Daily Archives: November 18, 2019

Bookshelf: A sobering look at the nuclear age

First in what might be an occasional series on Books I Just Read.

On my last browse through my local library’s stacks, I came across this book. It came out ten years ago, but I highly recommend it as an informed — and cautionary — tour through the history of humanity’s Nuclear Era. Very readable, to boot. (Although there are certain chapters, including the back-to-back sections on Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that aren’t the best for bedtime.)

The author, Stephanie Cooke, spent a goodly chunk of her journalistic career covering the nuclear industry. In the process, she developed a wealth of information and contacts that made her uniquely qualified to write a book like this. And boy, did she do a great job.

One of the key themes in the book is how nuclear weapons and “the peaceful atom” have been, from the very beginning, two sides of the same coin. When President Eisenhower was preparing to give a speech to the United Nations on the new atomic age, he was desperate to present a hopeful face to a seemingly dismal recitation of the dangers posed by A-bombs. Literally, he asked his staffers to find him some hope.

The result was the “Atoms for Peace” initiative, which was designed to spread the alleged benefits of peaceful nukes around the world. The idea was to bolster public support (and dispel public angst) for nuclear research, which was necessary for the arms race. The unintended consequence: Marketing “Atoms for Peace” involved spreading nuclear technology — and nuclear material — to other countries. In fact, developing new markets took precedence over nonproliferation efforts.

Even the International Atomic Energy Agency devotes more of its time and treasure to fostering nuclear technology than controlling the spread of nuclear weapons. (The most absurd example, reports Cooke: A grant from the IAEA helped North Korea establish its own uranium-mining industry. Nice.)

In Mortal Hands is also a handy guide to the excesses and shortfalls on both sides of the nuclear coin. The number of incidents and close calls is rather astonishing. Safety and security have never been treated as seriously as they should have been — or as seriously as governments and utilities would have you believe.

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