July 16, 2015, marks the 70th anniversary of the first successful test of a nuclear weapon near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The Atomic Age that followed has seen political, social, environmental, and economic strife surrounding all things nuclear, from weapons to power generators.We collected a selection of articles and book reviews from
that cover this controversial topic from multiple angles:
Feature articles and columns:
A Path for Nuclear Power
A novel but tested technology, the pebble-bed reactor, can make fission energy safe. (March–April 2014)
Global Energy: The Latest Infatuations
In energy matters, what goes around, comes around—but perhaps should go away. (May–June 2011)
From Treasury Vault to the Manhattan Project
The U.S. War Department borrowed 14,000 tons of government silver in its drive to make the world’s first atomic bomb. (Jan–Feb 2011)
Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors
An old idea in nuclear power gets reexamined. (July–August 2010)
Growing Up with Chernobyl
Working in a radioactive zone, two scientists learn tough lessons about politics, bias and the challenges of doing good science. (Nov–Dec 2006)
Fallout from Nuclear Weapons Tests and Cancer Risks
Exposures 50 years ago still have health implications today that will continue into the future. (Jan–Feb 2006)
Detecting Illicit Nuclear Materials
The installation of radiological monitoring equipment in the United States and overseas is helping thwart nuclear terrorism. (Sept–Oct 2005)
Heavy-Metal Nuclear Power
Could an unconventional coolant enable reactors to burn radioactive waste and produce both electric power and hydrogen? (Nov–Dec 2004)
Thorium Fuel for Nuclear Energy
An unconventional tactic might one day ease concerns that spent fuel could be used to make a bomb. (Sept–Oct 2003)
Managing the Environmental Legacy of U.S. Nuclear-Weapons Production
Although the waste from America's arms buildup will never be "cleaned up," human and environmental risks can be reduced and managed. (Nov–Dec 2002)
Serendipitous Radiation Monitors
Past radiation doses can be measured by studying the tracks that speeding particles have left in ordinary solids—detectors that just happened to be there. (July–August 2002)
Fusion from Television?
“A rather elementary device can generate nuclear fusion using a technique called inertial electrostatic confinement. Indeed, the equipment is so straightforward to build that production models will soon go on sale, albeit not as power generators but as convenient sources of neutrons. Homebrew versions of this same fusion apparatus have even been built by amateurs.” (July–August 1999)
A Nuke on the Yukon?
Mini-nukes arrive at the regulatory gate. Will they get through?
“The key to Galena’s ambitions is the Toshiba 4S—the Super-Safe, Small and Simple reactor, a torpedo-shaped unit on the drawing board that surrounds a core about 2 meters long and 0.6 meters across. The entire unit, core and casing, is to be manufactured off-site by Toshiba, delivered to the customer, and then lowered into a cylindrical concrete vault 30 meters underground. Expected to run for 30 years with minimal operator intervention, the 4S is designed to pump out 10 megawatts of electric power, just 1 percent of the output of conventional nuclear power plants.” (March–April 2009)
A Field Guide to Radiation.
Wayne Biddle. 239 pp. Penguin, 2012. $15.
“Although the title A Field Guide to Radiation may conjure up images of ecotourists searching Chernobyl or Fukushima for invisible quarry such as alpha particles and gamma rays, Wayne Biddle’s new book is instead an everyday guide to the radiation to which we are all constantly exposed. It consists of short, pithy essays laid out in alphabetical order, from ‘Absorbed Dose’ to ‘Zirconium-93, -95.’”
FUEL CYCLE TO NOWHERE: U.S. Law and Policy on Nuclear Waste.
Richard Burleson Stewart and Jane Bloom Stewart. xviii + 427 pp. Vanderbilt University Press, 2011. $65.
“The vexing problem of what to do with spent nuclear fuel and high-level radioactive waste in the United States is still unresolved, and a solution now seems more distant than it did a few years ago.”
