Monday, January 26, 2009

A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry by Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger

What is "nuclear tourism"? People plan their vacations around a variety of interests - battlefields, beaches, amusement parks, museums, national parks, vintage diners, etc. In the opinion of journalists Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger, there is nothing more interesting than visiting atomic weapon facilities, places where bombs were designed, tested, manufactured, or deployed. As you can imagine, many of these places are off-limits to the average traveler. In A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry, the couple describe their two year quest to get into national and foreign weapons sites.

They mostly succeeded. It helped that Hodge had worked for Jane's Defense Weekly and Weinberger for Defense Technology International. (They have also written for Wired and Slate.) They got into numerous facilities in the United States, the Marshall Islands, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Iran. They have not yet gotten into facilities in North Korea. At all of the sites, they noted the state of technology, comfort of living spaces, and mood of the employees, and they talk with supervisors and public relations officers.

They see some pretty interesting things:

  • The furniture and equipment in the missile silos of the Midwest is really old.
  • The test range scientists in Nevada decorate their offices with their favorite mushroom clouds.
  • Russian reactors do not seem to have much security.
  • In the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque is a deactivated atomic bomb in a backpack designed for U.S. military suicide bombers.

What they discovered about public policy is also disturbing. The men and women who make their living off weapons of mass destruction, naturally, do not want their jobs to disappear. They and the corporations that seek huge government contracts have found ways to continue by "modernizing" old weapons, but what sounds like upkeep in some cases turns out to really be new and costly programs. What's more is that nearly everyone admits that there is no scenario now for which the weapons will be used. There is no Soviet Union, and atomic bombs are useless in the fight the war against terrorists. Congress gives the weapons programs much less than their administrators request, which is also much more than nuclear opponents think they should get.

Many of the chapters could stand alone as magazine articles, as you would expect from magazine journalists. "Chapter 9: Fantasy Island: Vacationing in the Marshall Islands" is particularly sad, as it describes the effects of nuclear testing on the people and the environment of the remote Pacific islands.

Hodge and Weinberger seem to have a very good understanding of defense issues and present alternative sides in arguments. Mostly they are fair and sympathetic to the people they interview, though they do express some annoyance at an Iranian official who keeps giggling. Perhaps the issue of billions of dollars for antiquated weapons will resurface in the news soon. A Nuclear Family Vacation is an excellent addition to any library.

Hodge, Nathan and Weinberger, Sharon. A Nuclear Family Vacation: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry. Bloomsbury, 2008. ISBN 9781596913789.

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