Kate Brown

I’ve always had an interest in the technological arms race of the Cold War, which fits right alongside my interest in infrastructure. And, as with every other aspect of technological arms race, the nuclear technology race was ridiculous; where it differs is in the degree. Cyborg cat to spy on the other side? Ridiculous. Space race? Very cool, some actually good civilian uses, conceptually ridiculous if you didn’t grow up knowing it’s possible to put stuff in orbit.

Deliberately creating tons upon tons of one of the most toxic substances known to mankind, and in the process creating other incredibly toxic substances in amounts that render massive areas uninhabitable for tens of thousands of years? That’s not just ridiculous, that is obscene.

Plutopia focuses on that—the two cities, Richland, Washington, and Ozersk, Chelyabinsk Oblast, that were built around the production of plutonium. And boy howdy, does nobody look good in this story; the similarities in mistakes made would be comic, if it wasn’t a tragedy that’s going to be screwing over our great^100-grandchildren. In addition to just about everyone involved from the time the cities were founded onward.

Two anecdotes stand out in my mind. First, in what reminds me of the Uber business model, a fun fact: the third-worst radiological disaster in human history officially listed zero casualties from the cleanup. Pause for effect. Because the USSR only tracked the health outcomes of paid employees working on the cleanup, which effectively meant they were only worrying about the people managing the people doing the cleanup work. Hey, careful handing out those orders, pal, you don’t want to get any of the radioactive waste on yourself!1

Second one, which immediately feels like fodder for HBO to do a second season of Chernobyl:

A week after the explosion, radiologists followed the cloud to the downwind villages, where they found people living normally, children playing barefoot. They measured the ground, farm tools, animals, and people. The levels of radioactivity were astonishingly high. S. F. Osotin, a monitor, remembered that a colleague went up to the children and held up his Geiger counter. He said, “I can tell with this instrument exactly how much porridge you had for breakfast.” The children happily stuck out their bellies, which ticked at forty to fifty microroentgens a second. The technicians stepped back, shocked. The kids had become radioactive sources.

Overall, this book fascinated me. And horrified me! But I grew up downstream of Hanford, and this is apparently just the world we live in now, so what else can you do? Better to be informed, I suppose. Check it out.2

  1. Don’t get all patriotic about this, my fellow Americans—the Hanford site did the same thing in their statistics, as well as a repeated trend of calling anything other than “died of their skin melting off” or “died of a thyroid full of radiation” a death not caused by radiation. Grew up drinking from the aquifer that the high level waste pond was seeping into, got cancer of the everything at 20? Unrelated, we assure you.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“Area 51: An Uncensored History of America’s Top Secret Military Base”

Annie Jacobsen

Structurally, I think the only descriptor I can come up with for this book is “inverse shit-sandwich.” Which is a disgusting mental image, but it fits—the first and last chapter of the book don’t fit with the rest of it, and are undoubtedly the worst parts. They make for an interesting conspiracy theory, and the first chapter actually sticks mostly into the realm of believability, but the last chapter comes back, swipes away that believability, and tacks on a whole lot more conspiracy theory energy. She had one source—who may well have been messing with her—and upon finding that it was impossible to verify anything he told her, instead of throwing it out or putting it in a single chapter with some very big caveats wrapping around it, she went “well, this’ll work as a hook” and made it the start and end of the book.

With all that said, it’s the inverse shit sandwich for a reason—everything else in the book is well-researched, well-cited, and absolutely fascinating to read. So perfectly up my alley, as I just love these histories of the completely wild things going on during the Cold War. The sheer amount of UFO sightings, and conspiracy theories, that came about because the CIA was testing spy aircraft out in the desert is just incredible. And the storytelling as she leads the reader to the reveal that the CIA was leaning in to the UFO theories because it kept people from trying to figure out what was actually happening? Impeccable.

There’s also some great stories from the larger Nevada test site. I had a great moment of realizing that the NERVA research being done involved a whole lot of underground facility—that kind of thing immediately makes me want to go explore an abandoned research site!1 And, beyond that, there’s a great story of someone who invented a whole new level of screwup.

