Cacoyannis’s landmark The Day the Fish Came Out.)

So what was of greatest significance in early 1966? In addition to the seven airmen, plus eight more killed in a Palomares supply plane crash, people in Palomares suffered—and still suffer—potentially fatal radioactive exposures. At the time, no was evacuated; no one was officially informed for six weeks. Even then, U.S. Ambassador Angier Duke told the international press corps an unconscionable lie: “This area has gone through no public health hazard of any kind, and no trace whatsoever of radioactivity has ever been found.” Why then were nearly 5000 barrels of hot soil and crops shipped away for burial in South Carolina? Why today is plutonium found throughout the food chain in Palomares? Why is radioactivity evident downwind, in neighboring Villaricos?

Spanish authors and activists have provided answers, along with Israeli feminist Dina Hecht. However, Hecht’s extraordinary documentary film Broken Arrow 29, broadcast by Britain’s Channel 4 on the disaster’s 20th anniversary, has never been aired in the U.S. In the lead-up to the 50th anniversary, January 17, 2016, will Americans continue to cover their ears and avert their eyes?

What do Americans need to know? Of crucial concern, many Spanish injuries, fatalities, and miscarriages have been attributed to the disaster. But the United States government assumed limited liability, paying only property damages averaging $250 per person, accepting no responsibility for loss of life or loss of livelihood. To this day, U.S. authorities provide technical assistance, as they argue over “acceptable levels” of contamination. On her last official visit to Spain as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton repeated the usual platitudes and prevarications, even when informed of a secret U.S. dump discovered in Palomares in 2008.

Like this cover-up, the whitewash was not only figurative but also literal. The military’s 200-page Palomares Summary Report contains one solitary tossed-off sentence about radioactive contamination of local homes, not even referenced as such. Unspecified “buildings,” the report hedges, “were washed but in [some] cases this was not sufficient to lower the contamination level to the acceptable limit, and whitewashing had to be done.” In spineless bureaucratese, these passive verb constructions cloud procedures, obscure U.S. military agency, and naturalize what “had to be done.”

So who did what? Along with townspeople’s testimonies, Department of Defense footage first screened by Hecht helps piece it together, as it inadvertently exposes staggering environmental racism. Just as white officers ordered African American servicemen to shovel contaminants into barrels and launder contaminated uniforms, they likewise instructed a black enlistee with gloves but no mask to take radiation readings of buildings. When homes registered as radioactive, servicemen sprayed them with high-pressure water hoses over and over, damaging walls, roofs, and interiors, and exhausting local water supplies. When the homes still read as radioactive, troops whitewashed them, simply painting the plutonium into the surface of the house.

With a half-life of 24,000 years, the plutonium will long outlast the paint, insuring that children’s and animals’ inevitable scraping, licking, and eating of paint chips—so well-documented around lead-poisoning—will have alarming long-term carcinogenic and mutagenic effects. In years to come, periodic sanding for fresh painting will no doubt re-suspend plutonium particles and increase the probabilities of inhalation and lung cancer. Thus, as I summarized for colleagues at the American Historical Association’s 129th annual meeting, U.S. whitewashing has embedded contamination into the very structures of local communities, the very air of local environments.

What now? As the U.S. dickers over decontamination—not to mention reparations or reconciliation—organizers in Palomares promise openness and honesty, despite all the commercial advantages of keeping quiet. As former mayor Antonia Flores puts it, “Since no one cares a damn about us, we won’t forget.” Strategies of memorialization include street-naming, as with Bombards Street, 17 January 1966 Street, and 17 January 1966 Crossing, where I lived over the winter of 2011-12. I continue to conduct research there.

What do I see? Foremost: Resilience. After U.S. forces stole and depleted local water stocks, citrus groves dried up and died. After the flawed cleanup, six successive tomato harvests failed. After the agricultural economy collapsed, an exodus ensued, the population cut in half. But people bounce back.

