The Bomb - the sum of our fears and, yes, hopes
Tours, museums, and memorials attempt a dangerous nostalgia of closure, but the technology can't be uninvented.
ST. ANDREWS, SCOTLAND — In Nevada, the holes in the earth are so big they have names. One of the largest is called Sedan, a crater formed on July 6, 1962, when a 104-kiloton thermonuclear device was detonated, leaving a hole bigger than Yankee Stadium.
Granted, there's nothing particularly unusual about this; there are plenty of big holes in Nevada. But Sedan is special - not because of its size, but because of its purpose. The test was part of Operation Plowshare, a biblical reference designed to bathe the blast in moral virtue. Plowshare explored peaceful uses for atomic explosions, in particular their applicability to large-scale construction projects.
The guide on the Test Site tour I took three years ago, a retired Atomic Energy Commission(AEC) engineer, assumed a fatherly pride when he showed off Sedan. He stood taller, thrust out his chest, and came very close to saying, "I made this." The crater is impressive, but mainly as a huge metaphor for the gargantuan naiveté of those years. You see, Sedan was an experiment to explore whether a second Panama Canal could be made with nuclear explosions. Atomic devices would be stretched across the isthmus like a string of pearls and, presto, a big explosion would achieve in seconds what previously took decades of digging.
"Why didn't the project go ahead?" someone asked during the tour. The guide shrugged: "Tastes change. We did not know then what we know now."
He's right, I suppose. We were so much younger then; we're older than that now. Back in the 1950s, we'd go to the shoe shop and get our feet measured in the foot-o-scope, an X-ray device that allowed us to see the bones in our feet wiggling without taking off our shoes. Most of us believed Bert the Turtle when he told us to "duck and cover." Back then, an ordinary school desk was supposed to protect a child from a 10-megaton blast.
Anyone interested in seeing how naive we really were should perhaps visit the Atomic Testing Museum, which opened last week, not far from the Strip in Las Vegas. The museum pays homage to the heyday of atomic testing in Nevada. Long before the casino boom, the testing industry brought billions into the state's coffers. Visitors can experience a simulated blast, examine displays on radioactivity, and delight in the nuclear-themed memorabilia, from comic books to candy bars.
Once upon a time, we thought science could solve everything. Quite a few of the Manhattan Project scientists thought they were building a tool of peace, that the Bomb would vaporize war itself. The nuclear genie would work his magic in every aspect of life. "The atomic city will have a central diagnostic laboratory but only a small hospital, if any at all, for most human ailments will be cured as rapidly as they are diagnosed," chancellor Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago predicted in 1947. In the 1950s, firms with "atomic" in their name filled up an entire column in the New York phone-book - among them the Atomic Undergarment Company.
The epicenter of the nuclear industry was Nevada, where residents learned to stop worrying and love the Bomb. The first device was detonated on Jan. 27, 1951. Gov. Charles Russell celebrated the fact that "the submarginal land of the proving ground is furthering science and helping national defense. We had long ago written off that terrain as wasteland, and today it's blooming with atoms." Over the next 37 years, the US conducted nearly 1,000 tests in Nevada.
The pork barrel took the shape of a mushroom cloud. By the mid-1980s, 20,000 people worked in the testing industry in Nevada, and thousands more earned their income in associated services. The dividend from detonations could even be witnessed in the crowded brothels in the dusty towns bordering the Test Site, where cold warriors sought warmth.
In a cold war devoid of battlefield success, tests were ersatz victories. They provided reassurance that the nation's safety was properly managed. Nevada tests were conveniently visible; journalists and politicians were invited to observe them and were treated to all the hedonistic delights that Las Vegas could offer. From specially built bleachers a "safe" distance from the blast, they watched America flex her atomic muscles.