ATOMIC OBSESSION: Nuclear Alarmism From Hiroshima to al-Qaeda.
John Mueller. xvi + 319 pp. Oxford University Press, 2010. $27.95.
“The challenge in reading Mueller’s book is to separate insights that are deviant but useful (some of his deconstructions of the conventional wisdom are genuinely insightful) from arguments that are deviant because they are exaggerated, misshapen or just plain wrong. Many of Mueller’s sharp-edged points about the hyping of the dangers of nuclear proliferation and terrorism fall into the first (insightful) category, but his critiques of arms control and his apparent smugness about all nuclear dangers belong in the latter.”
DEFUSING ARMAGEDDON: Inside NEST, America’s Secret Nuclear Bomb Squad.
Jeffrey T. Richelson. xvi + 318 pp. W. W. Norton, 2009. $27.95.
“What would the U.S. government do if it were informed that terrorists had planted nuclear explosives in one or more major U.S. cities? This question may sound hypothetical, but it is not. As Jeffrey T. Richelson reports in Defusing Armageddon, officials were confronted with such warnings more than 100 times between 1970 and 1993, and many times since. Fortunately, all were hoaxes.”
RED CLOUD AT DAWN: Truman, Stalin, and the End of the Atomic Monopoly.
Michael D. Gordin. xii + 402 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009.
“At a time when the world is reluctantly learning to live with North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons and is trying to keep Iran from joining the club, it is useful to be reminded of how it felt to be waiting for nuclear proliferation the first time around.”
THE NUCLEAR EXPRESS: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation.
Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman. viii + 392 pp. Zenith Press, 2009. $30.
“The Nuclear Express offers a tour through the political history of the spread of nuclear weapons. Anyone who has ever wondered about such things as how Russia solved the problems associated with making a hydrogen bomb, how Israel and China got the bomb, how concerned we should be about China’s military capabilities, or how Pakistan was able to so quickly test a bomb following India’s tests will find the book gripping.”
A NUCLEAR WINTER’S TALE: Science and Politics in the 1980s.
Lawrence Badash. xvi + 403 pp. The MIT Press, 2009. $40.
“A Nuclear Winter’s Tale, by Lawrence Badash, is by the author’s own admission, never managed to capture the sustained attention of the media, the public or policy makers—even at the height of its visibility in the early to mid-1980s.”
A BRILLIANT DARKNESS: The Extraordinary Life and Mysterious Disappearance of Ettore Majorana, the Troubled Genius of the Nuclear Age.
João Magueijo. xxii + 280 pp. Basic Books, 2009. $27.50.
“Italian physicist Ettore Majorana has been an enigma for decades. A contemporary of Enrico Fermi, Majorana produced some prescient articles in the 1930s and then vanished, but not without a trace—in fact, with too many traces.”
EINSTEIN AND OPPENHEIMER: The Meaning of Genius.
Silvan S. Schweber. xvi + 412 pp. Harvard University Press, 2008. $29.95.
“Schweber's aim is ambitious: to capture another quality that he calls the greatness of Einstein and Oppenheimer—to show how their actions altered humanity's ‘ideas concerning what human beings can be or do.’ We know much about the genius of these two men, Schweber implies, but little of their greatness.”
A NUCLEAR FAMILY VACATION: Travels in the World of Atomic Weaponry.
Nathan Hodge and Sharon Weinberger. x + 324 pp. Bloomsbury, 2008. $24.99.
“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.”
Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race.
Richard Rhodes. xii + 386 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. $28.95.
“In Arsenals of Folly, a passionate and sometimes eloquent new book analyzing the nuclear arms race, Richard Rhodes focuses on politics, particularly the politics of Soviet-American relations.”
Plutonium: A History of the World's Most Dangerous Element.
Jeremy Bernstein. xii + 216 pp. Joseph Henry Press, 2007. $27.95.
“Almost all of the 2,000 metric tons or so of plutonium that exists on Earth today was made in nuclear reactors; about 250 tons of it was created for use in weapons, and the rest came into being as a by-product of the operation of civilian nuclear-power reactors.”
