I am posting a link to what I think is a very positive and thoughtful review of my book, Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert. The author of the review is a well-known geographer, Martin Pasqualetti of Arizona State University. If you are interested in atomic testing, read the review! Then, of course, buy the book.
When atomic testing in Nevada began on January 27, 1951, the bomb was at once romanticized and naturalized, painted fantastic, funky, and even friendly. It was art deco in the desert. Jackrabbit chiaroscuro. I was proof of the success of the enlightenment project, the truth of evolution, and the superiority of America’s technology.
As testing became more routine, cavalier reporters described the weapon as if it were a new toy, showing off a kind of atomic connoisseurship. Atomic clouds that varied from the mushroom norm were assigned metaphorical shapes. The atomic cloud from test Easy (February 2, 1951) fluffed into a giant bow; another cloud assumed the shape of a dumbbell, and Fox’s mushroom (February 6, 1951) became a “great fist” with four knuckles showing clearly.
One mushroom cloud was described as looking like the “head of Donald Duck, soon dissolving into Dame Democracy, and then becoming the head of an angry man—like a slideshow parody of changing public reactions to the bomb itself.
Following a 1952 atomic test, a broadcaster “barking like a coxswain into his microphone fastened on to the word mushroom and couldn’t seem to let go…. ‘That’s no mushroom,’ yelled a spectator; ‘that’s a Portuguese man-of-war…. Look at those ice tentacles coming down from the cloud.’”
(Find more on this topic in Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert by Michon Mackedon
I met with about a dozen members of a local AAUW book club last Tuesday morning. I don’t know what I expected, but I was warned that my book, Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert, might be too complicated for the general reader.
What a treat the morning was. The group had quite obviously read every word and the questions were thoughtful. I will share one with you.
When the first atomic test–code-named Trinity– was undertaken at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the early morning of July 16, 1945, four press releases were prepared for announcing the yet unknown consequences of unleashing the world’s first atomic bomb (Bombast, 174). I introduce this fact in a chapter titled “The Rhetoric of Prediction,” because on that morning no one really knew what the scope of the destruction might be.
Calculations produced sometime earlier by Edward Teller had raised the possibility of heat buildup to the point of igniting the nitrogen in the atmosphere. Later calculations reduced the heat figure, but the real test was yet to come.
So, four press releases were prepared, labeled A,B,C, and D. Each began with “A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded.” Release A continued, “There was no loss of life or injury to anyone. The releases were scaled up to D: “There was widespread destruction and loss of life.” As it happened, the Manhattan Project team, fortunately, was able to release the A version.
Now back to the book club question: “Had women played important roles in the Manhattan Project would the same risk have been taken?”
In no other situation is open minded disaster planning more needed than in nuclear situations. After reading many planning documents produced in support of high level nuclear waste storage at Yucca Mountain, one of my conclusions was that worst case scenarios are often couched in tired boilerplate, under- analyzed, and poorly imagined–partly because any disaster not previously experienced is, I grant, difficult to imagine, and partly because it is often in the interests of those producing the disaster plans to underplay, even dismiss, the likelihood of accidents imagined by “alarmists.” Further, the use of computer models to assess the risks associated with any imagined disaster produces a cycle where “output matches input.” In other words, any imagined disaster is described, analyzed, and circumscribed with and by the data (often historical) chosen to plug into the models.
So I read with interest in Tuesday’s (December 27, 2011) Wall Street Journal Jhttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203391104577121872005287232.html?KEYWORDS=Panel%3A+Japan+Unprepared+for+Disaster that an independent panel had determined that Japanese regulators “were so unprepared for a serious accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant that they had to abandon the emergency response center they set up nearly in part because it didn’t have an air filter to remove radioactive particles…” The report also criticized the response by the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. or Tepco for “essentially shirking responsibility by labeling the events soteigai, Japanese for ‘outside our imagination.’”
I believe that soteigai is a useful term and a cautionary concept, useful in thinking about how nuclear risks have been assessed in the past and cautionary because it carries with it a warning about the limits of extrapolating data generated by current and historical events to confidently model future events. In my book Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert, I have more to say about “The Rhetoric of Prediction,” as it has been employed in nuclear planning and which would benefit from a consideration of soteigai.
This past year, 2011, marks the 50th anniversary of the first atomic testing series conducted at the Nevada Test Site. The first test, named Able, was conducted in the wee hours of January 27, 1951.
Under the cloak of night, a nuclear capsule was transported from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (now Los Alamos National Laboratory, or LANL) to a highly secure area of Kirtland Air Force Base, outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. At Kirtland, a B-50D bomber idled while the Los Alamos capsule was coupled, on board, with an assembled nuclear device; the two units, when locked together, comprised an operational atomic bomb. The B-50D took off from the Kirtland airstrip, droned northwest over the Nevada border to the Las Vegas-Tonopah Gunnery Range (soon to be called the Nevada Test Site). After two practice runs over Frenchman Flat, at 5:36 a.m. the bomber released the weapon, which detonated in a fiery burst at 1060 feet above ground. After a few seconds, there arose a pinkish mushroom cloud that drifted eastward. A series of echoes from the blast concussion seemed to drum the cloud out of Nevada and into Utah.
Even as the shock waves receded and the mushroom cloud blew east, secrecy gave way under a flare of light bright enough to wake up people in Los Angeles. The public was, in an instant, sucked into a vortex of amazement, enchantment, fear, and pride—emotions that would be rekindled later that same year by the detonations of Baker (1/28/51); Easy (2/01/51); Baker-2 (2/02/51); Fox (2/06/51); Able (10/22/51; Baker (10/28/51); Charlie (10/30/51); Dog (11/01/51); Easy (11/05/51); Sugar (11/19/51); and Uncle (11/29/51).
At first, the lexical system used for naming bomb tests was the military alphabet. It’s clear that initial planning called for the testing of only a few bombs and that the alphabet system was thought to be adequate. However, two years following the first atomic test in Nevada, at the beginning of 1953, on the record were four tests named Able, four tests named Baker, plus a Baker-2, three Dogs and so on. If atomic testing was to continue, and it did, there was an obvious need for planners to develop a new process for naming the individual tests, for records- keeping purposes as well as historical clarity.
The first test of 1953 was named Annie (3/17/53) and nicknamed the “St. Pat’s Blast.” More soon about Annie, famous as a “Doom Town Test, and about naming bomb tests.
Daniel B. Botkin, writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, makes a clear and important point that might be applied to issues beyond climate change science. Botkin questions the “belief in absolute certainty” …in “the scientific debate over global warming in the 21st century.” In Bombast: Spinning Atoms in the Desert, I discuss my concerns about the effort on the part of Department of Energy Scientists to answer the legitimate questions concerning the suitability of Yucca Mountain to safely isolate nuclear wastes for hundred of thousands of years with the guarantee of “sound science.” How can data generated to predict earthquakes, volcanoes, human intrusion, climate shifts, and other catastrophic events meet the test of “sound science,” or to borrow from Botkin, “absolute certainty.” And yet, the rhetorical tone and evidence presented by the scientific community invested in opening Yucca Mountain conveys just that. The Botkin article is well worth reading for its application to any scientific debate where “period, end of story” rhetoric seeks to close the doors to further inquiry.