Jay Coghlan is the executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nonprofit organization founded by veteran anti-nuclear activists that seeks to promote environmental protection at regional nuclear facilities, mission diversification away from nuclear weapons programs, greater accountability and cleanup in the nationwide nuclear weapons complex, and consistent US leadership toward a world free of nuclear weapons. Jay recently spoke with us on the initial reaction to Nuclear Watch New Mexico's first grant from Ploughshares Fund, what has been accomplished since their founding in 1999, and what you can do to continue supporting their work.
What was your reaction when you found out that you received a grant?
My initial reaction was one of surprise. I was new to the work and didn’t really feel worthy of the trust that the Ploughshares Fund had put into me. Second came elation and the realization that I could become professional and devote myself to the work full time, which I view as a necessity. Third came a strong feeling of gratitude, which I still feel 28 years later because of Ploughshares’ incredible steadfast and consistent support.
What are you most proud of accomplishing in this field?
What I am most proud of is having played a central role in beating back four attempts by the US government to expand plutonium pit bomb core production, which has been the chokepoint of resumed US industrial-scale nuclear weapons production ever since a 1989 FBI raid investigating environmental crimes shut down the Rocky Flats Plant near Denver. This work included convincing a New Mexico senator to require an independent plutonium pit lifetime study which in 2006 concluded that pits last at least a century. Shortly thereafter, in conjunction with a restrained budget environment, Congress deleted funding for a new-design nuclear weapon called the Reliable Replacement Warhead and related expanded plutonium pit production.
What are you working on today?
Sadly, my main focus today is on defeating the government’s fifth attempt to expand plutonium pit production for new nuclear warheads. These are central to the government’s planned $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons-forever “modernization” program, along with new missiles, submarines and bombers to deliver them. But I’m encouraged by the change in Administration and the possibility that more urgent national security threats will be prioritized, such as the coronavirus pandemic and global warming. I also note that the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) is often its own worst enemy. Its overly ambitious plan for simultaneous pit production at the Los Alamos Lab in New Mexico and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina is a house of cards waiting to fall down. I and others are trying to give it the right little push towards collapse. I think we will succeed.
What drives you to do this work?
I grew up in a military family during the Cold War and was very aware that nuclear armageddon was potentially always right around the corner. To pick one particular personal experience, when I got out of high school I hitchhiked around the world. In northern Pakistan a “holy man” said whereas he didn’t hate me personally he hated everything I stood for (he was referring to Western colonialism). He went on to claim that the Koran predicted that Islam would get the Bomb (which Pakistan went on to do). This experience made me very aware of global nuclear weapons proliferation and the need to globally eradicate them before humanity eradicates itself.
How can people help you realize your goals?
The most effective thing people can do to help public interest organizations like Nuclear Watch New Mexico is to bring constituent pressure to bear upon their congressional delegations to adopt better nuclear weapons policies. This is particularly true in states with nuclear weapons sites that are looked upon and promoted as jobs programs, especially New Mexico where NNSA spends up to 40% of its annual nuclear weapons research and production funding in the Land of Enchantment alone. Citizens should demand that their Members of Congress demonstrate visionary leadership by helping to create green and cleanup jobs that fortunately also have higher beneficial economic multiplier effects than nuclear weapons programs. Secondarily, people should self-educate on nuclear weapons issues (for example, by going to www.nukewatch.org), make their voices heard in media and public meetings and support hard working advocacy groups.
Ploughshares Fund is proud to have supported individuals and organizations working for over 40 years to reduce and eliminate nuclear weapons. Since being founded in 1981, our network of grantees and partners have been behind critical milestones in the history of arms control and threat reduction. My First Grant aims to celebrate our historical impact while also highlighting the pathways forward in the peace and security field being made by our current grantees. Follow these stories – past and present – at ploughshares.org or by tracking #MyFirstPFGrant and #PF40th.
Jay Coghlan of @NuclearWatchNM shares the history behind efforts to build a safe, secure world.
Photo: Banner displaying “Nuclear Weapons Are Now Illegal” at the entrance in front of the Los Alamos National Lab to celebrate the Entry Into Force of the Nuclear Weapon Ban Treaty on January 22, 2021