So, set the scene. It’s 1980something, and today’s the day of a nuclear test, with another one coming up in a few days—meaning, there’s a live nuclear warhead, and materials to assemble at least one more, on-site at the Nevada test site. You’re a security contractor for the Department of Energy, and you’re going to do a penetration test of the security at the site—take a helicopter and a couple guys with guns full of rubber bullets, and see how well they’re able to handle it. But first, pop quiz, what’s step zero of a security test like that?

If you answered “call the Department of Energy and let them know you’re doing a security test,” congratulations, you’re smarter than the people who actually did the test that day.

And, as I was reading this story, my thought was “wow, this is a whole new level of screwup I can aspire never to achieve—‘they had to scramble fighter jets about me’”

Except, as I found a page later, I was wrong. It was worse than that—the phone tree made it to the White House, who put the Navy on alert—Tomahawk missiles targeted at the site. Which, all told, is actually quite sensible, in an obscene way: there’s already a nuclear test scheduled, so it’s nearly evacuated. If the Mystery Bad Guys manage to take the nuke-and-a-half that’s there, well, the people on-site are already dead. And “the Mystery Bad Guys have a nuke or two” is pretty much the end of the How Bad Can It Get scale. So, here we are with the actual brand new level of screwup: “the White House decided the best option for containing what I did was a nuclear strike.”


So, seriously, with the weirdness of the first and last chapters aside, this book was really, really good, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. I heartily recommend it. Check it out.2

  1. That said, it would be an Extremely Bad Idea! Firstly, it was full of spiders when it was being actively maintained, so it’s probably not gotten less full of spiders since then. Second, it’s officially decommission and was, y’know, a tunnel under a mountain, so it’s very possible it’s caved in. Thirdly, it’s smack dab in the middle of the Department of Energy’s test site, which means if you actually get they’re you’re technically either a terrorist or doing a treason, just by being there. And fourthly, it was the site of two distinct nuclear reactor meltdowns, so it’s not exactly the healthiest of environments.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

“The Plutonium Files,” or, “‘it’s a good thing we’re the good guys and the laws don’t apply to us,’ they said”

Eileen Welsome
I’m not sure what it says about me that all of my nonfiction reading is about the Cold War, but here we are again.
The funny thing about this book — and there isn’t much of that, because it’s a detailed account of some truly horrible things — is what did and didn’t stick in my mind. A lot of the book was about trying to humanize the victims of the experiments, and that aspect didn’t really land for me. The actual experiments, what was done, did stick, to a degree; having just finished my read, the ones I most remember are the prison experiments in Oregon and Washington, the radioactive iron supplements at Vanderbilt, a bit about the total-body irradiation experiments, and, of course, the titular plutonium trials. Some of the accidents also stood out to me — there’s a discussion of a man who took a plutonium criticality to the face, and the summary of how thoroughly screwed you are by that is that, when he threw up on the floor of the hospital an hour or two later, after they’d cleaned the floor, they had to get out a geiger counter to check if it was safe for anyone to walk there. (He didn’t survive; to add insult to horrible injury, his body was then parceled out to labs around the country, without the permission or knowledge of his next of kin.)
There were also a couple figures, dropped in as part of an anecdote in the portion of the book about the pilots who flew planes through mushroom clouds to measure their effects, that lodged in my head pretty effectively.
The first set of tests after WWII ended were called Operation Crossroads. The second of these was an underwater detonation; I’ve heard the story before that, during the explosion, a Japanese battleship was thrown — 30,000 tons of metal, launched out of the water. (I’ve been trying to confirm this story in writing this, but haven’t found any clear evidence either way, so I’m going to call it apocryphal and move on.)
This story, though, was from the Castle series, Castle Bravo, the first thermonuclear weapon test. 15 megatons of TNT; while it wasn’t a useable weapon — the device was the size of a small building, and had to be constructed in-place on the ‘target’ island — it was mind-boggling in scale. Because, 15 megatons of TNT, that’s… a number. But what the book described was a 20-mile-wide column of water and mud, 45,000 feet tall. Again, mind-boggling in scale, but slightly easier to conceptualize; just imagine a mountain, and then… make it taller.
The figure that truly got to me, though, was the statement that it took hours for the water and mud to finish falling back into the ocean. Hours.
These nuclear tests were also so bright that test animals, 350 miles away, got retinal burns from looking directly at it.
It’s a scale of destruction that I can’t fit in my mind. Humans aren’t equipped to think about this sort of thing.
And it’s not the scariest part, is the thing. Sure, you can erase a city in the blink of an eye.
This is where the book shines: it’s about the radiation, and just how scary and insidious it is. I’ve mentioned before that people aren’t afraid enough of nuclear war; at risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll say it again. Write your Congresspeople, and advocate for disarmament, everyone.


