A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry
By Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger
Bloomsbury USA, 240 pp.
In January 2007, the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of its Doomsday Clock—perhaps the most widely recognized symbol of the Cold War—forward two minutes, indicating its belief that that the new age of terrorism and the growing dangers of global warming have sent mankind galloping ever faster down the road to the apocalypse. Like duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters and KGB spies, the Doomsday Clock probably isn't something that many of us think about much anymore, nearly two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The days of living in perpetual fear of thermonuclear war and mutual assured destruction are hard to remember—for those of us who remember them at all.
But as welcome as it was, the end of the Cold War in 1991 left the 60,000 people who once worked at the 14 sites of the U.S. nuclear weapons complex uncertain of what their roles would be in the new world of nuclear nonproliferation. "What happens when a war ends, but the warriors don't go home?" ask Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger in A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry. In 2005, the husband-and-wife team of Washington, D.C., journalists embarked on a road trip through the test sites and design labs of 10 states and five countries (Russia, Kazakhstan and Iran among them) to investigate how global attitudes toward the bomb have changed—or not. Nuclear tourism: There's an idea.
As macabre as it seems, Hodge and Weinberger point out that the concept of nuclear tourism is nothing new. Families once gathered at picnics to watch mushroom clouds explode over the lunar landscape of the Nevada desert, and the reentry of a test ICBM into the placid waters of the Pacific still draws a diverse crowd in the Marshall Islands. The wide scope of the authors' journey, however, highlights one key thing: No one who works with the nuclear arsenal can say with any clarity what its purpose is. Asked, for instance, what he saw as the objective of future American nuclear strategy, Gerold Yonas (once the chief scientist for Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, a.k.a. "Star Wars") provides only shadowy, Strangelovian replies. "The nature of complex, wicked problems is they tend to involve people," he said. "We tend to be complicated and wicked." And then: "That's the nature of a wicked problem: You don't ever come up with solutions."
Even for the most staunch anti-nuclear activist, it's difficult to read A Nuclear Family Vacation, though, and not come away with some sympathy for the people who spent their lives laboring behind barbed-wire fences in the literally subterranean world of nuclear weapons, hoping their work would one day secure peace. The careers of atomic scientists, like those at New Mexico's Los Alamos National Laboratory, who worked on designs for everything from the hydrogen bomb to the W54 SADM "backpack nuke," were once limited only by the darkness of their dreams. Now the same physicists are relegated to the science of technical maintenance, leaving many of them in various states of despair. "The students who grew up in the '80s or '90s are graduating today," notes Los Alamos weapons designer James Mercer-Smith. "I don't think they have any notion of why deterrence really does matter to them and their children."
The authors' trip to the Esfahan Uranium Conversion Facility in Iran, an oil-rich nation that does not have the capacity to refine its own oil, brings up the frustrating double-bind many countries face in regards to the energy crisis: It's possible to lessen oil dependence with nuclear energy, but with nuclear energy come the materials and know-how to produce atomic weapons. Similarly, the people of the Marshall Islands are economically dependent on the $15 million annual "rent" paid to the country by the United States, but they understandably despise America for using their Kwajalein Atoll for target practice. The world of atomic weaponry is defined by ambivalence.
With such a wealth of characters, locations and controversial politics on the table, one would assume that A Nuclear Family Vacation would be an engrossing read from the start. Sadly, it isn't. Instead of weaving the tortuous history of nuclear proliferation and disarmament into a vivid travelogue, in the manner of Sarah Vowell or Tony Horwitz, the "road trip" aspect of the story comes across as a pretext for a very dense, complex historical lecture. Scenes and dialogue are sparse. There are also some noticeable holes in the itinerary—if Hodge and Weinberger could get into Iran, why not India or Pakistan ... or both? Moreover, the dual authorship of the book means the reader learns little to nothing about the people who are taking the trip. The subject is so important that one ultimately wishes the authors had delivered it in a more accessible manner.
If it's hard to remember how hot the Cold War felt, it's similarly hard to forget that the U.S. is barreling through the fifth year of a war it started under the false premise of finding weapons of mass destruction, and that a military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program seems perilously closer every day. Though it fails to cohere into an engaging narrative, A Nuclear Family Vacation asks the reader to pay close attention to the American government's lack of consistent leadership on nuclear policy. It couldn't come at a better time. With the presidential election approaching, we can only hope the next administration understands the political complexities surrounding the nuclear arsenal better than the last. A president who could pronounce the word "nuclear" might be a good place to start. And if you're looking for Dick Cheney's "undisclosed location," it's in Pennsylvania.