As my forthcoming documentary photobook shows, whitewashing is resisted not only in annual protests and commemorations but in everyday practices of working, playing, talking and remembering. Farmers still till the land, children go to school, while on the outskirts of town, a rural sex industry has emerged, complicating liberationist calls to occupy liminal spaces. Low-budget tourists now frequent the Palomares environs, and where black servicemen once shifted toxic barrels, there are now naturist hostels and residential communities, a nudist beach with gay cruising ground, and a small strip of eateries, drag venues, gay bars, and heterosexual swingers clubs.

In the nuclear age, as the Palomares disaster semicentennial approaches, marginalized peoples adopt the most marginal lands.

John Howard, a professor of American studies at King’s College London, is the author of “Men Like That and Concentration Camps on the Home Front.”

TIME National Security

More Band-Aids for the Nation’s Ailing Nuclear-Weapons Force

A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.
Airman John Parie—U.S. Air Force/Reuters A US Air Force missile maintenance team removes the upper section of an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead in an undated USAF photo at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

Pentagon beefs up spending to keep yesterday’s weapons ready for tomorrow

The U.S. military’s nuclear force — both its hardware (the weapons) and its software (the people who operate those weapons) — is in disarray. That can only come as a surprise to those who don’t concede the Cold War is over, and that neither the funding, nor the required mindset, exists to keep it going indefinitely.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday that a pair of reviews calls for spending about $7.5 billion over the next five years to shore up the nation’s nuclear weapons, as well as the bombers, land-based missiles and submarines that carry them. “The reviews found evidence of systematic problems that if not addressed could undermine the safety, security and effectiveness of the elements of the force in the future,” he said. “These problems include manning; infrastructure; and skill deficiencies; a culture of micro-management; and over-inspection and inadequate communication, follow-up, and accountability by senior department in nuclear enterprise leadership.”

There was a palpable sense of national mission when you visited nuclear sites during the Cold War. While that remains true at most sites, there’s a feeling gleaned from speaking with current nuclear officers that their mission isn’t as vital as it once was. Congress feels the same way, which is why the nation’s nuclear-weapons organization has been nickled-and-dimed, relatively speaking, for the past 25 years (although it’s slated to cost $1 trillion over the next 30 years).

Hagel ordered the reviews in January, after reports of widespread cheating surfaced among the airmen operating the Air Force’s intercontinental ballistic missiles at Montana’s Malmstrom Air Force Base. The Navy also discovered that some of its sailors had apparently cheated on tests involving the nuclear reactors that power some of the service’s ships and subs. The panels recommended more than 100 changes, which will be monitored by a newly created Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group that will report directly to Hagel every three months.

“Our nuclear triad deters nuclear attack on the United States and our allies and our partners,” Hagel told reporters. “It prevents potential adversaries from trying to escalate their way out of failed conventional aggression, and it provides the means for effective response should deterrence fail.”

Arms-control advocates disagree. “Apart from deterring a nuclear attack, nuclear weapons play an increasingly limited role in U.S. national security policy, but our arsenal is still configured and sized for a Cold War world that no longer exists,” says Kingston Reif of the non-profit Arms Control Association. “There are simply no plausible military missions for these weapons given their destructive power, the current security environment and the prowess of U.S. conventional forces.”

The Air Force has already made improvements. Last month, missile launch officers became eligible to receive up to $300 monthly because of the importance of their mission. New uniform and cold-weather gear also have been provided the ICBM crews, who work in North Dakota and Wyoming as well as Montana. It has added 1,100 more troops to its nuclear force (the Navy’s hiring 2,500 more). Last week, the Air Force awarded 25 airmen the new Nuclear Deterrence Operations Service medals to honor their work.

The roots of the problem runs deep. Over the past two decades, the Air Force has shifted responsibility for its ICBMs around like an unwanted child. The missiles bounced from Curtis Lemay’s Strategic Air Command, where they had been since becoming operational in 1959, to Air Combat Command in 1992. They moved to Space Command in 1993, and finally to Global Strike Command in 2009, created as a mini-SAC following a pair of nuclear snafus of 2007-08 that led to the cashiering of the Air Force’s top two officials. “We mattered under Strategic Air Command,” Dana Struckman, a retired colonel who manned missiles from 1989 to 1993, said earlier this year. “The Cold War was still on, and we had a sense of purpose that I don’t think they have today.”

