Atlantic Monthly

Fallout Holidays

The opening scene of the newest Indiana Jones film is set in Nevada in 1957, possibly during Operation Plumbbob, an actual nuclear-test series in which the U.S. measured the response of humans and physical structures to nuclear blasts. Satellite images give a hint of what’s left: a pockmarked brown landscape of craters and broken buildings. There are smashed reinforced-concrete domes, shattered windows, as well as iron rails and bridges that the heat and explosion have twisted. It looks, I am told, like a place where Superman (or perhaps Uri Geller) had given himself over to a fit of rage.

Satellite images can convey only so much. If you want to see the destruction for yourself — the Department of Energy runs tours — you are in the good company of defense reporters Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger. Their book combines travelogue, history, and science reporting, and offers a splendid introduction to the array of nuclear facilities around the world. A married couple, they visit the Nevada Test Site in person, drop in at nuclear labs around the U.S. and in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Iran, and get as close as they can to the secret bunkers and bases to which war-planners intended to retreat if actual nuclear war broke out. At the Greenbrier, a fancy resort in West Virginia, Hodge and Weinberger tour a 112,000-square foot facility built to house Congress during nuclear war. The authors point out that these facilities, like many others, have always existed in vain, since the Soviets could deliver nuclear warheads so fast that most of our elected officials would be burnt alive or irradiated long before they could reach the safety of Appalachia.

At most of the sites, there’s not much left to see. The nuclear facilities turn out to be decrepit and decaying, in spirit if not in function. Now that the danger of mutually assured destruction looks more remote — even as the danger of dirty bombs and loose-nukes increases — the scientists and soldiers who man our arsenals seem to have absorbed dangerous levels of existential angst. (One says that the military personnel who work with the weapons felt “emasculated” by the post-Cold War peace dividend, which included having their launch-keys taken away.) What role could thermonuclear weapons have in an age of asymmetric threats? The only state actor that would conceivably want to lob a nuke at the U.S. is North Korea, and they’ve barely managed to produce a bomb that works at all, much less a missile that can deliver it. And although they authors do describe surprisingly small tactical weapons — including a backpack-bomb that the U.S. trained its soldiers to use in suicide missions — they concentrate overwhelmingly on the weapons of mass death that would be useless against most modern threats.

The authors say they are neither pro- nor anti-nuke, but it’s clear from their account that they’re skeptical of the nuclear arsenal. It is, at least, heartening to remember just how much less frightening the world is today, now that nuclear-annihilation is exceedingly unlikely. The government once treated as classified the number of toilet-paper rolls used by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, lest the Soviets figure out the population of scientists who worked there. That level of secrecy would seem paranoid or even crazy if practiced today, and for that we should be grateful.

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