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merica's nuclear legacy is something we tend to think of as history — the Manhattan Project, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But though nukes have been bumped from the forefront of popular consciousness, they're still very much with us. Entire towns continue to work at the weapons labs they were built around in secret fifty years ago. Air Force rookies sit in underground bunkers all day waiting for the launch order from the president. And at guided tours of nuclear-weapons facilities, tourists can pick up a t-shirt at the Up 'N' Atom gift shop and reserve the museum for their toddler's next birthday party. promotion Why would nuclear-weapons facilities encourage tourism? Aren't they obsessed with secrecy?
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National-security journalists (and husband and wife) Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger spent two years of vacation days traveling through the peculiar leftovers of the nuclear age. They visited a fallout shelter for the U.S. Congress disguised as a luxury hotel, a decommissioned missile silo turned into a $25 million luxury home, and blue-collar workers who spend their days maintaining the sizeable American arsenal. A Nuclear Family Vacation is an eye-opening read for anyone who thinks that nuclear weapons are a thing of the past. Hodge and Weinberger spoke to Nerve about their travels. — Will Doig
Nathan: In parallel with secrecy, there's always an element of national pride. We found that in Iran, as well — regardless of the questions about what Iran's true nuclear intentions are, they seem pretty keen to show off their technology.
And tours are overbooked. Do you think this enthusiasm for ogling what are essentially our weapons of mass destruction is perverse?
Sharon: In some ways, yes. What worries me is, they want to make nukes fun. Everything is "cute." A couple of the tours are sponsored by defense companies, and they're purposefully not very good at talking about how horrible these weapons are. And you can't have it both ways: on one hand saying we need them because they're so frightening and powerful, and then playing up the kitchy, fun, radiation-doesn't-hurt-anyone factor. So I don't think it's an American fascination with the gruesome. In fact, I think it's a lack of interest in the gruesome — you don't get a sense of the terror of nuclear Armageddon.
Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger
merica's nuclear legacy is something we tend to think of as history — the Manhattan Project, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviets, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But though nukes have been bumped from the forefront of popular consciousness, they're still very much with us. Entire towns continue to work at the weapons labs they were built around in secret fifty years ago. Air Force rookies sit in underground bunkers all day waiting for the launch order from the president. And at guided tours of nuclear-weapons facilities, tourists can pick up a t-shirt at the Up 'N' Atom gift shop and reserve the museum for their toddler's next birthday party.
Why would nuclear-weapons facilities encourage tourism? Aren't they obsessed with secrecy?
Nathan: There was an element of tourism even in the days of active testing. People from Las Vegas would drive out to the desert to watch the mushroom clouds. There was always a bit of spectator sport attached to it.
There have been reports that the isolated, insular nature of our weapons labs has fostered a cultish environment, and that the scientists who work in them are weirdos, particularly at the Los Alamos facility. Did you observe this?
Sharon: You know, I have a cousin who works at the Los Alamos lab, and even she said there's an element of weirdness there. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find someone familiar with Los Alamos — even someone who works inside — who doesn't admit that, yeah, the isolation makes it different. It's a one-shot town, it's isolated, and everyone either works at the lab or doesn't work at all, which can give it a strange sort of suburban 1950s feel.
One of these scientists talked about having a very personal relationship with his "holes," the craters made by test blasts of weapons he designed. He visits these holes regularly, and has pictures of them hanging in his office.
Nathan: Yeah, James Mercer-Smith. He was a character.
Since we stopped designing new weapons back in the '80s, you write that scientists like him are retiring or dying of old age every year, and very soon the last scientist to have actually designed a nuclear weapon will retire, taking with him a trove of first-hand knowledge. First of all, could that be a good thing?
Sharon: Well, for people in favor of disarmament, yeah, it's wonderful. Right now, both sides [Republican and Democrat] agree that we have a nuclear deterrent and we need to maintain it, so everyone seems to think we want to retain that knowledge. Some things may be lost [when those scientists retire], but they can be regained. I would tend to agree with the experts who say no, it's not a major concern. But should the government plan for it? Yes.
These missileers are in their twenties. These are the people you drink with in college.
With non-proliferation, a lot of these labs have switched from designing and building new nukes to maintaining and dismantling old ones, and you write that there's an atmosphere of depression and despair at these labs because of this. What are they depressed about exactly?
Sharon: Everyone wants to feel their job is important. You want to feel like you're doing something that matters, and what's happened is, these labs feel like no one understands them — no one pays attention to nuclear weapons anymore. But suppose a new administration came in and said, "The purpose of these labs is nuclear non-proliferation, and that's the number-one priority of the United States." I think then the people who work there would feel like dismantling nukes is great work, it's important. It's simply when you leave it in this state of, "We have nuclear weapons and we're just sort of going to keep them," then there's morale loss.
Before reading this book, I didn't even realize that our nukes are still on hair-trigger alert, with people sitting in underground bunkers all day just waiting for the order to turn the key. You met some of these people — what were they like?
Nathan: They struck us as the kind of people you would probably want to have in there. Earnest and serious, but not robotic. It's pretty clear they were using that job track as a path to something else. A lot of them were working on degrees at night.
Sharon: The one thing that struck me when we went down there was, my God, these folks are young. They're in their twenties. These are the people you drink with in college. And that was intentional: the military doesn't want them thinking about the big issues. It's war by checklist, for better or worse. During the Cold War, there was a certain logic to that, the nuclear war by checklist. Now it's a little bit insane. The Cold War's been over for a long time, and you still have these kids sitting in bunkers who are prepared to end the world based on procedures, checklists and codes.
Some of the silos and bunkers that are no longer in use have been converted into data-storage facilities and luxury homes. You wrote that one of these homes has been valued at $25 million. Why would someone want to live in a missile silo?
Sharon: In one of the more famous ones, it's a personal home where the owner is preparing for nuclear Armageddon.
So it's not just a fashionable thing? They literally want a home that can survive a nuclear blast?
Sharon: In that particular one, yes. Others, I guess it's bragging rights. I think there are probably multiple motivations, nuclear Armageddon being just one of them.
Would you two ever want to move into a silo?
Nathan: Having been underground in these facilities, I don't really see the charm. But after studying the issues of nuclear weaponry, do I see the merits of digging? Absolutely.
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©2008 Nerve.com and Will Doig