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Disarmament expert brings nuclear optimism to Charlotte

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LAWRENCE TOPPMAN - ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com
Nuclear disarmament advocate Joseph Cirincione chats with students after his speech Thursday to the World Affairs Council of Charlotte.

Here’s a tale to make you choke on your cornflakes:

In 2007, a U.S. Air Force plane left Minot, N.D., supposedly carrying obsolete missiles scheduled for destruction. By accident, crews loaded actively armed nuclear missiles. That plane sat on a Louisiana tarmac overnight, protected by one guard and a barbed-wire fence. A panicky call the next day to Minot proved no one knew they were missing.

Nuclear disarmament advocate Joseph Cirincione shared that anecdote Thursday at a World Affairs Council of Charlotte luncheon at the Hilton Center City. His address to WAC members, guests and students from five area high schools and colleges blended insights, history, chemistry (for those of us who didn’t know how uranium could be altered to make bombs) and humor. He began by acknowledging our worst fears and ended by inspiring a sense of optimism.

If you’re younger than 40, you’re likeliest to have seen him discussing nuclear explosions on “The Colbert Report.” If you follow government affairs, you may know him as a member of Secretary of State John Kerry’s International Security Advisory Board. His newest book bears the title “Nuclear Nightmares: Securing the World Before It Is Too Late.” His business card identifies him as president of the Ploughshares Fund, which invests in initiatives to eliminate nuclear weapons.

“Many people think nuclear weapons are a problem of the past,” he said. “The risk of a nuclear device going off remains quite low. But the consequences are catastrophic.”

Cirincione said Americans spend $55 billion a year to maintain the current “triad” system of bombers, submarines and missiles. “That system is nearing the end of its useful life,” he said. “So (researchers) are considering alternatives to replace it after about 2020. It’s been estimated that, over the next 50 years, we could spend $1 trillion on the new triad.”

He cautioned that the United States “can’t play nuclear Whac-A-Mole” with nations that develop weapons, unless we start to get rid of our own. “One of the big problems is that other countries think the United States is hypocritical,” he said afterward. “We’re stockpiling 5,000 weapons and telling other countries not to start developing them.”

The second half of his speech was mostly about Iran. He believes the agreement Kerry and other negotiators struck in Geneva last month will relieve nuclear tension: In exchange for the release of $7 billion in Iranian assets, which had been frozen under international sanctions, Iran agreed temporarily to freeze its nuclear program, making an Iranian “dash toward a bomb” much more difficult. (A long-term deal is being worked on, though Israel and American defense hawks oppose it.)

“I don’t think Iran is the most dangerous country in the world,” he said. “Pakistan has 100 nuclear weapons, al-Qaidal-Qaeda operating there, an unstable government and tension with India, its nuclear neighbor.”

The 64-year-old Cirincione grew up during the Cold War, “ducking and covering” during bomb drills at Connecticut schools. “The bomb” has hung metaphorically over his head since birth, yet he’s optimistic about world disarmament:

“I’ve seen the Soviet Union collapse. I’ve seen Protestants and Catholics shake hands in a unified Northern Ireland. I’ve seen a man walk out of a South African prison that held him for 28 years and become the president of his country. I’ve seen the Carolina Panthers win eight straight games. So nothing is impossible – just hard.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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