In the casino capital, the government gambled with gamma rays. The standard Atomic Energy Commission chorus went: "Fallout is much less dangerous than falling behind the Russians." But welcoming the Bomb meant turning a blind eye to its hazards. Even after the infamous 1954 Dirty Harry (a bomb with an intentionally high level of radioactivity) spread dangerous fallout over much of the Southwest, the Las Vegas Review-Journal commented: "We like the AEC. We welcome them to Nevada for the tests because we, as patriotic Americans, believe we are contributing something in our small way, to the protection of the land we love." For the AEC, it helped that cancer killed slowly and that the prevailing wind blew toward the northeast, dumping fallout on Utah residents, not the gamblers of Las Vegas.
For Nevadans, the atomic blast had the same pleasant sound as the chink-chink of a cash register. Merchants timed sales to coincide with tests. Prices were "vaporized," "blasted," "detonated," "smashed," and "nuked." Each atomic blast attracted a flood of tourists keen to feel the rumble (early tests broke casino windows in Las Vegas), see the flash, and gawp at the mushroom cloud from 70 miles away. Enterprising hotel operators took to organizing package tours to coincide with tests. The Sands even sponsored the "Miss Atomic Bomb" pageant, in which contestants wore a flatteringly shaped cut-out of a mushroom cloud pinned to their swimsuits. (One inevitably wonders if they answered "world peace" when asked about their hopes for the future.)
But all good things must end. In 1991, under the terms of the START treaty, the US and USSR agreed to reduce their respective nuclear arsenals. The last underground test occurred on Sept. 23, 1992, and a formal moratorium began the same year on Nov. 2.Confirmation that the boom times were over came with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, ratified in 1996. The peace dividend put cold warriors on the dole. Brothels went bust.
When I visited the Test Site, back when the museum was still in its planning stages, I saw occasional signs along the roads that traverse the complex that said: "Caution: Tortoise Crossing." The irony of the signs probably never occurred to those who exploded the bombs. It's difficult to sense subtlety in an environment of explosion.
And that's what's missing with this museum - a sense of nuance. An ability - or willingness - to connect the dots. There's hardly any mention of the poor people of southern Utah, where extraordinary cancer clusters started appearing in the late 1950s. "My father and I were both morticians," Elmer Pickett, a lifelong resident of St. George, Utah, once recalled. "When these cancer cases started coming in, I had to go into my books to study how to do the embalming, cancers were so rare. In '56 and '57, all of a sudden, they were coming in all the time. By 1960 it was a regular flood." But that was downwind, out of sight and out of mind.
Back in 2002, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists sponsored a Plutonium Memorial Design Contest that challenged readers to come up with a solution to the problem of disposing of plutonium - one more creative than the government's preferred methods of burying or burning it. The winning entry, by San Francisco designer Michael Simonian, called for a circular, grass-topped structure to be constructed near the Mall in Washington - in other words, precisely where it could not be ignored. In the design, the memorial rises at one edge, as if someone were lifting a rug to sweep dirt under it. The plutonium is clearly visible in casks beneath the "rug."
Atomic weapons and their associated problems aren't the past. They're the present. They can't be swept under a rug.
The risk of nuclear conflagration is greater now than it ever was during the cold war. Hundreds of tons of bomb-grade plutonium lie in insecure vaults. In the cash-strapped Russian nuclear industry, guards are often paid with potatoes. The temptation to sell a few pounds of plutonium on the black market is huge. And meanwhile, "downwinders" continue to die in St. George and its Russian counterpart, Muslyumovo, contaminated by a nearby nuclear fuel reprocessing plant.
The great problem with museums is that they encourage a sense of closure. We look at the exhibits and comment nostalgically at how different the world was back then - how silly we once were. We then conclude that problems with nuclear weapons can be put safely away in the past. But they can't. Plutonium, remember, has a half-life of more than 24,000 years. The Bomb can't be uninvented. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the half life of plutonium.]
• Gerard DeGroot is a professor of history at the University of St. Andrews. His new book is 'The Bomb: A Life.'