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.

I’ll mention one section of the book that particularly appalled me: America’s treatment of the Marshall Islands. The remote chain was chosen as the site for much of our early A-bomb and H-bomb testing program, and the safety of the residents was always an afterthought. Indeed, the islanders were often used as unwitting guinea pigs. In 1956, a U.S. government official spoke of the need for studying radiation’s effects on humans: “While it is true that these people do not live the way that Westerners do, civilized people, it is nonetheless also true that they are more like us than the mice.”

That quote is in the book; it’s also in a recent exposė by the Los Angeles Times of America’s ghastly treatment of the Marshall Islanders. Not only did we make some islands permanently unhabitable and expose residents repeatedly to nuclear fallout, we also returned to the Marshalls in the 1960s to test biological weapons. Presumably the thinking was, they’re already so badly fucked up that we might as well use them to test other deadly weapons.

Our ill-treatment of the Marshalls continues to this day. We’ve washed our hands of cleanup responsibilities even though we’ve never even paid our share of the bill as outlined in a one-sided treaty that recalls the worst excesses of our 19th Century treatment of Native Americans. We put tons and tons of irradiated material under a concrete dome that’s now showing serious signs of age, and may soon be underwater because of the climate crisis. (Some of that material was shipped to the Marshalls from test sites in the United States. Convenient, that.)

The Times article was one of the more disturbing things I’ve read about America in recent years, and that includes everything Trump-related. (Not that any other country has done markedly better; it’s just that the U.S. has always claimed a spot at the head of the parade.) And it underscored Stephanie Cooke’s broader history of the nuclear age, a time when taking responsibility has never been top priority.

In Mortal Hands is still in print; new copies through IndieBound and used copies through the American Book Exchange. If you insist on patronizing Amazon, you can find the link on your own.

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