The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor.
William Langewiesche. x + 179 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. $22.
“William Langewiesche has the reputation of being one of America's best investigative reporters. Unfortunately, he has written a very bad book on nuclear proliferation. Although The Atomic Bazaar does include some useful reporting, it is marred by substantive errors and misjudgments. There are no footnotes, and almost all the quoted sources are anonymous, making it difficult for the reader to judge the credibility of Langewiesche's conclusions and of his interlocutors' statements. Worse, if policy makers were to accept his major theme—that the spread of nuclear weapons is inevitable and there is little hope in trying to stop it—they would not take the actions needed to make the world a safer place.”
The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico.
Joseph Masco. xvi + 425 pp. Princeton University Press, 2006. Cloth, $65; paper, $24.95.
“Nuclear weapons have long invited paradox, being seen by some as instruments of genocide and by others as a foundation for enlightened peacemaking. Joseph Masco, a cultural anthropologist, entreats us to consider additional paradoxes in his fascinating new book, The Nuclear Borderlands. He asks how the massive American nuclear weapons industry could be so invisible today, even though it occupies more than 36,000 square miles (an area about the size of Indiana) and nearly $6 trillion was spent on it over its first 50 years. He likewise notes that the United States, while doggedly pursuing nuclear weapons in the name of national security, has had more nukes exploded on its territory than any other nation: The country conducted 1,149 test detonations between 1945 and 1992, 942 of them within the continental United States. The release of radioactive fallout during the era of above-ground testing alone (1945–1963), subsequent government studies have concluded, will result in at least 11,000 excess deaths from cancer in the United States.”
THE BOMB: A Life.
Gerard DeGroot. Harvard University Press, 2006. $27.95.
“DeGroot, who writes with grace and wit, offers an overwhelming array of fascinating yet bizarre facts and anecdotes, and he masterfully reveals the complex interface between physicists and politicians. But more than anything, his book gives form to the central cultural feature of the time: the shadow of the mushroom cloud.”
Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective.
J. Samuel Walker. xii + 303 pp. University of California Press, 2004. $24.95.
“Walker provides a gripping, detailed account of the accident and an analysis of its impact and significance.”
Edited by James W. Cronin. xii + 287 pp. University of Chicago Press, 2004. $45.
“Enrico Fermi (1901-1954) was one of the 20th century's most famous—and most admired—physicists. Stories about him abounded during his lifetime, and many have stood the test of time, becoming part of the oral tradition of today's physicists. Fermi's career epitomizes the whirlwind transitions that rocked the discipline throughout the first half of the century, from the birth of modern physics to the mushroom clouds of atomic weapons.”
Tritium on Ice: The Dangerous New Alliance of Nuclear Weapons and Nuclear Power.
Kenneth D. Bergeron. xii + 230 pp. The MIT Press, 2002. $24.95.
“Until recently, tritium and plutonium for nuclear weapons were produced in government-owned nuclear reactors dedicated to that military purpose. These aging facilities have been shut down, both because of growing concerns about their safety and because today the United States has a great excess of plutonium for weapons. But a decision had to be made regarding how to resupply the tritium.”
Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man.
Robert S. Norris. xxiv + 722 pp. Steerforth Press, 2002. $40.
“Racing for the Bomb is an extensive account of the life of General Leslie R. Groves, who oversaw the building of the first atomic bombs. Both deeper and wider than a biography, the book documents and vivifies events that still affect us today.”
Sakharov: A Biography.
Richard Lourie. xiv + 465 pp. Brandeis University Press, published by University Press of New England, 2002. $30.
“Andrei Sakharov, the theoretical physicist who would become the father of the Soviet H-bomb, was recognized early on by his peers as a ‘magician’—one of those geniuses of whom it is said that ‘Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.’ For Sakharov, as for those with whom he would often be compared—Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Teller—physics offered an escape from what Einstein called the ‘merely personal.’ But it is the personal, ironically, that feeds our interest in such figures.”
