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‘Oppenheimer’ sparks nuclear debate. Will Congress join in?

Some raise issues of AI triggers and fallout, not Oppenheimer vs. Barbie

Christopher Nolan speaks during a screening of “Oppenheimer” on July 17 in New York City.
Christopher Nolan speaks during a screening of “Oppenheimer” on July 17 in New York City. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Pictures)

As a wave of “Oppenheimer” vs. “Barbie” memes washed over the internet this week, members of Congress tried to ride it, joining in the fun. But a few struck a more serious tone. With nuclear policy back in popular conversation for the first time in years, lawmakers with a long-standing interest in the topic wondered how to seize the moment.

Sen. Edward J. Markey saw an opportunity to promote his proposal to ban AI from launching nuclear weapons, touting a meeting with one of the creative forces behind “Oppenheimer.”

The Massachusetts Democrat met with Kai Bird, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning book helped inspire Christopher Nolan to make his moody summer opus. 

“I’m honored that Kai Bird has endorsed my legislation to ensure the robots never have their finger on the nuclear trigger,” Markey said in a statement, adding that he hopes senators will take it seriously as they work to finish their version of the annual defense policy bill.

Nolan’s movie offers a three-hour tour of the ethical and political history of America’s nuclear weapons program, following the tortured journey of J. Robert Oppenheimer, often called the father of the atomic bomb. It is based on the 2005 biography that Bird co-wrote with Martin J. Sherwin, “American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

Markey said he sees an AI arms race beginning that recalls the nuclear arms race of the last century, and he wants public officials to remember that Oppenheimer “created a monster he ultimately could not contain.”

The summer movie release, which sparked a frenzy on Friday as it competed with the equally anticipated “Barbie” from director Greta Gerwig, was met with disappointment from advocates who had hoped it would acknowledge the lingering effects of the Manhattan Project and its testing program for people in New Mexico.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., echoed those concerns, pointing to the “Downwinders and post-71 uranium mine workers” in his home state whose stories didn’t make it into Nolan’s biopic.

“With so much interest in Oppenheimer and the Trinity Test, this is an opportunity to educate millions of Americans that nearly eight decades later, New Mexicans are still dealing with the impacts of radiation exposure,” Luján said in an emailed statement.

The Democrat reupped calls to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, the 1990 law that compensates some people who contracted cancer after nuclear contact. But he suggested the hoopla surrounding the movie hadn’t done much to advance the cause. 

“It’s the sad truth that too many have died from the radioactive fallout from these decades-old tests. And I’ll be very candid, I’m worried folks aren’t really focused on the negative consequences of the Oppenheimer nuclear tests,” he tweeted

Meanwhile, other lawmakers were jumping on the meme bandwagon on social media, playing along as people tried to guess who would see “Oppenheimer” and who would see “Barbie.” 

“To everyone assuming I’m going to Oppenheimer, I say: why not both?” tweeted Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. 

Oppenheimer led the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, as scientists developed the nuclear weapons that the United States would use to end World War II and change the course of human history.

Reigniting public debate was part of Nolan’s goal, the director has said, and he has tried to position the movie somewhere between a typical Hollywood blockbuster and a high-minded work of art. 

At a panel this month marking the anniversary of the Trinity test, NBC News host Chuck Todd invited Nolan to imagine screening the movie for members of Congress and asked him what he would want them to learn.

“Our relationship with the fear of nuclear weapons ebbs and flows with the geopolitical situation, and it shouldn’t, because the threat is constant,” Nolan replied. “When you look back at history, some of the closest moments to nuclear disaster have actually been in times of relative calm geopolitically. So even though the situation in Ukraine kind of puts it more in the forefront of people’s minds, the truth is, nuclear weapons are an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have lying around the house.” 

Nolan warned against forgetting the weapons exist or taking them lightly.

“One of the things that frightens me the most … [is] when I hear in the media reasonable people talking about ‘tactical nuclear weapons,’ as if this distinction can be made … [with] politicians and media sort of warming us up to the idea that perhaps there’s a certain size of nuclear weapon that would be acceptable as opposed to large ones,” he said.

Oppenheimer himself was eager to remind people that nuclear weapons didn’t happen by accident and that developing technology is a matter of policy, not destiny.

“We have greatly developed and greatly increased our atomic activities. This growth, though natural technically, is not inevitable,” he wrote in 1953. “If the Congress had appropriated no money, it would not have occurred.” 

Justin Papp contributed to this report.

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