Three books show how close nuclear catastrophe is

July 3, 2015
In 2003, half the US Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections.

Command & Control
Eric Schlosser
Allen Lane, 2013
632 pages
A Short History Of Nuclear Folly
Rudolph Herzog
Melville House, 2014
252 pages
Atomic Comics: Cartoonists Confront The Nuclear Age
Ferenc Szasz
University of Nevada Press, 2013
179 pages

Atomic bombs have only been used in warfare twice, but they have nearly been detonated, through accident or mistake, many more times, writes Eric Schlosser in his book on nuclear weapons mishaps, Command and Control.

With one modern thermo-nuclear bomb packing three times the force of all the bombs used in World War II, an unintended catastrophic detonation or scattering of deadly plutonium has been too close, too often, for any complacency.

Nuclear bombs have been accidentally launched from planes, crushed or burned during plane crashes, or damaged during storing and loading. Dropped tools have punched holes in fuel tanks, engulfing nuclear weapons in fire, or have been left in missiles during construction, causing electrical short-circuits.

Lightning and improperly installed battery chargers have set them on fire. Electro-magnetic radiation has interfered with missile controls. Bomb detonators have been set off during routine tests of electrical systems.

The US nuclear missile command and control centre has mistakenly identified the moon, forest fires and volcanoes as Soviet nuclear missiles heading for the US. A defective 46 cent computer chip once indicated that 2200 Russian missiles were on their way.

In 2003, half the US Air Force units responsible for nuclear weapons failed their safety inspections. In 2007, six thermo-nuclear bombs went missing.

Safety precautions against misadventure have been sacrificed because they would require super-thick casing and padding, making the nuclear bombs four times heavier and thus reducing the number that could be carried by plane or submarine.

Psychiatric disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse afflict alarming numbers of armed forces nuclear weapons personnel.

Schlosser admits to a profound ignorance of nuclear weapons and the history of nuclear war strategy. Unfortunately, he feels compelled to include all his newly discovered knowledge in his book, which trades off analytical depth for lengthy dramatic recreations.

Nevertheless, he makes a persuasive case that we continue living on borrowed time regarding “the most dangerous technology ever invented”.

In A Short History of Nuclear Folly, Rudolph Herzog agrees that dozens of accidents in which nuclear bombs were damaged, lost or accidentally launched have played Russian roulette with atomic catastrophe. But he expands his indictment to include the very real history of other nuclear disasters.

An atmospheric bomb test in Nevada in the 1950s sent a radioactive dust-cloud to neighbouring Utah. There, the 200-strong cast and crew, and 5000 Native American extras, of a John Wayne film breathed in the nuclear carcinogens, resulting in cancer rates six times higher than normal.

Pacific islands have been made uninhabitable from US and French nuclear testing. A decade of British nuclear tests in Australia in the ’50s cut 20 years off the life expectancy of the 20,000 British and Australian military personnel involved. It further impacted the lives of Aboriginal peoples whose lands were made radioactive.

Nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered submarines rust at the bottom of the seas. Dozens of nuclear-fuelled military satellites orbit the planet, occasionally returning uncontrollably with their uranium payload. Huge amounts of military atomic waste was covertly dumped at sea by the old Soviet military.

Civilian nuclear power has rolled out its own catalogue of folly, from chart-topping nuclear reactor accidents to its lesser-known hits. A plutonium-fuelled Russian space probe bound for Mars burned up over the Pacific in 2006. A plutonium-powered battery was taken up the Himalayas, near the source of the river Ganges, to power a US weather station and was lost in an avalanche.

Humans have been subjected to involuntary radiation experiments while atomic pacemakers irradiate from places unknown after the death of the user.

“Missing” weapons-grade uranium and plutonium forms part of the trade portfolio of the Italian, and post-Soviet Russian, mafias. Uranium mining has contaminated the environment and workers’ bodies.

Nuclear waste waits unavailingly for a solution. We have fortunately been spared the implementation, but not the conception, of proposals for nuclear-powered cars and for giant mining and earthmoving construction projects. What new chapters of “atomic idiocy” await writing, asks Herzog.

Herzog and Schlosser make no claim to be comprehensive or scholastic, and their politics are routine boilerplate. But, together, their books are — through the power of cumulative examples of nuclear lunacy — unnerving.

Altogether more comforting has been the US comics industry. Ferenc Szasz’s history of atomic-themed comics, Atomic Comics starts with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the 1930s. Then, the assumed technological wonders of peaceful nuclear energy outweighed any anxiety over atomic war.

Dagwood Bumstead, Mandrake the Magician, Popeye and atomic-enhanced cartoon animals, including Donald Duck, have lent an “educational” hand to the task of reassuring readers that any dangers of nuclear fission were manageable.

A flock of caped heroes — Captain Marvel, Captain America, Superman and Wonder Woman — ensured that atomic bombs would not fall into the wrong hands, such as terrorists, evil scientists, unreconstructed Nazis, foreign powers or Reds.

It was assumed that the US hands that held The Bomb were the right hands and that nuclear warfare against the Soviet Union could be limited and winnable.

An “atomic banality”, says Szasz, now reigns in the comics and animation world in which “cynicism, resignation and bland acceptance” of nuclear fission, and the light satire of The Simpsons, coats over the continuing nuclear problems.

The corporate fingerprint is evident in all this cartoon contentedness. Although Szasz’s book should have developed this crucial issue more, the business giants of the comics industry — Marvel and DC Comics — which control three-quarters of the $700 million a year US comics market, share the supreme value of money-making with those who profit from nuclear energy and weapons.

Capitalism and the nuclear age are no laughing matter.

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