Atomic Age Turns Seventy

We have reached the 70th anniversary of the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They ended a World War, ushered in a Cold War, and guaranteed we will live forever under a mushroom cloud. I grew up at a time when it was assumed that nuclear war was inevitable, though this dread often went unspoken.

My father was in the Army Air Corps in Kwajalein when planes of the 509th came through in the summer of ’45. They were strange. They parked apart, were guarded by armed men and came with their own ground crew. Speculation about them ended when Hiroshima vanished in a flash of light a week later.

As kids, we took field trips to Nike sites, meant to stop incoming nukes from turning us to ash. We practiced kneeling and covering our heads in elementary school halls in hopes of surviving the fireball. How we were supposed to survive the fallout and nuclear winter was never addressed.

John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” was a familiar text. The creation of the bomb was chronicled obsessively, triumphantly, or in cautionary tales – “No High Ground” by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, “Brighter than a Thousand Suns” by Robert Jungk, “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” and “Dark Sun” by Richard Rhodes.

In fiction, “Fail Safe,” “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Bedford Incident” and many more described how World War III would begin. Pat Frank’s “Alas Babylon,” Nevil Shute’s “On the Beach” and many more described the bleak aftermath. Defense intellectuals and fervid anti-communists explained how stacking nuclear warheads ever higher made us safer, or applied game theory to the odds of survival in books like Herman Kahn’s “Thinking About the Unthinkable” and Albert Wohlstetter’s “The Delicate Balance of Terror.” Histories of near misses like “Thirteen Days” and “Atomic Accidents” show how close it is possible to come to nuclear annihilation without even trying.

Recently PBS offered a pair of documentaries to coincide with the anniversary of the atomic age. “The Bomb” describes the race to build it, the race by others to also possess it, the race to top it with thousands of times more deadly thermonuclear weapons. “Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” by Dr. Derek Muller focuses on the discovery of the deadly element and the uses to which it has been put in weapons, medicine and power plants with sobering side trips to Hiroshima and Chernobyl.

An immersion in all this history, analysis and literature does little to allay fears. First, there is no doubt the 15,000 warheads in the world’s arsenals, still patiently waiting to be detonated, have the malign power to end human life on this planet. After a substantial nuclear exchange, people and most land animals and plants would be gone or going. Some microorganisms, insects and sea life might endure.

Second, the odds of our avoiding this fate permanently seem to be slim. Nuclear arms might be reduced to a level that would allow survival after their use, but there’s no impetus to move in that direction. If anything, the reverse. And the history of previous armed standoffs, of the pursuit of the bomb itself, of its use against Japan, the precarious Cold War, the close call in Cuba in 1962 and every imaginative and sober discussion of the bomb’s future, all of these come up against a stubborn fact. Few great cataclysms are the product of human intention, but of human inattention, failure of imagination, lack of foresight and hubris.

The world stumbled and bungled into World War I and World War II. Our adventures in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq resulted from chesty jingoism yoked to a failure to imagine how terribly wrong things could go. Just listen to the saber-rattling regarding Iran at present. Tyrants, president, legislators, generals and war planners never seem to have heard of Murphy’s Law. And yet we all know that Murphy was an optimist.

Even if the bombs don’t fly, the poisonous byproducts of nuclear arms and nuclear power are alarming. Nuclear waste is widely distributed since it is the hot potato no nation or state really wants to store. Especially since the storage problem is effectively eternal.

The half-life of various isotopes of plutonium, the evil offspring of uranium, ranges from 88 years to 373,000 years. And a smidgen of plutonium dust is enough to kill. Uranium 235 is dangerous for a mere 700 million years. Are containers to deal with this kind of problem even feasible? Can humans be counted on to safeguard such material year after year, century after century? And has any weapon ever been created that hasn’t sooner or later been used — often and indiscriminately?

We are animals clever enough to invent, devise and create, but rarely seem clever enough to envision what could go wrong with our brain children or what steps will be necessary to clean up the messes we make. We have survived by muddling through ice ages, floods, earthquakes, wars, droughts, famines and pestilence. But this time we may have bumbled our way into a fix that we can’t bumble our way out of. And we are stuck in this radioactive cul-de-sac forever.

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