Peace Day

Assuming I’ve got this written in time, today as September 21st. It’s my birthday!1 It’s also the International Day of Peace. The United Nations General Assembly, in 1982, declared that September 21st would be dedicated to world peace.
So this year, on World Peace Day, I’m hoping we can take some time to talk about nuclear weapons. They’re something I’ve written about a few times before, because they’re fascinating. It’s a weapon with a higher explosive yield than anything else we’ve ever made,2 and it’s also got some nasty aftereffects – the amount of time it takes radiation to subside to background levels after an explosion can be measured in anything up to tens of thousands of years.
Personally, I refer to nuclear bombs as “hell weapons.” Especially within the context of the Cold War, their use would be like making a deal with the devil – sure, your enemies get pretty messed up, but you know that you’re gonna get screwed over just as hard when it comes time to pay the bill.
So, whenever I see people saying they’d consider their use , I am horrified. I wasn’t even alive during the Cold War, and I still spend a lot of time thinking about the specter of instant annihilation that everyone on the planet was under during that entire time.
Normally I’m against fear as a motivating tactic, but I just don’t think people are afraid of nuclear weapons as much as they should be. The US stopped nuclear tests when the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty went into effect.3 The Soviet Union collapsed. Under President Obama, the idea of the US utilizing a nuclear weapon has seemed utterly ridiculous – basically, nobody that’s not directly neighboring North Korea really thought nuclear annihilation was a real possibility. Basically, once the Doomsday Clock folks stopped telling us to be utterly terrified, we let that fear fade into the background, and it’s just about gone now.
But I’ll say it again: nuclear weapons are hell weapons. Don’t take my word for it, though: as I’ve mentioned, I spent last Friday in the UN’s Vienna headquarters, listening to WWII survivors. One, Yamada Reiko,4 gave a speech titled “My Experience of the Atomic Bombing and Message of the Hibakusha.” I’ve got a few quotes that I’m going to share with you.5 (Emphases mine.)

Our town was 2.5 kilometers from ground zero and escaped from raging fires caused by the bomb. Many injured and burned people fled to this area from the city center. They were so heavily burned and disfigured that they did not look like human beings.

The bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 67 terajoules equivalent to 16 kilotons of dynamite. The design was considered “very inefficient” – less than 2% of the present nuclear material underwent fission. The largest weapon still present in the US nuclear arsenal is the B83,6 with a maximum yield of 1.9 megatons – more than 100 times as powerful as the bomb that obliterated everything within one mile of the detonation and set fire to everything within five.

On the second day after the bombing, a moving black lump crawled into [my friend’s] house; they first thought it was big black dog, but soon realized it was their mother. She collapsed and died when she finally got home, leaving her 5 children behind.

Roughly a third of the population of Hiroshima was killed by the bomb – somewhere around 75,000 people. 

Nuclear weapons are absolutely inhuman weapons. Even a single bomb can turn a whole city to ruins in an instant, kill people indiscriminately, and deprive even future generations of their lives. We the Hibakusha call them “weapons of the devil.”