Some official Air Force reports acknowledge the problem. “Many current senior Air Force leaders interviewed were cynical about the nuclear mission, its future, and its true (versus publicly stated) priority to the Air Force,” a 2012 Air Force paper said. Commanders routinely told nuclear airmen that they were in a “sunset business” and “were not contributing to the fight that mattered,” it added. A second Pentagon study noted that most airmen manning ICBMs “were not volunteers for missile duty.”

Hagel conceded the problems aren’t new. “Previous reviews of our nuclear enterprise lacked clear follow-up mechanisms,” he said. “Recommendations were implemented without the necessary follow-through to assess that they were implemented effectively. There was a lack of accountability.” To fix that, he said he has assigned Pentagon cost experts to monitor the new changes being made so that the Defense Department knows “what’s working and what’s not.”

The defense secretary pledged to “hold our leaders accountable up and down the chain of command.” That’s because the problems aren’t confined to the lower ranks. The Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey — in charge of all the nation’s ICBMs — last year after an official trip to Moscow, where he drank excessively and cavorted with “suspect” women. During a layover at a Swiss airport, witnesses told Pentagon investigators that Carey “appeared drunk and, in the public area, talked loudly about the importance of his position as commander of the only operational nuclear force in the world and that he saves the world from war every day.”

Those still in charge don’t see their assignment as a Cold War mission. “I don’t think we’re any more a Cold War force than an aircraft carrier, or Special Ops, or the UH-1 helicopter,” Lieut. Gen. James Kowalksi, chief of Global Strike Command, said of his nuclear arsenal last year. A Russian first strike, in fact, has become such a “remote” possibility that it’s “hardly worth discussing,” he said. “The greatest risk to my force is an accident. The greatest risk to my force is doing something stupid.”

Kowalski became the No. 2 officer in U.S. Strategic Command in October 2013, overseeing the nation’s entire nuclear arsenal, after President Obama fired Vice Adm. Tim Giardina from the post for allegedly gambling in an Iowa casino with counterfeit chips. The charge — a felony — happened at Horseshoe Council Bluffs Casino, a 15-minute drive across the Missouri River from the nation’s nuclear headquarters.

Hagel implied Friday that operating the nation’s most deadly weapons in the 21st century is kind of like using enough wax and elbow grease to shine up an old jalopy: “We must restore the prestige that attracted the brightest minds of the Cold War era, so our most talented young men and women see the nuclear pathway as promising in value.” Only one problem: the most talented young men and women know the Cold War ended before they were born. Given that, they also know there’s no way to restore the resolve and purpose those manning the weapons against the Soviet Union once felt.

TIME Nuclear

U.S. Looks to Improve Management of Nuclear Weapons Cache

“Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in securing U.S. national security”

The United States’ arsenal of nuclear weapons is badly in need of a makeover, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday.

“The good news is that there’s nothing here we can’t fix,” Hagel told reporters. “But if we don’t pay attention to this, if we don’t fix this eventually, it will get to a point where there are some questions about our security.”

Hagel said a full review of the country’s nuclear arsenal revealed “evidence of systematic problems,” including issues with manpower, infrastructure, skill deficiencies, a culture of micromanagement and over-inspection.

The overhaul of nuclear arms across the entire Department of Defense will include reforms that address each of these areas. In order to make the nuclear field a more attractive career path for young soldiers, for instance, Hagel elevated the Global Strike Command to so-called a four-star billet, meaning high-ranking soldiers in the nuclear fleet can be equal in rank to their counterparts in non-nuclear fields. Hagel also announced the creation of a new medal to recognize service in the nuclear field.

“Our nuclear deterrent plays a critical role in securing U.S. national security,” Hagel said. “No other capability remains more important.”

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