Megawatts and Megatons: A Turning Point in the Nuclear Age?
Richard L. Garwin and Georges Charpak. xvi + 412 pp. Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.
“Megawatts and Megatons is two books: one a good primer on nuclear power and the other a detailed discussion of nuclear weapons and potential paths for reduction in total numbers of such weapons.”
A Convenient Spy: Wen Ho Lee and the Politics of Nuclear Espionage.
Dan Stober and Ian Hoffman. 334 pp. Simon & Schuster, 2001. $26.
My Country Versus Me: The First-Hand Account by the Los Alamos Scientist Who Was Falsely Accused of Being a Spy. Wen Ho Lee with Helen Zia. xiv + 332 pp. Hyperion, 2001. $23.95.“These two books cover the story of the suspicions that led to the arrest in 1999 of Wen Ho Lee, a computer scientist at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Lee was indicted on charges of abusing classified material with "intent to injure the United States"—a phrase that most people interpreted as shorthand for espionage. After 277 days of incarceration, he struck a bargain with prosecutors in which he pled guilty to only one count (out of 59) of misuse of classified materials and was sentenced to time served and released on the condition that he would be available for questioning for the next year. This plea bargain was widely and correctly interpreted to be a defeat for the government, whose case against Lee had fallen apart for lack of any evidence of espionage.”
In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist.
Silvan S. Schweber. xviii + 256 pp. Princeton University Press, 2000. $24.95.
“Those who compare the making of the atomic bomb to a Faustian bargain, physicist I. I. Rabi used to say, have never read Faust. What Rabi likely meant was that those who worked to stop an evil, world-threatening dictatorship by building the first weapon of mass destruction were not scientists who sold their souls to the Devil. But there can be no question that the prestige of physicists, and that of scientists generally, was elevated by invention of the Bomb; in its aftermath, some of those who worked on the weapon would be invited to sit at power's high table in Washington.”
India's Nuclear Bomb: Impact on Global Proliferation.
George Perkovich. 597pp. University of California Press, 1999. $39.95.
The international movement toward nuclear nonproliferation was frustrated by India's nuclear weapons tests in May 1998. Through this scholarly documentation of the history of India's nuclear weapons program, George Perkovich addresses the questions of why India developed its nuclear weapons capability when it did, what factors kept it from stopping or reversing the program and what effects the United States had on India's nuclear intentions and capabilities.
Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates Across Millennia.
Gregory Benford. 192 pp. Bard Books, 1999. $20.
“Benford analyzes and describes four projects or proposals in which he has played an important role. The first involved the issue of how best to mark a nuclear-waste disposal site buried in the salt of southern New Mexico. Environmental regulations led to a charge to two panels, of which this reviewer was also a member, to concoct schemes that for the next 10,000 years (!) would effectively warn and deter any future societies from being exposed to radiation. It's hard to know if we succeeded, but Benford gives an excellent overview of what the design process was like, and the kinds of issues tackled by sociologists, archaeologists, geologists, artists, landscape architects, materials experts and astronomers. It was surely one of the headiest official government panels ever convened.”
Nuclear Weapons: The Road to Zero.
Edited by Joseph Rotblat. 331pp. Westview Press, 1998. $69.
The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now. Jonathan Schell. 240pp. Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 1998. $25.“Following the events in the Indian subcontinent last year, the symbolic clock on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists was reset to the closest to midnight since the Cold War. Was it prescience that guided Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 Nobel Prize winner for peace, to organize and edit his volume of essays, and Jonathan Schell, a best-selling author who more than a decade ago had issued a warning of nuclear peril, to publish his conversations with worldwide leaders who executed and devised the nuclear policies of the Cold War? The issue of elimination of nuclear weapons is once again before us, and these books provide rationales and roadmaps to attain that end, albeit with only sketchy details on the process.”