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Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Short History of Nuclear Folly

Sometimes, the title of a book is so compelling that it almost forces you to read the work. Take, for example, the new book by Rudolph Herzog entitled A Short History of Nuclear Folly: Mad Scientists, Dithering Nazis, Lost Nukes, and Catastrophic Coverups.

Herzog appeared at Politics and Prose to discuss his work, telling his audience that over the nuclear age more than 40 nuclear weapons have been reported as lost, most from airplane crashes or sunken submarines. "A lot of the book will sound like fiction, but it isn't," Herzog said.

The author said he first became intrigued with the nuclear idea as a youngster growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Germany, which before the fall of the Berlin Wall had long been viewed as the possible site of a nuclear battleground in the event the Cold War suddenly heated up. Herzog remembers his uncle who kept a bottle of sleeping pills in his refrigerator in case nuclear war became a reality and the family of a wealthy friend who dug a bomb shelter under their garden. "At the time this was quite serious," Herzog said.

Herzog talked at length about 2 of the episodes in his book. The 1st occurred in 1957 to an Australian aborigine family during a walkabout in the remote Outback. Approaching an area, they discovered a sign that    read in English: "Warning! You Are Entering a Radioactive Zone." The site had been used for testing a British atomic bomb. The family had no idea what the sign said because none of them could read a word of English. They camped out that night in a crater the bomb had made. Suddenly, they wore swept up by a swarm of men in white suits who had arrived in all-terrain vehicles. The family was rushed to a nearby army barrarcks, where they were repeatedly forced to shower; then be checked by a geiger counter. It was the 1st shower of their lives. Although the family lived, the mother was plagued with defects on all her subsequent attempts at childbirth.

The 2nd story involved an example of a Broken Arrow, the code name used whenever a nuclear weapon goes missing. In 1958, Greg, a South Carolina railroad conductor, was outside his house with 2 daughters and a niece when he noticed 3 B47 bombers flying overhead. Suddenly, there was a horrific explosion which created a scene of devastation and left a 22-meter wide crater in the ground. Sticking out of the crater was the top of an atomic bomb similar to the one used on Nagasaki which had been accidentally dropped from one of the passing planes. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in the incident.

In the 1950s, there was "incredible optimism" about nuclear power, Herzog said.. "There was the belief that it could change the world," he noted. The author then conducted a brief slide-show through some of the more scary, but never realized, plans for atomic energy including a Ford nuclear car, a nuclear-powered plane, and a nuclear space ship. One scientist even proposed and tested using 300 hydrogen bombs to create a 2nd Panama Canal.

Herzog said that while the events he wrote about are now history, he has great fears about the future. "Pandora's box is open. Nuclear technology is here to stay. So this (his book) is just the 1st volume of who knows how many?" he said.

"Asia and the Middle East seem to be heralding a new age of nuclear proliferation," he said. "As more countries go nuclear, other countries will want to hedge their bets. I'm worried about it. It's becoming very messy."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
During a question-and-answer period, Herzog was asked if we should be concerned about the 40 reported missing nuclear weapons. His short answer was no. He explained that nuclear weapons need a huge amount of maintenance and degrade extremely quickly. "And if the military couldn't find the weapons, most of which are at the bottom of the ocean, I don't think terrorists can," he said. "We have much more to fear from what is going on today in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea."

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