A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry
by Nathan Hodge
Reviewed by Hugh Gusterson
In their new book, A Nuclear Family Vacation, Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger quote Tom Vanderbilt's aphorism that "all wars end in tourism." Because World War III may leave no tourists behind, Hodge and Weinberger, a husband-and-wife journalistic team, wisely decide to get their nuclear tourism in beforehand by visiting nuclear sites in 10 U.S. states and 5 countries. The idea that they are tourists is something of a conceit, though: They visit many sites that would be closed to the rest of us, prepare for road trips by reading government reports rather than Fodor's travel guides, and score interviews with senior officials everywhere they go.
The result is a book that is both entertaining and informative. Hodge and Weinberger are shrewd and observant nuclear tour guides who are knowledgeable about their subject without being didactic. The book is long on vivid miniature portraits of weapons scientists, missile launch control officers and government officials. The authors use these human encounters, as well as a wealth of weird nuclear trivia, to spice up a book that painlessly imparts a surprising amount of information about the history of the nuclear weapons complex.
The U.S. portion of that complex has shrunk from 14 sites employing 60,000 people at the end of the Cold War to 8 sites employing 27,000 now, and Hodge and Weinberger estimate that by 2006 the U.S. nuclear stockpile had shrunk from Cold War highs of more than 30,000 weapons to about 10,000 weapons (of which 4,000 were stored in reserve). Curious to understand what these facilities do now that the Cold War is over, the authors toured the enduring archipelago of test sites, weapons labs, production facilities and bunkers in the United States before setting off for the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, where the United States tested 67 nuclear weapons; Kazakhstan, where the Soviets tested 456 nuclear weapons; Russia; and Iran. Everywhere they went, they did battle with petty bureaucrats reluctant to lift the veil of secrecy that shrouds nuclear weapons.
In the United States the authors found "a complex adrift, grasping for meaning and purpose." Although the nuclear weapons workers they spoke with invariably invoked 9/11 to justify the continuing relevance of those weapons after the Cold War, the workers were at a loss, once challenged, to explain how nuclear deterrence works against terrorists. No doubt exaggerating a little for effect, the authors say, "We failed on our travels to find anyone within the complex who could articulate what the current role of the nuclear arsenal is, or should be." Yet they often found bureaucratic entrepreneurs proposing expensive new programs.
At the Nevada Nuclear Test Site, where the United States "nuked its own territory nearly a thousand times," testing 928 devices, Hodge and Weinberger engage in a kind of atomic archaeology. They pick through the ruins of suburban houses, animal pens and bridges blown up in the 1950s by war planners trying to find out what, if anything, would survive a nuclear war, then tour the "massive subsidence craters" that underground testing left in the desert. They visit Mercury, the secret town inside the test site that became the nuclear counterpart to a decaying rust-belt city when nuclear testing was banned in the 1990s. But now the site is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as host to terrorism-preparedness exercises and to underground "subcritical tests" that explore the properties of plutonium.
At the weapons design labs, the authors find nostalgia for the days of nuclear testing and bored distaste for the "custodial work on nuclear weapons" that is the current lot of weapons designers. The mood at Los Alamos, having been dragged down by a series of well-publicized security lapses and by protracted hostilities between an unpopular lab director and many of his employees, "hovered somewhere between depression and despair," say Hodge and Weinberger. They found many weapons scientists enthusiastic about a proposed new warhead -- the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) -- designed to make the stockpile easier to maintain without nuclear testing. It would be the first new warhead since the end of the Cold War, but Congress is currently refusing to fund it.
Touring missile silos in Wyoming, Hodge and Weinberger note that "the world has changed; the world of the missileers has not." There are fewer missile silos now, and the launch teams include women, but the weapons are still on hair-trigger alert, and the launch control officers still sit in their cramped underground quarters, rehearsing endlessly the order to turn the keys that will launch the missiles that will kill millions of people:
Dressed in their flight suits and sitting in front of vintage control equipment, the missileers are sometimes reminiscent of the wax figures installed in the civil defense shelter in the Las Vegas atomic museum.
The missile silos are part of a vast underground world of tunnels, bunkers and shelters that took shape, often in secret, during the Cold War. This world includes hollowed-out mountains, used for storing nuclear weapons (in Albuquerque) or for command and control facilities (in Colorado), as well as the mysterious Site R in Pennsylvania, rumored to have sheltered Dick Cheney on September 11. Perhaps the most intriguing of these places is the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, which was at one time the place to which Congress would have been evacuated in the event of nuclear war. It had its own TV studio and enough food to keep Congress going for 60 days, as well as an incinerator for the disposal of victims of radiation sickness. The Congressional bunker was shielded by an 18-ton blast door concealed behind a false door in the hotel. The circumstances evoke the kind of double life the Cold War often entailed: Most of the members of the staff of the hotel, including its official historian, were unaware of the secret nuclear facility under their feet until the Washington Post broke the story in 1992.
The most poignant chapters evoke the predicament of the Marshall Islands and Kazakhstan -- places where the superpowers tested nuclear weapons at enormous cost to the environment and to the health of the local inhabitants. In the Marshall Islands, a pattern of nuclear colonialism began in 1946, when the United States forced the Bikinians off their atoll for a nuclear test. It now uses the atoll of Kwajalein for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) target practice and missile defense tests. Although each test costs upward of $80 million, the Marshallese people are paid only $15 million a year for the use of their land. Scantly compensated for the health problems that followed nuclear testing, the Marshall Islanders have traded a world of tropical fishing for a life of overcrowded squalor on the Island of Ebeye, dependent on U.S. charity and on employment at the military base. "The tragedy of Kwajalein and the Marshall Islands," the authors say, "was that the only thing worse than the American presence would be the absence of the American presence."
The chapter on the authors' visit to Iran (approved by the Iranian government at the last minute, just as their flight to Tehran was about to depart) is fascinating, because we at least get to hear Iranians defend their right to enrich uranium -- a side of the story we seldom encounter in the American press. The chapter on Russia, on the other hand, is weak. After the Cold War, the United States began giving millions of dollars a year to the Russian nuclear weapons complex to help with security upgrades and to give Russian weapons scientists a reason to stay in place rather than moonlight for Iran or North Korea. Hodge and Weinberger say they wanted to visit Russia "to see if the billions being spent on preventing nuclear terrorism . . . were really making the world any safer" -- as if in just a few days they could find out anything that countless government studies have not already found. In fact, they were denied access to almost everything they wanted to see in Russia. The chapter jumbles secondhand accounts of the Russian nuclear complex with stories of brief encounters with uncooperative Russian officials. The chapter is also marred by the patronizing attitude that the authors adopt toward their hosts: For example, the Minister of Atomic Energy does not just have bad teeth, he suffers from "Soviet dentistry"; and, although Bill Clinton's peccadilloes go unmentioned, Boris Yeltsin is "erratic, binge-drinking president Boris Yeltsin."
What are we left with at the end of our nuclear tour? Although Hodge and Weinberger are forced by the scope of their travels to miniaturize their account of each facility, by juxtaposing so many sites they are able to convey the surprising disconnectedness of people at each facility from the people at all the other facilities. In addition, readers get a sense of the breathtaking scale of the nuclear weapons enterprise that has been built in the shadows since the early 1940s. It is a project on the scale of the pyramids, and if Hodge and Weinberger are to be believed, no one quite knows what to do with it anymore.
Hugh Gusterson is a professor of anthropology and sociology at George Mason University. He is the author of Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (University of California Press, 1996) and People of the Bomb: Portraits of America's Nuclear Complex (University of Minnesota Press, 2004).