I’m hoping I’ve made my point fairly thoroughly: nuclear weapons are a bad business. Their use as weapons is deeply horrifying, and even ‘peaceful’ uses have considerable problems. Nuclear tests have spread radiation around the planet and rendered large swathes of land uninhabitable; Soviet ‘peaceful detonation’ programs had similar effects.
And here’s where it gets weird: the closest we’ve got to a ban on their use is a treaty that says we won’t make more than a certain amount. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty is a good start, but the US, still hasn’t ratified it, despite being the single biggest guilty party still in existence. Similarly, the largest non-proliferation treaty is still lacking key signatories.
Clearly, we’ve still got some issues with nuclear weapons. Now, the call to action: make it clear to the folks you’re voting for, regardless of who they are, that the use of nuclear weapons is not in the cards. Join the International Campaign Against Nuclear Weapons.
Happy Day of Peace, everyone. Make it count.

  1. I’m turning 21 while in a country with a drinking age of 16, a fact I find quite amusing. 
  2. Well, technically antimatter has a higher energy yield per gram, but we’ve never manufactured enough antimatter to actually weaponize it and I pray that we never find a reason to do so. 
  3. Actually, we may have stopped with the Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, but I’m not entirely sure and it’s not actually super important to what I’m saying here, so I digress. 
  4. Vice Chairperson of the Tokyo Federation of A-bomb Sufferer’s Organizations (TOYUKAI) – she’s an impressive lady. 
  5. These are translated – the speech she gave was in Japanese, and as event staff I had access to the transcript used as a cheat-sheet for the folks doing live translation. 
  6. Taking over after the B53, a 9 megaton weapon was retired. 

A Short History of Nuclear Folly

So, ever since I heard about this book, I’ve wanted to read it. I’m a sucker for all this Cold War history stuff, okay? This isn’t the first time I’ve written about the books I’ve read on the subject.1
Anyhow, I’ve reached a point where very little of what I read in this book was actually new to me. Which is weird, because I hardly feel like an expert on the subject, but apparently I’m getting close. How strange.
That doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it, or that I didn’t get anything new – quite the contrary, there were a couple really interesting bits in there that I found fascinating, and some things that I’d either never heard of or never explored in depth.
For example, while I knew about Project Plowshare, I hadn’t looked into some of the frankly ridiculous things they were trying to do.

Plowshare kicked off with the relatively small “Gnome” test near Carlsbad, New Mexico, on December 10, 1961. It was aimed, among other things, at investigating whether a nuclear explosion could be harnessed to produce energy. But the detonation destroyed the machinery that was supposed to convert the blast into power.

Hold up. They were trying to use a nuclear bomb as a generator? Had… had nobody told them about nuclear reactors? We already had those, folks.
But no, it’s more ridiculous than that, because if you dig into the full reports from the Gnome and Sedan tests, you find this:

GNOME was developed with the idea that a nuclear detonation in a salt deposit would create a large volume of hot melted salt from which heat might be extracted. The possibilities to be investigated for the production of power were the tapping of the steam created by the detonation itself and the generation of high-density, high-pressure steam by the circulation of some heat-absorbing fluid, like water, over the heated salt.
Defense Nuclear Agency, Projects Gnome and Sedan: The Plowshare Program, (Washington D.C.: Defense Nuclear Agency, 1983): 38.

tl;dr: they were going to build a geothermal power plant somewhere with no geothermal activity, and then set off a nuke to create the underground heat.
Gotta love the cold war. Other idiotic things that Plowshare wanted to try, but fortunately, was stopped from doing:

using nuclear bombs to melt the ice from polar ports, to re-channel rivers or to desalinate salt water from the ocean.

That said, the Soviets did even dumber stuff, including my single favorite sentence from the whole book:

Between 1965 and 1989, [the Soviets] carried out 116 civilian explosions . . . five were used to combat fires at oil fields.

“Hey boss, we’ve got a bit of a fire going over here.”
“Alright, we’re just gonna nuke it.”
“Seems reasonable.”

I’m going to stop here, because I can’t give away all of the fun parts of the book.2 I quite enjoyed it, so I’m quite happy to recommend it. Have a read.

  1. Fun story: Chase is trying to convince me to write a book about this stuff, because he’s a history nerd and thinks other people should be too. 
  2. And the long-winded blog post on the subject that I might wind up writing in the future, if Chase gets his way.